The UN Climate Summit and a Key Issue for the 2015 Paris Agreement

World leaders converged at the United Nations in New York City this past week for Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s much anticipated Climate Summit, a lead-up to global negotiations that will take place in Lima, Peru, in December of this year, and culminate a year later in Paris.  The challenge before negotiators is great, because there are significant obstacles to reaching a meaningful agreement, as I describe in an Op-Ed that appeared in The New York Times on Sunday, September 21st, “Climate Realities.”

However, partly because of the new path that is being taken under the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action, in which all countries will be included under a common legal framework in a politically realistic hybrid policy architecture, the prognosis for a meaningful international agreement is better now than it has been in decades.  I discuss this briefly at the end of the Times article, and emphasize it in a follow-up Op-Ed that appeared in The Boston Globe on September 23rd, “UN summit can accelerate momentum to a new approach to climate change.”  (Also, for my overall assessment of the UN Climate Summit, see this interview carried out by the Harvard Kennedy School’s Doug Gavel.)

A New Development at the UN Climate Summit

The most significant development at the UN Climate Summit this past week was the degree to which carbon pricing became central to so many discussions, including with leaders from the business community.  As carbon pricing – in particular, cap-and-trade systems – have emerged as the policy instrument of choice in many parts of the world, interest in linking these systems together has grown.  Linkage (unilateral or bilateral recognition of allowances) among carbon markets — and, for that matter links with non-market-based systems — can reduce the aggregate cost of achieving climate targets.  And lower compliance costs can in turn encourage countries to increase the ambition of their contributions under the 2015 Paris agreement.

New Research from Harvard

Because of this, the Harvard Project on Climate Agreements has been collaborating with the International Emissions Trading Association (IETA) to explore the role of linkage in the new international climate change agreement to be completed in Paris.  In this new research, my co-authors (Daniel Bodansky of Arizona State University, Seth Hoedl of Harvard Law School, and Gilbert Metcalf of Tufts University) and I examine linkage — not only among cap-and-trade systems, but among cap-and-trade, carbon tax, and non-market regulatory systems — and the role that linkage should play in the 2015 agreement.  We look both at what would inhibit or even prevent linkage and should therefore be avoided in the 2015 agreement, and what – in a positive sense – should be included in the agreement to facilitate effective linkage of regional, national, and sub-national climate policies.

We released an Executive Summary of our research paper (“Facilitating Linkage of Heterogeneous Regional, National, and Sub-National Policies Through a Future International Agreement”) in New York City on September 22nd at an event co-sponsored by IETA and the Harvard Project, on the sidelines of UN Climate Summit, “Carbon Pricing and the 2015 Agreement” (the agenda of the event is available here).

In the executive summary (which can be downloaded in full here), we conclude that among the design elements the 2015 agreement should avoid because they would inhibit linkage are so-called “supplementarity requirements” that require parties to accomplish all (or a large, specified share) of their emissions-reduction commitments within their national borders. The 2015 agreement also should avoid including detailed linkage rules in the core agreement; an agreement with more flexibility would allow rules to evolve on the basis of experience.

Importantly, we also find that, to advance linkage, the 2015 agreement should:  define key terms, in particular the units that are used for compliance purposes; establish registries and tracking mechanisms; and include default or model rules, from which nations are free to deviate at their discretion.  Overall, the most valuable outcome of the Paris Agreement regarding linkage may simply be including an explicit statement that parties may transfer portions of their emissions-reduction contributions to other parties — and that these transferred units may be used by the transferees to implement their own commitments.

Looking Forward

We will release the complete research paper in November of this year, prior to the Twentieth Conference of the Parties (COP-20) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in Lima, Peru, in December 2014, where the Harvard Project and IETA plan to conduct a side-event that will focus on this work.

When the full paper is released in November, I will provide a more complete description at this blog of our research methods and our findings.

[Additional press coverage is here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.]

Share

Climate Change, Public Policy, and the University

Over the past year or more, across the United States, there has been a groundswell of student activism pressing colleges and universities to divest their holdings in fossil fuel companies from their investment portfolios.  On October 3, 2013, after many months of assessment, discussion, and debate, the President of Harvard University, Drew Faust, issued a long, well-reasoned, and – in my view – ultimately sensible statement on “fossil fuel divestment,” in which she explained why she and the Corporation (Harvard’s governing board) do not believe that “university divestment from the fossil fuel industry is warranted or wise.”  I urge you to read her statement, and decide for yourself how compelling you find it, and whether and how it may apply to your institution, as well.

