Many have asked, why do we need mandates for renewable fuels, carbon prices, and all that. Isn’t that a government subsidy, a hand-out for politician-friendly technologies that can’t make it in the marketplace?
Well, that depends, my friend, how you think about the community landfill.
That gate fee at the landfill is not a subsidy scheme for people who don’t make trash. It’s a fee for a service, which is to say access to a scarce public resource, and you pay it or you don’t, your call, we’re a free society. Here’s how it works, you can dump your trash and pay the fee, or you can avoid the fee by finding a way to re-purpose your trash, or avoid making trash altogether.
Carbon emissions are pretty much the same. You can agree or disagree whether the world is changing in a dangerous way because too much carbon has been emitted. But you don’t get to disagree that carbon dioxide and methane are pollutants. As a test, fill a bag with pure CO2 or methane, put it over your head, and breathe normally for 2 minutes. We’ll miss you when you’re gone.
Clean sky is precious, every knows that, and you can’t just use the sky as a free sewer, as a skyfill. Any more than you can dump plutonium in the community swimming pool just because you have some radioactive material on your hands. And you don’t get free phone calls just because you have something to say.
That was then, this is now
The problem is not the market, or capitalism, or the carbon market. The problem of carbon is that there isn’t a market. We haven’t charged for access to the sky to dump byproducts for the same reason that we don’t charge for breathing oxygen. The sky has been vast and pristine enough that we haven’t put a charge on using it as a sewer. We have some local bans on specific practices, such as dangerous particulates, on soot. We have some local regulations where we have very bad air pollution — such as requiring reformulated gasoline in California. But that’s about it.
Scarcity changes things. Freeways now aren’t quite as free — they have metered access to high-speed lanes during rush hours. To give one example. No one expects an empty lane on an urban highway at rush hour for nothing. This is the United States, just because every one is free doesn’t mean every thing is free.
How skyfills work
Couple of rules for the road, lessons learned from running landfills.
1. Prices. Trash owners don’t set the fees at the landfill. They are set by the public, either as a fixed fee or with a market price.
2. Bans. You don’t ban trash, you encourage people to make less of it, and new uses for it, by creating value through price and through a market.
3. Market sensitivity. Being sensitive to market conditions helps. Metered traffic pay-per-use highway lanes work better than fixed toll fees. You can choose a smooth ride or a cheap one, it’s your call, you’re free to choose.
4. Product includes disposal. You can’t separate the cost of the product from the cost of the disposal. Any more than you can calculate the cost of supporting a baby without considering the price of diapers. Remember the old days when the price of a can of pop included the deposit on the bottle? That’s how it works.
5. Parents pay. No one pays for the diapers for you. You pay for your babies. You have twins, you pay double. That’s just the way it is, it’s nothing personal. You make the pollution, it’s your baby, you have to pay for disposal, you can’t just toss diapers onto your neighbor’s lawn.
6. Use the infrastructure we have. We’re going to make some fuels and other products we already have, from waste, why wouldn’t we? Now, if you’ve noticed lately, fuel infrastructure is unbelievably expensive and all the good corners for fueling locations are already owned. We don’t need a civil war over the use of eminent domain with respect to fueling stations, and rebuilding 100,000 fueling points is a crazily expensive way to solve our skyfill problem. So, we’re going to have to share, and owners should be fairly compensated where we need to make changes to the way a space works. After all, you get compensation when someone builds a freeway using your backyard. And just because you own the backyard doesn’t mean that society can build a freeway.
7. Rebate the fees. Invariably, someone will pay the skyfill fee instead of changing their industrial habits. Those fees ought to be returned to the public in the form of an additional rebate to any technology that removes a greenhouse gas emission — reduces the skyfill. In short, there’s a fee for skyfill, zero carbon is free, and negative carbon you get some money for.
8. Independently managed. Who needs another bureaucracy? Why not outsource skyfill management and accounting to specialized firms, like we do with landfill? They’ll smooth the rough edges. When someone can make money at it, good things can happen.
Pay your share
So, that’s skyfill. You gotta pay your share, you pay at the landfill and you pay for the diapers. Everyone pays for their mess, everyone pays for their own broom and dustpan, and you don’t get to throw dirty diapers onto your neighbor’s lawn, either.
As Midnight Oil put it in the anthemic Beds are Burning:
The time has come to say fair’s fair
To pay the rent now, to pay our share
We need pay our share at the skyfill gate. Nothing will change until we do that. We can argue about the price of diapers, we can argue over whether Huggies are better than Pampers, and whether Walmart is better than Target. But diapers aren’t free and aren’t optional for newborns. Get over it.
And getting over the idea that you get infrastructure for free and that new technology is going to show up in the next 15 minutes and relieve us of every tough carbon choice we’ll ever face, is also a good idea. As is waiting for the Beatles to return and for Julius Caesar once again to walk the earth. Both cool ideas — ain’t gonna happen.
So, earth to fossil fuel fanatics, you’re welcome to use it, as much as you want. Or should we say, as much as you can afford. But get the wallet out, there’s a charge at the skyfill gate, and the more and more filled up it gets, the more you’re going to pay. Just like everyone else for everything else.