Worried About International Competitiveness? Another Look at the Waxman-Markey Cap-and-Trade Proposal

The potential impacts of proposed U.S. climate policies on the competitiveness of U.S. industries is a major political issue, and it was one of the key issues in the Energy and Commerce Committee of the House of Representatives in the design of Henry Waxman and Edward Markey’s H.R. 2454 (the American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009). In the floor debate that will soon take place as the full House considers the bill, it will be an important issue. It promises to be an equally important topic when the Senate takes up its own climate legislation, although the debate in that body on this issue will likely be quite different.

The ultimate answer to the question of how best to address concerns about international competitiveness is to bring all countries – both the industrialized nations and the developing world’s large, rapidly-growing economies (China, India, Brazil, Korea, Mexico, South Africa, and Indonesia) – into a meaningful (post-Kyoto) international climate change agreement (a topic on which I’ve spent much time over the past several years).  But – for the most part — that long-term objective is outside of the reach of the domestic policy of any single nation, even the United States.

Can Domestic Climate Policy Address Competitiveness Concerns?

A range of approaches has been considered for implementing sound, domestic climate policy while seeking to “level the economic playing field” with other countries. While no approach is without its flaws (as I describe below), the approach taken in the Waxman-Markey legislation is sensible and pragmatic:  in the short term, output-based updating allocations of allowances are employed for a few energy-intensive, trade-sensitive sectors; and in the long term, the President is given the option to put in place (under specific, stringent conditions) import-allowance-requirements in selected cases.

In order to explain my reasoning for coming to this conclusion, let’s back up for a moment and reflect on the reasons for the high level of political attention and receptiveness in the United States toward employing a cap-and-trade system nationally to address emissions of greenhouse gases.

It is because of the significant economic and political advantages of cap-and-trade systems to address carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions that most (but not all) attention by policy makers has been focused on this policy approach. First, it provides a cost-effective means of achieving meaningful reductions in emissions over relevant time horizons. Second, it offers an easy means of compensating for the inevitably unequal burdens imposed by virtually any climate policy. Third, it is less likely than alternative approaches (such as a carbon tax) to be degraded – in terms of environmental performance and cost-effectiveness – by political forces. Fourth, it has a history of successful adoption and implementation over two decades. And fifth, it provides a straightforward means to link and harmonize with other countries’ climate policies.

The Waxman-Markey bill, H.R. 2454, would establish such a U.S. cap-and-trade system to reduce emissions that contribute to global climate change. The bill would put a declining cap on emissions and create a corresponding number of emission permits. Regulated firms could trade these permits at a price determined by the market – creating powerful incentives to reduce emissions cost-effectively.

But imposing a price (cost) on carbon in the United States at a time when some other countries (in the developing world) are not taking comparable actions raises concerns about negative impacts on the competitiveness of U.S. industry, particularly in energy-intensive, trade-sensitive sectors. This heightens worries about possible job losses, a particularly troubling concern when the United States find itself in the worst global recession in a generation.

The environmental side of the same coin is “carbon leakage.” Again, imposing a cost on the production of carbon-intensive goods and services shifts comparative advantage in the production of those same goods and services in the direction of countries not taking on such costs.  Also, reduced demand in the United States for carbon-intensive fuels such as coal can be expected to reduce worldwide demand enough that the world price of coal would fall, thereby making it more attractive for use in countries that are not participating in a meaningful international climate agreement (or otherwise taking significant domestic climate actions).

Both routes can result in a shift of carbon-intensive production to countries without climate controls, and therefore an increase in their CO2 emissions. This is carbon leakage, which reduces the environmental benefits of mitigating emissions and reduces cost-effectiveness of any actions (properly measured in terms of net changes in CO2 atmospheric concentrations).  Given that the United States, the European Union, and Japan are net importers of embodied CO2, while China and India are net exporters, the environmental – as well as the economic – impacts of carbon leakage are a natural concern of lawmakers.

Despite the high levels of attention that international competitiveness therefore receives in debates about domestic climate policies, economic research has consistently found that the actual competitiveness impacts of proposed domestic climate policies would not — in quantitative terms — constitute a major economy-wide economic issue for the United States, partly because differences in other costs of production (including labor and energy costs, without accounting for carbon constraints) across countries swamp differences in costs due to environmental policies, including prospective climate policies.

On the other hand, this is a real issue for some specific sectors, in particular, energy-intensive industries subject to international competition, such as aluminum, cement, fossil fuels, glass, iron and steel, and paper. More importantly, it is in any event a major (economy-wide) political issue.  So, it needs to be addressed in any domestic climate policy which is to be both meaningful and politically pragmatic.

