Featured in MetalMag's June edition . See page 66.
New Administration Puts Carbon Reduction on the Agenda
By Andre de Fontaine
During the past decade, climate change steadily has moved up the political agenda. Now, with a new administration in Washington, D.C., that has demonstrated a clear commitment to action, comprehensive climate-change legislation appears ripe for passage within the next couple years. As a result, many industries are appropriately wondering what the new regulatory environment will mean for their businesses.
First, it is important to note that reducing greenhouse-gas (GHG) emissions will impose a cost to society, though that cost is likely to be small and manageable within the context of the overall economy. These costs must also be balanced against the costs of unabated climate change, which are projected to be much greater than taking action now. Still, there likely will be distributional impacts as the U.S. transitions to a low-carbon economy, with certain industries being able to handle the transition with greater ease than others.
The green-building industry widely is expected to be a major beneficiary of public policies to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions because policymakers recognize two related facts. First, the country’s existing buildings are major contributors to climate change, accounting for about 43 percent of U.S. GHG emissions; and second, a number of low-cost mitigation options available involve improving the efficiency of new and existing buildings. Additionally, as the nation is mired in a serious economic downturn, efforts to stimulate the economy are increasingly focused on green buildings as a major source of new jobs in the coming years. For example, the recently enacted American Recovery and Reinvestment Plan of 2009 contained billions for weatherization assistance for low-income households, grants for states to improve the efficiency of residential, commercial and government buildings, and tax credits for energy efficiency improvements to existing homes.
While these stimulus provisions will benefit the green building sector in the near term, longer-term policy, in the form a cap and trade system for GHGs is also on the horizon. How does a cap-and-trade program work? The government sets an annual cap on allowable emissions, which declines over time. It then distributes allowances to entities– free of charge, through an auction, or a combination of the two – to entities included in the program. These typically are major emitters, like power plants and large manufacturing facilities. The total number of allowances distributed must match the total emissions allowed under the cap.
Regulated firms must hold and submit to the government one allowance for each ton of GHGs they emit. This creates a market for allowances—a carbon market—and an economic incentive for firms to reduce emissions. Those that easily can cut emissions can position themselves to purchase fewer allowances and/or sell excess allowances to firms that face higher reduction costs.
Buildings would not be directly regulated under the cap, but they could be impacted by increases in electricity and fuel costs attributable to the price of carbon. These higher energy prices will, over time, make investments in efficiency more attractive in the buildings sector.
This year the prospects for aggressive government action appear better than ever. President Obama has made clear his commitment to cap-and-trade legislation and related clean-energy policies, and key members of the U.S. Congress have pledged fast action in moving climate change legislation forward. Adding to the momentum for action is a strong push from the business community. This especially is noticeable in the advocacy efforts of the U.S. Climate Action Partnership, a unique coalition of 25 businesses and five nongovernmental organizations that is calling on Congress to pass comprehensive climate legislation this year.
Even as the country faces a significant economic challenge, business and political leaders increasingly are vocal about their commitment to addressing climate change--not at a later date, but right now. The green-building industry uniquely is positioned to ride this wave and make a major contribution in the country’s transition to a low-carbon future.
Andre de Fontaine is a Markets and Business Strategy Fellow at the Pew Center on Global Climate Change. He works with the Center's Business Environmental Leadership Council (BELC), a group of 43 largely Fortune 500 corporations that have partnered with the Pew Center to address issues related to climate change. He also engages in Pew Center analytic work on climate-related markets and investment issues.