Vision for Energy Transition

In our podcast series, “Environmental Insights: Discussions on Policy and Practice from the Harvard Environmental Economics Program,” I’ve had the pleasure of engaging in conversations over the past three years with a number of truly outstanding economists who have carried out important work in the realm of environment, energy, and resource economics, and also served in important government positions, and my most recent podcast episode is no exception, because I’m joined by James Stock, the Harold Hitchings Burbank Professor of Political Economy at Harvard, where he is also Harvard’s inaugural Vice Provost for Climate and Sustainability, and the Director of the new Salata Institute for Climate and Sustainabilty.  Also, Jim served as a Member of President Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers, where he focused on macroeconomics and energy & environmental policy.

In the podcast, we discuss the arc of Jim’s economic research, including on energy and climate change, his government service, his thoughts on the current state of climate change policy, as well as new his new role directing the Salata Institute at Harvard.  You’ll find this and much more in the latest episode of “Environmental Insights: Discussions on Policy and Practice from the Harvard Environmental Economics Program,” a podcast produced by the Harvard Environmental Economics Program.  I hope you will listen to our complete conversation here.

It is striking that when talking about recent developments in U.S. climate policy, particularly over the past year, Jim Stock is really quite positive.

“The nation has made huge progress over [the course of] 2022 with the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act,” he said. “This is a huge piece of legislation. It’s really going to set the stage for driving substantial emission reductions, especially in the power sector. So that’s fantastic, [and] we all have to applaud that passage.”

Jim also commends the U.S. Congress for its bipartisan infrastructure bill which includes – among many other things – some $5 billion over five years to help states create a network of electric vehicle charging stations.  But even with such significant pieces of legislation, Stock acknowledges that the most optimistic projection for emission reductions in 2040 relative to 2005 is only about 40 percent.

“So, it’s not even a glass half-full situation,” Stock remarks. “We’ve done this huge amount of work and we’ve passed this really important legislation, but we’re only at 40 percent reduction. There is so much more work that needs to be done, and I think a big part of that work is actually figuring out what the right agenda is.”

Part of the agenda, Stock says, is determining what actions need to be taken at all levels of government and business to achieve meaningful progress. But the potential for significant progress is possible, he argues, because of the tremendous technological advancements in recent years.   Interestingly, Jim Stock thus explains the reliance in the Inflation Reduction Act on “carrots” (subsidies), as opposed to “sticks,” not just on the basis of political feasibility, but also on the reality of technological change.

“If you think back to 2005 … there really weren’t good alternatives to coal and natural gas in the power sector, and electric vehicles were ridiculously expensive, and we just didn’t have the technology.  Today everything is totally different, where we are looking at technologies, whether they’re light duty vehicles or solar or wind, and now increasingly batteries, even grid storage batteries, are really becoming at a much better cost point and are actually beating out their fossil fuel alternatives. So now the question is, what can we do to spur that?  At this point, subsidies can be very effective.”

I also ask Jim about his recent appointment as director of the Salata Institute, and he responds by noting that it reflects Harvard’s commitment to pursue pragmatic solutions to the climate problem and communicate them to policymakers and the general public.

“The mission of the Institute is to harness the strengths and abilities and powers of Harvard University and its scholars and students to press forward viable solutions and practical solutions in an impactful way in the real world,” he says, emphasizing that the challenge reaches across multiple disciplines. “It spans economics. It spans the sciences. It spans health and spans business, and so you need to have expertise drawing from across the different parts of the university and different fields to really be able to make progress.”

For this and much, much more, I encourage you to listen to this 45th episode of the Environmental Insights series, with future episodes scheduled to drop each month.  You can find a transcript of our conversation at the website of the Harvard Environmental Economics Program.  Previous episodes have featured conversations with:

“Environmental Insights” is hosted on SoundCloud, and is also available on iTunes, Pocket Casts, Spotify, and Stitcher.


An Experienced Economist Reflects on Government Service, Carbon Pricing, and Climate Policy

Having served as the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Climate & Energy Economics in the U.S. Department of the Treasury in 2021-2022, Catherine Wolfram has some particularly relevant insights to offer on the development and implementation of climate change policy in the most recent episode of my monthly podcast.  Wolfram is the Cora Jane Flood Professor of Business Administration at the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley, currently on leave at the Harvard Kennedy School.  In the podcast, we discuss her time in government service and her thoughts and hopes for a carbon pricing scheme.  You’ll find this and much more in the newest episode of “Environmental Insights: Discussions on Policy and Practice from the Harvard Environmental Economics Program,” a podcast produced by the Harvard Environmental Economics Program.  I hope you will listen to our complete conversation here.

