Will the Paris Agreement Help or Hinder Cooperation among Nations?

I just returned from Florence, Italy, where I participated in the Second Carbon Market Workshop, organized by the European Commission, and hosted by the European University Institute.  This workshop, which brought together government representatives from around the world (with a sprinkling of academics and NGO representatives to add some spice to the discussion), was convened to examine how regional, national, and sub-national jurisdictions can cooperate in ways that could increase the effectiveness and/or reduce the costs of their respective climate change policies.  One of my tasks at the workshop was to make a brief dinner speech.  Jos Delbeke, the long-time,  legendary Director-General of Climate Action for the Commission, asked me to talk about how the Paris Agreement might help or hinder practical climate policy cooperation around the world.  I drew extensively upon my research with Michael Mehling and Gilbert Metcalf.  Here is the gist of what I said in my dinner speech.

Some Paris Agreement Fundamentals

The hybrid design of the Paris Agreement was key to its successful enactment in 2015 and its coming into force in November, 2016.  The hybrid design to which I refer is the combination of top-down (centralized) and bottom-up (decentralized) elements.  The top-down elements include, for example, the requirement that countries state their national contributions every five years, a schedule which is binding under international law for those jurisdictions that have ratified the Agreement.  The key bottom-up element is the set of individual Nationally Determined Contributions (or NDCs) themselves, which are not part of the Paris Agreement itself, but rather are listed in a separate Registry.  These are not binding under international law, but rather are left to the domestic authority of the respective countries.

This dual structure led to the achievement of one of two necessary conditions for ultimate success of the Paris Agreement, namely adequate scope of participation, which now includes countries accounting for 97% of global emissions, compared with the 14% that are covered by the current, second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol.

But adequate scope of participation is only one of two necessary conditions; the other is adequate collective ambition.  Unfortunately, the fundamentally voluntary nature of the NDCs – which is precisely what facilitated the exceptionally broad scope of participation – works against adequate ambition to address this global commons phenomenon, which is plagued by free rider problems.

The Challenge for Climate Negotiators

This raises the key overall challenge that faced the negotiators in Bonn in May and will face them in Katowice, Poland, in December (at the Twenty-Fourth Conference of the Parties of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change):  What can they do, when writing rules to put flesh onto the skeletal Paris Agreement, to encourage countries to increase their ambition over time?  That’s where carbon markets and cooperation among jurisdictions potentially come in.

International Cooperation under the Paris Agreement

Largely because cooperation among jurisdictions — including through carbon markets — can lower abatement costs, such cooperation may be essential for the ultimate success of the Agreement.  This cooperation might take the form of international linkage, where by “linkage,” I mean connections among policy systems that allow emissions reduction efforts to be redistributed among those systems.

Such linkage is typically framed as between cap-and-trade systems, but regional, national, and sub-national policies are and will be highly heterogeneous, including not only cap-and-trade, but offset systems, carbon taxes, performance standards, and technology standards.  Note that we already see this sort of heterogeneity within the European Union’s own set of climate change policies, as well as within California’s suite of climate initiatives.

The good news is that linkage among highly heterogeneous policies is eminently feasible, as I have written about previously in this blog, drawing on my research with Michael Mehling (MIT) and Gib Metcalf (Tufts University).  The even better news is that one part of the Paris Agreement provides a potential home for such international cooperation, linkage, and carbon markets – Article 6.  (If you are interested in the details, I recommend a recent report from the Asian Development Bank, “Decoding Article 6 of the Paris Agreement.”)

The Promise and Problems of Article 6

In the negotiations that led up to the 2015 Paris climate talks, it was by no means clear what role — if any — market mechanisms would play in the Paris Agreement.  In the negotiations, the European Union, Brazil, and other countries played crucial roles in generating the compromise that became Article 6 of the Agreement.

That compromise resulted in text that — to put it kindly — is very much subject to interpretation.  Now, as Benito Müller, Kelley Kizzier, and their colleagues have observed, intentional vagueness and ambiguity of text can be quite helpful in achieving a negotiated compromise, but such vagueness is decidedly not helpful when it comes to making an agreement operational.

This compromised home for markets emerged in Article 6 despite the entrenched opposition of a small set of vocal countries — including some Latin American socialist economies (the so-called ALBA coalition) — who wanted nothing of the kind to appear in the Paris Agreement.  They succeeded in keeping the word “market” out the Paris Agreement, but the concept and the potential reality is very much there!  (Ironically, at their insistence, the phrase “non-market” does appear in the Agreement.)

In any event, provision for markets and international cooperation is implicit in Article 6.2, which allows for cooperative approaches involving Internationally Transferred Mitigation Outcomes (or ITMOs), which are vague and without definition, but can function as an international accounting mechanism for international trades, exchanges, and cooperation.  And Article 6.4 establishes a more centralized mechanism to contribute to emissions mitigation and support sustainable development, essentially as a successor to the Clean Development Mechanism (and may soon come to be called the “Sustainable Development Mechanism” or SDM).

