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Climate Change

Published on July 31st, 2010 | by Susan Kraemer


The 23 Most Cost-Effective Policies for Stopping Climate Change

July 31st, 2010 by  

The Center for Climate Strategies has issued a report laying out in detail the cost/benefit analysis underpinning 23 policy options and their expected net cost per ton of greenhouse gases removed.


Like the three climate bills that would have reduced the deficit by about $20 billion by 2020, these 23 carbon reduction policies would also save Americans money – $5 billion a year – while reducing carbon emissions.

Because this group has already helped create full climate action plans for 16 states through consensus building and input from technical experts and stakeholders, it has hands-on experience – unlike most think tanks. So its researchers are able to go back and assess the real life costs and success or failure of policies that they had recommended.

These are the briefest summaries, from the cheapest of the 23 policy ideas – which costs less than nothing – to the most expensive. These are their final selections from 900 possible policy options. Full details (who pays, how costs were found) can be found in their full report pdf.

1. Shift from Truck to Rail Cost: -$91.56 per ton. Incentivising a move to rail (or river) cargo movement rather than trucks also reduces smog and wear and tear on highways.

2. Vehicle Purchase Incentives Cost: -$66.37 per ton. Incentives like cash for clunkers for choosing fuel-efficient vehicles. Switching to pay-as-you-drive auto insurance, (which makes insurance more expensive for more miles driven).

3. Anti-Idling Technologies and Practices Cost: -$65.19 per ton. Setting limits on how long buses and trucks can idle, and investing in electrification of truck stops. Requiring automatic engine shut-down/start-up system controls.

4. Appliance Standards Cost: -$53.21 per ton. Setting higher appliance efficiency standards which make it cosdt effective for manufacturers to compete in efficiency, knowing there will be a market creating an economy of scale.

5. Energy Efficiency: Demand Side Management Cost: -$40.71 per ton. Rewarding energy reduction, such as decoupling utilities and offering incentives to reduce energy (by investing in efficient appliances or machinery).

6. High Performance Buildings Cost: -$24.99 per ton. Setting incentives and targets for building owners and developers to meet high-efficiency standards.

7. Building Codes Cost: -$22.86 per ton. Strengthening building codes to require minimum levels of efficiency.

8. Combined Heat and Power Cost: -$13.18 per ton. Encouraging the use of CHP systems wherever fossil fuel is used, in order to double usable energy output per unit of input energy.

9. Reducing Municipal Solid Waste Cost: -$3.20 per ton. Reducing waste to reduce landfill methane.

10. Smart Growth/Land Use Cost: -$1.11 per ton. Encouraging smart growth planning to reduce sprawl and maximize open space protection, like siting development near transit hubs.

These first ten cost less than nothing. The following ones, in order, are from least to most expensive.

11. Landfill Gas Management Cost: $0.34 per ton. Landfills can harness methane through anaerobic digestion to create electric power, heat or liquefied natural gas.

12. Anaerobic Digestion and Methane Utilization Cost: $11.27 per ton. Manure digesters at livestock operations can be used to create heat or power, offsetting fossil fuel use and greenhouse gas emissions.

13. Coal Plant Efficiency or Repowering Cost: $12.95 per ton. Installing more efficient boilers and turbines, improving control systems, using combined-cycle technology or switching to low-emitting fuels, such as natural gas or biomass.

14. Urban Forestry Cost: $13.35 per ton. Encouraging urban greenery to absorb carbon and help reduce cooling needs by providing shade.

15. Recycling Municipal Solid Waste Cost: $13.39 per ton. Creating incentives for recycling waste (like construction materials) and helping generate markets for it with municipal purchases.

16. Crop Production Practices Cost: $15.69 per ton. Encouraging no-till farming and crop rotation to increase the amount of carbon stored in soil.

17. Transit Cost: $16.72 per ton. Expanding public transit options, such as bus and rail, can cut automobile emissions.

18. Renewable Portfolio Standards Cost: $17.84 per ton. Requiring that utilities get a gradually and predictably rising percent of their electricity from renewable sources.

