It’s free to pollute and costly to be green. We need to reverse those policies—and fast.

Energy Blog: Our Energy and Climate Policies are Counterproductive

Mar 3, 2020

by Michael E. Webber

There’s an old joke about how we park on the driveway and drive on the parkway. But it isn’t just the English language that gets things backwards every once in a while: There are decades of energy and transportation policies that create incentives that run almost diametrically counter to what we need to accomplish this century.
What do I mean by backward policies? Let me give an example.
In the United States, we have spent trillions of dollars building a road network that is extensive, easy-to-use, and free to drive on. At the same time, we turned our mass transit system—which used to be one of the world’s finest—into something that’s limited, hard-to-use, and expensive. While there are certainly upsides to having a coast-to-coast superhighway system, urban planning based on a large network of free roads encourages sprawl. And that sprawl brings with it time lost in traffic, wasted energy, pollution, and significant expense.
We should do it the other way around.
Mass transit on narrow rights-of-way, such as bus lanes or railways, ought to be free, convenient, and easy-to-use. Such a change would require not only eliminating fares (already being done in places such as Kansas City, Mo., and Lawrence, Mass.) and laying down track, but also redesigning cities around people, with wider sidewalks, narrower automotive corridors, safer pedestrian crossings, and much less space devoted to public parking. At the same time, single-occupancy vehicles driving on expensive, expansive highways should pay enough to cover the full cost of their impacts, which includes air pollution, climate emissions, noise pollution, congestion, and maintenance.

Related Energy Blog Post: The Oil Industry is Part of the Solution
One way to think about it is that packed roads and empty trains and buses are failures of our transportation system, so we should implement policies that clear the roads and fill the trains. But of course, first those trains need to exist.
Federal energy policy is backward, too. The official position is that we should strive for “energy dominance.” But instead of encouraging production and discouraging consumption to increase the amount of exportable energy, tariffs on energy technologies such as solar panels and rollbacks on efficiency standards take us in the opposite direction.
When it comes to energy policy, however, the biggest failures have to do with climate pollution. Our current policies have us locked into outcomes that run counter to what most people want.
Companies that produce solid or liquid industrial waste, whether it’s toxic chemicals or noxious wastewater, expect to pay disposal costs. But as it stands, companies can emit greenhouse gases for free—they don’t have to pay a price to use our common atmosphere as their dump. Conversely, companies that want to avoid the lasting damage of their CO2 emissions often have to invest in expensive technology to capture their emissions or switch their equipment to cleaner versions. Such spending puts clean companies at a competitive disadvantage against the ones that pollute freely.
This mismatch between what we need (making it expensive to pollute) and what we have (it’s free to pollute) is the primary reason why we’re in this climate mess in the first place.

Further Reading: Climate Change Fight: To Tax or Not To Tax Carbon
So how can we turn around these backward policies?
One way is to put a price on carbon emissions. Even better, we could pay carbon cleanup companies to remove CO2 from the atmosphere, just like we pay municipal garbage companies to pick up our trash from the curb and we pay wastewater treatment companies to clean up our sewage. Instead of paying energy companies for carbon they extract from ancient reserves below ground, we should pay a premium for carbon they harvest from the atmosphere.
From the perspective of today, where we expect carbon to flow from the ground and into the air, a system where carbon flows the other way—or one where it circulates with zero net emissions—will require new thinking. Reversing longstanding policies can be a tricky task, but the first step in doing so is to admit we’ve got things backwards in the first place.
Michael E. Webber is the Josey Centennial Professor of Energy Resources at the University of Texas in Austin and Chief Science and Technology Officer at ENGIE, a global energy company headquartered in Paris. His latest book, Power Trip: The Story of Energy, was published by Basic Books.

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