Category Archives: Natural Resource Economics

Crude Oil Prices, Climate Change, and Global Welfare

A few weeks ago, I participated in a panel session titled, “The Remarkable Transformation of the Energy Sector: Does it Also Transform Our World.” The motivating question was: “Is the dramatic decline in oil prices a complete gift to the West because of the enormous funds being saved, or is it an unintended Trojan horse because development of renewable energy as well as new fossil-fuel sources will decline in the West, posing longer new challenges?”

The other members of the panel – from private industry – had vastly more expertise (and relevant insights) on fossil-fuel markets, but here’s what I had to say. This is hardly at the sweet spot of my professional competence, so I welcome your comments and corrections! In general, how would you answer that question?


I start (and started) from the premise that the dramatic decline in crude oil prices that took place from August, 2014 ($96/barrel), to March, 2015 ($44/barrel), was due – on the one hand – to decreased demand, a function of slow economic growth in Asia, Europe, and elsewhere, endogenous, price-driven technological change leading to greater fuel efficiency, and policy-driven technological change that also has been leading to greater fuel efficiency, such as more stringent Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards in the United States; and – on the other hand – was due to increased supply, partly a function of the growth of unconventional (tight) U.S. oil production (a product of the combination of two technologies – horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing).  And, in the presence of all of this, Saudi Arabia decided not to restrict its output to prop up prices.

[Before proceeding, I should note that since May of this year, crude oil prices have increased by about 30% from their March low, but as of May ($60/barrel) are still far below their August 2014 level.]


When one examines virtually any significant price change from an economic perspective, there inevitably seems to be both good news and bad news. So with the fall in crude oil prices.

The Bad News

First of all, I assume that low crude oil prices are problematic for the economic and political stability of some of the oil-producing/exporting countries, including Saudi Arabia, Russia, Venezuela, and Nigeria.  (For details, see Bordoff and Losz 2015, below.)

Second, it’s frequently been asserted that low oil prices are bad news for the development of alternative forms of energy, including renewable sources. Of course, in the United States, there isn’t much effect on electricity generation from renewable (wind and solar), because in the U.S. electricity sector, renewable supplies compete with coal and natural gas, not with fuel oil (but in other countries, which use more fuel oil for electricity generation than we do, there can be a disincentive for renewable dispatch – and hence development).

Third, there can be – indeed, has been – a major impact in the U.S. motor fuels sector, where the market for biofuels (mainly ethanol) is negatively affected by low conventional gasoline prices. However, these impacts must be somewhat muted by public policies, which directly or indirectly subsidize (or, in fact, require) the use of biofuels.

Fourth, low gasoline prices have resulted in decreased demand by consumers for motor vehicles with high fuel efficiency, and SUV and pickup truck sales have rebounded from previous lows. But these effects are also muted, to some degree, by public policies, including U.S. CAFE standards.   Finally, low gasoline prices also have short-term effects in the form of more driving and fuel use by the existing fleet of motor vehicles, which is bad news in terms of emissions (and congestion).

Differences across Sectors

Before turning to the “good news” about low crude oil prices (and there surely is good news), it’s worthwhile noting that whether individual businesses find these low prices to be good or bad depends largely upon the economic sector in which they operate. For example, whereas commercial airlines are finally making profits, due to the low price of jet fuel (their most important variable operating cost), manufacturers of commercial aircraft will see lower demand for new planes if low jet fuel prices become the long-term norm. The primary factor driving the larger airlines to replace aircraft in their fleets is the lower operating costs due to the much greater fuel efficiency of new models.

And, of course, low oil prices are systematically bad news for oil producers, including the major U.S. companies.

The Good News

Finally, here is the upside of these significant changes in crude oil markets.

Low oil prices are unambiguously good for aggregate global welfare. This includes consumers in the United States, Europe, Japan, and South Korea. And, at least temporarily, OPEC seems to have lost its ability to set a price floor.

Low oil prices mean an increase in consumers’ disposable income, amounting to nearly $2,500 per U.S. household annually, according to Stephen Brown (see below).  If we subtract the income losses to U.S. oil producers, the net gain per U.S. household amounts to a bit more than $800 per year, with gains accruing disproportionately to low-income households.

Turning to the environmental realm, there is also good news, or at least the possibility of good news. An opportunity for new, sensible energy and climate change policies has emerged with these low oil prices.

First, now is the time to reduce – or better yet, phase out – costly and inefficient fuel subsidies, which exist in many parts of the world, particularly in developing countries.

Second, with gasoline prices relatively low – and natural gas supplies holding down electricity prices, at least in the United States – there has never been a better time to introduce progressive climate policies in the form of carbon-pricing, whether via carbon taxes or through carbon cap-and-trade. Unfortunately, none of us should hold our breath waiting for that to happen.


For further reading, I recommend:

Bordoff, Jason, and Akos Losz.  “Oil Shock: Decoding the Causes and Consequences of the 2014 Oil Price Drop.”  Horizons, Spring 2015, Issue No. 3, pp. 190-206.

Brown, Stephen P. A.  “Falling Oil Prices: Implications in the United States.” Resources, Number 189.  Washington:  Resources for the Future, 2015, pp. 40-44.

When Reasonable Policy Discussions Become Unreasonable Personal Attacks

Recently I was reminded of the controversy that erupted late in 2014 about remarks made by the distinguished health economist, Jonathan Gruber, professor at MIT for two decades. Professor Gruber, one of the country’s leading experts on health policy, had played an important role in the construction of the Obama administration’s Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, subsequently derided by its political opponents as “Obamacare.”

A brief but intense political controversy and media feeding-frenzy erupted when videos surfaced in which Professor Gruber – largely in a series of academic seminars and conferences – explained how the Act was crafted and marketed in ways that would make it easier to develop political support. For example, he noted that insurance companies were taxed instead of patients, fundamentally the same thing economically, but vastly more palatable politically. He went on to note that this was possible because of “the lack of economic understanding of the American voter.” His key point was that the program’s “lack of transparency is a huge political advantage.” Is that a controversial or even unique observation?

A Truism of Political Economy

Any economist who has worked on the development or analysis of public policy – in areas ranging from health care policy to environmental policy to financial regulation – recognizes the truth of the key insight Gruber was communicating to his audiences. It is inevitably in the interests of the advocates of a policy to make the policy’s benefits transparent and to make its costs vague, even unobservable; just as it is in the interests of the opponents of a policy to make that policy’s benefits obscure and its costs as clear as the light of day.

The specific construction of hundreds of public policies are explained by this truism. In the United States, Corporate Average Fuel Economy Standards (or “CAFE standards”) have been a bipartisan Congressional success, despite the fact that the costs they place on the American public per unit of fuel savings are vastly greater than the costs of a commensurate increase in gasoline taxes. Likewise, when conservative opponents of CO2 cap-and-trade wanted to stop the House-passed bill in its tracks, they resorted to demonizing it as “cap-and-tax.”

So, the central lesson Professor Gruber was offering is hardly controversial, and its enunciation ought not lead to the terrible attacks that he suffered. He doesn’t need me to defend him, but he was unfairly demonized, simply because people disagreed with him politically regarding the merits of the public policy he had helped develop and support.

Unfortunately, I was reminded of this recently when I found myself subject to attempted demonization, because someone did not agree with a policy I supported. What happened to me is trivial compared with what Professor Gruber has gone through, but it prompts me to write about it today.

Can We Agree to Disagree?

I have written before at this blog about the reasons why I support my university’s decision not to divest its endowment of its fossil-fuel company holdings. I won’t repeat those arguments here, but will note that I have gone out of my way not to draw conclusions or make recommendations about what other universities or other institutions ought to do in this regard, including when I agreed to write an essay on the subject for Yale Environment 360. My analysis and conclusions were not developed in spite of my decades of research, teaching, and outreach on global climate change policy; rather, they were developed because of my years of work in this area.

There are people, some of whom I greatly respect, who have different perspectives on this issue, and have come to very different conclusions than have I. We have essentially agreed to disagree. They haven’t cast aspersions on me, nor I on them. As my writings on this topic have illustrated, there are many facets to the issue, including economics, politics, ethics, and even religion. No one has cornered the market on wisdom.

And What About the Keystone XL Pipeline?

Likewise, on a quite different topic, on January 8, 2015, Coral Davenport wrote a story in the New York Times about the political debates in Washington regarding the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, and stated that “… most energy and policy experts say the battle over Keystone overshadows the importance of the project as an environmental threat or an engine of the economy. The pipeline will have little effect, they say, on climate change, production of the Canadian oil sands, gasoline prices and the overall job market in the United States.” She went on to quote me (accurately) as having said, “The political fight about Keystone is vastly greater than the economic, environmental or energy impact of the pipeline itself. It doesn’t make a big difference in energy prices, employment or climate change either way.” What I said was consistent with the evidence at the time (note, however, that as oil prices fall, the possibility increases that the Canadian oil sands would be uneconomic to develop without the pipeline). Once again, the analysis is not one-dimensional, and reasonable people can respectfully disagree.

When Policy Debates Become Personal Attacks

But these two topics – the Keystone XL pipeline and fossil-fuel divestment – have increasingly become engulfed in highly-charged campaigns and exceptionally heated political debates. As part of this, my integrity was recently attacked, because of my views.  A young and – I’m sure – well-intentioned climate activist and journalist, writing in the Huffington Post, implied that my assessment in the New York Times of the Washington political debates regarding Keystone XL and my support for Harvard’s divestment policy, are because “Stavins has done consulting work for Chevron, Exelon, Duke Energy and the Western States Petroleum Association.”

The author of the Huffington Post piece selected those three companies and one trade association from a list of 92 “Outside Activities” that I voluntarily provide as a means of public disclosure. The author chose not to note that the vast majority of my outside engagements are with universities, think tanks, environmental advocacy NGOs, foundations, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, other federal agencies and departments, international organizations, and environment ministries around the world (not to mention a set of Major League Baseball teams, but that’s another story altogether).

But what about the four he did choose to highlight? First, I am very proud of my work supported by Chevron and the closely-related Western States Petroleum Association, in which I have carried out a series of analyses studying how to strengthen and improve California’s climate policy under AB-32. That’s right – developing and assessing ways to make the AB-32 cap-and-trade system and the related suite of “complementary policies” more environmentally effective, more cost-effective, and more equitable (I’ve written about this work several times at this blog).

Likewise, my work supported by Duke Energy began a decade ago when I helped the former CEO bring home to his senior management the importance of climate change and the importance of well-designed public policies (in particular, carbon cap-and-trade) to address it. All of my subsequent work supported by Duke Energy likewise has focused on the design of better market-based instruments – cap-and-trade – to reduce CO2 emissions.

And, finally, what about Exelon? This was interesting and important work I carried out with my friend and colleague, MIT Professor Richard Schmalensee, Dean Emeritus of the Sloan School of Management (I wrote about this work at this blog and at the Huffington Post). In 2011, with support from Exelon, Professor Schmalensee and I analyzed EPA’s proposals for new rules to regulate the interstate transport of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides emitted from electric power generation facilities. You can read in detail about our multi-faceted assessment, but the bottom-line is that we provided strong support for a stringent rule. Our brief summary at the University of Pennsylvania’s RegBlog concludes: “In sum, while imposing incremental costs to achieve reductions in SO2 and NOX emissions, the Transport Rule would produce significant benefits in terms of improved health outcomes, and better environmental amenities and services, which studies estimate significantly outweigh the costs.”

Sadness and Empathy

It is nothing less than absurd – and, frankly, quite sad – that someone would suggest that my views on divestment and my New York Times quote on the politics of Keystone XL were somehow due to my having received previous support for analytical work for an oil company, a trade association, and two electric utilities. This was an unfortunate move to question my credibility and damage my reputation in a misguided attempt to demonize me, rather than engage in reasonable discussion and debate. Unfortunately, most of those who have read the activist/journalist’s original commentary and have possibly repeated his claims to others will not see the essay you have just read.

This is surely nothing compared with what Professor Gruber has gone through, but it has certainly increased my empathy for him, as well as my admiration.


Personal Attacks: An Even Sadder Epilogue

It’s nearly two months since I wrote the essay above, but a series of recent events prompts me to add this sad epilogue.  My family and I have recently been subject to cyber-bullying, harassment, and threats, because of my public stance in support of Harvard’s decision not to divest from its endowment portfolio its holdings of fossil-fuel company stocks.

In particular, the most recent message sent to me said in part: “You may be assured that I will have a lot to say about your vocal public support of Harvard’s fossil fuel investments, … and that I have a particular interest in making sure that [your] financial connections to the fossil fuel industry are made fully public …” This threat to tarnish my reputation by publicizing a supposed conflict of interest is striking for a number of reasons:

  • In several essays at this blog and elsewhere, I have carefully explained my reasons for supporting Harvard’s decision not to divest;
  • In several essays at this blog and elsewhere, I have been completely up front about receiving support for (publically available) analytical work I’ve carried out for private-sector companies (and have long provided a list of all outside engagements at my website);
  • In the essay above, I documented the fundamentally pro-environment, policy-analytic work I had done for the specific companies mentioned; and
  • The claim that my position regarding Harvard divestment has somehow been influenced by my work with an oil company and an industry trade association defies logic.

The last item on this list – the fundamental illogic of such a claim – merits explanation. People on all sides of the divestment issue (including leaders of the student movement, and including the person who wrote the threat I quoted above) acknowledge that divestment will have no direct financial impacts on the respective companies. Rather, the merit of divestment that is most frequently cited by supporters is its symbolic value. Because divestment has no financial impacts on the fossil-fuel companies, those companies don’t care much about it. They would not care one way or the other what I might have to say on the topic. Hence, even if I did want to curry favor with those companies, that would not lead me (or anyone else) to take a particular position on the divestment issue.

The more important question to ask is whether my research, teaching, and outreach initiatives on climate change economics and policy have been biased by my having carried out consulting assignments for an oil company and trade association (two of a hundred outside engagements over the past several years)? That is, if there really was a conflict of interest, then in an effort to make those companies happy, I would presumably pull my punches regarding recommendations of what does matter to those companies – public policies that will reduce their profits by increasing their costs of doing business and/or by reducing demand for their products. But nothing could be further from the truth!

For a decade or more, my research, teaching, and outreach have focused on more enlightened, stronger, and better climate change policies. I have been outspoken in regard to the pressing need for well-designed carbon-price instruments at the national and sub-national levels, and for the need for better, more effective international climate policies, both under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and through other venues. This is reflected in my published research, my teaching, and my outreach efforts, including through this blog.

It is ironic, offensive, and sad that anyone would suggest that my support of Harvard’s divestment position is somehow tied to my outside engagements. That suggestion – and the recent threats I have received – defies logic and is contradicted by the record.

The IPCC at a Crossroads

Love it or hate it, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) plays a very important role in global climate change policy around the world. This is because its reports enjoy a degree of credibility that renders them influential for public opinion, and – more important – it is because the reports are accepted as the definitive source on all matters climate change by international negotiators working under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). In previous essays at this blog, I have written both about problems with the IPCC process (Is the IPCC Government Approval Process Broken?, April 25, 2014) and about its significant merits (Understanding the IPCC: An Important Follow-Up, May 3, 2014; The Final Stage of IPCC AR5 – Last Week’s Outcome in Copenhagen, November 4, 2014).

The IPCC is now at a crossroads. Its Fifth Assessment Report (AR5) is now complete and largely successful (see my previous essays cited above). But, like many large institutions, the IPCC has experienced severe growing pains. Its size has increased to the point that it has become cumbersome, it sometimes fails to address the most important issues, and – most striking of all – it is now at risk of losing the participation of the world’s best scientists, due to the massive burdens that participation entails.

