27 Feb 2012: Opinion

Beyond Cap and Trade,
A New Path to Clean Energy

Putting a price and a binding cap on carbon is not the panacea that many thought it to be. The real road to cutting U.S. emissions, two iconoclastic environmentalists argue, is for the government to help fund the development of cleaner alternatives that are better and cheaper than natural gas.

by ted nordhaus and michael shellenberger

A funny thing happened while environmentalists were trying and failing to cap carbon emissions in the U.S. Congress. U.S. carbon emissions started going down. The decline began in 2005 and accelerated after the financial crisis. The latest estimates from the U.S. Energy Information Administration now suggest that U.S. emissions will continue to decline for the next few years and remain flat for a decade or more after that.

The proximate cause of the decline in recent years has been the recession and slow economic recovery. But the reason that EIA is projecting a long-term decline over the next decade or more is the glut of cheap natural gas, mostly from unconventional sources like shale, that has profoundly changed America’s energy outlook over the next several decades.

Gas is no panacea. It still puts a lot of carbon into the atmosphere and has

Innovation is Not Enough

Economist Gernot Wagner offers a spirited rebuttal to Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger’s argument in a Yale e360 article in which he insists that energy innovation is not enough. In order to avoid the worst impacts of climate change, Wagner writes, the world must put a price on carbon or cap emissions.
created a range of new pollution problems at the local level. Methane leakage resulting from the extraction and burning of natural gas threatens to undo much of the carbon benefit that gas holds over coal. And even were we to make a full transition from coal to gas, we would then need to transition from gas to renewables and nuclear in order to reduce U.S. emissions deeply enough to achieve the reductions that climate scientists believe will be necessary to avoid dangerous global warming.

But the shale gas revolution, and its rather significant impact on the U.S. carbon emissions outlook, offers a stark rebuke to what has been the dominant view among policy analysts and environmental advocates as to what it would take in order to begin to bend down the trajectory of U.S. emissions, namely a price on carbon and a binding cap on emissions. The existence of a better and cheaper substitute is today succeeding in reducing U.S. emissions where efforts to raise the cost of fossil fuels through carbon caps or pricing — and thereby drive the transition to renewable energy technologies — have failed.

In fact, the rapid displacement of coal with gas has required little in the way of regulations at all. Conventional air pollution regulations do represent a very low, implicit price on carbon. And a lot of good grassroots activism at the local and regional level has raised the political costs of keeping old coal plants in service and bringing new ones online.

But those efforts have become increasingly effective as gas has gotten cheaper. The existence of a better and cheaper substitute has made the transition away from coal much more viable economically, and it has put the wind at the back of political efforts to oppose new coal plants, close existing ones, and put in place stronger EPA air pollution regulations.

Yet if cheap gas is harnessing market forces to shutter old coal plants, the existence of cheap gas from unconventional places is by no means the product of those same forces, nor of laissez faire energy policies. Our current glut of gas and declining emissions are in no small part the result of 30 years of federal support for research, demonstration, and commercialization of non-conventional gas technologies without which there would be no shale gas revolution today.

Starting in the mid-seventies, the Ford and Carter administrations funded large-scale demonstration projects that proved that shale was a potentially massive source of gas. In the years that followed, the U.S.
The European Emissions Trading Scheme has had no discernible impact on emissions.
Department of Energy continued to fund research and demonstration of new fracking technologies and developed new three-dimensional mapping and horizontal drilling technologies that ultimately allowed firms to recover gas from shale at commercially viable cost and scale. And the federal non-conventional gas tax credit subsidized private firms to continue to experiment with new gas technologies at a time when few people even within the natural gas industry thought that firms would ever succeed in economically recovering gas from shale.

The gas revolution now unfolding — and its potential impact on the future trajectory of U.S. emissions — suggests that the long-standing emphasis on emissions reduction targets and timetables and on pricing have been misplaced. Even now, carbon pricing remains the sine qua non of climate policy among the academic and think-tank crowds, while much of the national environmental movement seems to view the current period as an interregnum between the failed effort to cap carbon emissions in the last Congress and the next opportunity to take up the cap-and-trade effort in some future Congress.

