Ecocentric

As the World Keeps Getting Warmer, California Begins to Cap Carbon

Carbon emissions keep rising and the world keeps getting hotter, but there's little progress at the U.N. climate summit in Doha. If you want hope on climate change, though, look West—to California

  • Share
  • Read Later
Getty Images

Industrial landscape in Long Beach, Calif. The state has adopted a far-reaching carbon cap that will require companies to reduce carbon emissions

It’s not a good sign for the international effort to stop global warming that most of the news so far generated out of the U.N. climate summit being held this week in Doha has not been made by the diplomats and delegates actually involved in the negotiations. Instead, the scientists on the sidelines are generating the headlines. Researchers with the Global Carbon Project reported on Dec. 2 that global emissions of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide hit a record high in 2011, and will almost certainly reach a new record of 35.6 billion metric tons in 2012. China led the way with 28% of global emissions in 2011, with the U.S. second at 16%—though Chinese per-capita emissions were far lower than those of the U.S.

The level of CO2 has increased by 41% since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution—enough to help warm the planet by 1.5˚ F since 1850. Globally 2012 seems likely to be the ninth-warmest year on record—thanks in part to the cooling effect of the La Niña phenomenon earlier in the year—though the U.S. could be facing the hottest year in its recorded history. And a paper published in the journal Nature Climate Change on Dec. 2  concluded that the rapid increase in carbon emissions that has boosted global temperatures by 3.6˚ F (2˚ C) — considered the maximum amount of warming that the planet might be able to endure without serious consequences—all but inevitable, no matter what we do in the future. “These latest figures come amidst climate talks in Doha,” said Corinne Le Quere, the director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research and a member of the Global Carbon Project. “But with emissions continuing to grow, it’s as if no one is listening to the entire scientific community.”

Tell me about it. But if the Doha summit seems unlikely to produce much meaningful progress on global climate efforts, that doesn’t mean we’re helpless to deal with global warming. In fact, one of the most ambitious efforts has just been launched here in the U.S.—which held off from signing the Kyoto protocol—in the state that often finds itself nudging the rest of us in a greener direction: California.

Last month, after years of debate and delay, California finally launched AB32, the official name of the state’s carbon cap-and-trade system. The result of the Global Warming Solutions Act, which was signed into law by then-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2006, AB32 commits California to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020. That’s about a 17% cut from where the state’s emissions would likely be if no legislative action had been taken. The reduction is set to be achieved by putting a cap on the state’s carbon emissions that is gradually tightened by about 2 to 3% a year. Companies covered under the law need to either reduce their carbon emissions to meet the tightening cap or purchase carbon allowances on a regulated market to compensate for their emissions.

If that sounds familiar, well, it’s essentially the same program Congressional Democrats and the Obama Administration tried to put into place nationally in 2009 and 2010, before the Waxman-Markey cap-and-trade legislation floundered thanks to Republican opposition. Though AB32 was delayed for years by lawsuits and other opposition—including an eventually defeated ballot initiative in 2010 that would have suspended the system—California’s system is actually becoming a reality. The state held its first auction for carbon allowances on Nov. 14, and companies purchased all 23.1 million allowances that were up for sale—each allowance, at an average price of $10.09, allows the buyer to emit 1 ton of CO2 in 2013. Altogether the auction raised about $300 million, much of which will be sent back to regulated electric utilities and then to customers as a “climate dividend.”

That $10.09 a ton might not sound like much—and indeed, it’s only a little bit above the legally-mandated floor price for the auction—but California regulators were relieved that all the carbon allowances on sale were finally purchased. (Had the auction been under-subscribed, it would have sent the signal that companies didn’t believe the state would actually follow through with capping carbon.) As the environmental economist Robert Stavins notes, the low market price for carbon allowances might actually be a good thing for the environment:

On the one hand, it is very good news that the allowance price is as low as it is, because this is indicative of the market’s prediction of what the marginal cost of abatement will be.  Lower cost is good news for the California economy.  Of course, low prices mean smaller funds raised by the auction ($233 million raised by the 2013 auction, and $56 million by the 2015 auction).  However, given that the fundamental purpose of the auction is to cap emissions through the cap-and-trade system, not to raise revenues for the state, this doesn’t appear to be bad news either.

Still, Stavins goes onto warn that the low auction prices might also indicate that companies are worried that state legislators in California may end up backing out on the carbon cap if they become concerned about the economic cost of cap-and-trade. That would be a reflection of what Roger Pielke Jr., a professor of environmental studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder has called the “iron law of climate politics“—the notion that governments will always yield if a carbon price becomes that incurs economic pain.