The good news is that this is a moment of considerable opportunity for addressing these and other challenges, because the direction of future assessments is now open for discussion and debate. Indeed, as I write this, the 195 member countries of the IPCC are meeting in plenary in Nairobi, Kenya, to discuss – among other topics –the future of the IPCC.

A Potentially Important Meeting on Another Continent

Just one week before the Kenya IPCC sessions commenced, another, much smaller meeting took place about 4,000 miles northwest of Nairobi – in Berlin, Germany. Twenty-four participants with experience with the IPCC met in Berlin for a three-day workshop on the future of international climate-assessment processes, from February 18th through 20th. The aim of the workshop was to take stock and reflect on lessons learned in past assessments – including those of the IPCC – in order to identify options for improving future assessment processes.

Participants included social scientists who contributed in various capacities to AR5 and earlier IPCC assessments, users of IPCC reports (from national governments and intergovernmental organizations), and representatives of other stakeholder groups. Participants came from both developed and developing countries, and discussions were held under Chatham House rules, with no public attribution of any comments to individuals.

The workshop (titled “Assessment and Communication of the Social Science of Climate Change: Bridging Research and Policy”) was co-organized by four academic and research organizations based in Europe and the United States: Fondazione Eni Enrico Mattei (FEEM, Italy), the Harvard Project on Climate Agreements (USA), the Mercator Research Institute on Global Commons and Climate Change (MCC, Germany), and the Stanford Environmental and Energy Policy Analysis Center (USA).  FEEM, the Mercator Institute, and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation provided financial support for the workshop.

Possible Ways Forward for the IPCC

As I noted above, now is a moment of considerable opportunity, because the future of the IPCC is open for discussion and debate, including at the meeting taking place this week in Nairobi. In this context, two of my co-organizers – Carlo Carraro of FEEM and Charles Kolstad of Stanford – and I have written a brief memorandum, based on our reflections on the Berlin workshop discussion. We describe a set of specific challenges and opportunities facing the IPCC, and provide options for improving the IPCC’s process of assessing scientific research on climate change. The complete memorandum is available here for your reading, and so I won’t attempt to summarize the highlights in this blog post, but simply note that our analysis focuses on five areas:

  • Improving integration and coordination across IPCC working groups, and enhancing the interface between scientists and governments;
  • Enhancing the interface between the IPCC and various social scientific disciplines and communities;
  • Increasing efforts – in innovative ways – to facilitate contributions of expertise from developing countries;
  • Increasing the efficiency of IPCC operations and ensuring the scientific integrity of its work products through targeted organizational improvements; and
  • Strengthening outreach and communications.

I should also note that Carraro served as Vice-Chair, and Kolstad and I served as Coordinating Lead Authors, all of Working Group III of the IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report, but our organizing of the workshop and our authoring of this new memorandum were carried out in our roles as researchers, and completely independently of our former official capacities with the IPCC.

The Path Ahead

The memorandum is only the first of several products that will be forthcoming from this initiative. Over the coming months, we will produce a comprehensive report from the workshop (in time for the IPCC’s next meeting in October of this year, as well as the subsequent UNFCCC meeting in Paris in December). When that report is available, I will be pleased to bring it to the attention of readers of this blog.

Assessing the Outcome of the Lima Climate Talks

In the early morning hours of Sunday, December 14th, the Twentieth Conference of the Parties (COP-20) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) concluded in Lima, Peru with an agreement among 195 countries, the “Lima Call for Climate Action,” which represents both a classic compromise between the rich and poor countries, and a something of a breakthrough after twenty years of difficult climate negotiations.

Just before two o’clock in the morning, the President of COP-20, Manuel Pulgar Vidal, Peru’s Minister of Environment, gaveled the approval of the text, without dissent. At that moment, the foundation was established for the next major international climate agreement, which – under the auspices of the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action – will be finalized and signed one year from now at COP-21 in Paris, France, for implementation in 2020.

After five days on the ground in Lima, where I participated in a variety of events and met with a diverse set of national negotiating teams, I’ve reviewed the agreed text of the Lima Call for Climate Action (which I abbreviate below as the “Lima decision”), and can now reflect on its gestation, its meaning, and its implications.

The Lima Call for Climate Action

By establishing a new structure in which all countries will state (over the next six months) their contributions to emissions mitigation, this latest climate accord moves the process in a productive direction in which all nations will contribute to the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions.

Working to fulfill the promise made in the 2011 Durban Platform for Enhanced Action to include all parties (countries) under a common legal framework, the Lima decision constitutes a significant departure from the past two decades of international climate policy, which – since the 1995 Berlin Mandate and the 1997 Kyoto Protocol – have featured coverage of only a small subset of countries, namely the so-called Annex I countries (more or less the industrialized nations, as of twenty years ago).

The expanded geographic scope of the Lima Call for Climate Action and thereby the incipient Paris agreement – and the emerging architecture of a pragmatic hybrid combining bottom-up “Intended Nationally Determined Contributions” (INDCs) with top-down elements for reporting and synthesis of contributions by the UNFCCC Secretariat – represents the best promise in many years of a future international climate agreement that is truly meaningful.

Importantly, the Lima decision provides that each country’s INDC shall include a clear statement of emissions mitigation, and may include quantifiable information on reference points (such as base year), time frame of implementation and coverage, assumptions and methodological approaches for estimating and accounting for greenhouse gas emissions, as well as each country’s own assessment of its INDC’s fairness and ambition.  These statements of national contributions are to be submitted by the end of March, 2015, although countries that miss that “deadline” can then make their submissions by June.

Compromises, Compromises

Because of the ongoing sharp divide in climate talks between developed and developing countries, the Lima decision was difficult to accomplish and could only be achieved through compromises that had the effect of watering down various aspects of the accord.  This suggests that the road to Paris may be difficult for the negotiators.

The substitution of the phrase “may include” for “shall include” in regard to the elements of the INDCs was one of the compromises that was necessary to gain the approval of developing countries. So, the U.S.-favored requirement for the use of transparent elements in INDCs that would facilitate comparisons among countries was dropped.

However, at least one negotiating team with whom I met in Lima maintained that the analyses and comparisons of INDCs that will inevitably be carried out by various NGOs and research organizations (including universities) will provide the needed transparency and therefore the needed encouragement to countries for greater ambition.

A review period for the INDCs, favored by the countries most vulnerable to climate change (sub-Saharan Africa and the small island states), was also scrapped. Instead, a synthesis report will be prepared by the UNFCCC Secretariat by November 1st, 2015 (based on INDCs submitted by October 1st).

The Key Roles Played by China and the United States

Throughout the time I was in Lima, it was clear that the joint announcement on November 12th of national targets by China and the United States (under the future Paris agreement) provided necessary encouragement to negotiations that were continuously threatened by the usual developed-developing world political divide.

The delegates from the vast majority of countries were well aware of the fact that the announced China-USA INDCs move the world from the 14% of global CO2 emissions covered by nations participating (a subset of the Annex I countries) in the Kyoto Protocol’s current commitment period to a future Paris agreement that now covers more than 50% of global CO2 emissions, with Europe already on board.

Under the decision text of the Lima Call for Climate Action, within the next six months the other industrialized countries will announce their own contributions, and — more importantly – so will the other large, emerging economies – India, Brazil, Korea, South Africa, Mexico, and Indonesia. Coverage of 80% to 90% of global emissions can be anticipated, although major questions remain regarding what can be expected from some key countries, including India, Russia, and Australia.

Broad, Then Deep

In a 1998 book, edited by Bill Nordhaus (Economics and Policy Issues in Climate Change), Dick Schmalensee wrote about “Greenhouse Policy Architectures and Institutions,” and lamented that the Kyoto Protocol exhibited narrow scope (covering only the Annex I countries) but aggressive ambition for that small set of nations. He presciently noted that this was precisely the opposite of what would be a sensible way forward, namely broad participation, even if the initial ambition is less. Based on the 2011 Durban Platform and the 2014 Lima Call for Climate Action, it now appears that with the 2015 Paris Agreement that approach is finally being adopted.

As I predicted in my previous essay at this blog, in which I previewed the COP-20 talks, the Lima decision will surely disappoint some environmental activists. Indeed, there have already been pronouncements of failure of the Lima/Paris talks from some green groups, primarily because the talks have not and will not lead to an immediate decrease in emissions and will not prevent atmospheric temperatures from rising by more than 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit), which has become an accepted, but essentially unachievable political goal.

As I said in my previous essay, these well-intentioned advocates mistakenly focus on the short-term change in emissions among participating countries (for example, the much-heralded 5.2% cut by the Annex I countries in the Kyoto Protocol’s first commitment period), when it is the long-term change in global emissions that matters.

They ignore the geographic scope of participation, and do not recognize that — given the stock nature of the problem — what is most important is long-term action.  Each agreement is no more than one step to be followed by others.  And most important now for ultimate success later is a sound foundation, which is what the Lima decision can provide.

Major Challenges Along the Road to Paris

The major sticking points from now until the Paris talks, where it is hoped that the new post-2020 agreement will be signed, are all associated with the divide between rich and poor nations.

The ongoing talks will need to satisfy the interests of both the rich and the poor countries in regard to finance mechanisms, including the realization of the $100 billion commitment that was made in Copenhagen.

Also, looming in the wings is the loss and damage mechanism created in the Warsaw talks last year to help the most vulnerable nations cope with the effects of climate change.  Island nations want that mechanism to become another stream of funding from the rich countries, but the rich countries are concerned that the mechanism might lead to some notion of legal liability (and thereby a blank check).  The loss and damage concept was reiterated (but not expanded) in the Lima decision.

These and other pending issues mean that the upcoming talks in 2015 in Geneva and Bonn, prior to the December 2015 Paris Conference, will continue to require difficult negotiations across the divide between rich and poor countries.

Difficult indeed.  Whereas the agreed decision text from Lima (the “Lima Call for Climate Action”) is less than four pages in length, the Annex (“Elements for a Draft Negotiating Text”) of additional options for the Paris Agreement extends to more than 37 pages!

The Bottom Line

Although it is true that the Lima decision text was watered down in the last 30 hours (as a result of very effective opposition by developing countries), the fact remains that a new way forward has been established in which all countries participate and which therefore holds promise of meaningful global action to address the threat of climate change.  So, despite all the acrimony among parties and the 30-hour delay in completing the talks, the negotiations in Lima these past two weeks may turn out to be a key step along the way.

What to Expect at COP-20 in Lima

On Monday, December 1st, the Twentieth Conference of the Parties (COP-20) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) commences in Lima, Peru. Over the next two weeks, delegations from 195 countries will discuss and debate the next major international climate agreement, which – under the auspices of the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action – is to be finalized and signed one year from now at COP-21 in Paris, France.

What to Expect in Lima

Because of the promise made in the Durban Platform to include all parties (countries) under a common legal framework, this is a significant departure from the past two decades of international climate policy, which – since the 1995 Berlin Mandate and the 1997 Kyoto Protocol – have featured coverage of only a small subset of countries, namely the so-called Annex I countries (more or less the industrialized nations, as of twenty years ago).

The expanded geographic scope of the incipient Paris agreement – combined with its emerging architecture in the form of a pragmatic hybrid of bottom-up nationally determined contributions (NDCs) plus top-down elements for monitoring, reporting, verification, and comparison of contributions – represents the greatest promise in many years of a future international climate agreement that is truly meaningful.

A Diplomatic Breakthrough:  The Key Role of the China-USA Announcement

If that confluence of policy developments offers the promise, then it is fair to say that the recent joint announcement of national targets by China and the United States (under the future Paris agreement) represents the beginning of the realization of that promise. From the 14% of global CO2 emissions covered by nations participating (a subset of the Annex I countries) in the Kyoto Protocol’s current commitment period, the future Paris agreement with the announced China and USA NDCs covers more than 40% of global CO2 emissions. With Europe, already on board, the total amounts to more than 50% of emissions.

It will not be long before the other industrialized countries announce their own contributions – some quite possibly in Lima over the next two weeks. More importantly, the pressure is now on the other large, emerging economies – India, Brazil, Korea, South Africa, Mexico, and Indonesia – to step up. Some (Brazil, Korea, Mexico?) may well announce their contributions in Lima, but all countries are due to announce their NDCs by the end of the first quarter of 2015.

The announced China-USA quantitative contributions are themselves significant. For China, capping its emissions by 2030 (at the latest) plus increasing its non-fossil energy generation to 20% by the same year will require very aggressive measures, according to a recent MIT analysis. For the USA, cutting its emissions by 26-28% below the 2005 level by 2025 means doubling the pace of cuts under the country’s previous international commitment.

Thus, the China-USA announcement begins the fulfillment of the promise of the Durban Platform. A sufficient foundation is being established for meaningful future steps, and thereby the likelihood of a successful outcome in Paris has been greatly increased.  The talks in Lima over the next two weeks will produce at least a rough draft of the the Paris agreement, which can then be elaborated and finalized over the coming year, and signed (with abundant photo opportunities for heads of state) in Paris in December, 2015.

Keeping Our Eyes on the Prize

There will be — indeed, already have been — pronouncements of failure of the Lima/Paris talks from some green groups, primarily because the talks will not lead to an immediate decrease in emissions and will not prevent atmospheric temperatures from rising by more than 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit), which has become an accepted, but essentially unachievable political goal. These well-intentioned advocates mistakenly focus on the short-term change in emissions among participating countries (for example, the much-heralded 5.2% cut by the Annex I countries in the Kyoto Protocol’s first commitment period), when it is the long-term change in global emissions that matters.

In other words, they ignore the geographic scope of participation, and do not recognize that — given the stock nature of the problem — what is most important is long-term action.  Each agreement is no more than one step to be followed by others.  And most important now for ultimate success later is a sound foundation, which is precisely what may finally be provided by the China-USA announced contributions under the Durban Platform structure of a hybrid international policy architecture.

All in all, this may turn out to be among the most important moments in two decades of international climate negotiations. And this means – at a minimum – that the next two weeks in Lima should be very interesting indeed.

Upcoming Events at COP-20 in Lima

As with previous Conferences of the Parties, we – the Harvard Environmental Economics Program and the Harvard Project on Climate Agreements (HPCA) – will be at the Lima talks for their second week, December 7-12. We will be participating in a number of events, and will be holding bilateral meetings with key national delegations.

In all cases, our contributions to the discussions will draw on our compendium of knowledge from our 70 research initiatives in Argentina, Australia, China, Europe, India, Japan, and the United States. Our purpose continues to be to help identify and advance scientifically sound, economically sensible, and politically pragmatic policy options for addressing global climate change.

For those of you who will be in Lima (as well as the rest of you), here is the schedule of COP-20 events that are co-sponsored by HPCA or in which I am participating as HPCA Director. It is going to be a very busy week, but I will try to blog – or at least tweet – about these events and other developments. After I return from Lima, I will follow up with an assessment.


Monday, December 8, 4:45 – 6:15 pm, Room: Machu Picchu

Sponsors: Harvard Project on Climate Agreements, Centre for European Economic Research (ZEW), and Enel Foundation

“Implications of the energy-efficiency gap for reducing greenhouse-gas emissions”

The discussion will be based on our Duke-Harvard research project (sponsored by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation) on the “energy-efficiency gap”—the apparent difference between predicted and measured rates of adoption of energy-efficiency technology. Panelists will explore the implications of this gap for climate-change mitigation.