And yet, the European Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS), which has been in place for almost a decade now and has established carbon prices well above those that would have been established by the proposed U.S. system, has had no discernible impact on European emissions. The carbon intensity of the European economy has not declined at all since the imposition of the ETS. Meanwhile green paragon Germany has embarked upon a coal-building binge under the auspices of the ETS, one that has accelerated since the Germans shut down their nuclear power plants.

Even so, proponents of U.S. emissions limits maintain that legally binding carbon caps will provide certainty that emissions will go down in the future, whereas technology development and deployment — along with efforts to regulate conventional air pollutants — do not. Certainly, energy and
We’ve already made a huge down payment on the cost-effective technologies we will need.
emissions projections have proven notoriously unreliable in the past — it is entirely possible that future emissions could be well above, or well below, the EIA’s current projections. But the cap-and-trade proposal that failed in the last Congress, like the one that has been in place in Europe, would have provided no such certainty. It was so riddled with loopholes, offset provisions, and various other cost-containment mechanisms that emissions would have been able to rise at business-as-usual levels for decades.

Arguably, the actual outcome might have been much worse. The price of the environmental movement’s demand for its “legally binding” pound of flesh was a massive handout of free emissions allocations to the coal industry, which might have slowed the transition to gas that is currently underway.

Continuing to drive down U.S. emissions will ultimately require that we develop low- or no-carbon alternatives that are better and cheaper than gas. That won’t happen overnight. The development of cost-effective technologies to recover gas from shale took more than 30 years. But we’ve already made a huge down payment on the technologies we will need.

Over the last decade, we have spent upwards of $200 billion to develop and commercialize new renewable energy technologies. China has spent even more. And those investments are beginning to pay off. Wind is now almost as cheap as gas in some areas — in prime locations with good proximity to existing transmission. Solar is also close to achieving grid parity in prime locations as well. And a new generation of nuclear designs that promises to be safer, cheaper, and easier to scale may ultimately provide zero-carbon baseload power.


Freeing Energy Policy From
The Climate Change Debate

Freeing Energy Policy From the Climate Change Debate
Environmentalists have long sought to use the threat of catastrophic global warming to persuade the public to embrace a low-carbon economy. But recent events, write Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger, have shown the risks of trying to link energy policy to climate science.
All of these technologies have a long way to go before they are able to displace coal or gas at significant scale. But the key to getting there won’t be more talk of caps and carbon prices. It will be to continue along the same path that brought us cheap unconventional gas — developing and deploying the technologies and infrastructure we need from the bottom up.

When all is said and done, a cap, or a carbon price, may get us the last few yards across the finish line. But a more oblique path, focused on developing better technologies and strengthening conventional air pollution regulations, may work just as well, or even better.

For one thing should now be clear: The key to decarbonizing our economy will be developing cheap alternatives that can cost-effectively replace fossil fuels. There simply is no substitute for making clean energy cheap.

POSTED ON 27 Feb 2012 IN Climate Climate Energy Policy & Politics Pollution & Health North America North America 


So, we decarbonise our economies by funding clean energy alternatives? Not exactly a 'breakthrough', guys. Way ahead of you.

Thing is, it needs to be funded. Policies that help reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are the same ones that help raise public funding & encourage private investment in clean energy sources. These include a carbon tax and a market based approach that puts a price on carbon, which is what we're doing in Australia: http://www.cleanenergyfuture.gov.au/clean-energy-future/our-plan/securing-a-clean-energy-future-in-summary/investing-in-renewable-energy-and-clean-technologies/.

Now, guess who's been busy attacking government plans to help develop clean energy AND opposing wind farms fully & privately funded by the communities they'll power? You guessed it. The same lobby groups funded by the fossil fuel, mining and energy industries who went chicken killer on the science and aggressively opposed policies to reduce GHG emissions.

