State-level climate change public policy options

If I could go into Congress, snap my fingers, and pass a bill, I would do something on climate change. In my ideal scenario, it would be minimally invasive into the economy while significantly reducing emissions. By minimally invasive, every sector that pollutes the most would reduce their emissions that normal people wouldn’t notice. You could upgrade the electric grid, maximize nuclear and geothermal, eliminate farm and fossil fuel subsidies to meat farms, and invest in energy efficiency.

While Congress has the ability to spend unlimited amounts of money, states do not. States cannot print their own money, so they have to raise taxes and cut spending to finance major projects. They can regulate, but that tends to anger interest groups as much as raising taxes these days, and regulations need to have some teeth for effectiveness. Like past posts on state-level education and Medicaid reforms, I wanted to go through various actions that states could take to reduce emissions within their state.

While a policy like a carbon tax is technically feasible at the state level, it has been massively unpopular with voters, even in blue states like Washington. These policies are meant to be minimally invasive, barely noticeable. People really like the idea of being able to flip a switch or plug in an appliance and knowing the electricity will flow. That’s why climate change policy is so hard, it requires sacrifice and people don’t like to sacrifice when they’re already trying so hard at everything.

  1. Ban Hydrofluorocarbons: HFC’s are the most potent greenhouse gas, and they are commonly used in the production of air conditioners, refrigerators, and freezers. In terms of warming potential, they are ~600x more powerful than carbon emissions. The federal government has already legislatively agreed to slash them by 85% by 2035, but states could go a step further and ban them from anything manufactured in their states. While HFC’s are a small fraction of emissions as a whole, banning their usage altogether would be the equivalent of cutting carbon emissions by 5% (I’m giving these statistics from this calculator).
  2. Address methane — HFC’s are 600x more powerful than CO2 and methane is roughly 20x more powerful. Every state has oil pipelines running through it, and states have jurisdiction to regulate those pipelines if they go over public land. States could make it so that if a gas company does not comply with cutting their methane emissions, which generally come from flaring, they could no longer let gas flow through those areas. Gas companies would be forced to comply rather than rebuild or redirect pipelines elsewhere. This would do two things: it would cause a major investment in oil infrastructure creating jobs and less gas would be wasted since it wasn’t flared. Since more gas would be produced, states would see an increase in severance tax revenue. Doing so would reduce emissions by 3%.
  3. Eliminate subsidies to polluting industries — I do not have a list of every state-level subsidy for farms and fossil fuels, so I’m going to use the federal government as an example. The federal government subsidizes fossil fuels with about $20 billion in research, sweetheart deals, and tax deductions. They also subsidize farms with another $20 billion, and 90% of that money goes to wealthy farm owners (Farmers are surprisingly wealthy, look it up). Reducing or eliminating subsidies to polluting industries like meat producers or gas and coal companies is a better alternative to a new tax. There is nothing to rally against, and people don’t like corporate welfare. We also shouldn’t subsidize something on the front end and tax it on the back end. Reducing subsidies to meat would raise the price of meat, causing more people to choose vegetables and fruits. We’d all be healthier, and both our farms (and bodies) would produce less methane (only fart joke in this article, I swear!). Reducing food waste and meat production would also help reduce emissions.
  4. Use savings from polluter subsidies to pay for emission reduction incentives— The Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grant of 2009 was an excellent program at the federal level. They basically gave money to subsidize new, more energy-efficient equipment at public buildings. Energy efficiency should really be seen as a source of energy itself as there is energy we can tap into and not produce as much elsewhere. Replacing aging heating equipment or getting new electric school buses would probably be better for public health anyway.
  5. Carrots for Cows — Agriculture is not the biggest source of GHG’s, but produces some of the most intense emissions. One way to address climate change that would actually help the economy could involve giving grants to farmers to alter their practices. Make these grants for practice changes voluntary, but give them grants to feed their cows some seaweed or implement silvopasture. Feeding cows some seaweed in their diets reduces their methane rich burps by 83%. Silvopasture involves planting trees on cattle ranches. Planting those trees gives cows some shade, they soak up some of the methane created by the cows, improve biodiversity, and gives cattle ranchers an opportunity to sell those trees as lumber.
  6. Require “eat by” dates alongside “sell by” dates — food waste is a big contributor of GHG’s. We put all of this energy into the food chain, then the food is sometimes wasted. One public policy choice that we’ve made is to include sell by dates on food, some foods have “best by” dates implying freshness, but not all food has expiration dates like when the food should no longer be consumed. A lot of food gets wasted because people confuse these different concepts. Requiring “eat by” dates would save people money since less food would be thrown out, reduce the amount of food decomposing in the landfill, reduce demand for food up the food chain, and so on.
  7. We can address food waste in other areas too — As mentioned above, food waste is bad. Energy use, transportation, and decomposition all contribute to climate change. There are multiple ways that we can address food waste. Provide additional liability protections for farmers who donate food to food banks, allow people to donate food after the expiration date has passed, and allow pigs to eat more food scraps. Ugly foods often get thrown away, some food is still edible after the expiration date (which is why we need better labeling), and pigs can eat anything.

Amateur political analyst / anti anti-vaxxer / hater of conspiracy theories and the power of crystals