Daniele Agostini, Head of Low Carbon Policies and Carbon Regulation, Enel Group

Andreas Löschel, Chair of Microeconomics, and Energy and Resource Economics, University of Münster, and Research Associate, ZEW

Richard Newell, Gendell Professor of Energy and Environmental Economics, Nicholas School of the Environment, Duke University, and Director, Duke University Energy Initiative

Robert Stavins, Director, Harvard Project on Climate Agreements and Albert Pratt Professor of Business and Government, Harvard Kennedy School

Jesus Tamayo Pacheco, President of the Supervisory Body for investment in energy and mines of Peru

See also background paper


Tuesday, December 9, 12:00 – 2:00 pm, China Pavilion

Sponsors: National Center for Climate Change Strategy and International Cooperation (NCSC), National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), People’s Republic of China

“International Cooperation: Towards the 2015 Agreement –A perspective from international think tanks”

This event aims at exchanging ideas from various international think tanks on the design of the 2015 Agreement with consideration of interaction and cooperation of parties on bilateral and multilateral basis, with a view to provide for inputs to the debates of the negotiation of the 2015 Agreement.


H.E. Minister Xie Zhenhua, Head of Chinese Delegation to COP-20 and Vice Chairman, NDRC

Li Junfeng, Director General, NCSC

Zou Ji, Deputy Director, NCSC

Robert Stavins, Director, Harvard Project on Climate Agreements

Du Xiangwan, Former Vice President, Chinese Academy of Engineering

Martin Kohl, President, South Center

Jennifer Morgan, Global Director of Climate Program, World Resources Institute

Teresa Ribera, President, Institute for Sustainable Development and International Relations


Tuesday, December 9, 4:30 – 6:10 pm, International Emissions Trading Association (IETA) Pavilion

“What Role will Markets Play in the 2015 Climate Agreement? How can the Agreement Facilitate Linkage of Carbon Pricing Policies?”


Dirk Forrister, President & CEO, IETA

Robert Stavins, Director, Harvard Project on Climate Agreements

David Hone, Chief Climate Change Adviser, Shell Research

Anna Lindstedt, Ambassador for Climate Change, Government of Sweden

Mary Nichols, Chair, California Air Resources Board

Amber Rudd, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change, Government of the United Kingdom

See also background paper


Thursday, December 11, 11:30 am – 1:00 pm, Room: Caral

Sponsors: International Emissions Trading Association, Arizona State University, Harvard Project on Climate Agreements

“Linkage among climate policies in the 2015 Paris agreement”

Panelists will discuss how the Paris agreement might facilitate or impede linkage among cap-and-trade, carbon tax, and non-market regulatory systems. Panelists will also address related issues involving market mechanisms in the new agreement.


Daniel Bodansky, Foundation Professor of Law, Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law, Arizona State University

Dirk Forrister, President & CEO, IETA

Robert Stavins, Director, Harvard Project on Climate Agreements

Alexia Kelley, Senior Climate Change Advisor, U.S. Department of State

Nathaniel Keohane, Vice President for International Climate, Environmental Defense Fund

Ulrika Raab, Senior Advisor Climate Change, Swedish Energy Agency

See also background paper


On the Origins of Research

In response to my last essay at this web site, “On Becoming an Environmental Economist,” several readers suggested that someday I should write about the origins of my various research initiatives over the past 25 years.  Today, I’m doing that sooner than anyone might have expected!

This is feasible because — also quite recently — I was asked by my colleague, Hannah Riley Bowles, the instructor in the Harvard Kennedy School’s Doctoral Research Seminar, to make a presentation to the first-year students in the Ph.D. program in public policy on how research programs develop.  To prepare for this, I reflected on my research projects over the past 25 years since receiving my PhD in economics at Harvard and joining the Kennedy School faculty, and as I began to write some notes for my presentation, a flow chart of research origins, subjects, and products started to emerge.  You can view my PowerPoint presentation (you need to use Slide Show mode to see the animation) here.

In this essay, I describe the elements of that flow chart of research sources, topics, and selected publications (and provide some screen shots of the PowerPoint deck).

As will probably be apparent, I found the process of preparing for Professor Bowles’s seminar valuable, because it forced me – for the first time in 25 years – to step back and reflect systematically on the origins of my research projects and the connections among them.  So, I recommend this process to other researchers, as I think you may find it rewarding.  And, for would-be researchers, that is, PhD students, I hope the results below will be informative.

An Ex Post Exploration of How Research Programs Develop

In carrying out this ex post exploration of how research programs may develop, I identified eleven types of sources of research ideas and projects.  In approximate chronological order (but not necessarily in order of importance), these are:

      • Dissertation
      • Involvement with the Policy World
      • Picking Up on Someone Else’s Work
      • Conferences
      • Funders
      • Student Interest
      • Responding to Others’ Work
      • Teaching
      • Consulting
      • Class Assignment
      • Invitation

I begin with how my dissertation research subsequently led to several avenues of further research and writing.

Dissertation — Analyzing Land Use

My 1988 Ph.D. thesis examined econometrically the factors that had led to the dramatic depletion of forested wetlands in the southern United States over the previous five decades.  Before commenting on how my dissertation stimulated my subsequent research, I should acknowledge that my dissertation topic itself grew of out of some consulting work I was doing at the time for the Environmental Defense Fund, in particular an analysis for James T. B. Tripp of how U.S. Army Corps of Engineers flood control projects were providing economic incentives for landowners to convert their forested wetlands to agricultural croplands.

My dissertation led directly to a pair of journal articles published in 1990 in the American Economic Review (with Adam Jaffe) and the Journal of Environmental Economics and Management.  But more striking – given the theme of this essay – is that several years later I realized that the general econometric approach and simulation model could be applied to a very different question, namely, analyzing the anticipated costs of biological carbon sequestration as a means of reducing net concentrations of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere, linked with global climate change.  That recognition led to another article in the American Economic Review (1999), and then to a series of other, related projects on carbon sequestration (with Richard Newell 2000, and with Ruben Lubowski and Andrew Plantinga 2006, both in the Journal of Environmental Economics and Management), as well as a broader research initiative on factors affecting land-use decisions (with Plantinga and Lubowski in the Journal of Urban Economics in 2002 and Land Economics in 2008).  More recent work with Andrew Plantinga and Robin Cross (that does not appear in the schematic below) has involved an econometric analysis of the concept and reality of “terroir” associated with the production of premium wines (American Economic Review 2011, Journal of Wine Economics 2011).

A Less Direct Legacy of Dissertation:  Economics of Technological Change

A fundamental aspect of the econometric modeling involved in some of the land-use models above, including my dissertation research, was the estimation of the parameters of an empirical distribution of some heterogeneous attribute of land parcels, such as potential crop revenue (due to varying land quality, for example).  As costs of production fall, for example, that distribution would be swept, with various parcels going into production at various points in time.  Adam Jaffe and I hoped that this same sort of model could be applied to the process of technological diffusion, that is, the process of gradual adoption of some new technology over time.

As it turned out, however, the model was less useful than we first thought it would be for analyzing the factors affecting technology diffusion, and so we abandoned it for that purpose.  But this led us to explore other conceptual and empirical approaches to assessing the factors that lead to the diffusion of environmental technologies.  We developed a new framework for comparing empirically the effects of alternative environmental policy instruments on the diffusion of new technology, including Pigouvian taxes, technology adoption subsidies, and technology standards, with an empirical application to the diffusion of thermal insulation in new home construction, comparing the effects of energy prices, insulation cost, and building codes (Journal of Environmental Economics and Management 1995).  Related work with Nolan Miller and Lori (Snyder) Bennear followed in 2003 (American Economic Review).

Given our interest in the diffusion (adoption) of energy-efficiency technologies, it was natural to think about exploring the factors that affect the innovation (commercialization) of such technologies.  A very different model was developed — with Richard Newell taking the lead as part of his Harvard dissertation research — and an empirical application was made to analyzing the innovation of specific household energy-consuming durable goods (such as water heaters and air conditioners).  This work appeared in the Quarterly Journal of Economics in 1999.

More broadly, our interest in the innovation and diffusion energy efficiency technologies led us to explore in a series of articles the so-called “energy paradox” of apparently slow diffusion of technologies that appear to pay for themselves, as well as other issues related to energy-efficiency technological change (Energy Journal 1994, Resource and Energy Economics 1994, Energy Policy 1994, Elsevier Handbook of Economics 2003, Ecological Economics 2005, Energy Economics 2006, and many others).  And, recently, with a resurgence of interest in the energy paradox in the context of global climate change, Richard Newell and I have launched a new research initiative, with support from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

Because I’ve sought to describe the origins of my research somewhat chronologically, I began with my dissertation research.  The fact that several strands of research — some directly related and some indirectly related to my dissertation — subsequently emerged will surely not surprise academic readers of this essay.  However, a considerably greater influence (indeed, the most important influence) on my research portfolio has come from my involvement — not with fellow scholars — but with practitioners in the world of public policy.  That may come as a surprise to some readers, and it is to this illustration of the two-way street between research and practice to which I now turn.

Involvement with the Policy World

A phone call I received in the late spring of 1988 — a week before my Harvard graduation — from Senator Timothy Wirth (D-Colorado), and a meeting shortly thereafter in Washington with Senator Wirth and his long-time friend and colleague, Senator John Heinz (R-Pennsylvania) led to an agreement that I would direct for them a study intended to inform the Presidential debates on environmental policy in that election year — Project 88:  Harnessing Market Forces to Protect the Environment (and a follow-up study in 1991, Project 88 — Round II, Incentives for Action: Designing Market-Based Environmental Strategies).

Many pages could be written — and, indeed, many have been written — about the influence that Project 88, sponsored by Senators Wirth and Heinz, subsequently had on policy developments at the federal level in Washington (including the path-breaking SO2 allowance trading program in the 1990 Clean Air Act amendments), within many states, and internationally in locations ranging from the European Union to China.  But my purpose in this essay is to examine the origins of my research portfolio, and so I will turn instead to reflect on the ways my experience with Project 88 (and related policy engagements with the White House, the Congress, and others) stimulated new paths of my scholarly research.

One path of research activity soon focused on normative analysis of alternative policy instruments, including work on:  transaction costs in cap-and-trade markets (Journal of Environmental Economics and Management 1995), the effects of correlated uncertainty on the choice between price and quantity instruments (Journal of Environmental Economics and Management 1996), vintage-differentiated regulations (Stanford Environmental Law Journal 2006), and policy instruments in second-best settings (with Lori Bennear, Environmental and Resource Economics 2007).  [The work on correlated uncertainty also illustrates an example of another source of research ideas, namely picking up on research by someone else, because this work was directly inspired by a footnote in Professor Martin Weitzman‘s classic work on “Prices vs. Quantities” (Review of Economic Studies 1974).]

Another area of work on normative analysis of policy instruments focused broadly on market-based instruments (with Robert Hahn, American Economic Review 1992; with Richard Newell, Journal of Regulatory Economics 2003; and the Elsevier Handbook of Environmental Economics 2003).  Other work focused more specifically on cap-and-trade systems (Journal of Economic Perspectives 1998; with Robert Hahn, Journal of Law and Economics 2011; and with Richard Schmalensee, Journal of Economic Perspectives 2013).

A conceptually distinct path of research that also found its origins in my work on Project 88 has involved examinations of the positive political economy of environmental policy (with Robert Hahn, Ecology Law Quarterly 1991; with Nathaniel Keohane and Richard Revesz, Harvard Environmental Law Review 1998; with Robert Hahn and Sheila Olmstead, Harvard Environmental Law Review 2003).

Even this extensive set of research projects and publications that derive from my work on Project 88 — depicted in the figure above — understates the influence that my work on Project 88 with Senators Wirth and Heinz has had on my scholarly research over the years.  This is because much of my work on global climate change policy, for example, has in fact focused on the potential use of market-based instruments in that realm, but for purposes of this essay, I associate that later work on climate policy with two other origins, namely, conferences and funders.

Conferences and Funders

Gradually over the 25 years since receipt of my PhD, my research has evolved from diverse work across environmental and natural resources economics, to more and more focus each year on various aspects of global climate change and related public policies.

“Climate skeptics” and other opponents of action to address climate change have sometimes accused the research community of focusing on climate change because “that is where the money is.”  Although there are sound reasons for focusing on climate change other than the availability of funds (such as the importance of the problem, and the methodological challenges it poses), there is some partial truth to the accusation.  Indeed, numerous national governments and major philanthropic foundations have made it their goal to stimulate research (and action) on climate change.

One part of my work in this realm has been research on national and sub-national climate policy instruments, often focused on the design of market-based instruments, including but not limited to cap-and-trade mechanisms (Brookings Institution 2007; Harvard Environmental Law Review 2008; Oxford Review of Economic Policy 2008; and my work on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Second, 1995, and Third, 2001, and Fifth Assessment Reports.

An invitation from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation to propose and eventually direct an international research and outreach project on international climate policy architecture led to much (but not all) of my work on international climate policy cooperation (with Joseph Aldy and Scott Barrett, Climate Policy 2003; with Scott Barrett, International Environmental Agreements 2003: with Sheila Olmstead, American Economic Review 2006; three books with Joseph Aldy published by Cambridge University Press 2007, 2009, 2010; an article with Judson Jaffe and Matthew Ranson, Ecology Law Quarterly 2010; and ongoing work on the IPCC Fifth Assessment Report 2010-2014; and much more).

Student Interest

Many professors who are reading this essay will not be the least bit surprised to learn that another origin of research ideas has been interest expressed by graduate students.  Three important examples stand out in my case.

One I have already written about above.  When Richard Newell (my very first PhD student) came to Harvard for graduate school in 1993, he brought with him an abiding interest in the relationship between science, technology, and policy.  At the time, Adam Jaffe and I were continuing our work on the diffusion of energy-efficiency technologies, and then the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) solicited proposals for research that could improve the modeling of technological change in integrated assessment models of climate change (so this covers two other origins — involvement with the policy world, and potential funding).  All of this came together in a joint research initiative, funded by DOE, which supported Newell’s dissertation research on factors affecting the pace and direction of energy-efficiency technology innovation.  This led to a subsequent publication with Jaffe and Newell (Quarterly Journal of Economics 1999), as well as series of other collaborations with Newell, which are on-going to this day.

In 1999, Sheila (Cavanagh) Olmstead came to the Harvard PhD program in public policy with a strong background and keen interests in water resources and water policy.  I brought on board Michael Hanemann, then a professor at the University of California at Berkeley, as a collaborator, and together we applied (successfully) to the National Science Foundation for a grant that supported Sheila’s dissertation research on econometrically estimating demand for municipal water in the presence of block-rate pricing schedules.  Not only did that lead directly to some published work (with Olmstead and Hanemann, Journal of Environmental Economics and Management 2007), but led indirectly to other research on water pricing(with Olmstead, Water Resources Research 2009).

The work on carbon sequestration and land use described above with Ruben Lubowski and Andrew Plantinga (Journal of Environmental Economics and Management 2006; Journal of Urban Economics 2002; Land Economics 2008) also deserves mention in this part of the essay, because it all grew out of Ruben Lubowski‘s PhD dissertation research at Harvard.

Responding to Others’ Work

I mentioned above an example of picking up on someone else’s work (in a positive sense), namely a footnote in Marty Weitzman’s classic 1974 article on “Prices vs Quantities” in which he noted that he was assuming statistical independence between marginal benefits and marginal costs, which stimulated me to relax that assumption and pursue the analysis (which led to my article on the effects of correlated uncertainty in 1996 in the Journal of Environmental Economics and Management).