You guys are kidding yourselves if you think ignoring the ‘street fight’ over climate policy makes it magically go away.

Posted by Elaine McKewon on 27 Feb 2012

Excellent article Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger To reduce emissions the easiest way is wider use of Clean Energy Technologies. Already advanced countries like US,Germany,UK etc. are going in a big way to harness clean energy technologies.

Dr.A.Jagadeesh Nellore(AP),India
E-mail: anumakonda.jagadeesh@gmail.com

Posted by Dr.A.Jagadeesh on 27 Feb 2012

And here, I thought the solution to get beyond cap and trade and the ephemeral hope for a techno fix was simply to tax carbon at predictable and progressively increasing levels.

Set a price floor for carbon, and then make sure that it always goes up from there, on an annual basis. Tax coal by the ton. Tax oil by the barrel, or gas by the gallon, and funnel that funding into R&D for renewables and infrastructure development for renewables.

A predictable price signal in the marketplace would generate a great deal of investment in alternatives, and also create an increased demand for those options as consumers flee the steadily increasing cost of carbon, which would also inevitably make clean energy cheaper as scale advantages in tech come into play. It's simple, and there are no loopholes.

Posted by Paolo on 27 Feb 2012

The claim that regulation had little to do with the transition from coal to gas plants is false. Virtually every new construction or upgrading of a coal plan in the last decade was fought through administrative and/or legal channels using the Clean Air, Clean Water, Endangered Species, and National Environmental Policy acts. Over and over again, permits were issued then rescinded following administrative and/or legal challenges. Had those regulatory challenges not been launched, the permits would stand and American would have more, not less coal fired plants today than it did ten years ago.

This happened often enough that industry found the permitting system an increasingly uncertain and expensive process to engage in, leading it more frequently withdraw early in the process.

These clear regulatory effects go against the Breakthrough Institute's increasingly anti-regulatory ideology, thus Nordhaus and Shellenberger rewrite history to eliminate them.

They also rewrite history in asserting the environmentalists sought a regulatory answer instead of advocating for development and funding of cheap alternative energies. A quick look at the webpages of NRDC, Sierra Club and the Center for American Progress show--no surprise here--that all advocated both positions. Few engaged environmentalists viewed the choice as either/or.

Finally, it is telling N&S make no mention of why environmentalists sought specific carbon caps. They did NOT do so in order to ensure emission reductions in general--any fool can see that emissions will decline due to new technologies and fuel sources. The critical questions are: will the decline enough and fast enough? Environmentalists pressed for specific reductions to be made by specific timelines because of the strong scientific evidence that certain atmospheric carbon levels (450 or 350 ppm) must be reached to avoid catastrophic effects.

The technology-only strategy proposed by N&S includes no target and no timeliness. There is no guarantee whatsoever, therefore, that the emission reductions we'll see under their proposal will be sufficient to head off catastrophic global warming.

It is perfectly possible to have both emission reductions and catastrophic warming impacts. Thus predictions and promises of reductions under a technology-only proposal is a very weak tea. And arguments against caps, prices and other regulatory devices which fail to describe why environmentalists seek them are disingenuous.

The Breakthrough Institute would do well to slow down with its increasingly shrill enviro-bashing and the revisionist history required to support. Why not simply promote its good and obvious ideas like developing better, cleaner, cheaper energy sources without having to always pit them against it straw man caricature of environmentalists?

Kieran Suckling
Executive Director
Center for Biological Diversity

Posted by Kieran on 28 Feb 2012

The surface attractiveness of this post masks a host of substantive problems.

To start, the decline in U.S. CO2 emissions began in 2008 -- three years later than stated in the lede. (See US EPA, 430-R-11-005, Inventory of U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Sinks: 1990–2009, April 15, 2011 http://epa.gov/climatechange/emissions/downloads11/US-GHG-Inventory-2011-Complete_Report.pdf , Table ES-2 )

Next, there's no quantification in the post of the projected role of shale gas in the projected displacement of coal-fired electricity and the concomitant projected decline in CO2 emissions from that sector. That's a big omission in a post touting shale gas RD&D as evidence that a focus on tech innovation can "make clean energy cheap."

