Reflections on Twenty Years of Policy Innovation

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In 2009, the U.S. Congress considered but ultimately failed to enact legislation aimed at limiting U.S. greenhouse-gas (GHG) emissions.  The bill under consideration at that time, the American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009, was the last in a series considered over several years.  Sponsored by Representatives Henry Waxman (D-California) and Edward Markey (D-Massachusetts), the bill passed the U.S. House of Representatives but failed to win sufficient support in the Senate.  No legislation was enacted, and by 2010, both Congress and the White House had abandoned efforts to pass federal climate legislation.

Over months of contentious debate, while the Waxman-Markey bill and subsequent Senate action were being considered, millions of Americans were introduced for the first time to the phrase “cap and trade,” a regulatory approach that first came to prominence in the 1990s as the centerpiece of a national program to address the threat of acid rain by limiting emissions of sulfur dioxide (SO2), primarily from electric power plants.

The 1990 SO2 cap-and-trade program was conceived by the administration of President George H. W. Bush and was widely viewed as a success.  Yet cap and trade became a lightning rod for congressional opposition to climate legislation from 2009 through 2010.

Some of that hostility reflected skepticism about whether climate change was real and, if it was, whether humans played a key role in causing it. A larger group of opponents in Congress worried about the proper role of government and the costs of combating climate change, particularly given the lack of commitments for action by the large emerging economies of China, India, Brazil, Korea, South Africa, and Mexico.  The congressional debate touched only lightly on the relative merits of various policy options to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. Thus, cap and trade may not have been defeated on its merits (or demerits), but rather as collateral damage in the larger climate policy wars.

Congress (to the extent it did assess policy alternatives to cap and trade), as well as the broader community of analysts and observers in the late 2000s, raised a number of substantive questions about the merits of this policy instrument as a means for responding to a major environmental policy challenge of the sort posed by climate change:

  • How do the costs of a market-based approach, such as cap-and-trade, compare with traditional regulatory policies to reduce pollution?
  • Can market-based policies—and the markets they create—be trusted to reduce emissions? That is, are they environmentally effective?
  • What are the distributional impacts of market-based environmental policies; who are the winners and losers?
  • How well does a cap-and-trade system stimulate technological innovation, as compared with an environmental policy that sets performance standards, specifies technologies for reducing pollution, or both?

In May 2011, the Harvard Environmental Economics Program hosted a two-day research workshop and policy roundtable in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to reflect on these and other questions in light of twenty years of experience implementing the SO2 cap-and-trade program, established under Title IV of the Clean Air Act Amendments (CAAA) of 1990. Also known as the Acid Rain Program and the SO2 allowance-trading system, Title IV represented the first large-scale application of cap and trade to control pollution—in the United States or any other country.  (Of course, the largest emissions trading program in the world is now the European Union Emissions Trading System (EU ETS), a greenhouse-gas, cap-and-trade system that was implemented in 2005 and whose design was influenced by the U.S. SO2 program.)

A “policy brief” synthesizing the main conclusions and insights that emerged from the May 2011 Harvard workshop and roundtable has just been released, The SO2 Allowance Trading System and the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990:  Reflections on Twenty Years of Policy Innovation.  The workshop and roundtable – sponsored by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation – featured a dream team of economists and legal experts who had conducted extensive research on the SO2 allowance-trading system, as well as leaders of non-governmental organizations and former government officials who had guided the formulation and passage of the CAAA.

The new policy brief examines the design, enactment, implementation, and performance of the SO2 allowance trading system, with an eye toward identifying lessons learned for future efforts to apply cap and trade to other environmental challenges, including global climate change.  The first section provides background on the acid rain program and summarizes data and analysis on its benefits. Subsequent sections examine key questions regarding cost, environmental effectiveness, market performance, distributional implications, and effects on technology innovation.  The report also examines the political context of the formulation, enactment, and implementation of the SO2 allowance-trading system.  Finally, the conclusions feature some reflection on implications for climate change policy.

The participants in the research workshop were:  Joseph Aldy, Assistant Professor of Public Policy, Harvard Kennedy School; Dallas Burtraw, Darius Gaskins Senior Fellow, Resources for the Future; Denny Ellerman, Part-time Professor, European University Institute, Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies; Michael Greenstone, 3M Professor of Environmental Economics, Massachusetts Institute of Technology; Lawrence H. Goulder, Shuzo Nishihara Professor of Environmental and Resource Economics, Stanford University; Robert Hahn, Director of Economics, Smith School, University of Oxford; Paul L. Joskow, President, Alfred P. Sloan Foundation; Erin T. Mansur, Associate Professor of Economics, Dartmouth College; Albert McGartland, Director, National Center for Environmental Economics, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency; Brian J. McLean, Former Director, Office of Atmospheric Programs, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency; W. David Montgomery, Senior Vice President, NERA Economic Consulting; Erich J. Muehlegger, Associate Professor of Public Policy, Harvard Kennedy School; Karen L. Palmer, Senior Fellow, Resources for the Future; John Parsons, Executive Director, Center for Energy and Environmental Policy Research, MIT Sloan School of Management; Forest L. Reinhardt, John D. Black Professor of Business Administration, Harvard Business School; Richard L. Schmalensee, Howard W. Johnson Professor of Economics and Management, MIT Sloan School of Management; Daniel Schrag, Sturgis Hooper Professor of Geology, Harvard University; Robert N. Stavins, Albert Pratt Professor of Business and Government, Harvard Kennedy School; Thomas Tietenberg, Mitchell Family Professor of Economics, Emeritus, Colby College; and Jonathan B. Wiener, William R. and Thomas L. Perkins Professor of Law, Duke University Law School.

