Too Good to be True?

Global climate change is a serious environmental threat, and sound public policies are needed to address it effectively and sensibly.

There is now significant interest and activity within both the U.S. Administration and the U.S. Congress to develop a meaningful national climate policy in this country.  (If you’re interested, please see some of my previous posts:  “Opportunity for a Defining Moment” (February 6, 2009); “The Wonderful Politics of Cap-and-Trade:  A Closer Look at Waxman-Markey” (May 27, 2009); “Worried About International Competitiveness?  Another Look at the Waxman-Markey Cap-and-Trade Proposal” (June 18, 2009); “National Climate Change Policy:  A Quick Look Back at Waxman-Markey and the Road Ahead” (June 29, 2009).  For a more detailed account, see my Hamilton Project paper, A U.S. Cap-and-Trade System to Address Global Climate Change.)

And as we move toward the international negotiations to take place in December of this year in Copenhagen, it is important to keep in mind the global commons nature of the problem, and hence the necessity of designing and implementing an international policy architecture that is scientifically sound, economically rational, and politically pragmatic.

Back in the U.S., with domestic action delayed in the Senate, several states and regions in the United States have moved ahead with their own policies and plans.  Key among these is California’s Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006, intended to return the state’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in 2020 to their 1990 level.  In 2006, three studies were released indicating that California can meet its 2020 target at no net economic cost.  That is not a typographical error.  The studies found not simply that the costs will be low, but that the costs will be zero, or even negative!  That is, the studies found that California’s ambitious target can be achieved through measures whose direct costs would be outweighed by offsetting savings they create, making them economically beneficial even without considering the emission reductions they may achieve.  Not just a free lunch, but a lunch we are paid to eat!

Given the substantial emission reductions that will be required to meet California’s 2020 target, these findings are ­- to put it mildly – surprising, and they differ dramatically from the vast majority of economic analyses of the cost of reducing GHG emissions.  As a result, I was asked by the Electric Power Research Institute – along with my colleagues, Judson Jaffe and Todd Schatzki of Analysis Group – to evaluate the three California studies.

In a report titled, “Too Good To Be True?  An Examination of Three Economic Assessments of California Climate Change Policy,” we found that although some limited opportunities may exist for no-cost emission reductions, the studies substantially underestimated the cost of meeting California’s 2020 target — by omitting important components of the costs of emission reduction efforts, and by overestimating offsetting savings some of those efforts yield through improved energy efficiency.  In some cases, the studies focused on the costs of particular actions to reduce emissions, but failed to consider the effectiveness and costs of policies that would be necessary to bring about those actions.  Just a few of the flaws we identified lead to underestimation of annual costs on the order of billions of dollars.  Sadly, the studies therefore did not and do not offer reliable estimates of the cost of meeting California’s 2020 target.

This episode is a reminder of a period when similar studies were performed by the U.S. Department of Energy at the time of the Kyoto Protocol negotiations.  Like the California studies, the DOE (Interlaboratory Work Group) studies in the late 1990s suggested that substantial emission reductions could be achieved at no cost.  Those studies were terribly flawed, which was what led to their faulty conclusions.  I had thought that such arguments about massive “free lunches” in the energy efficiency and climate domain had long since been laid to rest.  The debates in California (and some of the rhetoric in Washington) prove otherwise.

While the Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006 sets an emissions target, critical policy design decisions remain to be made that will fundamentally affect the cost of the policy.  For example, policymakers must determine the emission sources that will be regulated to meet those targets, and the policy instruments that will be employed.  The California studies do not directly address the cost implications of these and other policy design decisions, and their overly optimistic findings may leave policymakers with an inadequate appreciation of the stakes associated with the decisions that lie ahead.

On the positive side, a careful evaluation of the California studies highlights some important policy design lessons that apply regardless of the extent to which no-cost emission reduction opportunities really exist.  Policies should be designed to account for uncertainty regarding emission reduction costs, much of which will not be resolved before policies must be enacted.  Also, consideration of the market failures that lead to excessive GHG emissions makes clear that to reduce emissions cost-effectively, policymakers should employ a market-based policy (such as cap-and-trade) as the core policy instrument.

The fact that the three California studies so egregiously underestimated the costs of achieving the goals of the Global Warming Solutions Act should not be taken as indicating that the Act itself is necessarily without merit.  As I have discussed in previous posts, that judgment must rest – from an economic perspective – on an honest and rigorous comparison of the Act’s real benefits and real costs.