Advantages and Concerns about Cooperation and Linkage

Despite the opposition I mentioned, most parties to the Paris Agreement are supportive of cooperative approaches (and more than half explicitly mentioned carbon markets in their respective NDCs).

This may be because of six important advantages of such cooperation:  first, cost savings by allowing firms to take advantage of lower cost abatement opportunities in other jurisdictions; second, reducing market power of individual firms by enlarging the market’s scope, and reducing total price volatility by thickening markets; third, political benefits to Parties, by providing a sign of “momentum” as jurisdictions band together, possibly influencing other parties to participate; fourth, administrative economies of scale through knowledge sharing in design and operations, as well as shared administrative and oversight costs; fifth reducing leakage and competitiveness impacts by harmonizing the shadow price of carbon across jurisdictions; and sixth, allowing for the achievement of the UNFCCC’s critical principle of “Common but Differentiated Responsibilities” without sacrificing cost-effectiveness.

There are also real concerns about linkage:  first, distributional impacts within and across linked jurisdictions; second, automatic propagation of certain design elements, in particular, cost-containment elements (banking, borrowing, and price collars); and third, decreased national autonomy.

Back to the Article 6 Negotiations and International Policy Linkage

Article 6 can be a home both to linkage of the sort we usually talk about, as well as “soft linkage,” such as an agreement — explicit or implicit — to harmonize carbon prices either at some level or within overlapping bands.

Thinking about the UNFCCC negotiations taking place now, most types of heterogeneity – of policy instruments, level of political jurisdiction, and nature of NDC targets – do not present insurmountable obstacles to linkage, but some do present real challenges, and indicate the need for specific guidance as the rulebook of the Paris Agreement is written.

Unfortunately, some countries want the Article 6 guidance to go beyond fundamental issues of accounting and environmental integrity to broader matters of environmental ambition, which properly belong in other parts of the Paris Agreement.  Whereas, accounting provisions to avoid double-counting of NDC actions through ITMOs surely belong in the Article 6 rulebook, some countries have proposed, for example, that all ITMO exchanges themselves must actually reduce net emissions.

This sounds very much like the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s 20% rule in its 1970’s Emissions Trading Program, which required that net emissions fall by 20% with each trade.  This was a tax and an inhibition on trading, and the result was that virtually no trading occurred.  This reminds me of a corrupted version of George Santayana’s admonition that those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.  Instead we have, “I’ve learned from my mistakes, and I can repeat them exactly the same again.”

The general problem is that if the guidance extends much beyond basic accounting rules, then restrictive requirements could actually impede effective cooperation.  True to the nature and spirit of the Paris Agreement, less can be more!

UNFCCC Update from Bonn

I closed my dinner comments in Florence with a brief update on the negotiations that concluded the previous week in Bonn.  The two weeks of meetings of the Article 6 group were reported to be much tougher than they had been previously, yet the progress on the Article 6 work is actually ahead of that of groups focused on other parts of the Paris Agreement.  Although positions on Article 6 are hardening, there is no clear blocking party or coalition (unlike in the work on some of the other parts of the Agreement).  There may be less resistance to agreement simply because participation in Article 6 instruments would ultimately be voluntary.

The Path Ahead

So, as the negotiations proceed, a combination of common accounting rules and an absence of restrictive conditions can accelerate linkage, allow for broader and deeper climate policy cooperation, facilitate the emergence of a robust global carbon market, and – most important – increase the latitude of the Parties to the Paris Agreement to scale up the ambition of their long-term contributions to global greenhouse gas emission reductions.

Whether that will come to pass, we simply do not know as of now.  As usual, only time will tell.


California’s Crude Oil Production and its Climate Change Policies

California is among the most aggressive jurisdictions in the world in its pursuit of public policies to reduce its emissions of greenhouse gases (GHGs), linked with climate change. At a time when the Trump administration in Washington is working to reverse the Obama administration’s climate policy achievements, California and other sub-national entities are taking the lead in the development and implementation of meaningful domestic policies to mitigate the impact of human activity on the climate.

At the same time, California is a producer of crude oil.  Is this inconsistent, or even counter-productive?  In a recent report, advocates have criticized Governor Jerry Brown, and proposed a ban on crude oil production within the State, in furtherance of California’s climate policies.  The thinking goes, crude oil production leads to environmental impacts, so how can it be allowed?

The logic is flawed, and the prohibition – if adopted – would impose tremendous costs on the State with little or no environmental benefit.  As California has developed its climate policies, the need to balance the benefits of these policies with their economic and human consequences has always been a challenging issue.  Achieving aggressive climate goals will not be cheap, so designing sensible, effective policies is critical.  Simply adopting any and all restrictions that might achieve some emission reductions would unnecessarily raise the human cost of limiting GHG emissions.  This is no doubt obvious to some readers of this blog, but for others, let me explain.