About 10 days later, two leaders of the student movement at Harvard responded to President Faust in The NationAndrew Revkin, writing at the New York Times Dot Earth blog, highlighted the fact that the students responded in part by saying, “We do not expect divestment to have a financial impact on fossil fuel companies …  Divestment is a moral and political strategy to expose the reckless business model of the fossil fuel industry that puts our world at risk.”

I agree with these students that fossil-fuel divestment by the University would not have financial impacts on the industry, and I also agree with their implication that it would be (potentially) of symbolic value only.  However, it is precisely because of this that I believe President Faust made the right decision.  Let me explain.

The Value of Symbolic Action

If divestment would at best be a symbolic action, without meritorious direct financial impacts, can it not nevertheless be important and of great value?  More broadly, can’t symbolic actions be valuable?

One major problem is that symbolic actions often substitute for truly effective actions by allowing us to fool ourselves into thinking we are doing something meaningful about a problem when we are not.

But even if there are such opportunity costs of symbolic actions, can they not still be merited as part of moral crusades (as the students would presumably argue)?  The answer is, in my view, yes.  The problem, however, is that climate change is fundamentally a scientific, economic, and political challenge.  Viewing it as a moral crusade, I fear, will only play into and exacerbate the terrible political polarization that is already paralyzing Washington, a topic about which I have written previously at this blog.

The Climate Impacts of Divestment

Divestment of fossil fuel stocks would hurt, not help efforts to address global climate change.  First, natural gas is the crucial transition fuel to address climate change.  A major reason for the drop in U.S. CO2 emissions is the increased use of natural gas to generate electricity, as documented in this recent report from the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

Second, even if divestment were to reduce the financial resources of coal, oil, and gas companies (which it would not do), this would only serve to reduce research and development at those same companies of carbon capture and storage (CCS) technologies, as well as other potential technological breakthroughs; and could reduce the development of some renewable sources of energy (which the fossil fuel companies are carrying out as part of their financially rational diversification strategies).

The University’s Comparative Advantage

Most important, as I have argued for years, Harvard’s real contributions to fight climate change and promote sound climate change policies will be through our products:  research, teaching, and outreach.  That is how this great university has made a difference on other societal challenges for decades and centuries, and it is how we will make a real difference on this one.

——————————————————————-

Three and a half years ago, I posted an essay at this blog about what I saw to be the proper role of individuals and institutions in addressing climate change.  Frequently I refer to my previous blog posts, but today I’m going a step further, and reproducing that one from March, 2010, because it applies so directly to the topic at hand (including its Epilogue at the very end):

What’s the Proper Role of Individuals and Institutions in Addressing Climate Change?

Posted on March 8, 2010 by Robert Stavins

This may seem like a trivial question with an obvious answer.  But what really is the proper role for individuals and institutions in addressing climate change?  An immediate and natural response may be that everyone should do their part.  Let’s see what that really means.

Decisions affecting carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, for example, are made primarily by companies and consumers.  This includes decisions by companies about how to produce electricity, as well as thousands of other goods and services; and decisions by consumers regarding what to buy, how to transport themselves, and how to keep their homes warm, cool, and light.

However, despite the fact that these decisions are made by firms and individuals, government action is clearly key, because climate change is an externality, and it is rarely, if ever, in the self-interest of firms or individuals to take unilateral actions.  That’s why the climate problem exists, in the first place.  Voluntary initiatives – no matter how well-intended – will not only be insufficient, but insignificant relative to the magnitude of the problem.

So, the question becomes how to shift decisions by firms and individuals in a climate-friendly direction, such as toward emissions reductions.  Whether conventional standards or market-based instruments are used, meaningful government regulation will be required.

But where does this leave the role and responsibility of individuals and institutions?  Let me use as an example my employer, a university.  A couple of years ago, I met with students advocating for a reduced “carbon foot-print” for the school.  Here is what I told them.