How About Free Allowance Allocations?

The approach frequently proposed by policy makers and the approach utilized in the European Union for its Emission Trading Scheme, and discussed in a number of other countries for their planned cap-and-trade programs is generous and free allocation of allowances to specific sectors and companies.  This makes the receiving companies happy, but has no effect on their international competitiveness. This is because such a free grant of allowances is no different than cash, that is, a fixed subsidy. The allowances can be sold by the receiving companies, are as good as cash, and represent a lump-sum transfer from the government, not tied to carbon abatement efforts or production (and hence, in the language of economics, are infra-marginal subsidies rather than marginal incentives).

Since the subsidy has no effect on the company’s marginal cost of production (its supply function), it has no effect on international competitiveness. The company will continue to find it as challenging as it did without the subsidy to produce cement, steel, or whatever at a price that can compete with companies located in countries without climate policies (apart from liquidity effects, which are minor in most cases). And the domestic company will have the same incentives as previously to locate its next production facility in a country without a climate policy.

A Potentially Effective Approach:  Output-Based Updating Allocations

With proper design, allowance allocations can be used effectively to address leakage and competitiveness.  If the free allocation of allowances is tied to the company’s production level, then it does affect marginal production costs, and therefore does affect competitiveness. Such a “home rebate” can thereby reduce leakage. This is, in fact, the approach taken in the Waxman-Markey legislation, and it is a potentially effective means to address concerns about international competitiveness for a select set of energy-intensive trade-sensitive sectors.

There are, however, some legitimate concerns about this approach of linking annual allowance allocations with production levels, as I wrote in my previous post, “The Wonderful Politics of Cap-and-Trade: A Closer Look at Waxman-Markey.” Such output-based updating allocations can provide perverse incentives and thereby drive up the costs of achieving a cap. This is because an output-based updating allocation is essentially a production subsidy. This distorts firms’ pricing and production decisions in ways that can increase the cost of meeting an emissions target.

Think of it this way. On the one hand, the cap-and-trade system is (sensibly) increasing the cost of using carbon-intensive fuels and emitting CO2 into the atmosphere. An aluminum producer, for example, is therefore paying more for the (fossil-fuel generated) electricity it uses, driving up its cost of production. At the same time, the government hands a subsidy to the company for each unit of aluminum it produces, working at cross-purposes with the energy-pricing incentive, and thereby driving up the aggregate social costs of achieving the cap. In addition, these home rebates do not distinguish between competition from countries with and without domestic climate policies.

The Key Question

So, there are problems with output-based updating allocations, but the key question in the real world of legislative design is whether better approaches are available?  The answer – in my view – is that there are several other available approaches, but they are not any better; and indeed, they appear to be significantly worse.

An Alternative Approach:  Import Allowance Requirements

One alternative approach is an import allowance requirement, whereby imports of highly carbon-intensive goods (in terms of their manufacture) must hold allowances for the U.S. cap-and-trade system, mirroring requirements on U.S. sources, if those imports come from countries which have not taken comparable climate policy actions. Note that this approach – which is referred to as a border adjustment, and is an implicit border tax – differentiates according to the country of origin.  In principle, this approach can maintain a level playing-field between imports and domestic production, reduce leakage, and possibly help induce key developing countries to take domestic action to avoid the implicit border tax on their products.

The import allowance requirement approach has its own problems, however. First, it focuses exclusively on imports into the United States, and has no effect on the competitiveness of U.S. exports. Second, it may not be compliant with World Trade Organization (WTO) rules, because it would discriminate among trading nations (I’ll leave that issue for trade economists and trade lawyers to analyze and debate).

Third, it is questionable whether it would be effective as an inducement for developing countries to join an international agreement to reduce emissions. Why is that? Think about China, for example. China is the largest producer of cement in the world, accounting for almost 50% of world output. It is also the world’s largest exporter of cement. This may sound as though the threat of import allowance requirements in the U.S. and European cap-and-trade systems would be a powerful incentive for China to undertake emission reductions at home in order to avoid the border tax on its cement exports.  But China consumes 97% of its cement domestically, exporting only 3%, and much of that to developing countries. So, would a country such as China be willing to increase the costs of producing 97% of its output in order to protect a market for 1% or 2% of its production?(To be fair, for small developing countries for which their exports of a given product are a large share of their total output, the message could potentially be quite different.)