At its heart, the climate problem arises because of CO2 emissions associated with the use of energy and related services.  We heat our homes in the winter and cool them in the summer using electricity and natural gas.  We use gasoline to get to work and take vacations.  As each country or state – including California – tries to reduce its GHG emissions, the policies and regulations adopted to achieve this end nearly always target the activities that lead to GHG emissions – the generation of electricity, the use of transportation, and the heating of living spaces.

The proposed ban on crude oil extraction would flip this on its head, focusing instead on the supply of a fossil fuel.  But the simple reality is that the sources of fossil fuel supply are so ubiquitous that crude oil from other regions of the world will replace supplies from California, if California chose not to supply its own on-going needs.  Oil and gas used to heat homes and to power vehicles comes not only from California, but from most every region of the globe.  Many of these regions have expanding supplies of crude oil due to technological improvements, including the Bakken shale of North Dakota, and vast supplies available with relatively little effort, such as in the Middle East.

Advocates claim that reduction of California crude oil production would reduce global consumption of crude – a claim of questionable validity.  But that is not even the right question.  There are many things that can be done to reduce GHG emissions, and a sensible, affordable, and sustainable policy will be one that achieves reductions at the lowest cost.  Even if restricting California’s oil production might reduce global crude consumption, California would certainly bear all of the economic consequences of this policy, as the state would then rely solely on crude oil imports.

In fact, a restriction on California’s crude production is unlikely to reduce GHG emissions within California. The State’s total GHG emissions are limited by the cap of California’s GHG cap-and-trade system.  The most a restriction on California’s crude production can do is to increase costs, while achieving little or no incremental improvement in GHG emissions.

Moreover, supply-side restrictions can limit technological progress that can have very positive economic and environmental consequences.  The same advocates oppose shale “fracking,” but the innovative combination of hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling has led both to tremendous economic benefits by expanding supplies of low-cost domestic energy and reducing energy imports, and to environmental benefits by allowing lower-carbon natural gas to displace higher-carbon coal in the generation of electricity across the United States.

By focusing on policies aimed at achieving the appropriate policy goal of reducing GHG emissions – rather than trying to choose winners and losers among technologies and energy sources used to achieve those goals – California can achieve its climate policy goals in ways that are environmentally effective, economically sensible, and ultimately sustainable.  In my view, Governor Brown merits compliments rather than criticism for California’s progressive environmental and energy policies.


In the past, I have periodically advised the Western States Petroleum Association (WSPA), although on a very different issue, namely the design of California’s CO2 cap-and-trade system.  That was about two years ago, and neither WSPA nor any of its member companies are aware of my writing this essay.  As always in this blog, I am expressing my personal views, and not speaking on behalf of any of the institutions, organizations, or firms with which I am or have been associated.


Reflections on Economics and Policy Making in the Environmental Domain

This past week, I was privileged to participate in a workshop, “Climate Science in a Time of Political Disruption,” sponsored by the Harvard Program on Science, Technology and Society.  The workshop began with a keynote address by former U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy, now Professor of Practice at the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health.  Following Gina McCarthy’s down-to-earth but quite inspiring remarks (with her usual Yankee humor adding spice to the proceedings), the others on the panel were asked to comment on the topic at hand.  The panelists included Joe Goffman, Executive Director of the Environmental Law Program at Harvard Law School; Peter Huybers, Professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences; Sheila Jasanoff, Pforzheimer Professor of Science and Technology Studies at the Harvard Kennedy School; Lucas Stanczyk, Assistant Professor of Philosophy; and myself.

Given the subject of the workshop, most of the panelists focused their comments on the current political scene and the current U.S. administration’s apparent disdain for climate science.  I took a broader, somewhat historical view, and as the only economist on the panel, I commented on the relationship of economic research to policy making.  I did this via reflections on experiences I’ve had over the past three decades.  I tried to make three points:  first, economic research results can be used as a light bulb or a rock, and either can be effective; second, it is important to move quickly when windows of opportunity open in the policy world to implement research ideas; and third, politics matter, and should not be ignored.

  1. Research Results Can be Used as a Light Bulb or a Rock

I cannot speak for the natural sciences, but it is clearly the case that economic evidence can be used either as a “light bulb” – to illuminate an issue and possibly persuade policy makers of the wisdom of a particular course of action – or as a “rock,” that is, as ammunition to support a policy maker’s predisposed position.  Is this cynical?  I think not, because such economic ammunition can help win a policy battle.  I was just reminded by Paul Krugman in his New York Times column of a somewhat less charitable metaphor, where he characterized some politicians as using economists “the way a drunkard uses a lamppost:  for support, not illumination.”

