Cap And Trade

Published on November 21st, 2012 | by Zachary Shahan


Al Gore On Climate Policy, Renewable Energy, Natural Gas, & More (100% Agree)

November 21st, 2012 by  

David Roberts of Grist recently had the good fortune to have a good back-and-forth with Al Gore. Great questions and superb answers. To be honest, I was a little surprised to see that I agreed 100% with everything Gore said. There are many complicated issues below, and while I think I’ve studied them in good depth, I know Al has done so to a much greater degree (he’s got a few years on me). I knew we lined up on a few things, but I didn’t realize we were so in line. Anyway, with great pleasure, here’s the full Roberts/Grist repost:

Al Gore (cropped) via World Economic Forum (some rights reserved)

On Nov. 14-15, the Climate Reality Project held its second annual “24 Hours of Reality” marathon, spending an entire day and night live-streaming events and panels around the globe to highlight various aspects of the climate crisis. (This year’s theme was “dirty weather.”) More than 100 people — elected leaders, scientists, business people, and activists — appeared on panels and millions tuned in to watch.

I caught up with Climate Reality founder Al Gore around hour 18 of his all-nighter and asked him about current U.S. climate politics, carbon taxes, and natural gas.

Q. Did you see Obama’s press conference the other day?

A. I heard the excerpts on climate, and [laughs] … oh …

Q. Go ahead!

A. No, I’m not going to go ahead! We have conflicting interests here! [laughs]

Well, I think it’s too early to put a definitive interpretation on where he left it with that comment. I was genuinely encouraged that he said, in the first half of his answer, that he was going to conduct a wide-ranging conversation with scientists, engineers, etc. Many urged him to do it in the first term and I’m glad that he’s pledging to do that now. That could take on a life of its own and have an impact how he thinks about it. And … as I say, I really do believe it’s premature to put a definitive interpretation on what it means about his intentions.

Q. Did you hear [White House press secretary] Jay Carney this morning?

A. No, God help us, what’d he say?

Q. He said, “We would never propose a carbon tax, and have no intention of proposing one.”

A. I don’t think that comes as a big surprise to anyone. Those of us that hold out some hope that we will find a way to get a price on carbon, and know there are multiple ways to do it, have felt that the convergence of the fiscal cliff and the climate cliff could produce some surprising results. And there have been some private comments by some Republicans to that effect. But certainly that’s something you wouldn’t wanna bet money on in Vegas.

Q. What do you think of this idea of a revenue-neutral carbon tax?

A. I have proposed a revenue-neutral carbon tax for a long time, 30 years. I proposed it in my first book, Earth in the Balance.

I supported cap-and-trade because a lot of folks felt that it offered the opportunity for bipartisan consensus. And by the way, it may yet gain altitude globally — China, as you know, is implementing it in five provinces and two cities. They have indicated that they intend to use these pilots as a model for the nationwide program. Many are skeptical, but they often do follow through with what they say they’re going to do. And [cap-and-trade] just started in California yesterday. Australia is now linking theirs to the E.U. system. South Korea’s moving, British Columbia, Quebec — there are a lot of parallel developments that could converge, particularly if China does follow through. It’s premature to write [cap-and-trade] off, even thought it’s has been demonized and so many people are afraid to talk about it.

But from the very beginning, I preferred a carbon tax. (And by the way, I’d be in favor of both; I don’t think they’re inconsistent at all.) And yet, the political environment in the U.S. has not changed to the point where it’s something you’d wanna bet on. But look, we’ve got to solve this. It’s an irresistible force meeting an immovable object, and something’s gotta give. I have enough faith in humanity to believe, against a lot of evidence, that we’re going to solve this.

Q. Does this idea of a carbon/income tax swap make you nervous? The income tax is one of the only places we have progressivity in the U.S. tax code.

A. I have not proposed doing it on the income tax, I have proposed doing it on the payroll tax. I am also friendly to the notion of a rebate scheme, though I doubt they’ll do that. It needs to be progressive — the rising inequality in the country is too serious to run the risk of worsening that.

Q. Do you worry that you getting out in front of this might brand it in a certain way —

A. Well, they come after anybody who speaks up in favor of doing something on climate. It’s not going to surprise any of them that I’m in favor of it. I’ve said it on practically a daily basis for years and years.

Q. One thing that pops up every time you enter this debate is this notion that you’ve made a bunch of money off your green investments. I remember you saying to Congress that you’ve donated that money to your climate group.