Despite these three problems with the import-allowance-requirement approach, note that it was a key part of the Lieberman-Warner Climate Security Act in the U.S. Senate in 2008, and may re-appear when serious debate commences in the Senate on climate legislation later this year. Also, it should be noted that this approach of import-allowance-requirements is included as a long-term backstop in Waxman-Markey if the President determines by 2022 that the output-based allocation mechanism is insufficient for some of the energy-intensive trade-sensitive sectors (and if a number of stringent conditions are met; see the “International Reserve Allowance Program” in the bill).

Other Possible Approaches

Another potential approach is a border rebate for exports to level the playing field abroad, whereby the government rebates the value of emissions embodied in exports. Imports, however, would retain their competitive advantage at home, and there are problems with WTO compliance. Finally, there is full boarder adjustment, meaning a border (import) tax plus a border (export) subsidy. Here there are questions not only about consistency with international trade law, but also concerns about feasibility. In some cases, there are tremendous challenges of calculating the embodied emissions of foreign products, and more generally, there are difficulties of defining and enforcing reliable rules of origin.

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Thus, none of these approaches are ideal, not home rebates as in Waxman-Markey, nor implicit border taxes on exports as in Lieberman-Warner, nor border rebates, nor full border adjustments.  As I said at the outset, the only real solution to the international competitiveness issue in the long term is to bring non-participating countries within an international climate regime in meaningful ways. (On this, please see the work of the Harvard Project on International Climate Agreements.) But that solution is fundamentally outside of the scope of the domestic policy action of any individual nation, including the United States.

So, among the feasible set of options to address international competitiveness concerns – if only imperfectly and at some cost – which is best? The two live political options appear to be the output-based updating allocation mechanism in the Waxman-Markey legislation and the import allowance requirement, typically associated with the former Lieberman-Warner bill. At this time, meaning in the short term, I would be more worried about the potential damage to the international trade regime that import allowance requirements could foster than about the incremental social costs that an output-based updating allocation mechanism will create.

This is a political problem without a perfect solution (other than bringing all key countries into a meaningful international climate agreement).  For now, the domestic political process has done a credible job of patching together a set of interim solutions. Among the range of possible approaches of trying to level the international economic playing field, none is without its flaws, but the approach taken in the Waxman-Markey legislation appears best.  Subject to possible improvements on the House floor or in the Senate, the Waxman-Markey approach of combining output-based updating allocations in the short term for select sectors with the option in the long term of a Presidential determination (under stringent conditions) for import allowance requirements for specific countries and sectors seems both sensible and pragmatic.

A Broader Question:  Should the U.S. Enact a Domestic Climate Policy without a New, Sound International Climate Agreement in Place?

Stepping back from the specific policy design question, the broader argument has been made (indeed until a few years ago I was among those making it) that there should be no serious movement on a U.S. domestic climate policy until a meaningful and sensible (post-Kyoto) international agreement has been negotiated and ratified.  It is natural for questions to be raised about the very notion of the U.S. adopting a policy to help address a global problem. The environmental benefits of any single nation’s reductions in greenhouse gas emissions are spread worldwide, unlike the costs. This creates the possibility that some countries will want to “free ride” on the efforts of others. It’s for this very reason that international cooperation is required.

That is the why the U.S. is now vigorously engaged in international negotiations, and the credibility of the U.S. as a participant, let alone as a leader, in shaping the international regime is dependent upon our demonstrated willingness to take actions at home. Europe has already put its climate policy in place, and Australia, New Zealand, and Japan are moving to have their policies in place within a year. If the United States is to play a leadership role in international negotiations for a sensible post-Kyoto international climate regime, the country must begin to move towards an effective domestic policy – with legislation that is timed and structured to coordinate with the emerging post-Kyoto climate regime.

Without evidence of serious action by the U.S., there will be no meaningful international agreement, and certainly not one that includes the key, rapidly-growing developing countries.  U.S. policy developments can and should move in parallel with international negotiations.

The Bottom Line

So, like any legislation, the Waxman-Markey bill has its share of flaws. But it represents a solid foundation for a domestic climate policy that can help place the United States where it ought to be – in a position of international leadership to develop a global climate agreement that is scientifically sound, economically rational, and politically acceptable to the key nations of the world..

Author: Robert Stavins

Robert N. Stavins is the Albert Pratt Professor of Business and Government, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, Director of the Harvard Environmental Economics Program, Director of Graduate Studies for the Doctoral Program in Public Policy and the Doctoral Program in Political Economy and Government, Co-Chair of the Harvard Business School-Kennedy School Joint Degree Programs, and Director of the Harvard Project on Climate Agreements.