Related to this reality was a session I chaired in 2001 at the annual meetings of the American Economic Association – a roundtable of former chairs and members of the U.S. Council of Economic Advisers (CEA), including George Eads (Charles River Associates), the late William Niskanen (then of the Cato Institute), William Nordhaus (Yale University), and Joseph Stiglitz (Columbia University).  A repeated theme from this set of economists was the reality that CEA typically had more influence by helping others in the Executive Office of the President in their efforts to stop bad ideas than by itself promoting good ideas.

  1. When Windows of Opportunity Open, Move Quickly

Two examples stand out for me of the importance of moving quickly when windows of opportunity open in the policy world to implement research ideas.  One is the work I carried out in the late 1980s under the sponsorship of the late Republican Senator John Heinz of Pennsylvania and former Democratic Senator Timothy Wirth of Colorado in the form of research that led to a report, “Project 88:  Harnessing Market Forces to Protect the Environment.”  One of the proposals in the report was to address the then politically prominent problem of acid rain with what is now called a cap-and-trade system.  This idea resonated with the incoming administration of President George H. W. Bush, particularly with the Counsel to the President, Boyden Gray.  In parallel with work being carried out by Joe Goffman and Dan Dudek (both then at the Environmental Defense Fund), I followed up the Project 88 report with numerous White House and other Washington meetings (commuting weekly from my Harvard perch), which eventually contributed to the Bush Administration’s proposal (to an initially resistant Democratic Congress) of the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990, including its path-breaking sulfur dioxide allowance trading program.

The other example I mentioned to highlight the importance of moving quickly when windows of opportunity open in the policy world is associated with the negotiations carried out annually under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).  At the seventeenth Conference of the Parties of the UNFCCC in Durban, South Africa, in 2011, the delegates agreed to the “Durban Platform for Enhanced Action,” which broke with nearly twenty years of UNFCCC policy by mandating a new approach in which all countries, not just the richest nations, would participate in addressing the need for greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions reductions.  The key challenge for climate negotiators was how to meet this new mandate while still observing the fundamental UNFCCC principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities,” which had previously been interpreted to mean that rich countries alone would shoulder the burden of reducing emissions.

At the Harvard Project on Climate Agreements, we recognized that negotiators around the world were suddenly open to outside-the-box thinking.  Indeed, in Science magazine, my colleague, Joe Aldy, and I wrote an article, “Climate Negotiators Create an Opportunity for Scholars.”  Over the following months (and years) we worked hard to help key negotiating countries develop a new policy architecture that could meet the challenge before them.  The result was a hybrid approach that combined elements of top-down architecture with a healthy dose of bottom-up “pledge-and-review,” which led eventually, of course, to the Paris Agreement of 2015.

  1. Politics Matter

For the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) Fifth Assessment Report (AR5), I served as Coordinating Lead Author (with Dr. Zou Ji of China) of the chapter on “International Cooperation:  Agreements and Instruments.”  I was surprised to find that the process was highly politicized – in two distinct ways.  First, whereas I had assumed that the Lead Authors (LAs) serving on our writing team were there only to represent their respective scientific expertise (in economics, legal scholarship, international relations, etc.), some of the LAs seemed to represent the interests of their respective countries.

Second, I was very naive about the final step of the process, when the governments of the world are asked to approve the IPCC’s Summary for Policy Makers line by line.  The controversy associated with our chapter on international climate agreements resulted in that entire section of the SPM being eviscerated of all meaningful substance at the Government Approval Sessions for Working Group III (WG III) in Berlin in April, 2014.  I was disappointed and dismayed by the process and its outcome.

Fortunately, I learned from that experience and my attitude (and behavior) was quite different just six months later, when I found myself in Copenhagen for what was essentially the final stage of the entire five-year enterprise of research, writing, and government approval of the various reports of IPCC AR5, namely the government approval sessions for the Synthesis Report (SYR), which summarizes and synthesizes the key findings from all three Working Group reports.  I had learned my lesson.  Rather than disdaining the politics of the occasion, I embraced it and spent the week in Copenhagen in careful negotiations with the key national governments, the result of which was that all of the essential text on international cooperation and agreements was preserved in the Synthesis Report.

Ironically, by recognizing, accepting, and indeed participating in the fundamentally political aspects of the IPCC government approval process, I was able to keep the report of research from itself being politicized.

Summing Up

So, the three points I made regarding the relationship between economic research and policy making at last week’s Harvard workshop were these:  first, economic research results can be used as a light bulb or a rock, and either or both can be effective; second, it is important to move quickly when windows of opportunity open in the policy world to implement research ideas; and third, politics matter, and should not be ignored.

I left it to others at the workshop – and I leave it to readers of this essay – to judge whether any of this applies more broadly to “Climate Science in a Time of Political Disruption.”