CNN attempts to discuss carbon trading
But, as one might expect, they do a poor job. Why is science reporting always so bad in the mainstream media?
The CNN article suffers from two flaws: 1) artificial two-sidedness, and 2) lack of context. In the first instance, the article attempts to present the issue of an institutionalized carbon trading market in the US as another “teach both sides” issue, where proponents and opponents get equal time. Fair enough, you might say, except that without a skeptical examination both for- and against-claims can seem equally viable when they’re not. In the CNN article the opponents get free reign to vent their reflexive opposition to a sensibly-regulated proposed market solution to a transnational problem.
Critics of carbon trading have often referred to it as a “zero-sum” game, as any C02 saving gained from the investment is effectively neutralized by the fact that the purchaser has avoided having to decrease its own C02 emissions.
“The real question is whether carbon trading in the end will have any impact on greenhouse gas emissions,” says David St Maur Sheil, director and co-founder of the Association for Sustainable and Responsible Investment in Asia (ASrIA) in Hong Kong.
This claim can be easily dismissed. A cap-trade system is supposed to be a zero-sums game. That isn’t a shortcoming of the proposal, it’s a primary motivator of the entire thing. With carbon emissions capped overall, and each power plant needing to buy a certain number of carbon credits to pay for its exhaust, the market will decide how valuable carbon really is. Does a company spend all its C-credits on outdated coal-burning technology, then spend all its profits on buying more credits to pay for its pollution? Or does a company get off its lazy posterior and work to develop more efficient techonologies that force it to buy fewer C-credits in the first place? The latter company would be more than happy to sell its extra C-credits to the former company… meaning the latter, more vigorous company can see an immediate return on its R&D investment in the form of dollars for un-spewed carbon. As the years march on, the overall C ceiling drops gradually, forcing a continuous series of new innovations to spring from curious and agile minds.
Problem two with the CNN article is related to problem one. An easy way the author could have countered opponents to carbon trading would have been to point out that sulfur trading is alive and well in the US, and has proven to be an effective goad for creating lots of new, innovative, and less-expensive ways to deal with sulfur emissions from power plants. Under the US EPA’s Acid Rain Program, sulfur dioxide allowances (credits) can be bought and sold as a commodity. Power plants or anyone else who wants to emit sulfur dioxide in their exhaust must acquire and spend SO2 credits, and there are only so many credits to go around. If a company needs more, it can buy a few more. If a company cuts its SO2 emissions and wants to sell its unused credits, it can. Anyone can buy SO2 credits, meaning that the public can organize to force companies into being more efficient and emitting less SO2…. but to do so the public must put their money where their mouths are. The system works, and has both decreased sulfur emissions in the US and promoted a whole new bag of industrial tricks for keeping SO2 out of the atmosphere.
The SO2 trading system is a perfect example of government using the minimum necessary influence to spawn a technological arms race of innovation and creativity, using the adaptive power of the market to provide solutions to real-world problems. A carbon cap-trade system would most likely work just as beneficially. I only wish CNN could have taken the time to make that point.