A Climate of Capitalist Dominance

by Peter Dorman, member green economist of the E3 network

reposted from EconoSpeak







(New York City; DigitalGlobe)

We’ve now had a chance to see the second column on climate change by the new NY Times voice on the right, Bret Stephens, and unlike the first (which reasoned—sort of—back from its conclusions in true hackish fashion), this one isn’t so bad.  He argues that government action on climate change has done as much harm as good, pointing to the biofuels fiasco and shortcomings in the European (Carbon) Trading System (ETS) and Germany’s Energiewende as cases in point.  I agree.  What he says about these programs deserves to be said, especially since too many self-styled progressives won’t.  There’s a lot of really sketchy climate policy out there.

So what does he miss?  The first omission, and it’s an important one, is that he considers only the failures of government, not those of business and the market.  Above all, the continued operation of, and even investment in, a fossil fuel-based economy in the face of what we know about climate risk, is a massive fail, greater than every error committed by governments.  That doesn’t justify bad policy, but it puts government malfeasance in perspective.

To see the second omission we need to drill down a bit.  Consider the three examples Stephens brings up; what do they have in common?

Biofuels: Rather than taking action to remove fossil fuels from our energy base, government policy boosted a supposed “green” energy source derived from commercially grown crops.  This generated substantial profits for agribusiness, but, as Stephens rightly argues, it did little if anything to forestall greenhouse gas accumulation while producing a number of serious economic and social costs.

The ETS: Despite howls of protest from the scientific community, European politicians made decision after decision that eviscerated their carbon pricing system, handing out carbon permits for free, setting meaningless targets and removing large sectors of the economy from regulation.  The system has essentially broken down, but not before, as Stephens mentions, bilking European households of billions in energy costs, which went directly into corporate coffers.

Energiewende: While the achievements of solar and wind energy promotion in Germany are remarkable, the overall strategy prioritizes expansion of renewables and avoids taking any action to simultaneously restrict carbon fuels.  The result is that Germany has both record-setting increases in renewable capacity and hardly any reduction in carbon emissions.

All of these examples have a common theme: governments seem unable to frame climate policy in any terms other than subsidies for corporate investment and profit.  A biofuels initiative is easy to advance, since it funnels public money to agribusiness.  The only ETS element that had any effect is the one that temporarily increased electricity prices and allowed privately-owned utilities to reap all the profits.  Energiewende supports firms that invest in the renewable sector but overlooks firms that continue to profit from burning carbon.

The common denominator is overweening capitalist power.  Climate policy is constrained by the determination of wealth-holders to protect and expand their wealth.  An effective response to the threat of a climate catastrophe, on the other hand, would unavoidably deplete their wealth—not only the stranded assets of the fossil energy sector but a range of other investments that would be devalued by a rapid shutdown of oil, gas and coal.  (I’ve done a back of the envelope estimate that the wealth hit to non-energy assets would be approximately as great as that to carbon energy.)

So I’m on board with what Stephens is against but not what he’s for.  Rather than dismiss all action on the climate front as misguided, I would like to see the non-wealth-obsessed interests in society mobilize to overcome capitalist power.

Don’t Pay Polluters

Originally posted to Triple Crisis.

A little known greenhouse gas called HFC-23 made the news recently. Also called fluoroform, it’s a waste gas generated in the manufacture of refrigerants. Compared to carbon dioxide (CO2), HFC-23 is a minor greenhouse gas. Pound-for-pound, however, it traps more than 10,000 times as much heat.

The UN’s Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), set up under the Kyoto accord as a way for industrialized countries to “offset” their own CO2 emissions by paying for comparable actions in developing countries, counts destruction of one pound of HFC-23 as equivalent to prevention of 11,700 pounds of CO2 emissions.

The CDM pays large sums to coolant manufacturers in India, China and elsewhere to destroy the HFC-23 they produce. Indeed, these payments have become the largest single item in the CDM budget: this year, HFC-23 disposal is getting 50% more CDM money than wind power and 100 times more than solar energy.

The rub is that paying firms not to pollute gives rise to a perverse incentive. A firm that threatens to pollute more gets paid more. So manufacturers have upped their production of the refrigerants (themselves greenhouse gases, albeit less potent ones), in order to produce more HFC-23, so they can then get paid to destroy it.

It’s a great example of what economists E. K. Hunt and Ralph d’Arge once called capitalism’s “invisible foot”: when polluters are paid to clean up pollution, they create more of it, as if guided by an evil twin of Adam Smith’s invisible hand. Today some firms make half their total profits from HFC-23 disposal payments.

People living near the coolant factories don’t do as well. In the state of Gujarat in western India, residents of an adjacent village complain of skin rashes, birth defects, and damages to crops caused by a noxious fog that burns the eyes and lungs.

The European Union has halted further HFC-23 payments, prompting firms to threaten to release the gas into the atmosphere. A scientist at the Environmental Investigation Agency, which opposes the pollution subsidies, put the matter baldly: Attempting to force countries into squandering billions on fake offsets that actually increase production of greenhouse gases,” he said, “is extortion.”

The HFC-23 fiasco offers three crucial lessons for climate policy. Continue reading…