Thursday, September 10, 2009

France's Carbon Tax; Plus, the Coal Problem

Sarkozy introduces a new carbon tax to be imposed in France next year. It's set at 17 euros per tonne of CO2 emissions. It's not a politically popular idea in France. Sarkozy has his faults but this is the right move.

One a related but different note (France is largely nuclear, after all), see this solid article on the political-economic role of coal - the dirtiest of energy sources - in the major economies. Victor and Morse write,
Coal... sits at the center of the most inconvenient truth about global-warming policy: the countries that proclaim greatest concern about global warming are barely investing in the new coal plants that could help chart a better path for the world. Meanwhile, the fastest-growing countries have few incentives to invest in new climate-friendly technologies. And simplistic solutions, such as banning coal outright, are politically naïve because the fuel is so easy to use and offers the cheapest way to electrify most of the world.
I haven't finished the article so I don't know how much they speak to this, but two points bear mentioning:

First, coal is cheap because it is, like most of the energy economy, priced minus externalities. Much of the full costs are clear, however, because we can often see or feel them. Flattened mountaintops, mercury-polluted rivers, black skies, suffocated miners, coal fires, asthma-ravaged lungs, etc. The biggest, though, is what we can't readily see or feel (for now): the major contribution to global warming and climate change. Coal may be cheap enough that even a full accounting would still make it more economically efficient over alternative energy sources. I'm not so sure that this is the case, however. A full accounting of externalities, perhaps especially with coal, could include a very broad range of generally ignored costs. Many both inside and out of the coal industry are waiting on a more accurate pricing of coal as we move into post-Kyoto economies.

Second, agreeing with Victor and Morse that an outright ban is unrealistic, the options for the coal industry are unclear in a post-Kyoto context. The current options appear to be either retrofitting coal plants with pollution-reducing technologies such as "scrubbers" or building new, cleaner IGCCs (Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle plants). One of the problems here is that scrubber technologies can be installed relatively cheaply and quickly, but are only stopgap measures in the longer scheme of things as countries move forward (hopefully) to tackle climate change. A significant conversion to IGCCs, however, would likely require 50 or more years to truly bring online. Without a clear pricing scheme for carbon and without clear and concrete policy action on energy, that estimated time-frame grows longer.

Read the piece, and then - for your cheery Thursday - check out this depressing article on new coal-fired plants.


MT said...

We need to modernise the law as much as we need new energy technology, as Robert Reich and others are saying. The orphan global consequences we call externalities aren't caused by people, but by corporations, which enjoy freedoms that are ridiculous in the crowded, industrial world we've been born into. We have to finish what Ralph Nader started.

troutsky said...

Here in Montana, a coal state our governor calls the "new Saudi Arabia", this debate rages. He also promotes gassification and throws out numbers such as your "50 years or more" but none of it is based on anything remotely empirical. And it requires a lot of water. Big problemo. The market will not solve this issue in time.

helmut said...

Righto, MT. Developing and implementing new technology is far more than plugging in a new toaster. In the face of a real, effective assault on the problem of CC, what we're looking at are a different set of regulatory rules, new laws, new thinking about the economy, a better understanding of the social and political dimensions of technology, and probably a new ethical framework.

helmut said...

T - the 50 years in the case of IGCCs getting to a point where they make a real dent in emissions really is the likely timeframe, at least in the absence of improbable hardcore regulation. In other words, the implications of the reality - a reality acknowledged by both energy/enviro analysts and some of the more reflective people in the coal industry - is that an alternative to coal is necessary. Given the huge contribution of coal to GhGs, and since a real alternative doesn't look likely in the short term for economic, technological, and political reasons, we're probably just screwed. I don't see a way around this and the same goes for other large-scale mitigation projects. That's why in my own work I leave mitigation research to others and focus on adaptation.