A. I have. The question was about Kleiner Perkins [a venture-capital firm in which Gore is an investment partner]. I have given, and do give, every year, 100 percent of my salary and 100 percent of distributions from Kleiner Perkins to the Climate Reality Project. There is absolutely no income of any sort from Kleiner Perkins that I do not give completely and totally to the Climate Reality Project.

Q. The political climate in the U.S. seems stuck [on the climate issue]. What’s your take on how it’s developing in other countries?

A. First of all, I don’t agree that it is stuck in the U.S. I really don’t. I think there is a great deal of movement beneath the surface. I run into people all the time who are former deniers, former opponents of doing anything on climate who are saying, “Look, this is just getting too weird. It’s clear that this is going on, we’ve got to do something.” Now, we’re not at the tipping point, but we’re much closer than we have been.

I’ve said this before and I really do believe it’s true: Changes like this don’t occur in a linear way. The potential for change builds up, unmanifested, until it reaches a critical mass. You don’t always see it coming. There are plenty of examples of that. I believe we’re seeing just that kind of movement just beneath the surface here in the U.S.

States are moving. Local governments are moving. Business is moving thanks to the happy discovery by so many businesses that initiated sustainability changes for branding reasons that it makes them money. It’s not a cost, but a benefit. By now, that’s pretty widely known in the business community. News Corp, for goodness sakes, is CO2 neutral.  They don’t brag about it. They do it because it saves them money.

I’m not saying we’re right on the tipping point. I know better than that. But neither do I think it’s accurate to say that we’re stuck in neutral. I don’t think we are.

But to get to your real question, I think that what happened in Australia was hugely significant. What’s going on in China is quite significant. The fact that the E.U. is hanging tough and some member states are actually torquing up their commitment is very significant. I think Mexico is significant; we’ll see what [Mexican President-elect Enrique] Peña Nieto does when he takes over in a couple of weeks, but they’ve made a commitment for 75 percent reduction and they’ve got a broad societal consensus. I think what Hawaii is doing is enormously significant. You know, a lot of countries around the world are looking at their hold cards, they’re looking at the damage, and it is now translating into a set of commitments that are meaningful and will continue.

Q. The federal level is blocked up, but there’s this movement underneath the surface. What’s the right way to take advantage of that movement?

A. The sooner we can increase the scale of renewable installations, the steeper the cost down-curve is going to be. We’ve kind of got a Moore’s Law Jr. underway on [solar] PV. Wind is not as steep as PV. Efficiency is probably steeper than both, or comparable to PV. So there are a lot of trends moving in the right direction. Any policies that accelerate the movement to scale will help.

In many areas, renewables, particularly solar and wind, are competitive. Not everywhere by a long shot, but in a growing number of areas. That in itself drives a certain tipping point, because when utilities are confronted with a better bargain, even with all the regulatory morass, they do make changes. We’ve seen 166 coal plants close. Yes, [natural] gas is a big part of it, but so is the impact of renewables on the margin. And that margin’s getting wider and wider all the time.

Q. What’s your take on the natural gas revolution that’s happening?

A. I’m concerned about methane leakage — the fact that it’s a valuable commodity and they have an incentive to capture it hasn’t stopped the leakage. Particularly in the fracking process, when they pull the fluids out, there’s just a huge outgassing. There are still leaks throughout the production and distribution chain, and the magnitude may well be sufficient to outweigh any CO2 advantage that you would otherwise gain.

The fact that [then-Vice President Dick] Cheney exempted [fracking] from [the Safe Drinking Water Act] really put the whole industry in such a privileged position, it disadvantages the advocates of the public interest, which was the intention. But it does mean that there are a lot of legitimate questions that need to be run to ground, no pun intended.

If you assume for the moment that those questions can be answered, then I think it’s responsible — only in that circumstance — to view gas as a short- to medium-term bridge fuel, substituting for coal, to buy some time for getting to scale and riding the cost down-curve on renewables.

I do worry that we could make such a legacy investment in gas infrastructure that the nation’s appetite for making a second conversion would be severely diminished. But I weigh that against the inherent market power of the cost down-curve for solar and wind reaching the point where utilities — and homeowners, and business owners — simply can’t say no to it, even if we’re in the middle of the bridge substitution strategy.

Q. Right now the activist community is taking on two big fights — one is against the Keystone pipeline, the other against coal export terminals in the Northwest. Where do you stand on those? Is it possible tokeep some of the coal in the ground?

A. I know the realpolitik and business perspective is to say, “It’s gonna come out no matter what,” but I don’t buy that. We have a planetary emergency. I know it drives some people nuts when I say that, but dammit, that’s what we face. We have to take that reality on board.