By contrast, sometimes researchers can be stimulated to do work in order to question others’ previous work (and related conventional wisdom).  This was the case with my collaborative work examining the topic of “corporate social responsibility,” an area of scholarship that some colleagues and I believed was populated by research and writing that generated more heat than light.  A conference we organized at Harvard led to a subsequent book that examined Environmental Protection and the Social Responsibility of Firms:  Perspectives from Law, Economics, and Business (with Harvard Law School professor, Bruce Hay, and Harvard Business School professor, Richard Vietor, 2005).  Later, I took the next step with a follow-up article with Vietor and his Harvard Business School colleague, Forest Reinhardt (Review of Environmental Economics and Policy 2008), and another with Reinhardt (Oxford Review of Economic Policy 2010).


Classroom teaching can itself provide inspiration for research.  In 2002, I was teaching a small “reading and research course” for PhD students interested in environmental economics, and lamented one day that the increasingly popular concept of “sustainability” seemed to lack a clear definition or interpretation that made sense in economic terms.  I offered a possible economic interpretation in class, and within a week, two students — Gernot Wagner and Alexander Wagner (unrelated) — had written out a mathematically formalized version of my interpretation.  We collaborated on writing a brief article that provided background as well as further exploration (Economic Letters 2003).


It may (or may not) come as a surprise that consulting (work I do outside of my Harvard responsibilities, sometimes for compensation, sometimes not) can also lead to interesting research ideas.  In my case, this has led to my thinking more carefully — with collaborators — about the analytical methods that surround net present value analysis (also called, benefit-cost analysis).

This has led to a series of papers on various dimensions of net present value analysis in the environmental realm, including such topics as:  the meaning, limits, and value of the Kaldor-Hicks criterion (with Kenneth Arrow and others, Science 1996); the role of discounting (with Lawrence Goulder, Nature 2002); new benefit-estimation methods (with Paul Portney, Journal of Risk and Uncertainty 1994; and with Lori Bennear and Alexander Wagner, Journal of Regulatory Economics 2005); and the use of Monte Carlo analysis to incorporate uncertainty in regulatory impact analysis (with Judson Jaffe, Regulation and Governance 2007).

Also, as I mentioned at the outset, my 1988 dissertation topic had grown out of some consulting work I was doing at the time for the Environmental Defense Fund.

Class Assignments

Many of my PhD students over the years have written term papers for courses that led to manuscript that were eventually published in academic journals.  But in my own case, because my PhD training in economics at Harvard did not include any courses in environmental economics (none existed at the time, as you may have noted in my previous essay, “On Becoming an Environmental Economist”), the only example I can provide of this origin of research is in a different area, namely economic history.  This is an area in which I took two wonderful courses from Professor Jeffrey Williamson (about which I wrote in my previous post).  An econometric analysis I carried out for one of those courses — “A Model of English Demographic Change: 1573-1873” was subsequently published (Explorations in Economic History 1988).

Invitations (and other origins)

There’s a clear positive correlation between the onset of grey hair and the frequency of invitations to write articles (or books) for publication.  These have included:  an article with Don Fullerton on how economists view the environment in Nature (1998); an article on common property resources in the American Economic Review (2011); my ongoing column, “An Economic Perspective” in The Environmental Forum (2006-present); my blog, “An Economic View of the Environment,” which was launched in 2009; two books of my collected works, 1988-1999 and 2000-2011 (Edward Elgar 2001, 2013); and three editions of a book of selected readings in environmental economics (W. W. Norton 2000, 2005, 2012).

Results of an Ex Post Exploration of Research Origins

Putting all of that together in a single flow chart results in the figure below, which is much clearer in a PDF version.  You can also view the entire PowerPoint presentation (you need to use Slide Show mode to see the animation) here.

As I said at the outset, I found the process of preparing this slide deck for Professor Bowles’s seminar valuable, because it enabled me to step back and reflect systematically on the origins of my research initiatives over the years and the relationships among them.  I recommend this process to other academics, because I believe it can be rewarding.  And, for academics in-the-making, that is, PhD students, I hope this essay may be informative.

On Becoming an Environmental Economist

My essay this month represents a departure from my standard blog posts about a contemporary environmental policy issue.  Rather, it is of a more personal nature, and stems from the fact that the second volume of my collected papers has just been published by Edward Elgar, Economics of Climate Change and Environmental Policy:  Selected Papers of Robert N. Stavins, 2000-2011 (2013), a successor to the first volume, published in 2000, Environmental Economics and Public Policy:  Selected Papers of Robert N. Stavins, 1988-1999.

When the publisher invited me to collect my papers in these edited volumes, it was suggested that I write a personal introduction in which I might reflect on the professional path that led to my research and writing.  I did this, and the introductory chapter of the second volume contains my latest reflections on that path.  This essay essentially consists of an abbreviated version.  My hope is that some readers will find it of interest, particularly students and others who aspire to work in this exciting and growing field.

A Professional Path

Over the past two decades, environmental and resource economics has evolved from what was once a relatively obscure application of welfare economics to a prominent field of economics in its own right.  The number of articles on the natural environment appearing in mainstream economics periodicals has continued to increase, as has the number of economics journals dedicated exclusively to environmental and resource topics.  Likewise, the influence of environmental economics on public policy has increased significantly, particularly as greater use has been made of market-based instruments for environmental protection.

In retrospect, my own professional path may now appear somewhat direct, if not altogether linear, but it hardly seemed so as I traveled along it.  The path I describe below took me back and forth across the United States and to several continents, and it took me from physics to philosophy, to agricultural extension, to international development studies, to agricultural economics, and eventually to environmental economics.  It culminated in my receipt in 1988 of a Ph.D. degree in economics at Harvard University, where I have since been a faculty member at the John F. Kennedy School of Government.  During this time, much has changed in the profession.

Early Days at Harvard

The early ascendency of the field of environmental economics, during the period from 1970 to 1990, was centered within departments of agricultural and resource economics, mainly at U.S. universities, and at Resources for the Future (RFF), the Washington research institution.  Within most economics departments, however, environmental studies remained a relatively minor area of applied welfare economics.  So, when I enrolled in the Ph.D. program in Harvard’s Department of Economics in 1983, and when I received my degree five years later, no field of study was offered in the field of environmental or resource economics.

Fortunately, Harvard permitted its graduate students to develop an optional, self-designed field as one of two “special fields” on which they were to be examined orally before proceeding to dissertation research.  Without an active environmental economist in the Department of Economics (Robert Dorfman had retired, and Martin Weitzman had yet to move to Harvard from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology), I developed an outline and reading list of the field through correspondence with leading scholars from other institutions, most prominently Kerry Smith, then at North Carolina State University.  My proposal to prepare for and be examined in the special field of environmental and resource economics (along with econometrics) was approved by the Department’s director of graduate study, Dale Jorgenson.  So began my entry into the scholarly literature.

A Nurturing Environment at Cornell

But my interest in environmental economics pre-dated by a considerable number of years my matriculation at Harvard.  Like many others before and since, I came to the field because of a personal interest in the natural environment (the origin of which I describe below).  This personal interest evolved into a professional one while I was studying for an M.S. degree in agricultural economics at Cornell University in the late 1970’s, where my thesis advisor and mentor was Kenneth Robinson.  I had originally gone to Cornell to study for a professional degree in international development, but found agricultural economics more appealing, largely because of the opportunity to examine social questions with quantitative methods within a disciplinary framework.

The faculty at Cornell and the care given to graduate students (including masters students like me) were both outstanding.  Ken Robinson, my first mentor within the economics profession, became my ongoing role model for intellectual integrity.  It was a very sad day in 2010 when Professor Robinson passed away.

A course in linear algebra, brilliantly taught by S. R. Searle, inspired me to pursue quantitative methods of analysis, and I was fortunate to then have the opportunity to study econometrics with Tim Mount.  One summer I had the great privilege of learning comparative economic systems in a small workshop setting from George Staller of the Cornell Department of Economics.   Working with Bud Stanton, I had my first experience teaching at the university level, and with Olan Forker, I had my first try at serious writing.  All of this led to research and writing of an M.S. thesis, “Forecasting the Size Distribution of Farms:  A Methodological Analysis of the Dairy Industry in New York State.”  The methodology in question was a variable Markov transition probability matrix, the cells of which were estimated econometrically in a multinomial logit framework.  Much to my surprise, this work subsequently received the Outstanding Master’s Thesis Award in the national competition of the American Agricultural Economics Association.

A Defining Move from Ithaca to Berkeley

Armed with my M.S. degree, I moved from Cornell to Berkeley, California, where I eventually met up with Phillip LeVeen, who had until shortly before that time been a faculty member in the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics at the University of California, Berkeley.  Phil was another superb mentor, and from him I learned the power of using simple models — by which I mean a set of supply and demand curves hastily drawn on a piece of scrap paper — to develop insights into real-world policy problems.  He introduced me to a topic that was to occupy me for the next few years — California’s perpetual concerns with water allocation.  I remember many afternoons spent working with Phil at his dining room table on questions of water supply and demand.

This work with Phil LeVeen led to a consultancy and then a staff position with the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), the national advocacy group consisting of lawyers, natural scientists, and — then almost unique among environmental advocacy organizations — economists.  At EDF, I was able to experience for the first time the use of economic analysis in pursuit of better environmental policy.  With W. R. Zach Willey, EDF’s senior economist in California, as a role model, and Thomas Graff, EDF’s senior attorney, as my mentor, I thrived in EDF’s collegial atmosphere, while thoroughly enjoying life in Berkeley’s “gourmet ghetto,” as my neighborhood was called.  Sadly, Tom Graff — without whose mentorship I would not be where I am today — passed away in 2009 after a heroic battle with cancer.

Although I found the work at EDF exceptionally rewarding, I worried that I would eventually be constrained — either within the organization or outside it — by my limited education.  So, like many others in similar situations, I considered a law degree as the next logical step.  In fact, I came very close to enrolling at Stanford Law School, but instead, in 1983, I accepted an offer of admission to the Department of Economics at Harvard, moved back east to Cambridge, Massachusetts, and began what has turned out to be a long-term relationship with the University.

Origins of Interest in Environmental Economics

But where did my interest in the natural environment begin?  Not at Cornell; it was present long before those days.  But it had not yet arisen when I was studying earlier at Northwestern University, from which I received a B.A. degree in philosophy, having departed from my first scholarly interest, astronomy and astrophysics.

Rather, the origins of my affinity for the natural environment and my interest in resource issues are to be found in the four years I spent in a small, remote village in Sierra Leone, West Africa, as a Peace Corps Volunteer, working in agricultural extension (in particular, paddy rice development).  It was there that I was first exposed both to the qualities of a pristine natural environment and the trade-offs associated with economic development.

So, I had begun in astrophysics, moved to philosophy (both at Northwestern), then to agricultural extension in a developing country (Sierra Leone), then to international development studies and subsequently to agricultural economics (both at Cornell), then to environmental economics and policy (EDF), and eventually to graduate study in economics at Harvard.

From Berkeley to Cambridge

My dissertation research at Harvard was directed by a committee of three faculty members:  Joseph Kalt, Zvi Griliches, and Adam Jaffe.  Joseph Kalt was the first faculty member at the Department of Economics to validate my interest in environmental and resource issues, and he was unfailingly generous to me and many other graduate students in making his office (and computer, then a rather scarce resource) available at all hours.  Now a colleague at the Kennedy School, Joe provided examples never to be forgotten — that economics could be a meaningful and enjoyable pursuit, and that excellence in teaching was a laudable goal.

Zvi Griliches was not only my advisor and mentor, but my spiritual father as well.  Generations of Harvard graduate students would offer similar testimony.  My own father had died only a year before I entered Harvard, and Zvi soon filled for me many paternal needs.  It is now more than a decade since Zvi himself passed away.  I felt as if I had lost my father a second time.

If Zvi Griliches provided caring and inspiration, Adam Jaffe provided invaluable day-to-day guidance.  It was Adam who convinced me not to go on the job market in my fourth year with what would have been a mediocre dissertation, but to put in another year and do it right.  That turned out to be some of the best professional advice I have ever received.  Our intensive faculty-student relationship from dissertation days subsequently evolved into a very productive professional (and personal) one that continues to this day.  The name of Adam Jaffe appears frequently in my curriculum vitae as a co-author; he has been and continues to be much more than that.

Although they were not members of my thesis committee, I should acknowledge two other faculty members at the Harvard Department of Economics who played important roles in my education.  I was fortunate to take two courses in economic history (a department requirement) from Jeffrey Williamson, who had recently arrived from the University of Wisconsin.  Williamson’s class sessions were as close as anything I have witnessed to being an economic research laboratory.  In class after class, we would carefully dissect one or more articles — examining hypothesis, theoretical model, data, estimation method, results, and conclusions.  If there was any place where I actually learned how to carry out economic research, it was in those classes.

The other name that is important to highlight is that of Lawrence Goulder, then a faculty member at Harvard, and now a professor at Stanford.  I say this not simply because he was willing to be my examiner in my chosen field of environmental and resource economics, nor because he subsequently became such a close friend.  Rather, what is striking about my professional relationship with Larry is the degree to which he has been an unnamed collaborator on so many projects of mine.  Although he and I have co-authored no more than a few articles, his name probably appears more frequently than anyone else’s in the acknowledgments of papers I have written.  There is no one whose overall judgement in matters of economics I trust more, and no one who has been more helpful.

First Steps for a Newly-Minted Ph.D. Recipient

When I began graduate school at Harvard in 1983, it was my intention to return to EDF as soon as I received my degree.  But by my third year in the program, I had decided to pursue an academic career, although one that was heavily flavored with involvement in the real world of public policy.  Within the context of this professional objective, it was not a difficult decision to accept the offer I received in February, 1988, to become an Assistant Professor at the Kennedy School.  Although some of the other offers I received at that time were also very attractive, the choice for me was obvious, and I have never regretted it — not for a moment.

I remain at the Kennedy School today, where I was promoted to Associate Professor in 1992 (an untenured rank at Harvard), and to a tenured position as Professor of Public Policy in 1997.   In 1998, I accepted an appointment as the Albert Pratt Professor of Business and Government.

Twenty-Five Years on the Harvard Faculty

Two years later, I launched the Harvard Environmental Economics Program, which today brings together — from across the University — thirty Faculty Fellows and twenty-five Pre-Doctoral Fellows, who are graduate students studying for the Ph.D. degree in economics, political economy and government, public policy, or health policy.  The Program, which I continue to direct, forms links among faculty and graduate students engaged in research, teaching, and outreach in environmental, natural resource, and energy economics and related public policy, by sponsoring research projects, convening workshops, and supporting graduate (and undergraduate) education.

A key reason why the Program — and its various projects, including the Harvard Project on Climate Agreements — have been so successful is the superb administrative leadership and staff support  it enjoys.  Everyone who has been involved in virtually any way has come away impressed by our Executive Director, Robert Stowe, and Program Manager, Jason Chapman.

At the Kennedy School, I have had an excellent mentor, William Hogan, and a superb advisor and friend, Richard Zeckhauser.  Over the years, five successive deans have provided leadership, guidance, and support (including abundant time for my research and writing) — Graham Allison, Robert Putnam, Albert Carnesale, Joseph Nye, and David Ellwood.  At Harvard more broadly, I have benefitted from regular interactions with Daniel Schrag, director of the Harvard University Center for the Environment, and Martin Weitzman of the Department of Economics.  For two decades, Marty and I have co-directed a bi-weekly Seminar in Environmental Economics and Policy, which has provided me with frequent opportunities to learn both from seminar speakers and from Marty’s questions and comments.  I will refrain from naming the many others at Harvard and elsewhere from whom I continue to learn — including my many co-authors — only because the list of such valued colleagues and friends is so long.  Included have been a most remarkable set of Ph.D. students, many of whom have gone on to productive — indeed illustrious — careers.