Third, other than the obligatory nod to methane emissions, there's no acknowledgment that the frack-gas boom might be less than meets the authors' eyes ... that it may be severely constrained by pollution problems, public opposition, resource limits, etc.

Next, in a cheap shot, the post tars a straightforward carbon tax with the same brush it uses to malign cap-and-trade -- even going so far as to insinuate that all enviro's were monolithically lined up behind cap-and-trade. Which was decidedly not the case (as the authors know).

Also, the asserted "coal-building binge" in Germany is unsupported by a link. Last I heard, the only "binge" in Germany's power sector was on wind and solar. Perhaps I'm behind the curve, but without a link, why should I trust the claim of a coal-building binge?

More fundamentally, I don't get why the authors feel compelled to flay carbon pollution pricing at the same time they flog government-directed innovation. The two can coexist -- indeed, they need to.

I guess that when your raison d'etre has to fit on a bumper sticker, you end up with a cartoonish view of the world. A shame.

Posted by Charles Komanoff on 28 Feb 2012

Jevons' Paradox, anyone?

New technologies alone will not solve our environmental crisis. We need government leadership and changes in cultural values.

Posted by Tom Markowitz on 28 Feb 2012

Like others on this discussion board, I am not at all convinced that an anti-regulatory approach would achieve anything meaningful or timely or effective. Transitioning economies to clean energy is going to take a lot more than fresh air and motherhood statements.

I’ve also had enough enviro-bashing from ‘friends of the free market’. This just diverts attention from the real culprits who have prevented our transition to clean energy - the fossil fuel, mining and energy industries who have funded the relentless PR campaign in which think tanks and conservative fellow travellers saturate the media with talking points that portray climate science as a ‘hoax’, a ‘religion’, a ‘scare tactic’ (used to take away our freedoms) or a ‘money-spinning scam’ (to help line the pockets of clean energy investors like Al Gore). This highly successful strategy has deepened the partisan divide over climate change, precluded productive debate and delayed action for decades:


Equally galling is the authors' suggestion that energy policy should not be linked to climate science. Really? It is the science that tells us how we got ourselves into this mess (burning fossil fuels AND land clearing, etc) and the extent of the mess we’re in. It is the science that tells us which levels of atmospheric CO2 concentrations and timelines correspond with which temperature & impact scenarios, so we know which targets make sense. It is the science that keeps us updated with the full range of solutions we can deploy to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.

Disconnect climate science from energy policy? What a howler!

Posted by Elaine McKewon on 28 Feb 2012

As another commenter noted, the lack of supporting references and links in this piece is a weakness, and sort of makes it out of place on this website. I am pretty sure there is a good deal of exaggeration and even obfuscation in a number of the piece's statements, which seem better suited to an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal. Can't you require the authors to provide some footnotes? And can't they try to explain why so many well-informed people have concluded that beginning a pricing carbon emissions regime in the near term is essential?

Posted by thomas rodd on 28 Feb 2012

Mike and Ted:

Your positive feelings about what fracked gas can do for the warming problem seem somewhat exaggerated. As previous commenters have emphasized, it's the magnitude, and the timing of switches between high-CO2-footprint and low-CO2-footprint fuels, that decide how effective – if at all - the government investment in enabling research will turn out to have been. Nothing yet assures that either adequate scale or timing will automatically evolve.

And quite independently of any positive contribution that replacing coal with gas may provide, it's clear that the respite will at best last about a century – or less – after which, coal might again have to be our main source of energy -)

To more confidently assure that fossil fuel use will continuously decline, a tax that cancels out the free-ride that CO2 emitters have had is an ESSENTIAL part of the picture. It would automatically and permanently raise the price-competitiveness of all low-CO2-footprint 'fuels' and conservation measures – and supply capital to accelerate the application of those desirable practices.

