The argument is being made that, because the cap-and-trade system addressing the acid rain problem proved viable, the same approach will work for reducing carbon dioxide emissions. For example, TheGreenGrok states:

The cap-and-trade approach worked for acid rain. Why? The profit motive had a lot to do with it. With a price on the emissions of acid-rain-causing sulfur oxide emissions, power companies found ways to improve their profit margins through innovation. Emissions decreased at costs well below the initial projections. The desire to turn a profit was not a bad thing; it is what helped make the whole thing work.

But the “innovations” involved in removing sulfur dioxide (using scrubbers) or switching to, or blending in, low-sulfur coal, were not really all that big a deal, technologically. As one review of the program put it

Whether these changes, which often look like innovation, are true changes of the technical choices facing firms or simply the diffusion of known technology in response to the right incentive awaits further research. … (see Ellerman, A.D. 2002. Ex Post Evaluation of Tradable Permits: The U.S. SO2 Cap-and-Trade Program, prepared as a case study report under the program for the Ex Post Evaluation of Tradable Permits: Methodological and Policy Issues being conducted by the National Policies Division of the Environmental Directorate of the OECD.)

These technological approaches pale compared to the technological challenges of many methods being touted for reducing carbon dioxide emissions, such as by scrubbing it out and sequestering it underground or beneath the sea, which is at early research stages, at best.  As neatly put by Treehugger, carbon sequestration will

take decades which we don’t have, be extremely expensive, probably won’t work that well, and we’ll run out of good burying sites before long. Meanwhile, the clean energy industry (solar, wind, wave, geothermal) will keep growing very fast at exponential rates, their costs will keep going down and the efficiency of their production units (wind turbines, solar panels, hydrokinetic buoys, Gorlov helical turbines, geothermal heat pumps) will keep going up.

It was known that viable methods for reducing the acid rain problem existed, and cap-and-trade worked by providing a framework for implementing them.  Prices could be rationally assigned (if this sounds like an economist speaking, my apologies). It turned out to be a pleasant surprise that things cost less than expected.  However, this experience does not translate, for reasons discussed above, to an indication that cap-and-trade is viable for reducing carbon dioxide emissions.


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