We May Have Been Thinking About a Carbon Price All Wrong

Photo: Getty

Putting a price on carbon is a key element of climate policy. The idea is simple: Carbon pollution is making the Earth uninhabitable, but companies have no incentive to stop polluting because they’re sociopathic. So slap a fee on every ton emitted, and it should (in theory) cause companies to find other, less polluting ways of producing widgets, sprockets, and whatnot.

Conventional wisdom has suggested starting with a low price and ramping it up over time. But a new paper published Tuesday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences turns that logic on its head, suggesting the price should start high and, after a few years of ramping up, decline over time. That’s not to say the approach is the be all, end all, but it could offer a new pathway to make carbon pricing more effective and reduce climate damages.

Pricing climate pollution, whether it’s through a carbon market or a carbon tax, has become a sort of holy grail across the political spectrum. Splinter’s Hamilton Nolan is a proponent; Republicans in Congress have sponsored carbon tax legislation numerous times (though it’s gone nowhere); and a bipartisan bunch of economists are into it. The general structure is that the price per ton of carbon would start low (around $35-$40) and rise each year thereafter. The thought is that we’ll all be richer in the future and that the market will innovate over time to clean up the carbon mess before it gets out of hand.

But the new research suggests that thinking could be all backwards. Economists from New York University, Columbia University, Kepos Capital—a private financial firm—and formerly Goldman Sachs put together a new model that includes concerns about climate uncertainty in their price calculation. With climate change, we know there are a range of outcomes ranging from pretty damn bad to extremely screwed and that the range gets even wider farther into the future. That’s actually an argument to act quickly now to constrain emissions and avoid the worst-case scenario. Or put in the language of the financial models that this new framework borrows from, it’s all about managing risk.

“People in 2300 will know more about the climate in 2300 than we do today,” Gernot Wagner, an economist from NYU who worked on the paper, told Earther. “Uncertainty clears up over time.”

The findings show that carbon pricing should start much higher than current estimates of the best available price. It should then rise for a few years before falling steadily hundreds of years into the future (the study models out to 2300, which Wagner said is fairly standard practice for this type of work).

“The critical insight is that the benefits of emissions reductions are massively influenced by avoiding the possibility of catastrophic outcomes,” Noah Kaufman, a research scholar at Columbia’s Center on Global Energy Policy who wasn’t involved with the new study, told Earther in an email. “I know, I know, this is already obvious to everyone except economists, but it’s a point that still needs to be made because social cost of carbon estimates that ignore the benefits of risk reduction are still influential.”

The social cost of carbon is an idea that underpins nearly all climate economics modeling. It focuses on the harm a ton of carbon pollution will do in the future. The U.S. government’s best estimates peg the current social cost of carbon at $40 per ton, while other estimates vary and in many cases are much, much higher, given the potential catastrophic impacts of climate change.

Wagner said he believes the model “conveys something about climate risk that other views of the world don’t… [and] that there is a reason in the long run to think about how to design climate policy to take these kinds of risks and uncertainties much more seriously, which does mean a much higher carbon price today.”

But whether that can be done in the current political climate is a whole other question. There are 57 carbon-pricing initiatives around the globe covering 20 percent of all emissions, according to the World Bank. Yet only 5 percent of those emissions are being priced at a level consistent with what the current “optimal” price would be, to say nothing of the much higher prices the new research argues would be more effective (there are also arguments against a carbon price and using market mechanisms in general to as the main methods of combatting climate change, but that’s another article).

“For me, the crux of the paper is that it points to the value of acting now—this emerges clearly and it is still perhaps not as forcefully appreciated as it should be,” Cameron Hepburn, the director of Oxford’s Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment, told Earther in an email. “The challenge with the paper is the inadequate reference to real-world politics, which is a bit surprising given the authors.”

But like Kaufman, he argued the paper makes one thing blindingly clear: Humanity needs to get its act together and, well, act to reduce emissions ASAP.

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Everything You Need to Know About Crew Dragon, SpaceX’s Newest Human-Carrying Spaceship – Jalopnik

Everything You Need to Know About Crew Dragon, SpaceX’s Newest Human-Carrying Spaceship – Jalopnik

This has been a very big week, space-travel-wise, because for the first time ever a privately-built-and-launched spacecraft capable of carrying a human crew (and, you know, maybe a space dog) docked at the International Space Station. Really, it’s the first private crew-capable spaceship ever to reach orbit. And while it didn’t have a human crew this time, it’s still a very big deal, and you should know about this spacecraft. It’s the Crew Dragon from SpaceX.

This is also a big deal for NASA and America because the United States has not had a way to get crews to the International Space Station (ISS) since the Space Shuttle program ended in 2011. As a result, we’ve been forced to buy seats on Russian Soyuz spacecraft, a very reliable and proven spaceship, but it’s still not great to be reliant on another country for access to our own (well, partially, it’s an international effort) space station—or to put people into space at all.