Along the way, I have had my share of administrative responsibilities at Harvard, including serving as Director of Graduate Studies for the Doctoral Program in Public Policy and the Doctoral Program in Political Economy and Government, and Co-Chair of the Harvard Business School-Harvard Kennedy School Joint Degree Programs.  Outside of Harvard, I have had the privilege of being a University Fellow of Resources for the Future, a Research Associate of the National Bureau of Economic Research, and the founding Editor and now Co-Editor of the Review of Environmental Economics and Policy, as well as a member of the Board of Directors of Resources for the Future, the Scientific Advisory Board of the Fondazione Eni Enrico Mattei, and numerous editorial boards. I must also note that I serve as an editor of the Journal of Wine Economics.  In 2009, I was elected a Fellow of the Association of Environmental and Resource Economists.

Working with the “Real World”

What originally attracted me to the Kennedy School was the possibility of combining an academic career with extensive involvement in the development of public policy.  I have not been disappointed.  Indeed, a theme that emerges from my collected papers is the interplay between scholarly economic research and implementation in real-world political contexts.  This is a two-way street.   In some cases, my policy involvement has come from expertise I developed through research, following a path well worn by academics.  But, in many other cases, my participation in policy matters has stimulated for me entirely new lines of inquiry.

What I have characterized as involvement in policy matters is described at the Kennedy School as faculty outreach, recognized to be of great institutional and social value, along with the two other components of our three-legged professional stool — research and teaching.  Because they relate to a number of the papers collected in this volume, I should note that my outreach efforts fall into five broad categories:  advisory work with members of Congress and the White House (for example, Project 88, a bipartisan effort co-chaired by former Senator Timothy Wirth and the late Senator John Heinz, to develop innovative approaches to environmental and resource problems); service on federal government panels (for example, my role as Chairman of the Environmental Economics Advisory Committee of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Science Advisory Board); on-going consulting — often on an informal basis — with environmental NGOs (most frequently, the Environmental Defense Fund) and private firms; advisory work with state governments; and professional interventions in the international sphere, such as service as a Lead Author for the Second and the Third Assessment Reports and a Coordinating Lead Author for the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, professional roles with the World Bank and other international organizations, and advisory work with foreign governments.

Finally, because my two books of collected papers focus on my articles, not my books, I should note that over the years I have been privileged to be co-editor with Joseph Aldy of Post-Kyoto International Climate Policy:  Implementing Architectures for Agreement (Cambridge University Press, 2010), Post-Kyoto International Climate Policy:  Summary for Policymakers (Cambridge University Press, 2009), and Architectures for Agreement: Addressing Global Climate Change in the Post-Kyoto World (Cambridge University Press, 2007); editor of three editions of Economics of the Environment (W. W. Norton, 2000, 2005, 2012); co-editor with Bruce Hay and Richard Vietor of Environmental Protection and the Social Responsibility of Firms:  Perspectives from Law, Economics, and Business (Resources for the Future, 2005); editor of The Political Economy of Environmental Regulation (Edward Elgar, 2004), co-editor with Paul Portney of Public Policies for Environmental Protection (Resources for the Future, 2000); and author of Environmental Economics and Public Policy: Selected Papers of Robert N. Stavins, 1988-1999 (Edward Elgar, 2000).

The New Volume

That last book is the predecessor of the new volume.  Whereas the first volume (Stavins 2000) included selected papers from the period 1988 through 1999, the second volume covers the period from 2000 through 2011.  To prepare this new book, I selected 26 articles from the (many more) published papers I wrote  — frequently with co-authors — over the past decade.  Making this selection was not an easy task, but it was a rewarding one, because choosing the papers and organizing them has forced me to step back and reflect on the set of research endeavors in which I have been engaged over this decade, and thus to think more clearly about current and possible future directions.

The book is divided into seven parts.  The papers in Part I provide an overview of environmental and resource economics, treating broadly several key topics, including economic views of:  the problem of the commons (Stavins, American Economic Review, 2011); the history of U.S. environmental regulation (Hahn, Olmstead, and Stavins, Harvard Environmental Law Review, 2003); and corporate social responsibility (Reinhardt, Stavins, and Vietor, Review of Environmental Economics and Policy, 2008).

The articles in Part II deal with methods of environmental policy analysis, focusing, respectively, on:  interpreting sustainability in economic terms (Stavins, Wagner, and Wagner, Economic Letters, 2003); the use of discounting in net present value analysis (Goulder and Stavins, Nature, 2002); the development of a new revealed-preference method for inferring environmental benefits (Bennear, Stavins, and Wagner, Journal of Regulatory Economics, 2005); and the value of formal assessment of uncertainty (that is, Monte Carlo analysis) in regulatory impact analysis (Jaffe and Stavins, Regulation and Governance, 2007).

Part III turns to economic analysis of alternative environmental policy instruments, with examinations of: vintage-differentiated environmental regulation (Stavins, Stanford Environmental Law Journal, 2006); cost heterogeneity and the potential savings from employing market-based environmental policies (Newell and Stavins, Journal of Regulatory Economics, 2003); the effects of allowance allocations on the performance of cap-and-trade systems (Hahn and Stavins, Journal of Law and Economics, 2011); and second-best theory and the use of multiple policy instruments (Bennear and Stavins, Environmental and Resource Economics, 2007).

Part IV focuses on a topic that also received considerable treatment in the predecessor to this volume, namely the economics of technological change.  Here the articles include: a survey of the literature on environmental policy and technological change (Jaffe, Newell, and Stavins, Environmental and Resource Economics, 2002); an analysis of the interaction of environmental and technological market failures (Jaffe, Newell, and Stavins, Ecological Economics, 2005); an empirical assessment of the effect of environmental regulation on technology diffusion in the case of chlorine manufacturing (Miller, Snyder, and Stavins, American Economic Review Papers and Proceedings, 2003); and the effects of economic and policy incentives on carbon mitigation technologies (Jaffe, Newell, and Stavins, Energy Economics, 2006).

Part V consists of three articles in the area of natural resource economics dealing with land and water resources:  an analysis of the factors driving land-use change in the United States (Lubowski, Plantinga, and Stavins, Land Economics, 2008); an econometric examination of the significance of terroir, the notion that wine quality is primarily determined by location (Cross, Plantinga, and Stavins, American Economic Review Papers and Proceedings, 2011); and an assessment of urban water demand under alternative pricing structures (Olmstead, Hanemann, and Stavins, Journal of Environmental Economics and Management, 2007).

Part VI consists of four articles on domestic (national and sub-national) climate change policy, beginning with a description and assessment of a comprehensive U.S. cap-and-trade system for carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions (Stavins, Oxford Review of Economic Policy, 2008), and followed by:  an examination of the interactions of national and sub-national climate policies (Goulder and Stavins, American Economic Review Papers and Proceedings, 2011); an econometric study of the carbon-sequestration supply function (Lubowski, Plantinga, and Stavins, Journal of Environmental Economics and Management, 2006); and an assessment of the factors that affect the costs of biological carbon sequestration (Newell and Stavins, Journal of Environmental Economics and Management, 2000).

Finally, Part VII focuses on the international dimensions of climate change policy, and consists of four articles:  a comparison of alternative global climate change policy architectures (Aldy, Barrett, and Stavins, Climate Policy, 2003); an assessment of the Kyoto Protocol (Stavins, Milken Institute Review, 2005); an examination of a promising post-Kyoto international climate regime (Olmstead and Stavins, American Economic Review Papers and Proceedings, 2006); and a detailed examination of a key element of emerging international climate policy architecture, namely the linkage of regional, national, and sub-national tradable permit systems (Ranson, Jaffe, and Stavins, Ecology Law Quarterly, 2010).

Reflections on Common Themes

Selecting the essays for this second volume of my papers permitted me to take note of some common themes that emerge from this decade of research and writing.  First, there is the value — or at least, the potential value — of economic analysis of environmental policy.  The cause of virtually all environmental problems in a market economy is economic behavior (that is, imperfect markets affected by externalities), and so economics offers a powerful lens through which to view environmental problems, and therefore a potentially effective set of analytical tools for designing and evaluating environmental policies.

A second message, connected with the first, is the specific value of benefit-cost analysis for helping to promote efficient policies.  Economic efficiency ought to be one of the key criteria for evaluating proposed and existing environmental policies.  Despite its limitations, benefit-cost analysis can be useful for consistently assimilating the disparate information that is pertinent to sound decision making.  If properly done, it can be of considerable help to public officials when they seek to establish or assess environmental goals.

Third, the means governments use to achieve environmental objectives matter greatly, because different policy instruments have very different implications along a number of dimensions, including abatement costs in both the short and the long term.  Market-based instruments are particularly attractive in this regard.

Fourth, an economic perspective is also of considerable value when reflecting on the use of natural resources, whether land, water, fisheries, or forests.  Excessive rates of depletion of these resources are frequently due to the nature of the respective property-rights regimes, in particular, common property and open-access.  Economic instruments — such as ITQ systems in the case of fisheries — can and have been employed to bring harvesting rates down to socially efficient levels.

Fifth and finally, policies for addressing global climate change — linked with emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases — can benefit greatly from the application of economic thinking.  On the one hand, the long time-horizon of climate change, the profound uncertainty in links between emissions and actual damages, and the possibility of catastrophic climate change present significant challenges to conventional economic analysis.  But, at the same time, the ubiquity of energy generation and use in modern economies means that only market-based policies — essentially carbon pricing regimes — are feasible instruments for achieving truly meaningful emissions reductions.  Hence, despite the challenges, an economic perspective on this grandest of environmental threats is essential.

Final Words

On a personal level, the professional path I have taken offers some confirmation that research can influence public policy, and it also illustrates that involvement in public policy can stimulate new research.  The quest — both professional and personal — that took me from Evanston, Illinois, to Sierra Leone, West Africa, to Ithaca, New York, to Berkeley, California, and finally to Cambridge, Massachusetts suggests some consistency of purpose and even function.  I continue to find myself doing similar things, but in different contexts.  It is fair to say that my professional life has taken me along a path that has brought me home.  The words of T. S. Eliot (1943) ring true:

                                        We shall not cease from exploration
                                        And the end of all our exploring
                                        Will be to arrive where we started
                                        And know the place for the first time.

Selecting the papers for this volume forces me to reflect on the past and think more clearly about the future.  The twenty-six articles that comprise this book and the twenty-two essays that comprised the predecessor volume are the product of twenty-three wonderful years on the faculty of the Harvard Kennedy School.  During this time, I have continued to learn about environmental economics and related public policy from colleagues, collaborators, students, friends, and inhabitants of the ”real world” of public policy, individuals from government, private industry, advocacy groups, and the press.  I hope that my learning will continue.

Economics of the Environment

The Sixth Edition of Economics of the Environment: Selected Readings has just been published by W. W. Norton & Company of New York and London.  Through five previous editions, Economics of the Environment has served as a valuable supplement to environmental economics texts and as a stand-alone book of original readings in the field of environmental economics.  Nearly seven years have passed since the previous edition of this volume was published, and it is now more than three decades since the first edition appeared, edited by Robert and Nancy Dorfman.  The Sixth Edition continues this tradition.

Motivation and Audience

Environmental economics continues to evolve from its origins as an obscure application of welfare economics to a prominent field in its own right, which combines elements from public finance, industrial organization, microeconomic theory, and many other areas of economics.  The number of articles on the environment appearing in mainstream economics periodicals continues to increase, and more and more economics journals are dedicated exclusively to environmental and resource topics.

There has also been a proliferation of environmental economics textbooks for college courses.  Many are excellent, but none can be expected to provide direct access to timely and original contributions by the field’s leading scholars.  As most teachers of economics recognize, it is valuable to supplement the structure and rigor of a text with original readings from the literature.

Scope and Style

With that in mind, this new edition of Economics of the Environment consists of thirty-four chapters that instructors will find to be of great value as a complement to their chosen text and their lectures.  The scope is comprehensive, and the list of authors is a veritable “who’s who” of environmental economics, including:  Joseph Aldy, Kenneth Arrow, Trudy Cameron, Ronald Coase, Maureen Cropper, Peter Diamond, George Eads, Jeffrey Frankel, Rick Freeman, Don Fullerton, Lawrence Goulder, John Graham, Robert Hahn, Michael Hanemann, Jerry Hausman, Steven Kelman, Nathaniel Keohane, Alan Krupnick, Lester Lave, John Livernois, Eric Maskin, Leonardo Maugeri, Gilbert Metcalf, Richard Newell, Roger Noll, William Nordhaus, Wallace Oates, Sheila Olmstead, Elinor Ostrom, Karen Palmer, Ian Parry, Carl Pasurka, Robert Pindyck, William Pizer, Michael Porter, Paul Portney, Forest Reinhardt, Richard Revesz, Milton Russell, Michael Sandel, Richard Schmalensee, Steven Shavell, Jason Shogren, Kerry Smith, Robert Solow, Nicholas Stern, Laura Taylor, Richard Vietor, and myself.

The articles are timely, with more than 90 percent published since 1990, and half since 2005.  There are two completely new sections of the book, “Economics of Natural Resources” and “Corporate Social Responsibility,” and all of the chapters in the section on global climate change are new to the sixth edition.

In order to make the readings in Economics of the Environment accessible to students at all levels, one criterion I use in the selection process is that articles should not only be original and well written — and meet the highest standards of economic scholarship — but also be non-technical in their presentations.  Hence, readers will find virtually no formal mathematics in any of the book’s 34 chapters throughout its 733 pages.

The Path Ahead

Environmental economics is a rapidly evolving field.  Not only do new theoretical models and improved empirical methods appear on a regular basis, but entirely new areas of investigation open up when the natural sciences indicate new concerns or the policy world turns to new issues.  Therefore, this book remains a work in progress.  I owe a great debt to the teachers and students of previous editions who have sent their comments and suggestions for revisions.  Looking to future editions, I invite all readers — whether teachers, students, or practitioners — to send me any thoughts or suggestions for improvement.

In the meantime, if you’re interested finding out more about the book, immediately below is a chapter-by-chapter summary of the book.  Alternatively, you can check out the W. W. Norton or Amazon web sites.


Appendix:  A Summary of Economics of the Environment, Sixth Edition

Part I of the volume provides an overview of the field and a review of its foundations.  Don Fullerton and I start things off with a brief essay about how economists think about the environment (Nature 1998).  This is followed by the classic treatment of social costs and bargaining by Ronald Coase (Journal of Law and Economics 1960), and a new article by Jason Shogren and Laura Taylor on the important, emerging field of behavioral environmental economics (Review of Environmental Economics and Policy 2008).

The Costs of Environmental Protection

Part II examines the costs of environmental protection, which might seem to be without controversy or current analytical interest.  This is not, however, the case.  This section begins with a survey article by Carl Pasurka that reviews the theory and empirical evidence on the relationship between environmental regulation and so-called “competitiveness” (Review of Environmental Economics and Policy 2008).

A somewhat revisionist view is provided by Michael Porter and Class van der Linde, who suggest that the conventional approach to thinking about the costs of environmental protection is fundamentally flawed (Journal of Economic Perspectives 1995).  Karen Palmer, Wallace Oates, and Paul Portney provide a careful response (Journal of Economic Perspectives 1995).

The Benefits of Environmental Protection

In Part III, the focus turns to the other side of the analytic ledger — the benefits of environmental protection.  This is an area that has been even more contentious — both in the policy world and among scholars.  Here the core question is whether and how environmental amenities can be valued in economic terms for analytical purposes.

The book features a provocative debate on the stated-preference method known as “contingent valuation.”  Paul Portney outlines the structure and importance of the debate, Michael Hanemann makes the affirmative case, and Peter Diamond and Jerry Hausman provide the critique (all three articles are from the Journal of Economic Perspectives 1994).

