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In the COP21 Battle of Ideas, One Common Thread

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Woven through the fabric of the COP21 climate talks are the energy quandaries of our time and of our New England region. At Paris Le Bourget, a defunct airport lightly papered over to host this critical international conference, discussions and press conferences frame issues that are equally salient in statehouses from Providence, Rhode Island, and Hartford, Connecticut, to Augusta, Maine.

United States climate scientist-turned-advocate James Hansen spent a good part of his time here arguing, with some resonance, that carbon-free nuclear energy must be part of any credible climate solution. But even this thoughtful expert has trouble navigating the nuclear quandary: Older nuclear plants are proving unreliable and expensive to run; construction of new or replacement plants using today's technology is cost- and time-prohibitive; and next-generation nuclear plants will come too late to help us avert climate catastrophe. That's without considering the siting and waste disposal controversies that are lurking even if the threshold quandary could be solved.

Enter the natural gas lobby, here at COP21 in force, arguing for a gas-centric energy platform as necessary and a cleaner alternative to coal. But, while perhaps preferable to coal, natural gas is not carbon free and is often used as inefficiently and carbon-intensively as coal has been. And the gas sales pitch conceals an unspoken premise: Expanding our current gas infrastructure, whether pipes or generating plants, places us further at the mercy of a single, price-volatile commodity, locking us into a fossil-fuel electricity platform while crowding out investments in renewables.

By contrast, there is a bullishness on renewables here, with even oil-rich nations like Saudi Arabia touting their efforts to de-carbonize their electric system. The renewables optimism prevails not only among advocates, but among the many representatives here from the mainstream finance sector, who need no persuading that renewables will predominate our energy future.

Yet despite the political and technical clashes over nuclear and fossil fuels, there is among all points of view represented here a consensus that we need a COP21 agreement that puts a meaningful price on carbon. The advocates of nuclear, gas, and renewables share a baseline confidence that a carbon price, if set correctly, will create markets in which the right energy technology choices will follow.

The View from New England

New Englanders, alas, know well the emptiness of the nuclear promise Hansen is touting. Entergy's recent decision to close the much-troubled Pilgrim nuclear plant, preceded by closure of the Vermont Yankee nuclear station (and followed by the closure of upstate New York's Fitzpatrick facility) precludes any nuclear optimism here. The generation-long battles over New Hampshire's Seabrook Station Nuclear Power Plant, now revived by the plant's coastal location as we brace for sea level rise, leave little popular taste for new current-generation nuclear technology even if, as is not now the case, there were an economic justification for such plants. No credible energy leader, no matter their enthusiasm for nuclear power, would place an investment bet on the siting, licensing, and timely construction of a new nuclear plant in New England.

New Englanders also bring a healthy skepticism to the current gold rush of proposals to build new natural gas plants and transmission pipelines, with the costs and risks borne by businesses and working families. Our communities are balking at having their treasured landscapes scarred by pipelines and electric transmission lines, which should dampen (but has not) the full, warm embrace Massachusetts Governor Baker and Maine Governor LePage are now giving the gas lobby.

New Englanders also know that putting a price on carbon can put us on a path to a more sustainable energy path. The Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) has for years capped carbon emissions from New England power plants, pricing carbon with a regionwide market trading system, even as we have expanded our economy and created a new generation of green-energy jobs.

In this light, Hansen's message is most relevant to New England's experience when he advocates carbon fees (also known as a carbon tax) with all revenues returned to the public. It is an idea whose time has come, with potential support from Conservation Law Foundation to ExxonMobil.

One measure of COP21 success will be whether an agreement emerges that explicitly or implicitly (such as through a strict and declining emissions cap) puts the world on a path to universal carbon pricing. Whether the political leaders at the negotiating table here can match the thought leadership and policy consensus on carbon pricing outside the room remains to be seen.

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