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Carbon Price Needed to Halt Warming, NASA Chief Says

Putting a price on carbon is the world’s best hope at staving off runaway global warming, said James Hansen, the top climate-change scientist at the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

Carbon emitted from cars and factories will have to be reduced by an average of 6 percent a year to stabilize Earth’s climate by the end of the century, Hansen said late yesterday in Vienna. Government subsidies to oil, gas and coal companies, worth up to $500 billion worldwide each year, have impeded the transition to alternative technologies, he said.

“The most efficient and economically affordable approach is to put an honest price on the different energies,” Hansen said yesterday at a European Geosciences Union meeting. “Presently, we’re subsidizing fossil fuels and not making them pay for their costs to society.”

Hansen and 17 co-authors, including Colombia University economist Jeffrey Sachs, last month published an updated report that argued real carbon costs are distorted because of their long-term impacts on the climate and people’s health. A fair carbon price, phased in over 10 years, would stimulate development of new technologies that don’t burn fossil fuel.

State spending to cut retail prices of gasoline, coal and natural gas was about $409 billion in 2009, the Paris-based International Energy Agency said in November in its World Energy Outlook. Aid for biofuels, wind power and solar energy was $66 billion.

Public Cost

“The air and water pollution from fossil fuels is enormous and borne entirely by the public, just as the cost of climate change will be borne by young people and not the fossil-fuel companies,” Hansen said. “Rather than subsidizing fossil fuels or subsidizing solar panels, we should simply put a price on carbon.”

Carbon prices in the European Union, where the element is traded among members of the 27-nation block, yesterday jumped the most in over a week amid higher electricity prices in Germany and as the U.K. said its February coal use was the most in three years.

EU carbon allowances for December rose as high as 7.38 euros ($9.76) a metric ton and closed 2.6 percent higher at 7.34 euros on the ICE Futures Europe exchange in London. Oil markets act as bellwethers for the economy and signal demand for emissions permits.

Hansen, who was arrested outside the White House in August when he joined protesters urging President Barack Obama to reject a new $7 billion oil-pipeline project, said academic publishers had frowned at his activism.

“It can be a problem if you get lableled as an activist, but once you’re 70 years old you can afford it,” he said.

The 28-page report argues that “the most basic matter is not one of economics” when it comes to confronting climate change.

“It is a matter of morality -- a matter of intergenerational justice,” the paper says. “As with the earlier great moral issue of slavery, an injustice done by one race of humans to another, so the injustice of one generation to all those to come must stir the public’s conscience to the point of action.”

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