In the final article in Part III, the book turns to a concept that is both very important in assessments of the benefits of environmental regulations and is also very widely misunderstood — the value of a statistical life.  In an insightful essay, Trudy Cameron seeks to set the record straight (Review of Environmental Economics and Policy 2010).

There are two principal policy questions that need to be addressed in the environmental realm:  how much environmental protection is desirable; and how should that degree of environmental protection be achieved.  The first of these questions is addressed in Part IV and the second in Part V.

The Goals of Environmental Policy:  Economic Efficiency and Benefit-Cost Analysis

In an introductory essay, Kenneth Arrow, Maureen Cropper, George Eads, Robert Hahn, Lester Lave, Roger Noll, Paul Portney, Milton Russell, Richard Schmalensee, Kerry Smith, and I ask whether there is a role for benefit-cost analysis to play in environmental, health, and safety regulation (Science 1996).

Then, Lawrence Goulder and I focus on an ingredient of benefit-cost analysis that non-economists seem to find particularly confusing, or even troubling — intertemporal discounting (Nature 2002).  Next, Robert Pindyck examines a subject of fundamental importance — the role of uncertainty in environmental economics (Review of Environmental Economics and Policy 2007).  Steven Kelman provides an ethically-based critique of benefit-cost analysis, which is followed by a set of responses (Regulation 1981).

Part IV concludes with an up-to-date essay by John Graham on the critical role of the U.S. Office of Management and Budget in federal regulatory impact analysis (Review of Environmental Economics and Policy 2008).

The Means of Environmental Policy:  Cost Effectiveness and Market-Based Instruments

Part V examines the policy instruments — the means — that can be employed to achieve environmental targets or goals.  This is an area where economists have made their greatest inroads of influence in the policy world, with tremendous changes having taken place over the past twenty  years in the reception given by politicians and policy makers to so-called market-based or economic-incentive instruments for environmental protection.

Lawrence Goulder and Ian Parry start things off with a broad-ranging essay on instrument choice in environmental policy (Review of Environmental Economics and Policy 2008).  Following this, I examine lessons that can be learned from the innovative sulfur dioxide allowance trading program, set up by the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990 (Journal of Economic Perspectives 1998).  Finally, Michael Sandel provides a critique of market-based instruments, with responses offered by Eric Maskin, Steven Shavell, and others (New York Times 1997).

Economics of Natural Resources

Part VI consists of three essays on a new topic for this book — the economics of natural resources.  First, John Livernois examines the empirical significance of a central tenet in natural resource economics, namely the Hotelling Rule — the proposition that under conditions of efficiency, the scarcity rent (price minus marginal extraction cost) of natural resources will rise over time at the rate of interest (Review of Environmental Economics and Policy 2009).

Essays by Leonardo Maugeri (Review of Environmental Economics and Policy 2009) and Sheila Olmstead (Review of Environmental Economics and Policy 2010), respectively, examine two particularly important resources:  petroleum and water.

The next four sections of the book treat some timely and important topics and problems.

Corporate Social Responsibility and the Environment

Part VII examines corporate social responsibility and the environment, discussion of which has too often been characterized by more heat than light.  Forest Reinhardt, Richard Vietor, and I provide an overview of this realm from the perspective of economics, examining the notion of firms voluntarily sacrificing profits in the social interest.  In a second essay, Paul Portney provides a valuable empirical perspective (both are from the Review of Environmental Economics and Policy 2008).

Global Climate Change

Part VIII is dedicated to investigations of economic dimensions of global climate change, which may in the long term prove to be the most significant environmental problem that has arisen, both in terms of its potential damages and in terms of the costs of addressing it.  First, a broad overview of the topic is provided in a survey article by Joseph Aldy, Alan Krupnick, Richard Newell, Ian Parry, and William Pizer (Journal of Economic Literature 2010).

Next, William Nordhaus critiques the well-known Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change, and Nicholas Stern and Chris Taylor respond (both are from Science 2007).  In the final essay in this section, Gilbert Metcalf examines market-based policy instruments that can be used to address greenhouse gas emissions (Journal of Economic Perspectives 2009).

Sustainability, the Commons, and Globalization

Part IX begins with Robert Solow’s economic perspective on the concept of sustainability.  This is followed by Elinor Ostrom’s development of a general framework for analyzing sustainability (Science 2009), and my own historical view of economic analysis of problems associated with open-access resources (American Economic Review 2011).  Then, Jeffrey Frankel draws on diverse sources of empirical evidence to examine whether globalization is good or bad for the environment (Council on Foreign Relations 2004).

Economics and Environmental Policy Making

The final section of the book, Part X, departs from the normative concerns of much of the volume to examine some interesting and important questions of political economy.  It turns out that an economic perspective can provide useful insights into questions that might at first seem to be fundamentally political.

Nathaniel Keohane, Richard Revesz, and I utilize an economic framework to ask why our political system has produced the particular set of environmental policy instruments it has (Harvard Environmental Law Review 1998).  Myrick Freeman reflects on the benefits that U.S. environmental policies have brought about since the first Earth Day in 1970 (Journal of Economic Perspectives 2002).  Lastly, Robert Hahn addresses the question that many of the articles in this volume raise:  what impact has economics actually had on environmental policy (Journal of Environmental Economics and Management 2000)?

Reflecting on a Century of Progress and Problems

As the first decade of the twenty-first century comes to a close, the problem of the commons is more important to our lives – and more central to economics – than a century ago when the first issue of the American Economic Review appeared, with an examination by Professor Katharine Coman of Wellesley College of “Some Unsettled Problems of Irrigation” (1911).  Since that time, 100 years of remarkable economic progress have accompanied 100 years of increasingly challenging problems.

As the U.S. and other economies have grown, the carrying-capacity of the planet – in regard to natural resources and environmental quality – has become a greater concern, particularly for common-property and open-access resources.  In an article that appears in the 100th anniversary issue of the American Economic Review (AER) “The Problem of the Commons:  Still Unsettled After 100 Years” – I focus on some important, unsettled problems of the commons.

100 Years of Economic Progress and More Challenging Environmental Problems

Within the realm of natural resources, there are special challenges associated with renewable resources, which are frequently characterized by open-access.  An important example is the degradation of open-access fisheries.  Critical commons problems are also associated with environmental quality, including the ultimate commons problem of the twenty-first century – global climate change.

Small communities frequently provide modes of oversight and methods for policing their citizens, a topic about which Professor Elinor Ostrom of Indiana University has written extensively.  But as the scale of society has grown, commons problems have spread across communities and even  across nations.  In some of these cases, no over-arching authority can offer complete control, rendering commons problems more severe.

Although the type of water allocation problems of concern to Coman have frequently been addressed by common-property regimes of collective management, less easily governed problems of open-access are associated with growing concerns about air and water quality, hazardous waste, species extinction, maintenance of stratospheric ozone, and – most recently – the stability of the global climate in the face of the steady accumulation of greenhouse gases.

Whereas common property resources are held as private property by some group, open-access resources are non-excludable.  My article in the AER focuses exclusively on the latter, and thereby reflects on some important, unsettled problems of the commons.  It identifies both the contributions made by economic analysis and the challenges facing public policy.

The article begins with natural resources, highlighting the difference between most non-renewable natural resources, pure private goods that are both excludable and rival in consumption, and renewable natural resources, many of which are non-excludable.

Some of these are rival in consumption but characterized by open-access.  An example is the degradation of ocean fisheries. An economic perspective on these resources helps identify the problems they present for management, and provides guidance for sensible solutions.

The article then turns to a major set of commons problems that were not addressed until the last three decades of the twentieth century – environmental quality.  Although frequently characterized as textbook examples of externalities, these problems can also be viewed as a particular category of commons problems:  pure public goods, that are both non-excludable and non-rival in consumption.

A key contribution of economics has been the development of market-based approaches to environmental protection, including emission taxes and tradable rights.  These have potential to address the ultimate commons problem of the twenty-first century, global climate change.

Themes That Emerge

First, economic theory – by focusing on market failures linked with incomplete systems of property rights – has made major contributions to our understanding of commons problems and the development of prudent public policies.

Second, as our understanding of the commons has become more complex, the design of economic policy instruments has become more sophisticated, enabling policy makers to address problems that are characterized by uncertainty, spatial and temporal heterogeneity, and long duration.

Third, government policies that have not accounted for economic responses have been excessively costly, often ineffective, and sometimes counter-productive.

Fourth, commons problems have not diminished.  While some have been addressed successfully, others have emerged that are more important and more difficult.

Fifth, environmental economics is well positioned to offer better understanding and better policies to address these ongoing challenges.


Although I hope you will read the full article – which is very accessible — I will summarize its conclusions here.

Problems of the commons are both more widespread and more important today than when Coman wrote about unsettled problems in the first issue of the American Economic Review 100 years ago.  A century of economic growth and globalization have brought unparalleled improvements in societal well-being, but also unprecedented challenges to the carrying-capacity of the planet.  What would have been in 1911 inconceivable increases in income and population have come about and have greatly heightened pressures on the commons, particularly where there has been open access to it.

The stocks of a variety of renewable natural resources – including water, forests, fisheries, and numerous other species of plant and animal – have been depleted below socially efficient levels, principally because of poorly-defined property-right regimes.  Likewise, the same market failures of open-access – whether characterized as externalities, following A. C. Pigou (1920), or public goods, following Ronald Coase (1960) – have led to the degradation of air and water quality, inappropriate disposal of hazardous waste, depletion of stratospheric ozone, and the atmospheric accumulation of greenhouse gases linked with global climate change.

Over this same century, economics – as a discipline – has gradually come to focus more and more attention on these commons problems, first with regard to natural resources, and more recently with regard to environmental quality.  Economic research within academia and think tanks has improved our understanding of the causes and consequences of excessive resource depletion and inefficient environmental degradation, and thereby has helped identify sensible policy solutions.

Conventional regulatory policies, which have not accounted for economic responses, have been excessively costly, ineffective, or even counter-productive.  The problems behind what Garrett Hardin (1968) characterized as the “tragedy of the commons” might better be described as the “failure of commons regulation.”  As our understanding of the commons has become more complex, the design of economic policy instruments has become more sophisticated.

Problems of the commons have not diminished, and the lag between understanding and action can be long.  While some commons problems have been addressed successfully, others continue to emerge.  Some – such as the threat of global climate change – are both more important and more difficult than problems of the past.

Fortunately, economics is well positioned to offer better understanding and better policies to address these ongoing challenges.  As the first decade of the twenty-first century comes to a close, natural resource and environmental economics has emerged as a productive field of our discipline and one that shows even greater promise for the future.

Both Are Necessary, But Neither is Sufficient: Carbon-Pricing and Technology R&D Initiatives in a Meaningful National Climate Policy

For many years, there has been a great deal of discussion about carbon-pricing – whether carbon taxes or cap-and-trade – as an essential part of a meaningful national climate policy.  It has long been recognized that although carbon-pricing will be necessary, it will not be sufficient. Economists and other policy analysts have noted that policies intended to foster climate-friendly technology research and development (R&D) will also be necessary, but likewise will not be sufficient on their own.

Some recent studies and press accounts, which I reference below, have identified these two approaches to addressing CO2 emissions as substitutes, rather than complements.  That is fundamentally inconsistent with decades of research, and so my purpose in this essay is to set the record straight.

Carbon Pricing:  Necessary But Not Sufficient

First of all, why is there so much talk among policy analysts and policy makers – not simply among academics – about carbon‑pricing as the core of a meaningful strategy to reduce CO2 emissions?  Why, in fact, is this approach so overwhelmingly favored by the analytical community?  The answer is simple and surprisingly pragmatic.

First, there is no other feasible approach that can provide meaningful emissions reductions, such as the 80 percent reduction in national CO2 emissions by 2050 that was part of the legislation passed by the U.S. House of Representatives and proposed in the Senate and part of the Obama administration’s conditional pledge under the Copenhagen Accord.  Because of the ubiquity and diversity of energy use in a modern economy, conventional regulatory approaches –standards of various kinds – simply cannot do the job.  Only carbon pricing – either in the form of carbon taxes or cap-and-trade – can significantly tilt in a climate-friendly direction the millions of decentralized decisions that are made in our economy every day.

Second, carbon-pricing is the least costly approach in the short term, because abatement costs are exceptionally heterogeneous across sources.  Only carbon-pricing provides strong incentives that push all sources to control at the same marginal abatement cost, thereby achieving a given aggregate target at the lowest possible cost.

Third, it is the least costly approach in the long term, because it provides incentives for carbon-friendly technological change, which brings down costs over time.

For these reasons, carbon-pricing is a necessary component of a truly meaningful national climate policy.  [I’ve written about this in many previous blog posts, including on June 23, 2010, “The Real Options for U.S. Climate Policy.”]  However, although it is a necessary policy component, carbon-pricing is not sufficient on its own. This is because there are other market failures that dilute the impacts of price signals on decision makers.

Technology R&D Policies:  Also Necessary, Also Not Sufficient

The most important of these “other market failures” is the public good nature of information.  Companies carrying out research and development (R&D) incur the full costs of their efforts, but they do not capture the full benefits.  This is because even with a perfectly-enforced system of intellectual property rights (such as patents), there are tremendous spillover benefits to other firms.  Decades of economic research – much of it by my former colleague and co-author, Professor Adam Jaffe, now Dean of Arts and Sciences at Brandeis University – has analyzed with empirical (econometric) analysis the remarkable degree to which inventions and innovations by one firm provide valuable information that leads to new inventions and innovations by other firms.

So, firms pay the costs of their R&D, but do not reap all the benefits.  The existence of this positive externality of firms’ R&D – or put differently, the public-good nature of the information generated by R&D – means that the private sector will carry out less than the “efficient” amount of R&D of new climate-friendly technologies in response to given carbon prices.  Hence, other public policies are needed to address this “R&D market failure.”

New path-breaking technologies will be needed to address climate change, and public support for private-sector or public-sector R&D will be crucial to meet this need.  But, at the same time, to address the climate-change market failure itself (that is, the externality associated with greenhouse gas emissions), carbon pricing will be necessary, for all of the reasons I gave above.  This is an application of an important and fundamental principle in economics:  two market failures require the use of two policy instruments.

Empirical analyses have repeatedly verified this crucial point – that combining carbon-pricing with R&D support is more cost-effective than adopting either approach alone.  Included in this set of studies are the following:  Carolyn Fischer (Resources for the Future) and Richard Newell (U.S. Energy Information Administration, on leave from Duke University), “Environmental and Technology Policies for Climate Mitigation”; Stephen Schneider (late of Stanford University) and Lawrence Goulder (Stanford University), “Achieving Low-Cost Emissions Targets”; and Daren Acemoglu (MIT), Philippe Aghion, Leonardo Bursztyn, and David Hemous (Harvard University), “The Environment and Directed Technical Change.”

Complements, Not Substitutes

An interesting, recent column, “Next Step on Policy for Climate,” by David Leonhardt in the New York Times (October 13, 2010, p. B1) might give some people the mistaken impression that technology policies are an adequate, even sensible substitute for carbon-pricing.  That was not the intended message of the column.  In fact, Leonhardt – perhaps the leading economic journalist writing today in the United States ­– indicates clearly in his column that he is skeptical of the notion of thinking of technology subsidies as an adequate substitute for carbon-pricing (in particular, cap-and-trade).  And in a follow-up post at the New York Times’ Economix, he makes clear that “these two policies are not mutually exclusive.”

