Talk about environmental policy can turn confusing really fast, since it includes a trifecta of jargon sources:
Spinners know how to use this confusion to take advantage of busy people who don’t have time to read textbooks to understand what the heck they’re talking about. Journalists who are actively trying to be clear don’t always succeed. So here’s my attempt at neutral definitions of terms that keep coming up that might be confusing.
I expect this to be permanently a work in progress. Challenge my definitions and suggest additional ones in the comments below.
Hard emissions caps
Restrictions on carbon that aim to put an absolute maximum on a country’s (or a company’s, or an industry’s) emissions, with a view toward reducing them over time. The Kyoto Accord requires hard emissions caps for the industrialized world, with reductions phased in by 2012. Two major mechanisms are usually considered for hold emissions under such caps: a “carbon tax” levied by government that would simply levy a fee on every tonne of carbon dioxide (or its equivalent in other greenhouse gases) emitted above the cap, or a “cap-and-trade” system in which emitters are given certain emissions credits and can buy or sell them amongst themselves. The advantage of a cap-and-trade system is that it gives early emissions-cutters a tangible reward for good behaviour instead of only punishing the gluttons; the disadvantage is that setting up a trustworthy, comprehensible system can be extremely complex and difficult.
Intensity-based emissions caps
Restrictions on carbon emissions that aim to make industrial processes less wasteful but don’t necessarily reduce the total emissions of a company or country. In Canada, the usual example is taken from the oil industry: intensity-based caps would have oil companies reduce what they emit to produce one barrel of oil, but allow their total emissions to grow as long as their production does. You could double your emissions, let’s say, as long as you were producing three times as much.
Many environment hawks see intensity-based caps as a cheat.