Posted by Leonard Ornstein on 28 Feb 2012

According to a 2011 study at Cornell, the net carbon emissions from fracked shale gas are already 1.2 times those of coal when the methane that escapes into the air----with a net warming potential 25 times that of CO2----is added to the CO2 itself that is created by the subsequent burning of the captured natural gas. This figure for the net carbon emissions of shale gas is likely to rise to as high as 2 times that of coal in the future, according to the same study, presumably as a result of the fact that more fracking over time means more fissures in the shale, thereby yielding more & more escaped methane into the air.

Hence the authors’ premises for this piece are, sadly, almost entirely wrong. The authors claim that U.S. carbon emissions have come down because of the financial crisis and, in part, because of the “shale gas revolution.” There they are at least partially right. Though shale gas has verifiably been increasing net carbon emissions, the recent financial crisis indeed played a significant role in decreasing them, along with something rather significant that the authors fail to mention: the ongoing long-term deindustrialization of the U.S. As we know, a majority of the U.S. trade deficit with China, for instance, derives from the fact that many American firms now make their manufactured goods on the Chinese mainland and then ship them to the U.S. Hence U.S. CO2 emissions from 1990 to 2010 only rose 5\% (as Europe’s fell 7\%) because the U.S. was effectively “exporting” a significant portion of its new GHG emissions to China which, in turn (partially as a result of this), saw a 257\% increase in CO2 emissions in the same period, while overall emissions soared 45\% around the globe.

Two cheers for conventional natural gas and one for shale gas.

After being wrong in their basic premise about shale gas being a “lower” carbon fuel and hence about it being a cause of the U.S.’s lower carbon emissions (the increased use of conventional natural gas as a source of electric power did play some role in this), the authors then proceed to argue that “cap and trade” is an ineffective policy tool. This, of course, is old news especially to those of us----such as most of Europe’s leaders----who were wise enough to oppose it in the first place. While the U.S. was, in essence, “exporting” a significant portion of its recent carbon emissions to China & elsewhere by offshoring its manufacturing over the past two decades, at the same time the U.S. eventually would ask Europe to enact a “cap and trade” system that the E.U. began wisely by assuming was a less effective policy pool. The purpose of this U.S. designed “market-based” policy was, of course, to allow the U.S. to “export” its carbon emission reductions, without verification, to the emerging markets (through the “trade” end of the “cap and trade” diversion) while it was at the same time exporting its carbon emissions to those same nations (via the offshoring of its manufacturing).

The pricing of carbon through a revenue neutral carbon tax is the way to achieve carbon emission reductions more effectively as many nations in Europe have shown. This “sin tax” on carbon emissions in Europe is then offset with equivalent corporate and other tax reductions.

What the authors then fail to mention in their seemingly inadequately informed discussion of the price structure of energy is (1) all the so-called “external costs” of burning fossil fuels (the global costs of tropical storms, wildfires, floods, related insurance payouts, desertification, famine, vanishing lakes in East Africa, water-based civil wars such as the one in Darfur, etc.), (2) the more than $400 billion dollars in annual subsidies given to the fossil fuel industry on a global scale, and (3) the immense amount of hidden public subsidies to America’s fossil fuel firms (the cost of the war in Iraq, initially known as O.I.L., or Operation Iraqi Liberation the cost of securing Mideast shipping lanes the Medicare & Medicaid costs in the U.S. for lung cancer, heart disease, emphysema, & asthma incurred as a result of the burning of fossil fuels the costs to FEMA of climate change related disasters the cost of biofuel subsidies, which keep the oil-based internal combustion engine “viable” etc.).

Posted by Victor Provenzano on 28 Feb 2012

Carbon pricing and R & D should be viewed as complements, not substitutes.

