Monday, January 25, 2010

Some Clear Thinking on Pollution

One of the things that annoys me about The Great Climate Debate is the focus on carbon dioxide. You can debate the concept of global warming all day long, but it is clear that man’s activities have an impact on the quality of the atmosphere and the condition of the atmosphere affects on life on the surface of the planet.

But carbon isn’t the only offender. There are many other pollutants out there causing direct and measurable harm to the environment and human life. Carbon just seems to have the brightest spotlight these days.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t appear that directly taking on carbon is the best strategy to address the problem. Instead, why not address more immediate concerns that might just lower carbon levels as an ancillary benefit? It’s the passive aggressive approach. I read an interesting post on the Financial Times website (“The Death of US Coal”) that is based on a piece written by an analyst at Bernstein Research. The article suggests that the EPA is likely to tighten restrictions on sulfur dioxide and mercury emissions, which are released in great abundance through the burning of coal. While there are scrubbers that can reduce the level of these pollutants, they can be expensive to install and don’t make economic sense for older, inefficient coal-fired plants. This might lead to the retirement of a large percentage of older coal-fired generation fleet. A big beneficiary of this move might be natural gas-fired plants, which would lead to a decline in demand for coal.

While this method might not put an economic cost on carbon, as many want, it does create an indirect economic disincentive to use plants that release large quantities of CO2. Placing reasonable restrictions on a known evil is an indirect way of achieving other more noble ends. After all, wasn’t Al Capone ultimately convicted and locked up on tax evasion charges rather than racketeering?

I for one am concerned that one of the main causes of global warming has become the hot air emitted in the debate on the topic. If the passive aggressive approach outlined above can successfully, albeit indirectly, lower carbon levels, it might have a dual purpose of improving the atmosphere and quieting the row on the subject.

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