Of course, AB32 is in its early stages, and it only covers one U.S. state. Meanwhile prospects for concentrated national or global action on climate change remain dim. But California’s economy is the 9th largest in the world, and it has shown a willingness in the past to push the rest of the country on environmental action ranging from air pollution to fuel efficiency. Even if the state’s cap-and-trade program is still a work in progress, it has the potential to be an important experiment, as Eric Pooley of the Environmental Defense Fund points out:

The bottom line is this: a declining cap on emissions has been put in place in California, with a carbon market to stimulate investment. Voters like it, companies are participating, investors are responding, and the program is off to a smooth start. Three (quiet) cheers for California.

Given how grim the rest of the global climate picture is, three quiet cheers might be the best we can hope for right now.

7 comments
mutosheep
mutosheep

Just more 9th century flat Earther propaganda from the cons who dare call their scams "science." California has to be bailed out routinely by the U.S. and has high unemployment because of the arbitrary regulations from CARB and the EPA. The enviro-fascists have shut down all our businesses and the carbon Nazis troll around looking for people they don't like to turn in to the government for physical and legal intimidation and financial evisceration. Keep supporting national socialism, Time, and you too will feel the jackboot of tyranny on your collectivist necks.

RatedRepublican
RatedRepublican

The level of CO2 in the atmosphere could also be due to the number of people exhaling, which is why national socialists (Nazis for short) want people to stop breathing through a variety of gimmicks.  However, this not deal with the fact that there is not a correlation between CO2 and global temperatures.  It's just liberals wanting to tax and kill people.

glubber
glubber

Bryan Walsh  is doing much harm by writeing about climate changes and giving the impression that it is man made. Arnold Schwarzenegger is abevildered non-scientist. It seems to me that the rest of US politics is not loosing theire mind and rejects Kyoto 1 and 2.

JKBullis
JKBullis

Maybe California will not realize that imported electricity comes mostly from coal, especially on hot days. 

Maybe we will mandate that it comes from natural gas.  But we should also think about the fact that the more we use natural gas, the more the rest of the country will use coal.

JKBullis
JKBullis

For anyone interested, a similar calculation shows that the basic fuel tax on coal usage, such as the Powder River Basin coal that probably is used in the generators that supply California when loads increase, is 91%.

This is based on a 50% carbon content of that coal and a price of about $12 per ton with another $8 guess as cost of rail shipping to some place in Arizona or Nevada. 

The punitive difference of a 91% tax on coal versus a 17% tax on natural gas should be understood to mean we will not be encouraged to use air conditioners on hot days, unless we electricity users are well equipped with extra cash. 

JKBullis
JKBullis

$10 per ton of CO2 does not mean anything to those who think CO2 is carbon, so to help with understanding, I show how this translates to a 17% tax on basic fuel usage.

Using the approximate equivalency of 1000 cubic feet and 1 MMBTU at market price today of about $3.60, we can begin to understand what this means.  At normal temperature and pressure, methane, CH4, weighs 44.7 lb per 1000 cubic feet so 1 MMBTU also weighs about 44.7 lb.  Now, a ton of CH4 will produce 2000 divided by 44.7 lb equals 44.7 MMBTU (yes, surprising but true), but this is not a ton of carbon yet.  Adjusting for the actual carbon by multiplying 16/12, we see that 59.6 MMBTU of natural gas corresponds to a ton of actual carbon.  However, this will produce 44/12 ton of CO2, which is what we are really talking about with the emissions credits.  One ton of CO2 will thus correspond to 16.25 MMBTU.  At $3.60 per MMBTU, this will be a direct fuel cost of $58.50.  The $10 will add to that a tax of 17% which will ripple through to the actual users.   

AbūAl-QāsimMuhammad
AbūAl-QāsimMuhammad

Fact dark colors absorb sunlight. Light colors reflect heat and light back into space. This is why blacktop gets hot in the sunlight. Black People are the cause of Global warming. I am black so I bought a white car and white shingles for my house to make up for it.You dident really think global warming was caused by cow farts did you?It is why it is so hot in AfricaRemember animals breathe in oxygen and breathe out or convert it into carbon dioxide “carbon”. Plants take in carbon dioxide and give off oxygen. Lower the carbon footprint and Kill or Eat more animals.