NASA has astutely decided to farm out the space-taxi job to private companies so they can get back to real exploration; hence we enter the Dragon.

The Crew Dragon has developed a bit since NASA first announced they’d be buying spacecraft from SpaceX back in 2015 (along with Boeing and their Starliner spacecraft) and the final design that’s currently docked to the ISS is a very appealing little spaceship to ferry people on and off Earth.

On one hand, it’s a fairly conventional capsule-type design, the sort of thing we’ve been sending people into space with since the 1960s, but at the same time it’s arguably the first truly modern capsule-type spacecraft, of which the most recent other development was China’s Shenzou, which was first launched in 1999, but even that was heavily based on the ex-Soviet Union’s perennial work-space-horse, the Soyuz, which dates back to 1967.

So, what’s this new spacecraft like? The most obvious thing about the Crew Dragon is that it seems to be the first human spacecraft that was actually designed with a bit of attention paid to aesthetics.

If you compare it to something like the Boeing Starliner, which itself resembles the old Apollo capsules that took us to the Moon, you can really see the difference. The four Draco engines pods (two engines per pod) are housed in streamlined-looking fairings, there’s a sleek nosecone that hinges up and out of the way to expose the docking port instead of just leaving it exposed like on the Boeing capsule, and the whole thing just looks…good.

It looks like someone gave a shit, and that’s something new for the aggressively form-follows-function world of space hardware.

The Crew Dragon’s design differs a bit from designs like the Apollo CSM and the Soyuz in that it does not use a traditional service module that houses the engines, solar arrays, etc.

Instead, most of those systems are integrated into the Crew Dragon itself, and in place of a separate service module, there’s an unpressurized “trunk” module that can be used to bring up cargo that does not require being in a pressurized environment. In that sense, it’s a bit like the Space Shuttle’s cargo bay, just much smaller.

The trunk does house the Dragon’s solar arrays and heat radiators around its surface, along with some fins used to stabilize the capsule in the event the launch escape system is used.

The arrangement of solar arrays on one side and heat radiators on the other is very clever in its simplicity: solar arrays want to face the sun, heat radiator panels want to face away. Hence, having them on opposite sides works out perfectly.

Inside, the Crew Dragon is also far more stylish and simple than the normally very cluttered and control-encrusted interiors of most spacecraft, largely thanks to SpaceX’s use of a series of flat-screen displays for nearly all spacecraft controls. (You get the same experience in your car from another Elon Musk company.)

You can get a good look at the inside of the Dragon here, as NASA live-streamed their first entry into the new spaceship after it docked with the ISS:

It looks pretty good in there!

Just to compare, here’s the interior of a Soyuz next to the Dragon:

That’s a pretty big difference. The Crew Dragon also can seat four astronauts (SpaceX says they can do up to seven, but NASA is keeping it to four for now), and has just a bit less overall pressurized interior volume than the Soyuz:

Of course, the Soyuz’ pressurized volumes are split between the Orbital Module and the Return Module, so the interior of the Dragon likely feels much more spacious. Also, the Dragon has 1300 cubic feet of storage for cargo, which normally would have to be packed into the Soyuz’s Orbital module for the trip to the station.

Screenshot: NASA TV

Plus, because of the cramped nature of the Soyuz’s Return Module, three crew is the absolute maximum.

Other interesting things to note: the Crew Dragon can operate for seven days on its own, and can stay docked for 210 days. A Soyuz can operate independently for 30 days, but can only stay docked for about 180 or so days. 

Since the main use of the Crew Dragon is to just be essentially an orbital taxi, seven days is plenty. Remember, the Soyuz was originally designed as a general-purpose spacecraft, and even had lunar variants.

For a company like SpaceX that has shown so much skill in re-using their launch vehicles and cargo capsules it’s a little odd that SpaceX has no plans to re-use the Crew Dragon capsules.

Actually, that’s not entirely true—they will re-use them, but just for cargo use, not crew. One of the main reasons for this decision is that, unlike the Soyuz or Space Shuttle or even Boeing’s Starliner (which is designed for up to 10 re-uses as a crewed vehicle), the Crew Dragon will return to Earth by splashing down in the ocean, like an old Gemini or Apollo capsule.

This means that seawater enters the equation, and SpaceX determined that contamination from salt water would make re-certification actually more difficult than just building new Crew Dragons.

Eventually, SpaceX will be able to end production of the cargo Dragon capsules and just use previously-flown Crew Dragons, and can then focus on just building one basic type of Earth-orbiting spaceship.

If you want even more detail about the Crew Dragon and how it compares to other ways of getting people into space, Everyday Astronaut has an excellent and involved video you should watch:

The big takeaway from all of this is that the Crew Dragon appears to be a very well-designed space ferry, leveraging decades of capsule-design knowledge while finally updating the basic designs and technology to create something that looks and feels genuinely modern, and actually makes real improvements to the tried-and-true gumdrop-shaped space capsule design.

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