Nevertheless, Leonhardt’s original column (which included a very nice profile of my colleague, Professor Michael Greenstone of MIT) focused attention on a recent report –  a report that could give the false impression that technology policies would be a sensible substitute for serious carbon-pricing.  The report in question – “Post-Partisan Power” – received significant coverage, primarily because of its sponsorship:  a combination of a prominent Republican-oriented Washington think tank, the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), and an equally prominent Democratic-oriented Washington think tank, the Brooking Institution (and a third partner, the Breakthrough Institute, a California-based environmental think tank).

The report may well garner some bi-partisan political support, because it promises a free lunch of painless, win-win solutions, a promise that will resonate with many elected officials.  Indeed, the report’s sub-title is “how a limited and direct approach to energy innovation can deliver clean, cheap energy, economic productivity, and national prosperity.”  What’s not to like? And the authors are presumably smart and politically shrewd.  I know that’s the case with the AEI author, Steven Hayward, who I debated last year in the pages of the Wall Street Journal.

To its credit, the report lays out a menu of policies intended to stimulate carbon-friendly technological change, ranging from $500 million of Federal government funding of K-12 curriculum development and teacher training to $25 billion annually of direct Federal funding of energy innovation.

For the reasons I explained above (the “R&D market failure” and the “carbon emissions externality”), both direct technology R&D policies and serious carbon-pricing are necessary, but neither is sufficient on its own.  Unfortunately, this new report ­­– and some of the press coverage surrounding it – makes the claim that such direct government funding of technology innovation is a sufficient and sensible substitute for meaningful carbon-pricing.  That claim is both unfortunate and wrong, as it is supported neither by sound reasoning nor empirical research, as I have described above.

Again, many of the individual technology policy recommendations offered by the AEI-Brookings-BI report are worthy of serious consideration (as a complement, not a substitute for an economy-wide carbon-pricing policy).  But the specifics – indeed, much of the meat – are missing.  “Reform the nation’s morass of energy subsidies” – yes, but exactly which subsidies (all of which have important political constituencies behind them) will be eliminated?  “Recognize the potential for nuclear power” – yes, and both the House and Senate carbon-pricing schemes would have provided tremendous incentives for nuclear power investment.

Overall, there should be concern about how all of this will be funded.  Where will the $25 billion per year come from?  The report appropriately states that this should not come from general revenues, and thus add to the Federal debt.  “Phasing out current subsidies for wind, solar, ethanol, and fossil fuels” could be meritorious on its own, but how much does this generate, and does it even pass a political laugh-test?  Interestingly, beyond this, despite considerable rhetoric about moving beyond debates about carbon-pricing, the report recommends that in order to avoid adding to the Federal debt, it would be necessary to impose new taxes, including increased royalties for oil and gas extraction, a tax on imported oil, a tax on electricity sales, and a “very small carbon price” (presumably from a modest carbon tax or unambitious cap-and-trade system).

The actual numbers would be helpful, and the political feasibility remains a serious question.  The political challenges that emerged in the effort to pass cap-and-trade climate legislation will not magically disappear if there’s an attempt to induce Congress to approve $25 billion in funding.  As Tom Friedman noted on October 12th in the New York Times, Congress has not come close to fully funding the outstanding requests for about $4 billion for ARPA-E (energy) research.

More broadly, despite the attraction of the AEI-Brookings-BI proposal as a potential complement to carbon-pricing (and I am serious that the proposal is of value in that context), one has to be very careful about comparing proposed new policies in idealized form (for example, precisely the right subsidies eliminated and precisely the right new subsidies introduced) with real policies with all their warts (for example, the cap-and-trade bill that was passed by the House last year).  Making such comparisons can lead to flawed analysis and misleading results.

This is not a new issue.  Robert Hahn and I wrote about this generic problem nearly 20 years ago in an article (“Economic Incentives for Environmental Protection:  Integrating Theory and Practice”) which appeared the American Economic Review Papers and Proceedings (May 1992).  At the time, our concern was that this mistake was being made not by the opponents but by the supporters of cap-and-trade and other (then essentially untested) market-based instruments.  We worried that “many analysts use highly stylized benchmarks for comparison that ignore likely political realities,” and suggested that an appropriate “comparison would be between actual command-and-control policies and either actual trading [cap-and-trade] programs … or a reasonably constrained theoretical … program.”

Likewise today, when carrying out comparisons of policy alternatives, it is fine to compare two theoretical, idealized alternatives, or to compare two real-world policies, but it is problematic and usually misleading to compare a theoretical, idealized policy of one type with a real-world example of another type of policy.

The Bottom Line

Carbon-pricing – whether carbon taxes or cap-and-trade – will be an essential part of any truly meaningful national climate policy.  Likewise, to address the “R&D market failure,” direct technology innovation policies will also be required.  Both are necessary.  Neither is sufficient.  These are complements, not substitutes.


Postscript: Four years ago, the U.S. Congressional Budget Office (CBO) — widely recognized for its non-partisan, first-rate research — produced a study on the same topic as the AEI-Brookings-BI report, but did so with rigor and without ideology.  The CBO report — Evaluating the Role of Prices and R&D in Reducing Carbon Dioxide Emissions (September 2006) — was prepared by Dr. Terry Dinan, a long-time, respected CBO economist, and was peer reviewed by an impressive set of academic and other experts.  Sadly, the CBO paper received little press coverage, despite its high quality and its relevance.  For anyone interested in the topic of this post, particularly those who disagree with my theme, I hope you will read the CBO report.

Also, a reader of this blog post sent me a paper by David Hart and Kadri Kallas (from MIT’s Energy Innovation working paper series) that examines “Alignment and Misalignment of Technology Push and Regulatory Pull.” It’s worth reading in the context of combining carbon pricing and technology R&D policies.

The Real Options for U.S. Climate Policy

The time has not yet come to throw in the towel regarding the possible enactment in 2010 of meaningful economy-wide climate change policy (such as that found in the Waxman-Markey legislation passed by the U.S. House of Representatives in June, 2009, or the more recent Kerry-Lieberman proposal in the Senate).  Meaningful action of some kind is still possible, or at least conceivable.  But with debates regarding national climate change policy becoming more acrimonious in Washington as midterm elections approach, it is important to ask, what are the real options for climate policy in the United States – not only in 2010, but in 2011 and beyond.  That’s the purpose of this essay.

Federal Policy Options

Let’s begin my considering Federal policy options under two distinct categories:  pricing instruments and other approaches.  Carbon-pricing instruments could take the form of caps on the quantity of emissions (cap-and-trade, cap-and-dividend, or baseline-and-credit), or approaches that directly put carbon prices in place (carbon taxes or subsidies).  Beyond pricing instruments, the other approaches include regulation under the Clean Air Act, energy policies not targeted exclusively at climate change, public nuisance litigation, and NIMBY and other public interventions to block permits for new fossil-fuel related investments.  I will discuss each of these in turn.

Quantity-Based Carbon Pricing

I’ve frequently written about cap-and-trade in the past (See, for example:  Here We Go Again: A Closer Look at the Kerry-Lieberman Cap-and-Trade Proposal; Eyes on the Prize:  Federal Climate Policy Should Preempt State and Regional Initiatives; Any Hope for Meaningful U.S. Climate Policy? You be the Judge; Confusion in the Senate Regarding Allowance Allocation?; Cap-and-Trade versus the Alternatives for U.S. Climate Policy; Can Countries Cut Carbon Emissions Without Hurting Economic Growth?; Cap-and-Trade: A Fly in the Ointment? Not Really; National Climate Change Policy: A Quick Look Back at Waxman-Markey and the Road Ahead; Worried About International Competitiveness? Another Look at the Waxman-Markey Cap-and-Trade Proposal; The Wonderful Politics of Cap-and-Trade: A Closer Look at Waxman-Markey; The Making of a Conventional Wisdom), and so I will be very brief on this instrument in this essay.

A Quick Reminder about Cap-and-Trade

In brief, there are four principal merits of the cap-and-trade approach to achieving significant reductions of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions.  First, this approach achieves overall targets at minimum aggregate cost, that is, it is cost-effective, both in the short term by allocating responsibility among sources, and in the long term, by providing price signals that will drive technological innovation and diffusion of carbon-friendly technologies.  Second, the allowance allocation under a cap-and-trade system can be used to build a constituency of political support across sectors and geographic areas without driving up the cost of the program or reducing its environmental performance.  Third, we have significant experience in the United States with the use of this approach, including during the 1980s to phase out leaded gasoline from the marketplace, and since the 1990s to cut acid rain by 50 percent.  Fourth, and of great importance, a domestic cap-and-trade system can be linked directly and cost-effectively with cap-and-trade systems and emission-reduction-credit systems in other parts of the world to keep costs down domestically.

Three principal concerns have been voiced about cap-and-trade systems in U.S. debates.  First, while a cap-and-trade system constrains the quantity of emissions, the costs of control are left uncertain (although such cost uncertainty can be limited — if not eliminated — through the use of safety valves, price collars, or related mechanisms).  Second, in the wake of concerns regarding the roll that financial markets played in the global recession, there have been many fears about the possibilities of market manipulation in a cap-and-trade system.  A third concern – in a political context – is that this cost-effective approach to environmental protection, pioneered by the Republican administration of President George H. W. Bush, has – ironically — been demonized by conservatives in current debates.

That said, a variety of pending design issues will need to be addressed in the development of any cap-and-trade system, including:  ambition, scope (suddenly important because of a renewed focus in Washington on the possibility of a utility-only cap), point of regulation in the economy, allowance allocation, the role of offsets, cost-containment mechanisms, international competition protection, and regulatory oversight.  (I’ve written about all of these design issues in previous essays at this blog and elsewhere.)

A Design-Change for Cap-and-Trade?

Does the current political climate call for a design change — or at least a name change — for cap-and-trade?   Both stepwise and sectoral approaches are being considered.  A stepwise approach of beginning with one or a few sectors of the economy and subsequently expanding gradually to an economy-wide program was embodied in both the Waxman-Markey legislation and in the Kerry-Lieberman proposal.  Under a sectoral approach, cap-and-trade would be used for some sectors, but other approaches would be used for other parts of the economy.  To some degree, the Kerry-Lieberman proposal embodies this approach.  The current focus in Washington is on the possibility of using cap-and-trade for the electricity sector only.

Although the politics may argue for a stepwise or sectoral approach, it should be recognized that neither is likely to be cost-effective, because it is highly unlikely that marginal abatement costs will be equated across all sectors of the economy without the use of a single (implicit) price on carbon.

So the potential approach now receiving much attention in Washington of employing a cap-and-trade system in the electricity sector only would — in all likelihood — achieve less in terms of overall emissions reductions, and would not be cost-effective (due to the exclusion of other sectors).  However, it is at least conceivable that will prove to be the best among politically-feasible paths to a better future policy.  That is, of course, a political — not an economic — question.

A Populist Approach?

Populism has emerged as a major theme in recent electoral politics in the United States, both from the left and from the right.  What might be characterized as a populist approach would be a cap-and-trade system with 100% of the allowances auctioned and the auction revenue returned directly “to the people.”  Although this is a standard variant of cap-and-trade design, contemporary politics — with its demonization of the phrase “cap-and-trade” — might well argue for a name change:  how about “cap-and-dividend?”

This approach is embodied in the CLEAR Act of Senators Maria Cantwell (D-Washington) and Susan Collins (R-Maine).  The merits of this approach include its simplicity, appearance of fairness, and related appeal to the populist mood.  Concerns, however, include the proposal’s relatively modest environmental achievements (according to an analysis by the World Resources Institute), its overall cost due to restrictions on trading, and its apparent political infeasibility, given its lack of visible support in the Congress.

Other Trading Mechanisms

In addition to cap-and-trade, the other major type of tradable permit system is an emission-reduction-credit system, or baseline-and-credit system.  Because such approaches lack caps, they raise some well-known concerns, in particular the necessity of comparing actual emissions with what emissions would have been in the absence of the policy.  In such a system, the latter is fundamentally unobserved and unobservable.  This is the problem of “additionality,” which comes up in spades in the case of the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), but also in the context of most other offset programs.

A related trading mechanism is found in the Clean Energy Standards approach, embodied in Senator Richard Lugar’s (R-Indiana) legislative proposal.  This mechanism is similar to a Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS), but allows for a broader set of qualified sources;  not only renewables, but also nuclear power, fossil fuel power with carbon capture and storage (CCS), and – in principle — efficient natural gas.  If the clean energy credits are denominated in units of carbon free megawatt hours and are tradable, then the merits of this approach include the flexibility that is provided through trading.  The concerns include the lack of an emissions cap, and the difficulty of expanding this approach to other sectors or linking it with a cap-and-trade system.  However, if the clean energy credits are denominated in emissions per megawatt hour, then the program can more easily be converted to or linked with a cap-and-trade system.

Direct Carbon Pricing

A carbon tax system would be similar in design to an upstream cap-and-trade approach.  There is some real interest in this approach, mainly from academics, and there is also what I would characterize as “strategic interest,” principally from those who recognize that once the focus is on carbon taxes rather than other instruments, political debates will inevitably result in less ambitious targets or, in fact, no policy at all.

Carbon Taxes in Brief

Having said this, the merits of a carbon tax approach compared with cap-and-trade include the fact that cost uncertainty is eliminated with the tax approach (although, of course, there is quantity uncertainty, that is, no emissions cap).  And, I mentioned earlier, the cost uncertainty inherent in a cap-and-trade system can be reduced, if not eliminated, with cost-containment mechanisms such as a price collar.

Another merit of the carbon tax approach is that it would generate substantial revenues (as would a cap-and-trade system in which the allowances are auctioned).  These revenues can be used – in principle – for a variety of worthwhile public purposes, including reducing distortionary taxes, which would serve to lower the overall social cost of the policy.  Third, the tax approach is (at least perceived to be) much simpler than the allowance market that would be generated by a cap-and-trade scheme.

Major concerns regarding carbon taxes are fourfold.  First, despite their social cost-effectiveness, pollution taxes can be more costly to the regulated sector than even a non-cost-effective command-and-control instrument.  Second, unlike cap-and-trade, the tax approach lacks a benign mechanism for building political constituency, and is likely to lead to requests for tax exemptions, and hence a less ambitious policy and possibly a more costly one.  Third, although it is not impossible to link such as system internationally (for purposes of cost containment), it is more challenging to do so than with the quantity based cap-and-trade alternative.  A fourth and final concern is the apparent political infeasibility of this approach, at least currently in the United States.

In this regard, it is important to note that what has frequently been interpreted as hostility to cap-and-trade in the U.S. Senate is actually – on closer inspection — broader hostility to the very notion of carbon pricing (or any climate change policy).  Surely, the political reception to a carbon tax would be even less enthusiastic than the reception that has greeted recent cap-and-trade proposals.

Subsidies:  The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

If it’s so politically difficult to tax “bad behavior,” how about subsidizing “good behavior?”  The mirror image of a tax is indeed a subsidy, and two potential price-based approaches to achieving greenhouse gas emission reductions are the use of climate-friendly subsidies and the elimination of problematic subsidies that exacerbate the climate problem.

In thinking about climate-friendly subsidies, we should first keep in mind that the Obama economic stimulus package enacted by the Congress includes significant subsidies (and tax credits) for renewables and efficiency upgrades — to the tune of about $80 billion.  A major problem has been that the administration (in particular, the Department of Energy) has been finding it difficult to spend the money fast enough.  Also, some would consider subsidies for biofuels, such as ethanol, as falling within this category of climate-friendly subsidies, but clearly that is a matter of considerable controversy.