About Robert Stavins

Robert N. Stavins is the Albert Pratt Professor of Business and Government at the Harvard Kennedy School, Director of the Harvard Environmental Economics Program, Chairman of the Environment and Natural Resources Faculty Group at the Kennedy School, Director of Graduate Studies for the Doctoral Programs in Public Policy and Political Economy and Government, Co Chair of the Harvard Business School Kennedy School Joint Degree Programs, and Director of the Harvard Project on International Climate Agreements. He is a University Fellow of Resources for the Future, a Research Associate of the National Bureau of Economic Research, the Editor of the Review of Environmental Economics and Policy, and a Member of: the Board of Directors of Resources for the Future, the Board of Academic Advisors of the AEI Brookings Joint Center for Regulatory Studies, the Editorial Boards of Resource and Energy Economics, Environmental Economics Abstracts, B.E. Journals of Economic Analysis & Policy, and Economic Issues. He is also an editor of the Journal of Wine Economics. He was formerly a member of the Editorial Board of Land Economics, The Journal of Environmental Economics and Management, the Board of Directors of the Association of Environmental and Resource Economists, a member and Chairman of the Environmental Economics Advisory Committee of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) Science Advisory Board, the Chair of the Scientific Advisory Board of the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs, a Lead Author of the Second and Third Assessment Reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and a contributing editor of Environment. He holds a B.A. in philosophy from Northwestern University, an M.S. in agricultural economics from Cornell, and a Ph.D. in economics from Harvard. Professor Stavins' research has focused on diverse areas of environmental economics and policy, including examinations of: market based policy instruments; regulatory impact analysis; innovation and diffusion of pollution control technologies; environmental benefit valuation; policy instrument choice under uncertainty; competitiveness effects of regulation; depletion of forested wetlands; political economy of policy instrument choice; and costs of carbon sequestration. His research has appeared in the American Economic Review, Journal of Economic Perspectives, Quarterly Journal of Economics, Journal of Economic Literature, Science, Nature, Journal of Environmental Economics and Management, Ecology Law Quarterly, Journal of Regulatory Economics, Journal of Urban Economics, Journal of Risk and Uncertainty, Resource and Energy Economics, The Energy Journal, Energy Policy, Annual Review of Energy and the Environment, Explorations in Economic History, Brookings Papers on Economic Activity, other scholarly and popular periodicals, and several books. He is the co-editor of Architectures for Agreement: Addressing Global Climate Change in the Post-Kyoto World (Cambridge University Press, 2007), editor of the fifth edition of Economics of the Environment (W. W. Norton, 2005), co editor of Environmental Protection and the Social Responsibility of Firms (Resources for the Future, 2005), editor of The Political Economy of Environmental Regulation (Edward Elgar, 2004), co editor of the second edition of Public Policies for Environmental Protection (Resources for the Future, 2000), and the author of Environmental Economics and Public Policy: Selected Papers of Robert N. Stavins, 1988 1999 (Edward Elgar, 2000). Professor Stavins directed Project 88, a bi partisan effort co chaired by former Senator Timothy Wirth and the late Senator John Heinz, to develop innovative approaches to environmental and resource problems. He continues to work closely with public officials on matters of national and international environmental policy. He has been a consultant to the National Academy of Sciences, several Administrations, Members of Congress, environmental advocacy groups, the World Bank, the United Nations, the U.S. Agency for International Development, state and national governments, and private foundations and firms. Prior to coming to Harvard, Stavins was a staff economist at the Environmental Defense Fund; and before that, he managed irrigation development in the middle east, and spent four years working in agricultural extension in West Africa as a Peace Corps volunteer.
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4 Responses to Too Good to be True?

  1. Dorothy says:

    As of now i yet have to see an administration that is sincerely dedicated to address climate issues, unfortunately this is also not the case with the obama administration.. Seems they are full on hand with the financial crisis, but IMO the climate issue stands far above that. greetings dorothy-VA

  2. LBJ says:

    Don’t you understand the implications of this International Treaty??? This is all about money and greed. There IS no such thing as global warming. There are natural changes in the climate and this International Treaty takes away U.S. sovereignty and we will have to answer to a One World Government. We are already in a depression, do you want to kill industry as we know it? Sadly, Americans need to WAKE UP and realize that you have been conned by the media, your public schools, and your politicians. It is all a ploy to completely ruin this great nation as we know it to “save the planet.” There is no such thing as “saving the planet.” God will take His planet back when He wants to. Unless you don’t believe in Him. Obama being obsessed with the economy? I guess. He is obsessed with ruining it!

  3. Karen Slater says:

    Addressing issues with the climate can lead to innovation and new ways of harnessing the energy we need, but I think unfortunately current governments around the globe are doing nothing more that paying lip service and will not invest the necessary funds to allow for this innovation. While I understand the global economic downturn does affect budget planning it may be shortsighted in the long run.

  4. Allison, B says:

    Global climate change is a serious environmental threat, and sound public policies are needed to address it effectively and sensibly.

    Global climate change has been happening sense the beginning of our planet, swamps release more green house gases every year than every internal combustion engine in existance.

    So using your logic we should drain all the swamps in the world? Its not something to address, its something that needs no addressing, instead we should address environmental pollution and over fishing of our earths oceans otherwise we’re going to be running out of food way before we run out of breathable air.

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