The Popular Myth of the
Acid Rain Cap & Trade Success

One hears a lot from supporters of cap and trade that it succeeded before with acid rain so it can succeed again with carbon emissions. This is simply not true.

Acid rain, at least in our own Northeast, is caused by sulphur dioxide from coal-burning power plants mixing in the air with rain to create sulphuric acid that then comes down in the form of acid rain. This has resulted in many rivers and lakes in the eastern U.S. and Canada becoming too acidic for fish to live in. In regards to whether the acid rain cap and trade is a successful model to follow:

  • There was a cap on sulphur dioxide (SO2) but little trade — so no previous success can be claimed in this area
  • There were no offsets — so again no previous success can be claimed for this crucial element in the previous cap and trade bills
  • There was little technological innovation in methods, machinery, infrastructure etc. — so again no previous success in these areas which will be so important to reducing a much broader range of even more widespread pollutants

Finally, although whatever modicum of “success” has been achieved with a 40% reduction in SO2 since 1990, because of the remaining 60% and the increasing problem with airborne particulates, not only has the acid rain problem continued in the U.S and Canada and gotten worse elsewhere in the world, but global warming, mercury pollution and the disposal problem of coal tailings actually became worse!

This is because the 40% reduction in sulphur dioxide was primarily made by power companies in the East making a relatively easy and cheap switch from high-sulphur coal  in the East to low-sulphur coal from Wyoming. Unfortunately, more of this low-sulphur coal was needed to make the same amount of electricity plus it came from farther away!

The result: more emissions of CO2, more global warming, more coal waste and because Wyoming coal contained more mercury, more mercury pollution as well.

In short, the acid rain cap and trade scheme is not a model to follow but instead an excellent example of:

  • the whack-a-mole, one pollution-at-a-time approach of the current cap and trade bills,
  • which results in a shell game,  simply switching forms of pollution, or shuffling it around the board/world but not off the board

Why do so many polluting industries prefer cap and trade to taxation? The real bottom line reason is  it more easily lends itself to business as usual as long as possible. Which is to say that trading and speculating in pollution permits keeps the money circulating within the polluting industries. It also maintains the current unacknowledged taxation they’re levying on society, future generations and the environment – perhaps the largest tax in the world – making all of us, our children and the environment foot the bill and suffer the damages they’re causing.

In conclusion, the acid rain cap and trade scheme is not a successful example to follow but rather an example of what not to do.