“I was asked by a major oil company to advise on the design of an internal, voluntary tradable permit systems for CO2 emissions.  My response to the company was ‘fine, but the emissions from your production processes — largely refineries — are trivial compared with the emissions from the use of your products (combustion of fossil fuels).  If you really want to do something meaningful about climate change, the focus should be on the use of your products, not your internal production process.’  (My response would have been different had they been a cement producer.)  The oil company proceeded with its internal measures, which – as I anticipated – had trivial, if any impacts on the environment (and they subsequently used the existence of their voluntary program as an argument against government attempts to put in place a meaningful climate policy).”

My view of a university’s responsibilities in the environmental realm is similar.  Our direct impact on the natural environment — such as in terms of CO2 emissions from our heating plants — is absolutely trivial compared with the impacts on the environment (including climate change) of our products:  knowledge produced through research, informed students produced through our teaching, and outreach to the policy world carried out by faculty.

So, I suggested to the students that if they were really concerned with how the university affects climate change, then their greatest attention should be given to priorities and performance in the realms of teaching, research, and outreach.

Of course, it is also true that work on the “greening of the university” can in some cases play a relevant role in research and teaching.  And, more broadly — and more importantly — the university’s actions in regard to its “carbon footprint” can have symbolic value.  And symbolic actions — even when they mean little in terms of real, direct impacts — can have effects in the larger political world.  This is particularly true in the case of a prominent university, such as my own.

But, overall, my institution’s greatest opportunity — indeed, its greatest responsibility — with regard to addressing global climate change is and will be through its research, teaching, and outreach to the policy community.

Why not focus equally on reducing the university’s carbon foot-print while also working to increase and improve relevant research, teaching, and outreach?  The answer brings up a phrase that will be familiar to readers of this blog – opportunity cost.  Faculty, staff, and students all have limited time; indeed, as in many other professional settings, time is the scarcest of scarce resources.  Giving more attention to one issue inevitably means – for some people – giving less time to another.

So my advice to the students was to advocate for more faculty appointments in the environmental realm and to press for more and better courses.  After all, it was student demand at my institution that resulted in the creation of the college’s highly successful concentration (major) in environmental science and public policy.

My bottom line?  Try to focus on actions that can make a real difference, as opposed to actions that may feel good or look good but have relatively little real-world impact, particularly when those feel-good/look-good actions have opportunity costs, that is, divert us from focusing on actions that would make a significant difference.  Climate change is a real and pressing problem.  Strong government actions will be required, as well as enlightened political leadership at the national and international levels.

——————————————————————-

Epilogue:  After I posted the above essay, I was reminded of an incident that took place many years ago (before I came to Harvard for graduate school, in fact) when I was working full-time for the Environmental Defense Fund in Berkeley, California, under the inspired leadership of the late (and truly great) Tom Graff, the long-time guru of progressive California water policy.  EDF was very engaged at the time in promoting better water policies in California, including the use of trading mechanisms and appropriate pricing schemes for scarce water supplies.  A prominent national newspaper which was not friendly to EDF’s work sent a reporter to EDF’s Berkeley office to profile the group’s efforts on water policy in the State.  A staff member found the reporter in the office bathroom examining whether EDF had voluntarily installed various kinds of water conservation devices in its plumbing.  Our reaction at the time was that whether or not EDF had voluntarily installed water conservation devices was simply and purely an (intentional) distraction from the important work the group was carrying out.   After several decades, my view of that incident has not changed.

Share

Thinking About the Energy-Efficiency Gap

Adoption of energy-efficient technologies could reap both private and social rewards, in the form of economic, environmental, and other social benefits from reduced energy consumption. Social benefits include improvements in air quality, reduced greenhouse-gas emissions, and increased energy security. In response, governments around the world have adopted policies to increase energy efficiency.  Still, there is a broadly held view that various barriers to the adoption of energy-efficient technologies have prevented the realization of a substantial portion of these benefits.

For some thirty years, there have been discussions and debates among researchers and others in academia, government, non-profits, and private industry regarding the so-called “energy efficiency gap” (or “energy paradox”) — the apparent reality that many energy-efficiency technologies are not adopted even when it makes sense for consumers and businesses to do so, based on their private costs and benefits. That is, decision makers appear to “under-invest” in energy-efficient technologies, relative to the predictions of some engineering and economic models.