19. Nuclear Power Cost: $26.98 per ton. Incentivising nuclear power with subsidies or guarantees.

20. Carbon Capture and Storage or Reuse Cost: $32.92 per ton. Requiring that coal plants install equipment to capture carbon, or find new ways for coal to produce energy so carbon can be captured during the process or never created.

21. Reforestation/Afforestation Cost: $33.18 per ton. Planting new forest to boost the carbon uptake of forestry.

22. Forest Retention Cost: $39.38 per ton. Setting aside lands for conservation to maintain the current carbon uptake of forests

23. Renewable Fuel Standard Cost: $57.14 per ton. Requiring that a percentage of fuel options include non fossil sources such as ethanol or bio-diesel.

Susan Kraemer @Twitter

Image: Flikr user static bob

Source: Solveclimate

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About the Author

writes at CleanTechnica, CSP-Today and Renewable Energy World.  She has also been published at Wind Energy Update, Solar Plaza, Earthtechling PV-Insider , and GreenProphet, Ecoseed, NRDC OnEarth, MatterNetwork, Celsius, EnergyNow, and Scientific American. As a former serial entrepreneur in product design, Susan brings an innovator's perspective on inventing a carbon-constrained civilization: If necessity is the mother of invention, solving climate change is the mother of all necessities! As a lover of history and sci-fi, she enjoys chronicling the strange future we are creating in these interesting times.    Follow Susan on Twitter @dotcommodity.

  • Dr. Charles Stirling

    One item not mentioned as it is very politically and socially taboo is population control, reduction. Even if everyone’s climate impact is halved a new addition to the population will over a lifetime cause more change than any other factor. It’s not just climate change, but pressure on land and water use, overfishing, and any other environmental problem that is considered which made worse by increasing population. The problem is how to reduce then reverse population growth in a socially acceptable fashion.

    Little social research seems to be aimed at population control. How to meet religious objections, how to deal with demographic changes, how to handle the politics are as taboo subjects as the general question. Standards of living will have to fall for better off countries as less well off countries increase theirs. Technological fixes may mitigate this some, but seem unlikely to solve the issue completely.

  • Thomas Del Monte

    What happens when you can offset 12% of global GHG emissions each year with one main technology for revenue not cost? BIOCHAR! Lists like this look silly without it.

    • Yeah, biochar should be in the list of technologies. What policy strategy would encourage its use most?

  • Jeff Baranchok

    Susan Kraemer, I think solar feed-in tariffs are closer to hundreds of dollars per ton of CO2. That’s why they don’t make the list.

  • Steve Crook

    I was listening to a BBC program about shifting UK freight from road to rail, and the overall conclusion was that like much else in life it was a little less clear cut than one might expect.

    The main problem is that to make rail transport fuel efficient, you have to:

    1. Have a long train

    2. Have the train stop and start as little as possible to avoid wasting energy.

    3. Have the infrastructure to get freight to the railhead in an efficient manner

    This means having large depots and long lines. For some countries this may make sense, but for the UK it didn’t look quite like a magic bullet.

    I don’t remember the precise conclusions the program reached, but *I think* they said that ~20% of the current road freight could be moved to rail with an overall Co2 benefit.

    I have to say it was a conclusion that surprised me, as I’ve always been keen on seeing the move to rail and thought it would be win win, but the arguments put forward (some by a rail company) made sense.

  • Eric Higgins

    “Perhaps the reason that line loss was not dealt with by legislation is that our transmission is so Balkanized with so many local jurisdictions and owners that there is no way to incentivize somebody (who? how?) to improve transmission.”

    I’ve been struggling with this problem for a while and believe that the same problem I’ve been running into may be affecting other efficiency/carbon reduction initiatives. Specifically – for system improvements – I’ve noticed there is often a disconnect between who has to front the bill for an efficiency improvement and who receives the benefit.

    As an example in the US, power generation, transmission and load (end users) are separated by law and all transmission efficiency costs are passed along to the load (i.e. consumers pay more because our system is inefficient). The decision to reduce line losses by installing better equipment falls on transmission companies, but in doing so they only reduce the rates consumers pay. By law it’s a pass-through. Sure, the additional throughput from an efficient line would pay for the line in 3 years (not to mention the CO2 reduction), but transmission companies won’t see a penny of that.