I’m going to support [Washington] governor-elect Jay Inslee. He is my close friend and I think he is going to handle this extremely well. The folks around the Northwest ports have their own reasons for being concerned about what’s planned. I’m going to support those who are skeptical about this giant export strategy of coal.

And let me answer the first part of that question — you’re probably not in as much suspense about that one. I am strongly opposed to that tar-sands pipeline. I think it’s crazy. Again, you have the realpolitik/business logic, but I just think it is morally wrong for us to open a brand new source of even dirtier carbon-based energy when we are desperately trying to bend down the curves.

I understand why a lot of people think it’s unrealistic in the extreme for one of these things to be slowed down or stopped. But you know, if you take that position, then you are inherently saying, “Well, it’s not that unrealistic to destroy the future of human civilization.”

Check out our new 93-page EV report, based on over 2,000 surveys collected from EV drivers in 49 of 50 US states, 26 European countries, and 9 Canadian provinces.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

About the Author

is tryin' to help society help itself (and other species) with the power of the typed word. He spends most of his time here on CleanTechnica as its director and chief editor, but he's also the president of Important Media and the director/founder of EV Obsession, Solar Love, and Bikocity. Zach is recognized globally as a solar energy, electric car, and energy storage expert. Zach has long-term investments in TSLA, FSLR, SPWR, SEDG, & ABB — after years of covering solar and EVs, he simply has a lot of faith in these particular companies and feels like they are good cleantech companies to invest in.

  • ronwagn

    His argument is all based on the assumption that man is responsible for global warming, or able to greatly affect it. There is no real proof of that. What has helped most is using natural gas to replace coal. That has reduce the USA CO2 emissions. Meanwhile Europe is burning more coal.

    • Bob_Wallace

      “His argument is all based on the assumption that man is responsible for global warming, or able to greatly affect it. There is no real proof of that. ”

      Right. And the Earth is flat. That orange thing gliding across the sky each day is Apollo in his golden chariot. And Fox News can be counted on to deliver facts….

      • ronwagn

        What a typical true believer retort.

        • Bob_Wallace

          Well, I am a true believer in the scientific method. So you shouldn’t be surprised if I side with the facts.

          What do you believe in? Magic?

  • neillevine

    Please check out my pursuit of this on Twitter, @neillevine3, and Facebook, neil.levine.9, to see where I am comiing from.

  • neillevine

    Dishonesty from Washington and the practice of playing to everyone makes it hard to explain, but various forms of hydro are more than 90% cheaper than wind or solar ever will be. Plus potential of hydrogen.

    • Bob_Wallace

      “but various forms of hydro are more than 90% cheaper than wind or solar ever will be”

      This is simply incorrect. The median LCOE price for onshore wind is currently $0.05/kWh. The lowest price is $0.04/kWh. That number does not include subsidies. The price of wind is expected to drop to $0.04/kWh median and $0.03/kWh over the next 20 years.

      The current median LCOE price of hydro is $0.04/kWh and the lowest price is $0.02/kWh. The expected price of new hydro is around $0.06/kWh.

      The price of unsubsidized PV solar is expected to drop below $0.10/kWh this decade.

      Hydrogen is not a source of energy, it is a way to store energy. And it’s not likely to be our least expensive way to store.

      • neillevine

        Wind blows 1/3 of time. Water flows 24 7 365, is 865 times heavier than equal volume of air and wheels can be scaled up. No need for a tall tower. Edison preferred waterwheels.

        • Bob_Wallace

          No, the wind blows far more than 1/3rd of the time in good wind locations. Wind farms connected over a couple hundred miles produce significant output at least 85% of the time.

          You are misunderstanding output/realized capacity and you don’t even have that number correct. Median output capacity is just over 40% and best site capacity exceeds 50%. Better siting and improved technology keeps pushing output higher.

          Water does not flow 24/365 in all locations. I’ve lived close to large dams in both the east and west and there are times at which there is not enough water behind the dam to let it run.

          In order to harvest energy from falling water it is necessary to build infrastructure of some sort – dams or feedstock – and install turbines. That costs money. When the math is done hydro is not cheap enough. If it were then we would see a lot more hydro coming on line. A lot of existing dams would be converted to generation. And realize, the dams are already built.

          • neillevine

            Wind mill towers are an extra edpense and spreading them over a large area increases costs. Reducing labor costs for making towers and you make energy cheaper. No tower in a waterwheel.

