09/11/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

McCain's Emissions-Reduction Plan Receives Favorable Review

As U.S. Senators Barack Obama and John McCain begin their long descent into tit-for-tat rhetorical games, it's easy to forget key issues the two still broadly agree on: federally funded stem-cell research; nuclear nonproliferation; comprehensive immigration reform; faith-based social services; and global warming.

Obama and McCain agree that human-induced global warming exists and even on the system America should adopt to counteract it -- cap and trade, a plan that sets a limit (cap) on the amount of greenhouse gases emitted by manufacturers and power plants, for example, and then hands out credits that polluters can trade among themselves to pull themselves within the legal limits. Heavy emitters of greenhouse gases have to buy credits from low-level emitters. Cap-and-trade plans reward all sides for reducing emissions. Low-level emitters reduce in order to pile up additional credits to sell and high-level emitters reduce in order to spend less on credits.

Where Obama and McCain disagree on the plan concerns the role of the government, specifically how the government should allocate permits to companies. And unlike the current, silly spat over tire pressure gauges, this one matters.

Obama favors a full auction of the credits, which would act like a tax on companies, collecting a great deal of money right off the bat for the government to redistribute. This cash, he says, could go to alternative energy research and projects, then the credits would go to markets.

McCain says he would dole out permits in much the same way proposed by the Climate Security Act of 2007. That act failed in June to receive enough Senate support to even bring to a vote, but the basics are the same: Give the great majority of the permits away, and let the market set the price to support investment.

Here is where conventional political lines become blurred.

If you favor a more free market approach, McCain's plan may be for you because the government would collect far less money from businesses for redistribution. But if you're spooked by special interests, political favors for lobbyists and political corruption--as McCain says he is--then perhaps you side with Obama's strategy.

So what does Richard Sandor, architect of the wildly successful cap and trade system for reducing sulfur dioxide(SO2) and now CEO of the Chicago Climate Exchange (CCX), say?

He's for a partial auction of credits like the one McCain is backing.

"If you look at full auctioning of permits, what happens?" Sandor asked reporters during a recent interview at his office near the Board of Trade in downtown Chicago. "The day that they are auctioned, you have a net transfer of wealth from the private sector to the public sector at that moment. What, then, happens to climate change? Nothing has happened. You have just had a transfer of wealth."

Richard Sandor is founder and CEO of the Chicago

Climate Exchange, the first voluntary but legally

binding market for trading emissions in North America.

It's better to let the private sector decide where the money should go, Sandor says, which is why he's against a carbon tax. And, he adds, there is precedent for believing so.

"The program that's worked is SO2," Sandor said. "Some amount of auctioning is, I think, OK. We will implement whatever the government does. We don't have an official opinion, but I'm guided by the SO2 program and how it accomplished its objectives so cheaply that that's the way to do it."

Sandor insisted the CCX is not a policy-making entity and that it will implement any system lawmakers put forth. Much like pilots, he said, the CCX will fly whichever planes the engineers--or rather, politicians--design.

"If you design it wrong," he said, "you may have to go 30 extra miles, you may have some accidents, or crashes, and we really speak to the efficacy of the design and leave public policy to the people who are policy makers in Washington. We're not advocates."

The CCX is currently North America's only voluntary but legally binding platform for trading carbon and other emissions. Even without a mandatory cap and trade system in the U.S., many companies have already begun to reduce their emissions in the hopes of improving their public image and perhaps reaping revenues through emissions reductions.

While Sandor explains why he's against Obama's plan for the full auction of credits, his greatest priority is getting mandatory cap and trade in place, whatever the framework. Undoubtedly, this would be a great boon to the CCX, and Sandor believes it is coming.

"Both candidates, McCain and Obama, have publicly embraced it," Sandor said. "I believe in their hearts that they're committed to reducing global warming and see it as a major threat. Is it inevitable? I think so. Could there be bumps? Yes."

Those bumps, worries Sandor, include a terrorist attack that could dislodge global warming from the political agenda in favor of dealing with more immediate problems.

"And that's the nightmare scenario that I worry about because it's easy to not worry about intergenerational problems when you have immediate security needs," he says. "And I'm not suggesting that they aren't more important. In fact, they are. But the thing that will slip will be the longer-based horizon, and I think that's a danger that we have."