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Greens take a cue from financiers

Environmental ‘derivatives’ encourage creative, proactive conservation.

Giving individual commercial fishermen in the Gulf of Mexico a share of the overall yearly catch of this fish cut the bycatch (fish caught but discarded) dramatically, while making the fishery more profitable.

David McLain/Getty image/FILE

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In 1990, Congress amended the Clean Air Act to address the problem of acid rain. Allowable emissions for sulfur dioxide (SO2) and nitrogen oxides (NOx), two major components of acid rain, were capped. Emitters then traded a shrinking number of permits – the right to emit these pollutants – on a market. Supply and demand dictated the price.

By 2002, SO2 emissions from power plants had dropped by 41 percent compared with 1980. NOx emissions fell by one-third com­pared with 1990. Overall, emissions were reduced much more quickly and cheaply than doomsayers had forecast. A 2003 study by the Office of Management and Budget found that the program had produced more measurable benefits to human health than any other major federal regulatory program of the previous decade. Benefits surpassed costs by more than 40 to 1.

Today, the cap-and-trade program is widely cited as proof that the efficiency and creativity of a free market can be harnessed to protect the environment. Its success seems to indicate that environmental regulation need not squelch economic growth. Many now anticipate a similar approach to – and success with – the much larger-scale problem of carbon emissions.

Some also urge that more market tools be applied to conservation. The environmental problems facing humanity are so large that traditional approaches no longer suffice, they say. Market-based tools that incentivize conservation before situations become dire must be developed and applied.

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