This is a very good question, and one without an easy answer. It’s difficult because, at least in the short term, reducing carbon emissions usually means sharing the economic pain. There is a basic fairness argument that could support putting emission reduction quotas on particular industries–coal-fired power plants, for example, which generate a lot of carbon per unit of energy produced. Business interests and customers that depend on coal-fired power, however, also have a right to ask, why should we be singled out, when everybody contributes to carbon emissions to one degree or another? One theoretical approach that I like–and at the moment it is only theoretical–is to have a US federal law that mandates each state reduce its emissions by a specific proportional amount, and then each state is totally free to implement those reductions in whatever way it wishes, either by encouraging alternative energy, putting quotas on particular businesses or industries, or trading carbon credits. In order to work such a plan would probably have to come with significant federal subsidies as well as some legislation that would prevent states, industries, or business interests from suing each other regarding unequal allocation of emission targets. Perhaps such a plan would lead to chaos, but we can’t know until we try it. I also think it’s best to take a holistic approach. Yes, we need to reduce carbon emissions, but the painful cuts in production and services must be offset by something–an increase in renewable energy facilities, for instance, which will provide jobs, tax revenue and other benefits. Coordinating such an approach will be very difficult, but we’ve got to start somewhere, and any system that is implemented can be expected to be improved over time through innovation (or total replacement, if it doesn’t work). We shouldn’t expect to get it right the first time because we probably won’t.
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