          • Bob_Wallace

            Neil, I’m not sure what you’re trying to argue.

            Yes, towers cost money. So do dams, feedstock, and turbines.

            Take a look at what is happening. Over the last ten years wind has grown from a 0.03% share to 3.5% share of our generation. Most of that growth has been in the last five years.

            During those ten years hydro has grown from 6.9% to 7.6%.

            The people making the decision of what to build can do math.

          • neillevine

            Sometimes they approve Solyndras, ignoring the math, because they have agendas that ignore the economics because they can and want to. Not a good use of public money.

          • Bob_Wallace


            Now you’re going to drag out that old, worn out highly-bogus Republican Solyndra stuff?

            How about something fresh like Travelgate? Or maybe how Ike had a mistress?
            Did you know that Grant drank a lot?

          • Over a year of intense investigation by guys who would love nothing more than to prove that and nothing came out of it, nothing. Seriously, drop the antiquated talking points that never were true and still aren’t today.

          • Wind is the cheapest option for new electricity in many (if not most) places now. To ignore that is not intelligent.

  • neillevine

    A tax is not a solution. A tax is a burden.

    • Bob_Wallace

      Taxes are the membership fees for living in a civilized country.

      • neillevine

        I advocate hydro, esecially waterwheels, so wind and solar and carbon taxes are being overcharged for inferior merchandise


        • Bob_Wallace

          Sorry, I’m unable to read babble….

          • neillevine

            Gore may cater to idiots. I don’t.

        • mds

          You are ignorant to suggest hydro instead of solar and wind. It will be all three and the later two have the greater potential for growth.

          Hydro is great and can provide some of our energy, but it only works in areas that have the water and the geographic elevation. Hydro output can be improved in the USA, primarily by improving the efficiency of generators at existing facilities, but it is a mature and geographically limited (close to topped out and tapped out) source of power.
          Solar and wind can each easily supply all of our energy demands. Storage will be needed to get past something like 30%. Pumped hydro is one option for storage, in areas that can do this. Several types of battery and compressed air can also be used to accomplish fairly cost effective storage. Solar in particular will be a major source of our power, much more than hydro, in the not too distant future. It is already happening.

          • Bob_Wallace

            We have hundreds, if not thousands, existing dams which could be converted to power generators (or pump-up storage). The question is whether this will make economic sense.

            Wind is so cheap, solar is expected to become as cheap as wind. If any of the promising battery technology pans out stored wind/solar may make new hydro unprofitable.

            Some existing dams are being converted for generation at the moment.

      • neillevine

        You support handing out tax payer money like candy and I do not

        • Bob_Wallace

          Please don’t tell me what I believe. Make a case for your position and see if stands up to scrutiny.

          That’s what I believe in doing.

          • neillevine

            I have an important submissin with NYSERDA, the state agency, and find the reptition of official propagandato be irritating and insulting. Sorry.

    • This is quite wrong.

      A “free market,” as idealized, doesn’t have externalities — all costs are included in the price of goods. but that’s not how the world works. in order to make the market act more like it is supposed to, taxes are needed.

  • Peter Lynch

    Great interview

    The “big” weakness of a carbon tax is where are the revenues REALLY going to ? Maybe this, maybe that – this is going to be a serious problem and with politicians we will NEVER know for sure.

    I think the best, fastest, cheapest and ONLY proven way to dramatically accelerate the the growth of a nationwide Feed in Tariff

    It can be done it is only difficult because of our real lack of trying serious to just DO IT.

    Here is a White Paper on FIT’s – let’s move forward and just DO IT

    • that one’s been on my mind for awhile. and i wonder why it is never brought up. something about it that makes it dead politically?

    • Feed in Tariffs rely on the govt. to set the price signal, and there is no incentive to continue lowering the cost. Each support structure (FIT, cap and trade, carbon tax, subsidies, etc. )has advantages and disadvantages, which economists have been examining for decades. Carbon tax is far and away the best policy, whether it’s revenue neutral or not.

      • Bob_Wallace

        FiTs seem to have worked very well in Germany to quickly bring down the price of installed solar. By artificially creating excess profit a lot of new players can be brought to the game. Once in, competition seems to drive price down.

        That said, solar and wind prices in the US are falling fairly rapidly, solar quite rapidly. It’s not clear that we need any heroic aid to mature these technologies.

        Probably where we need to concentrate our money is on transmission, grid improvement and overall efficiency.

        And make sure that storage research/development has all the money that needs. Storage is the missing part for completing the new grid puzzle.

Back to Top ↑