The participants in the policy and politics roundtable were:  Robert Grady, General Partner, Cheyenne Capital Fund (1989–1991: Associate Director, Office of Management and Budget for Natural Resources, Energy & Science; 1991–1993 Executive Associate Director, OMB, and Deputy Assistant to the President); C. Boyden Gray, Principal, Boyden Gray & Associates (1989–1993: White House Counsel); Fred Krupp, President (1984–present), Environmental Defense Fund; Mary D. Nichols, Chairman, California Air Resources Board (1993–1997: Assistant Administrator for Air and Radiation, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency); Roger Porter, IBM Professor of Business and Government, Harvard Kennedy School (1989–1993: Assistant to the President for Economic and Domestic Policy); Richard L. Schmalensee, Howard W. Johnson Professor of Economics and Management, MIT Sloan School of Management (1989–1991: Member, President’s Council of Economic Advisers); and Philip Sharp, President, Resources for the Future (1975–1995: Member, U.S. House of Representatives, Indiana, and Chairman, Energy and Power Subcommittee, House Committee on Natural Resources).

I want to acknowledge the contributions of all of these participants in the research workshop and policy roundtable, as well as the comments and edits some provided on earlier drafts of the policy brief.  Their expertise and experience made this project possible. And, of course, I’m very grateful to the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation for having provided generous support for the workshop and for the preparation of the study.  I hope you find it of interest and value.

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3 Responses to Reflections on Twenty Years of Policy Innovation

  1. Craig says:

    “the bill passed the U.S. House of Representatives but failed to win sufficient support in the Senate.”…because the minority party used the filibuster to prevent debate on the bill from occurring despite the fact that a likely majority of Senators would have voted for final passage of the bill, and majority rule is after all how democracies are supposed to operate.

    That’s how you might have finished your sentence. Ideally in a more concise way but something along those lines.

    A majority existed to pass the climate change bill. Why not write that? It’s true after all.

    http://grist.org/politics/2010-07-28-filibuster-is-giving-progressives-unwarranted-self-esteem-issues/

    And then maybe acknowledge that fact that no matter how fantastic the climate change policies that you and other academics devise, they will ultimately fail. They will fail because the GOP refuses to play ball. That is a stark reality for well meaning academics like yourself but it is a fact that I think your community needs to wake up to.

  2. Joan says:

    I don’t notice Bill Nordhaus, the Sterling economics professor at Yale, among the participants, which is too bad in my view as he influenced my own opposition to cap and trade (as well as the economists who came up with the scheme for So2). I will read the brief; I haven’t done so yet. Professor Nordhaus, as I remember (and I am reducing a complex argument to a sound bit) supported a carbon tax versus cap and trade — it was his argument and that of the originators of the So2 scheme that 1) on a limited basis and where there were sufficient alternative technologies available, cap and trade can work; 2) it nonetheless could causes more price volatility than optimal for technology innovation, which we need with regard to carbon; 3) it would be unwieldy on a global scale and prone to corruption and inefficiencies.

    The politics at the time were influenced by two “externalities”: the mounting outcry against and distrust of Wall Street, which would benefit from cap and trade; and the distrust of the sweeping health care legistlation, which approximately half of the American people felt was “rammed down their throats.” My own view was that the American people were reeling from the economic crisis and needed reassurance — not uncertainty about sweeping changes to the system at that moment. Psychology (building public trust) should not be overlooked in economics, finance, or politics. You might and did get one large bill passed, asking the American people to absorb more than that in a time of crisis was tone deaf, and with it we lost momentum, public trust, and possibility.

    If the Chinese trial balloons on cap and trade seem effective that might restore interest. I am uncertain when, if ever, Wall Street will regain the public trust. As Francis Fukuyma postulated — once lost, it can take a century to regain.

    Craig’s assertion that the GOP refuses to play ball gets us nowhere; it doesn’t build understanding for the opponent’s point of view; help to find common ground (escalating demand pressures and increased volatility around fossil fuels would be one); and simplifies the GOP into a juggernaut, which is far from being the case behind the scenes. Cap and trade was a hand that was overplayed, premature, misjudged, and unfortunate at the time.

  3. Pingback: Climate Change, Public Policy, and the University : Common Resources

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