Op-Ed: Here’s How to Cut Greenhouse Gas Emissions Without Taxing Them

Source: By By Justin Gillis and Jameson McBride, New York Times • Posted: Thursday, August 16, 2018

Congress should require the share of electricity from low-polluting technologies to increase steadily over time.

The Wakefield solar field in Zebulon, N.C. Mike Belleme for The New York Times

SAN FRANCISCO — Once again, a bill to tax emissions of greenhouse gases has been introduced in Congress, this time with Republican sponsorship. Just about every economist thinks putting a price on these emissions would reduce them and hasten the shift toward clean energy, slowing climate change. This latest push is, in principle, a good idea.

It is also a political fantasy.

Attempts to tax or otherwise price emissions have been made in Congress for a quarter-century now. The first ambitious bill, in 1993, got whittled down to a modest increase in the gasoline tax, and the rest of these efforts have failed miserably, even when Democrats had strong congressional majorities. By the time this latest proposal was even introduced, the House of Representatives had already passed a resolution declaring any emissions tax dead on arrival.

Every indication is that these emissions-pricing plans will keep failing, even if Democrats manage to seize the House in November. But a different approach might stand a better chance in Congress — one that would focus on building more clean energy, rather than taxing emissions. This could be accomplished by setting a national clean-energy standard.

This policy would require the share of American electricity from low-emitting sources to increase steadily over time. States would be given flexibility in how they meet the national goal — that is, which energy sources to embrace — but they would have to meet it, most likely by fining utilities that failed to comply.

Such a policy would encourage the continued growth of renewable energy, but it would also do more. It would most likely slow the shutdown of nuclear power plants, which are the nation’s single largest low-emission power source but are at risk of closing. They face stiff competition from cheap natural gas, with some needing costly maintenance.

A quarter of the American nuclear fleet is at risk of closing under current market conditions. If the plants shut down, they are likely to be replaced by gas, a setback for the climate. By putting a value on the low-emission nature of nuclear power, a clean-energy standard would prevent these closings.

An ambitious standard would encourage a wave of investment in other ways to clean up the power grid, including new devices to store electricity and new types of low-emitting power stations. Quite likely, utilities would figure out ways to shift power demand to periods when the output from renewable sources is highest.

The idea of a clean-energy standard is not new — it has come up in Congress before, sometimes with Republican support. It never got through, not just because fossil-fuel interests hated it but also because elements of the left, not wanting to help nuclear plants, also opposed it.

But the political situation has changed. Fossil-fuel companies have gone from lying about climate science to saying they believe it. More important, they need something: They are asking Congress for relief from a rising tide of lawsuits over emissions and may be willing to trade a climate policy to get that protection.

Among mainstream environmental groups, opposition to nuclear power has also softened over the past decade because of the climate benefits. We hope that some green groups would support a clean-energy standard and that others could at least be persuaded not to fight it. Polling suggests strong public support for clean energy, including among Republican voters.

The Vogtle nuclear plant near Waynesboro, Ga.Pallava Bagla/Corbis, via Getty Images

A national clean-energy standard is worth another shot in Congress, as the one ambitious climate proposal that might pull substantial votes from both sides of the aisle. The best time to try may be early next year, when Democrats are likely to be stronger in Washington, even if they have not seized control.

And if a push in Congress does not work?

Then clean-energy advocates should turn to the states. They have more control over the electricity grid than the federal government anyway, and a majority of them have already adopted narrower clean-energy targets called renewable portfolio standards.

These older targets were generally written to favor specific technologies, like wind turbines and solar panels. They have been a huge success, helping to scale up the market and drive the cost of these facilities down, though wind and solar subsidies from Congress also helped expand the market.

Most state renewable portfolio standards expire in the next few years, and the federal subsidies are scheduled to be phased out, too. Instead of just renewing these mandates with higher targets, we think the states, barring any new action by Congress, ought to broaden them to cover every low-emission source of electricity. Some states are already discussing the idea, and New York has adopted a variant, but none of these plans is as broad as the measure we envision.

We realize that a state-by-state approach is a long way from the sweeping national policy that many climate hawks — including us — would prefer to see. But it could still have a significant effect. A recent study by the research groups Third Way and the Breakthrough Institute found that by adopting clean-energy standards, at least nine states could be getting more than half their power from low-emitting sources by the mid-2020s.

If Congress once again fails the nation, the states can break the partisan gridlock on clean energy. This sweltering summer of wildfires and life-threatening heat waves demonstrates that they must.

Jameson McBride is an energy and climate analyst for the Breakthrough Institute, a research organization in Oakland, Calif.

Justin Gillis, a former Times editor and environmental reporter, has been a contributor to the Opinion section since January 2018. He is working on a book about energy policy. @JustinHGillisFacebook