In this new podcast episode, Catherine Wolfram, who earned her PhD in Economics from MIT, begins by reflecting on her service in the Biden Administration, and she does so in very positive terms, saying that it was an “honor and thrill of a lifetime.”

“I would say the high point was definitely the work on the price cap on Russian oil. That was the main thing that I spent time on in the last 10 months of my time at Treasury, and was absolutely fascinating from so many different perspectives,” she says. “I learned a lot about foreign diplomacy, or I should say that I observed foreign diplomacy in action.”

During her time at the Treasury Department, Congress passed the Inflation Reduction Act, important legislation that authorizes $391 billion in spending on energy and climate change initiatives, making it the most important climate legislation ever enacted in the United States.

“A lot of the Inflation Reduction Act is being implemented through tax credits, and that’s Treasury’s purview, so [although] it was not my office within Treasury (it was another office, the Office of Tax Policy), I … [attended] many meetings about what started out as the Build Back Better Act and became the Inflation Reduction Act. So, that was really fun to see, and is certainly a momentous piece of legislation,” she remarks.

Despite the reliance on subsidies (tax credits) in the Inflation Reduction Act, Catherine says that she remains optimistic about the potential role of carbon pricing in climate change policy.

“I would not call carbon pricing dead,” she argues. “I could see it coming back in some form, maybe not the economy-wide carbon price that textbooks favor, but maybe something that starts, for instance, with the industrial sector … on a more limited scale.”

More broadly, Wolfram expresses optimism that the international community will figure out creative ways to adopt climate policies that will make a positive difference.

“I think if the G7 countries can get together and figure out how to put a price cap on Russian oil, [then] hopefully the G7 countries can get together and figure out good ways to use their presence in the international trade community to address climate change.”

However, Catherine also expresses concern about the possibility that an overreliance on tax credits and government subsidies in the design of climate policy could set back efforts to impose effective carbon pricing.  

“I worry that there’s a future that evolves where the European Union gets pressure from its industry, and loses enthusiasm for its carbon price, and so the competitive pressures from industry that are seeing these subsidies over in the U.S., and thinking of moving to the U.S., that causes the EU to backtrack on climate policy, just because we have these different approaches to reducing emissions.”

For this and much, much more, I encourage you to listen to this 44th episode of the Environmental Insights series, with future episodes scheduled to drop each month.  You can find a transcript of our conversation at the website of the Harvard Environmental Economics Program.  Previous episodes have featured conversations with:

“Environmental Insights” is hosted on SoundCloud, and is also available on iTunes, Pocket Casts, Spotify, and Stitcher.


Can Europe Decarbonize in the Midst of a Geopolitical Crisis?

Is the geopolitical crisis due to the Russian invasion of Ukraine likely to accelerate or retard the energy transformation in the European Union?  This and related topics on decarbonizing Europe were central to the most recent webinar in our series, Conversations on Climate Change and Energy Policy, sponsored by the Harvard Project on Climate Agreements (HPCA).  This time, we featured a conversation with Dan Jørgensen, the Danish Minister of Climate, Energy, and Utilities, who expressed his hope (if not expectation) that the tragic war in Ukraine will help accelerate the clean energy transformation by weaning Europe off Russian gas.  A video recording (and transcript) of the entire webinar is available here.

As many readers of this blog know, in this webinar series I feature leading authorities on climate change policy, whether from academia, the private sector, NGOs, or government.  In this most recent Conversation, I was fortunate to engage with someone who has had solid and important experience in government.

Dan Jørgensen, who played a significant role in maintaining the focus on reducing the rise of global temperatures during the 26th Conference of the Parties (COP-26) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in Glasgow last November, lauded the efforts of European countries like Greece that are proclaiming their intent to reduce their use of Russian gas in favor of other energy sources, although Greece has simultaneously announced that it will therefore have to increase its use of coal for electricity generation.