    It makes me wonder how many efficiency/carbon reduction initiatives are held up because of ill-conceived legislative nonsense… and yes, my company does do well overseas because the aforementioned problem doesn’t exist in most places and foriegn governments seem to like the idea of less waste… =)

  • Eric Higgins

    I’m not terribly surprised that transmission efficiency improvements aren’t included in this list (since most consumers know much about it and industry folks don’t think it’s a worthwhile endeavor); nevertheless, I think it’s worth a mention.

    We lose 3-6% of our generated power to transmission losses every minute of every day… that may not seem like a large number, but 3% of all electricity we use everyday adds up real quick… and all that wasted energy just pumps more CO2 into the atmosphere.

    In the last 5 years a new transmission conductor has been developed that reduces line losses by 40%… which, in terms of this study would be translate into about $15 per ton of CO2 saved (saved from avoided generation)… but that’s not the end of the story because the reduced line losses also increase throughput for renewable energy sources – meaning we can squeeze more energy out of our solar and wind farms. The best part of all of this is that the continuous energy savings directly translate into $’s… so the improvements quickly pay for themselves (usually within 3-5 years) at which point the CO2 savings and extra energy are just gravy!

    That being said, I work for this ‘efficient conductor’ company, so I do have my biases. It is nevertheless an awesome new technology (which is why I joined this company in the first place) and has tremendous potential to mitigate our country’s single largest source of fossil fuel emissions.

    • @Eric I agree, some of the selections were surprising to me too. I was surprised that policies like Feed in Tariffs were not included, when Spain and Germany pretty much created China’s burgeoning growth in the solar panel industry. Perhaps the reason that line loss was not dealt with by legislation is that our transmission is so Balkanized with so many local jurisdictions and owners that there is no way to incentivize somebody (who? how?) to improve transmission.

      But I see that your California company gets most of its business overseas, where there IS legislation supporting clean energy.

  • Brett


    What existing policies and programs do you propose to cut to help fund some of the above programs? Or, what tax hike do you propose?

    I understand well that many of these pay for themselves over the long run, while some are iffy. But, the average American does not.

  • Glad to see forest conservation so well represented. For those who want to know more…

    Here is a slide show clarifying many misconceptions about forests, logging, and carbon:

    (For full effect click “full” in the lower right.)

    Here is a more detailed foot-noted report on forests, carbon and climate change:

  • Chris, great comments on #19. please make your way over to my two recent posts on nuclear energy when the nuclear enthusiasts get there and try to tear into them 😀

  • Chris

    This is an effective list given its quantitative nature- awesome work Susan Kraemer. However, it is irresponsible for you to list #19. Nuclear power will never have enough long term benefits to ever outweigh the risks. This may be just my opinion, but it is also the opinion of Amory Lovins, the “Einstein” of the sustainable movement and should be listened to more than most on this subject. The sooner we stop seeing nuclear as anything more than a disastrous end-game, the sooner we will find peace in knowing that the solar, wind, bio, hydro, etc. offer more than enough potential energy for us to harness and sustain human life for many more years.

  • Nathan Townshend

    The prices in this article don’t make sense. The first ten ‘cheapest’ have prices per ton which are obviously not the cheapest. Please correct!

  • dygituljunky

    18 is one of my favorite utility-oriented improvements since it allows utility companies to plan ahead, budget for, acquire, and implement low/no-carbon energy production. On the other hand, it allows those same utilities to lobby for the RPS to be repealed.

    19 is one of my least favorite. Georgia has recently passed legislation that allows Georgia Power to pre-bill customers to raise funds to construct a nuclear plant. Nuclear costs so much money that Georgia Power had to resort to such legislation in order to be able to afford to build it.

    4, 5, 6, 7, and 10 are some of the easiest to implement and some of the easiest and most important steps we can take to gradual reduction in emissions. Creating a Property-Attached Loan program to help home and business owners to implement number 6 on existing buildings would have the added benefit of boosting the economy by putting construction workers (and, therefore, auto workers) and construction materiel manufacturing workers back to work; this would be most effective in boosting the economy if the loan is available for domestically produced materiel, only.

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