Also to be fair your review should include RGGI, which uses auctions to allocate allowances and mostly uses the revenue to incentivize energy efficiency investments. This combination, along with natural gas price declines, has resulted in deep emissions declines and a boost to the economy. See the analysis: http://www.analysisgroup.com/RGGI.aspx

Posted by Tom Tietenberg on 01 Mar 2012

I've never been much of a fan of cap-and-trade, considering carbon credits potentially just another manipulable financial derivative. Instead, I have worked to encourage the nation's (world's?) largest energy user, the Department of Defense (DoD), to switch to renewable energy, electric vehicles, and conservation.

Many DoD leaders are trying to do exactly that, and even climate-skeptic Republicans are willing to support green policies at the Pentagon. However. they are hampered by the absence of a price on carbon, one that would internalize environmental costs. That is, DoD or the Office of Management and Budget are rejecting some seemingly sensible investments in solar and wind because they are not cost-competitive with fossil-fuel based (or highly subsidized nuclear) electrical generation.

Either there needs to be a price on carbon or there need to be across-the-board "subsidies" for environmentally preferable renewable energy sources.

Posted by Lenny Siegel on 01 Mar 2012

Glad Victor Provenzano refered to the Cornell study highlighting fugitive emissions as the big lie in the Clean Coal Myth.

Has anybody noticed myth makers who engage in we're-so-much-smarter-than-the-left revisionism a) frequently have a superficial understanding of the subject matter they hold forth on and b) team up in pairs. Not sure what the pairing is about but presumably a lie shared is a delusion enjoyed.

Posted by Alastair Leith on 06 Mar 2012

Link's regarding fugitive emissions from CSG studies.



Nobody regards Carbon pricing as a panacea, just one tool on the negating side of the equation, so what's with the extended straw-man argument against it from these authors? Even developing nation India has a price of $1 per metric tonne on coal, be it local or imported. They have a rapidly growing renewable energy sector and official targets. Last year they had $US10.3 billion of investments in renewables (not including large scale hydro).


Posted by Alastair Leith on 06 Mar 2012

The shale oil that the Carter and Ford administrations were pursuing was a totally different geology and different process than the shale oil and gas being extracted today.

The shale oil of the 1970s come from deposits on the western slope of the Rockies and the process for extracting it is essentially digging up the oil-containing rocks and heating them until the oil flows out. It's hard on the landscape and extremely energy intensive.

Modern shale oil and gas extraction is a quite different process that exploits a different geology. Modern extraction goes into the source rock of the natural gas and fractures it with high pressure water, releasing the gas contained there. These formations often underlie old natural gas and oil fields in areas like Pennsylvania, Texas, Oklahoma.

The large-scale demonstration projects of which you speak were targeted toward the former type of shale oil gas extraction, not the modern equivalent. It wasn't some sort of long-term government intervention that got us shale gas.

Posted by Mark Shahinian on 06 Mar 2012

“Wind is now almost as cheap as gas in some areas — in prime locations with good proximity to existing transmission.”

Really? Massachusetts rate-payers will be paying DOUBLE to have Cape Wind power shoved down our throats. No, wait... the Attorney General got them to knock down the price — 5 percent. Thanks loads.

And by the way — the power providers wanted nothing to do with the sky-high price of Cape Wind power, and refused to sign off. Until the state put a gun to their heads when they wanted regulatory clearance to begin another project. So double priced wind power is the price rate-payers will have to pay — forever — so that our power company can go about their business.

If Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger really believe what they write, they can cut me a check for the difference.

Posted by MarkB on 30 Jun 2012

Comments have been closed on this feature.
ted nordhaus and michael shellenbergerABOUT THE AUTHORS
Ted Nordhaus, left, and Michael Shellenberger are the authors of Break Through: From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility and a collection of energy and climate writings, The Emerging Climate Consensus, available for download at www.TheBreakthrough.org. In previous articles for Yale Environment 360, they have written about what they consider flaws in the cap-and-trade debate and why public concern in the U.S. about global warming has declined.



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