“One of the few positive things that might come out of a terrible situation is that we will now be forced to speed up the green transformation away from fossils in Europe,” Jørgensen says. “It has opened the eyes… I think, for decision makers all over Europe to ramp up the replacement of fossils – that’s gas, that’s oil, that’s coal, with renewables. And we have a lot of potential for that in Europe.”

Jørgensen talks about important legislation being negotiated in the European Union which would create new directives on energy efficiency and renewable energy that could, he states, help EU countries greatly reduce their dependency on Russian fossil fuel.

Much of the discussion also focuses on COP-26 and the decision by participating countries to agree on language calling for a “phase down” of unabated coal and to reduce inefficient fossil fuel subsidies.

“On one hand, I’m disappointed that the text is not stronger than it is on those issues. On the other hand, it is really huge progress that it’s now in the text, meaning that…[it will be] the starting point for the next negotiations [at COP-27 in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt],” Jørgensen remarks. “The overall result was a positive one. There was some real progress. But first and foremost, the aim of the COP-26 meeting was to keep 1.5 alive, so to speak. What does that mean? It means that if we hadn’t made the decisions that we actually made then…it would be almost impossible for us to keep the promise of staying below 1.5 alive, and it wouldn’t be credible.”

Looking ahead to COP-27, Jørgensen says negotiators will focus on the promise of more ambitious nationally determined contributions (NDCs) as well as questions surrounding finance for developing countries requiring short-term assistance to reduce their dependency on fossil fuels and adapt to climate change.

“I do understand how some of the growing economies of this planet that are also now amongst the biggest emitters, why they think it’s only fair that the richer countries of the planet help them in the transformation,” he states. “We have a climate problem because rich countries have been polluting for more than 100 years. Now, some countries are raising their standard of living and…starting to pollute more. But I don’t really think it would be fair for us to say, ‘You cannot have the same standard of living as we do.’ That would not be legitimate, in my point of view. And it wouldn’t be fair if we didn’t also offer help to mitigate the problem. So, we need to have a clear focus on the financing part.”

Jørgensen also shares his thoughts on the potential for carbon trading systems to reduce global emissions, arguing that pricing can be complicated but is absolutely necessary.

“We need clear price signals in the market,” he says. “It needs to be more expensive to produce in a way where you’re dependent on fossil fuels and less expensive to do the opposite.”

I ask Jørgensen about the European Union’s Emissions Trading System (EU ETS), established in 2005 as the first large greenhouse gas emissions trading scheme in the world, and which now covers more than 11,000 factories, power stations, and other installations in 31 countries, including all 27 EU countries.

“It is actually pretty incredible that we have this well-functioning system with 27 countries that is economically rational, that works, that cuts emissions, even in times of crisis where normally many countries will probably say, ‘Okay, well, we want to save the climate, but we need to get through this crisis first,’” he says. “In times of crisis like that, it’s extremely important that we have these systems. And what I like especially about it is that it’s a win-win. I mean, it is the cheapest, most efficient way of making a transformation.”

During the forum, Jørgensen also responds to questions from attendees from around the world, including questions focusing on carbon capture and sequestration, solar radiation management, methane, nuclear power, and the youth climate movement. 

All of this and much more can be seen and heard in our full Conversation here.  I hope you will check it out.

Previous episodes in this series – Conversations on Climate Change and Energy Policy – have featured Meghan O’Sullivan’s thoughts on Geopolitics and Upheaval in Oil Markets, Jake Werksman’s assessment of the European Union’s Green New Deal, Rachel Kyte’s examination of “Using the Pandemic Recovery to Spur the Clean Transition,” Joseph Stiglitz’s reflections on “Carbon Pricing, the COVID-19 Pandemic, and Green Economic Recovery,” Joe Aldy describing “Lessons from Experience for Greening an Economic Stimulus,” Jason Bordoff commenting on “Prospects for Energy and Climate Change Policy under the New U.S. Administration,” Ottmar Edenhofer talking about “The Future of European Climate Change Policy,” Nathaniel Keohane reflecting on “The Path Ahead for Climate Change Policy,” Valerie Karplus talking about “The Future of China’s National Carbon Market,” Laurence Tubiana reflecting on “A European Perspective on COP26,” and Congressman Garret Graves on “U.S. Climate Change Policy in an Era of Political Polarization.”

Watch for an announcement about our next webinar. You will be able to register in advance for the event on the website of the Harvard Project on Climate Agreements.