What causes this gap?  The answer to that question could presumably help inform the development of better public policy in this realm.

Possible Explanations for the Energy-Efficiency Gap

Potential explanations for the energy efficiency gap tend to fall into three broad categories: (1) market failures, such as lack of information or misplaced incentives; (2) behavioral effects, such as inattentiveness to future energy savings when purchasing energy-consuming products; and (3) modeling flaws, such as assumptions that understate the costs or overstate the benefits of energy efficiency.  In this essay, I simply want to outline the types of hypothetical explanations of the gap that have been posited within these three broad categories.

Market-Failure Explanations

First, various Innovation Market Failures have been posited, including:  research and development (R&D) and learning-by-doing spillovers; inefficient product quality and differentiation due to market power; and inefficient introduction of new products due to consumer taste spillovers (for example, consumers becoming comfortable with a new technology).

Second, another set of potential market-failure explanations for the gap may be characterized as Information Problems.  These include:  lack of information on the part of consumers (learning-by-using or so-called experience goods; energy prices; energy consumption of products; and available substitutes); asymmetric information (the “lemons problem”); and split incentives and principal-agent issues (such as the frequently-discussed renter/owner dichotomy).

Third, there are Capital Market Failures and Liquidity Constraints, which may be a particularly significant issue in developing-country contexts.

Fourth, there are Energy Market Failures, including various externalities (environmental, energy security, congestion, and accident risk), as well as average-cost pricing of electricity.

Behavioral Explanations

The rise of behavioral economics has brought to the fore another well-defined set of potential explanations of the energy efficiency gap.  A variety of alternative taxonomies could be employed to separate these explanations, but one such taxonomy would categorize the explanations as:

Model and Measurement Explanations

The third category of possible explanations of the energy efficiency gap consists essentially of a set of reasons why observed levels of diffusion of energy-efficiency technologies may actually be privately optimal.

First, there is the possibility of unobserved or understated adoption costs, including unaccounted for product characteristics.

Second, there may be overstated benefits of adoption, due to inferior project execution relative to assumptions, and/or poor policy design.

Third, an incorrect discount rate may be employed in an analysis, when the correct consumer and firm discount rates should vary with:

  • opportunity cost of and access to capital
  • income
  • buying versus retrofitting equipment
  • systematic risk
  • option value (see below)

Fourth, there is frequently heterogeneity across end users in the benefits and costs of employing energy-efficiency technologies, so that what is privately optimal on average will not be privately optimal for all.  This can refer either to static (cross-sectional) heterogeneity or to dynamic (intertemporal) heterogeneity, that is, technology improvements over time, which raises two possibilities:  the reality of some potential adopters being short of the frontier, and the presence of option value to waiting.

Fifth and finally, there is the possibility of uncertainty (real, not informational, as above), irreversibility, and option value.  This could be due to uncertainty regarding future energy prices, or can be linked with option value that arises for delaying investments that have only minimal if any salvage value.

Public Policy and Next Steps

Determining the validity of each of these possible explanations — and the degree to which each contributes to the energy efficiency gap — are crucial steps in crafting the most appropriate public policy responses.

To inform future research and policy, Professor Richard Newell of Duke University and I have launched an initiative – sponsored by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation — to synthesize past work on these potential explanations of the energy paradox and identify key gaps in knowledge.  We are conducting a comprehensive review and assessment of published and ongoing social-science research on the adoption of energy-efficient technologies, including scholarly literature, industry case studies, reports from national and sub-national governments, and, to the extent possible, consulting reports evaluating specific programs.

We are working with leading social scientists — including scholars from economics, psychology, and other disciplines — to examine the various possible explanations of the energy paradox and thereby to help identify the frontiers of knowledge on the diffusion of energy-efficient technologies.  We hope the products of this initiative will help decision makers in industry and government better understand the energy efficiency gap, and will thereby contribute to decisions that maximize the potential economic, environmental, and other social benefits associated with optimal adoption of energy-efficient technologies.  As materials become available, we will post them at the project’s Harvard website and the project’s Duke website, and I will alert readers of this blog.  In the meantime, please stay tuned.

Share