Auction off the right to pollute

Robert Reich

TEXT OF COMMENTARY

Scott Jagow: Congress is thinking about climate change. The Senate's about to start debating whether we need a cap-and-trade program for carbon emissions.
All three of the presidential candidates support this idea. Commentator Robert Reich has these thoughts.


Robert Reich: With McCain now on board for a "cap-and-trade" system, it's a certainty that we'll have a president next year who wants to address global warming by imposing an overall cap on U.S. carbon emissions, which will drop annually. The "trade" part of the equation is that companies that find efficient ways to cut emissions can sell the unused portions of their permits to others.

But look more closely and you see a big difference between McCain and the Democratic candidates on how the permits are allocated. McCain's proposal would give the lion's share to companies that are now the biggest polluters. This does have some logic to it -- after all, as the overall cap tightens each year, the biggest polluters face the largest challenges in cutting emissions.

By contrast, Senators Obama and Clinton have both proposed allocating permits through an auction. Under this system, every company -- large or small -- would have to buy rights to pollute. As a result, the biggest polluters would have to pay the most -- thereby providing them with the greatest incentive to cut emissions right from the start.

This makes more sense. Our atmosphere belongs to all of us, and polluters should have to pay to use it. The citizens of Alaska and Alberta, Canada get yearly dividends from the oil companies that take away their natural resources. Why shouldn't the same principle apply when industries use the biggest common resource of all? The money they pay for permits could be returned as yearly dividends to every American family.

Now, it stands to reason that if polluters have to pay for the right to pollute, some of these costs might be passed on to consumers in the form of higher prices. But the yearly dividend checks would offset any price increases.

So next time you hear about cap-and-trade, ask the all-important question: How are the permits allocated? A carbon auction gets my bid.

Jagow: Robert Reich teaches public policy at the University of California, Berkeley. His latest book is called "Supercapitalism." He's endorsing Barack Obama.

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