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Capping Carbon: The Economic Case For Acting Quickly

Michael A. Livermore is the executive director of the Institute for Policy Integrity at New York University School of Law. He is the author, along with Richard L. Revesz, of Retaking Rationality: How Cost-Benefit Analysis Can Better Protect the Environment and Our Health.

According to various press reports, the Obama administration and Congress may decide not to push a cap on carbon emissions through this year's budget reconciliation process (meaning any bill would likely need to overcome a difficult filibuster). Below, Brad Plumer sketched out a case for why waiting until next year may be politically shrewd. But one thing to note here is that the longer Congress waits on putting a cap in place, the more we actually hinder the ability of our economy to prepare for an inevitable carbon-constrained future.

Under the timeline proposed by President Obama in his budget blueprint, any economy-wide carbon cap passed by Congress would not go into effect until 2012. If a bill was signed into law this year, however, companies and investors could take advantage of those three interim years between adoption and implementation to plan, prepare, and invest for the future. The certainty that a cap was on the way would help create an important growth sector—one of very few in these bleak economic times, and it would do so faster than even government subsidies for "shovel ready" projects. The more time that companies have to adjust and prepare for a cap, the more investment opportunities and jobs we can create now, when we really need them.

The year 2012 was not a random date drawn out of a hat, but the likely start date to any successor agreement to the Kyoto Protocol. At that time, if negotiations are successful—and with the United States as a full participant this time around, they stand a good chance of doing so—there will be in place a new international regime to cut down on greenhouse gas emissions. (And if there's not an agreement in place by then, it's likely, given the state of climate science, that we'll face dangerous climate risks.)

So the U.S. economy needs to spend the time between now and 2012 adjusting to this new world. Because we never agreed to Kyoto, the rest of the developed world has a head start on building a lower-carbon economy. If we adopt a domestic cap now (even if it is implemented in 2012), energy companies would quickly start coming up with ways to reduce their emissions to save money on permits in three years. They could increase the efficiency of their plants and transmission grids and begin diversifying into low-carbon energy sources. Businesses will also look for ways to save energy now. Factory retrofits, streamlining production, and building efficiencies into distribution networks are all processes that could be started now to save money down the line.

But the longer Congress delays—and hence shortens the time available to ramp up—the more of these investment dollars we potentially leave on the table (or waste in rushing to play catch-up). If we know we're very likely to have to have a cap in 2012, why not take advantage of the economic benefits that will come with a long engagement and pass a bill as soon as possible? Particularly when our economy could use the boost right now. Industry and our government officials need to take a lesson from what happened to automakers, with the financial markets, and in New Orleans—all crushed by foreseeable risks that were not addressed. For once, let’s plan for winter before getting buried in the snow.

--Michael Livermore