Principal among the problematic subsidies – and hence major candidates for reduction or elimination – are subsidies for the development and use of fossil fuels.  According to the Environmental Law Institute, U.S. fossil-fuel subsidies and tax breaks currently amount to $8-$10 billon per year.  At the global level, the International Energy Agency has estimated that such fossil-fuel subsidies now amount to $550 billion annually!  President Obama proposed at the G20 meeting in Pittsburgh in November, 2009, that such subsidies be phased out around the world, and there seemed at the time to be broad-based support for this proposal.  However, it should not be surprising that less than a year later, it now appears that the commitment may be watered down somewhat at the G20 meeting in Toronto this June.

The merit of trying to use climate-friendly subsidies is based on the fact that subsidies affect relative prices, much like taxes do, but are much more politically attractive, since politicians prefer to give out benefits rather than costs to their constituents.  And eliminating problematic subsidies can be economically efficient.

But a major concern of using climate-friendly subsidies is that the funds go not only to marginal units that otherwise would not be taking specific actions, but also to infra-marginal units that are pleased to accept the funds, but whose behavior is unaffected by them.  This means that this approach is relatively costly to the government (and to society at large) for what is accomplished.  And a concern of removing fossil fuel subsidies – particularly in the current political climate of worries about oil imports – is that this can work against so-called “energy security” (some have therefore suggested the addition of an “oil import fee”).

Climate Change Regulation under the Clean Air Act

Regulations of various kinds may soon be forthcoming – and in some cases, will definitely be forthcoming – as a result of the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Massachusetts v. EPA and the Obama administration’s subsequent “endangerment finding” that emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases endanger public health and welfare.  This triggered mobile source standards earlier this year, the promulgation of which identified carbon dioxide as a pollutant under the Clean Air Act, thereby initiating a process of using the Clean Air Act for stationary sources as well.

Those new standards are scheduled to begin on January 1, 2011, with or without the so-called “tailoring rule” that would exempt smaller sources.  Among the possible types of regulation that could be forthcoming for stationary sources under the Clean Air Act include:  new source performance standards; performance standards for existing sources (Section 111(d)); and New Source Review with Best Available Control Technology standards under Section 165.

The merits that have been suggested of such regulatory action are that it would be effective in some sectors, and that the threat of such regulation will spur Congress to take action with a more sensible approach, namely, an economy wide cap-and-trade system.

However, regulatory action on carbon dioxide under the Clean Air Act will accomplish relatively little and do so at relatively high cost, compared with carbon pricing.  Also, it is not clear that this threat will force the hand of Congress.  Indeed it is reasonable to ask whether this is a credible threat, or will instead turn out to be counter-productive (when stories about the implementation of inflexible, high-cost regulatory approaches lend ammunition to the staunchest opponents of climate policy).

Furthermore, there is the question of possible preemption.  Although Senator Lisa Murkowski’s (R-Alaska) resolution was defeated in the Senate, Senator Jay Rockefeller’s (D-West Virginia) proposal of a two-year delay of Clean Air Act regulatory action is still pending; and depending upon the outcome of the November elections, there may be a series of further Congressional actions to tie the hands of EPA in this regard.

Regulation of Conventional Pollutants under the Clean Air Act

It’s also possible that air pollution policies for non-greenhouse gas pollutants, the emissions of some of which are highly correlated with CO2 emissions, may play an important role.  For example, the three-pollutant legislation co-sponsored by Senator Thomas Carper (D-Delaware) and Senator Lamar Alexander (R-Tennessee), focused on SOx, NOx, and mercury, could have profound impacts on the construction and operation of coal-fired electricity plants, without any direct CO2 requirements.  Beyond this, there are also possibilities of policies for the non-CO2 greenhouse gases.

Important, Unanswered Questions

An important pending question regarding EPA’s use of the Clean Air Act is whether EPA may legally create CO2 cap-and-trade or offset markets under existing Clean Air Act authority.  The answer appears to be “probably yes.”  There is positive precedent from EPA’s emissions trading program of the 1970s, and it’s a leaded gasoline phase-down of the 1980s, although recent court decisions regarding the Bush administration’s Clean Air Interstate Rule may cause concern in this regard.

The more important question, however, may turn out to be whether EPA can politically create significant CO2 markets in the face of Congressional opposition.  The answer to this is considerably less clear.

Energy Policies Not Targeted Exclusively at Climate Change

The “positive politics” generated by the Gulf oil spill, combined with the “negative politics” of addressing climate change explicitly, may well increase the likelihood of so-called “energy-only” legislation being enacted this year.  Senator Jeff Bingaman’s (D-New Mexico) bill from the Environment and Natural Resources Committee and perhaps Senator Richard Lugar’s bill will feature centrally in any bipartisan initiative.

The possible components of such an approach which would be relevant in the context of climate change include:  a national renewable electricity standard; Federal financing for clean energy projects: energy efficiency measures (building, appliance, and industrial efficiency standards; home retrofit subsidies; and smart grid standards, subsidies, and dynamic pricing policies); and new Federal electricity-transmission siting authority.

Other Legal Mechanisms

Even without action by the Congress or by the Administration, legal action on climate policy is likely to take place within the judicial realmPublic nuisance litigation will no doubt continue, with a diverse set of lawsuits being filed across the country in pursuit of injunctive relief and/or damages.  Due to recent court decisions, the pace, the promise, and the problems of this approach remain uncertain.

Beyond the well-defined area of public nuisance litigation, other interventions which are intended to block permits for new fossil energy investments, including both power plants and transmission lines will continue.  Some of these interventions will be of the conventional NIMBY character, but others will no doubt be more strategic.

Does the Road to National Climate Policy Need to Go through Washington?

With political stalemate in Washington, attention may increasingly turn to regional, state, and even local policies intended to address climate change.  The Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) in the Northeast has created a cap-and-trade system among electricity generators.  More striking, California’s Global Warming Solutions Act (Assembly Bill 32, or AB 32) will likely lead to the creation of a very ambitious set of climate initiatives, including a statewide cap-and-trade system (unless it’s stopped by ballot initiative or a new Governor, depending on the outcome of the November 2010 elections).  The California system is likely to be linked with systems in other states and Canadian provinces under the Western Climate Initiative.

These sub-national policies will interact in a variety of ways – some good, some bad — with Federal policy when and if Federal policy is enacted.  As Professor Lawrence Goulder (Stanford University) and I have written in a new paper for the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), some of these interactions could be problematic, such as the interaction between a Federal cap-and-trade system and a more ambitious cap-and-trade system in California under AB 32, while other interactions would be benign, such as RGGI becoming somewhat irrelevant in the face of a Federal cap-and-trade system that was both more stringent and broader in scope.

An important question is whether there can be sensible sub-national policies even in the presence of an economy-wide Federal carbon-pricing regime?  The answer is surely yes, partly because other market failures will continue to exist that are not addressed by carbon pricing.  A prime example is the principal-agent problem of insufficient energy-efficiency investments in renter-occupied properties, even in the face of high energy prices.  This is a problem that is best addressed at the state or even local level, such as through building codes and zoning.

In the meantime, in the absence of meaningful Federal action, sub-national climate policies could well become the core of national action.  Problems will no doubt arise, including legal obstacles such as possible Federal preemption or litigation associated with the so-called Dormant Commerce Clause.  Also, even a large portfolio of state and regional policies will not be comprehensive of the entire nation, that is, not truly national in scope.  And even if they are nationally comprehensive, with different policies of different stringency in different parts of the country, carbon shadow-prices will by no means be equivalent, and so overall policy objectives will be achieved at excessive social cost.

Is there a solution, if only a partial one?  Yes, state and regional carbon markets can be linked.  Such linkage occurs as a result of bilateral recognition of allowances, which results in reduced costs, price volatility, leakage, and market power.  Such bottom-up linkage of state and regional cap-and-trade systems may be an important part or perhaps the core of future of U.S. climate policy, at least until there is meaningful action at the Federal level.  In the meantime, it is at least conceivable that linkage of state-level cap-and-trade systems across the United States will become the de facto post-2012 national climate policy architecture.

The Path Ahead

Conventional politics clearly disfavors market-based (pricing) environmental policy approaches that render costs obvious or at least somewhat transparent, despite the fact that the costs of these same policies are actually less than those of alternative approaches.  Instead, conventional politics favors approaches to environmental protection that render costs less obvious (or better yet invisible), such as renewable portfolio standards, and — for that matter — all sorts of command-and-control performance and technology standards.

But carbon pricing will be necessary to address the diverse economy-wide sources of CO2 emissions effectively and at sensible cost, whether the carbon pricing comes about through an economy-wide Federal cap-and-trade system or through a Federal carbon tax.  It is inconceivable that truly meaningful reductions in CO2 emissions could be achieved through purely regulatory approaches, and it remains true that whatever would be achieved, would be accomplished at excessively high cost.

So, although it is true – as I have sought to explain in this essay – that there are a diverse set of options for future climate policy in the United States, the best available alternative to an economy-wide cap-and-trade system enacted in 2010 may be an economy-wide cap-and-trade system enacted in 2011.  But ultimately, the question of what is the best alternative this year to an economy-wide cap-and-trade system is a political, not an economic question.

Unintended Consequences of Government Policies: The Depletion of America’s Wetlands

Private land-use decisions can be affected dramatically by public investments in highways, waterways, flood control, or other infrastructure.  The large movement of jobs from central cities to suburbs in the postwar United States and the ongoing destruction of Amazon rain forests have occurred with major public investment in supporting infrastructure.  As these examples suggest, private land-use decisions can generate major environmental and social externalities – or, in common language, unintended consequences.

In an analysis that appeared in 1990 in the American Economic Review, Adam Jaffe of Brandeis University and I demonstrated that the depletion of forested wetlands in the Mississippi Valley – an important environmental problem and a North American precursor to the loss of South American rain forests – was exacerbated by Federal water-project investments, despite explicit Federal policy to protect wetlands.

Wetland Losses

Forested wetlands are among the world’s most productive ecosystems, providing improved water quality, erosion control, floodwater storage, timber, wildlife habitat, and recreational opportunities.  Their depletion globally is a serious problem; and preservation and protection of wetlands have been major Federal environmental policy goals for forty years.

From the 1950s through the mid-1970s, over one-half million acres of U.S. wetlands were lost each year.  This rate slowed greatly in subsequent years, averaging approximately 60 thousand acres lost per year in the lower 48 states from 1986 through 1997.  And by 2006, the Bush administration’s Secretary of the Interior, Gale Norton, was able to announce a net gain in wetland acreage in the United Sates, due to restoration and creation activities surpassing wetland losses.

What Caused the Observed Losses?

What were the causes of the huge annual losses of wetlands in the earlier years?  That question and our analysis are as germane today as in 1990, because of lessons that have emerged about the unintended consequences of public investments.

The largest remaining wetland habitat in the continental United States is the bottomland hardwood forest of the Lower Mississippi Alluvial Plain.  Originally covering 26 million acres in seven states, this resource was reduced to about 12 million acres by 1937.  By 1990, another 7 million acres had been cleared, primarily for conversion to cropland.

The owner of a wetland parcel faces an economic decision involving revenues from the parcel in its natural state (primarily from timber), costs of conversion (the cost of clearing the land minus the resulting forestry windfall), and expected revenues from agriculture.  Agricultural revenues depend on prices, yields, and, significantly, the drainage and flooding frequency of the land.  Needless to say, landowners typically do not consider the positive environmental externalities generated by wetlands; thus conversion may occur more often than is socially optimal.

Such externalities are the motivation for Federal policy aimed at protecting wetlands, as embodied in the Clean Water Act.  Nevertheless, the Federal government engaged in major public investment activities, in the form of U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and U.S. Soil Conservation Service flood-control and drainage projects, which appeared to make agriculture more attractive and thereby encourage wetland depletion.  The significance of this effect had long been disputed by the agencies which construct and maintain these projects; they attributed the extensive conversion exclusively to rising agricultural prices.

In an econometric (statistical) analysis of data from Arkansas, Mississippi, and Louisiana, from 1935 to 1984, Jaffe and I sought to sort out the effects of Federal projects and other economic forces.  We discovered that these public investments were a very substantial factor causing conversion of wetlands to agriculture, with between 30 and 50 percent of the total wetland depletion over those five decades due to the Federal projects.

More broadly, four conclusions emerged from our analysis.  First, landowners had responded to economic incentives in their land-use decisions.  Second, construction of Federal flood-control and drainage projects caused a higher rate of conversion of forested wetlands to croplands than would have occurred in the absence of projects, leading to the depletion of an additional 1.25 million acres of wetlands.  Third, Federal projects had this impact because they made agriculture feasible on land where it had previously been infeasible, and because, on average, they improved the quality of feasible land.  Fourth, adjustment of land use to economic conditions was gradual.

Government Working at Cross-Purposes

The analysis highlighted a striking inconsistency in the Federal government’s approach to wetlands.  In articulated policies, laws, and regulations, the government recognized the positive externalities associated with some wetlands, with the George H.W. Bush administration first enunciating a “no net loss of wetlands” policy.  But public investments in wetlands – in the form of flood-control and drainage projects – had created major incentives to convert these areas to alternative uses.  The government had been working at cross-purposes.

The conclusion that major public infrastructure investments affect private land-use decisions (thereby often generating negative externalities) may not be a surprise to some readers, but it was the 1990 analysis described here that first provided rigorous evidence which contrasted sharply with the accepted wisdom among policy makers.

The Ongoing Importance of Induced Land-Use Changes

As wetlands, tropical rain forests, barrier islands, and other sensitive environmental areas become more scarce, their marginal social value rises.  In general, if induced land-use changes are not considered, the country will engage in more public investment programs whose net social benefits are negative.

Is Benefit-Cost Analysis Helpful for Environmental Regulation?

With the locus of action on Federal climate policy moving this week from the House of Representatives to the Senate, this is a convenient moment to step back from the political fray and reflect on some fundamental questions about U.S. environmental policy.

One such question is whether economic analysis – in particular, the comparison of the benefits and costs of proposed policies – plays a truly useful role in Washington, or is it little more than a distraction of attention from more important perspectives on public policy, or – worst of all – is it counter-productive, even antithetical, to the development, assessment, and implementation of sound policy in the environmental, resource, and energy realms.   With an exceptionally talented group of thinkers – including scientists, lawyers, and economists – now in key environmental and energy policy positions at the White House, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Energy, and the Department of the Treasury, this question about the usefulness of benefit-cost analysis is of particular importance.

For many years, there have been calls from some quarters for greater reliance on the use of economic analysis in the development and evaluation of environmental regulations.  As I have noted in previous posts on this blog, most economists would argue that economic efficiency — measured as the difference between benefits and costs — ought to be one of the key criteria for evaluating proposed regulations.  (See:  “The Myths of Market Prices and Efficiency,” March 3, 2009; “What Baseball Can Teach Policymakers,” April 20, 2009; “Does Economic Analysis Shortchange the Future?” April 27, 2009)  Because society has limited resources to spend on regulation, such analysis can help illuminate the trade-offs involved in making different kinds of social investments.  In this sense, it would seem irresponsible not to conduct such analyses, since they can inform decisions about how scarce resources can be put to the greatest social good.

In principle, benefit-cost analysis can also help answer questions of how much regulation is enough.  From an efficiency standpoint, the answer to this question is simple — regulate until the incremental benefits from regulation are just offset by the incremental costs.  In practice, however, the problem is much more difficult, in large part because of inherent problems in measuring marginal benefits and costs.  In addition, concerns about fairness and process may be very important economic and non-economic factors.  Regulatory policies inevitably involve winners and losers, even when aggregate benefits exceed aggregate costs.

Over the years, policy makers have sent mixed signals regarding the use of benefit-cost analysis in policy evaluation.  Congress has passed several statutes to protect health, safety, and the environment that effectively preclude the consideration of benefits and costs in the development of certain regulations, even though other statutes actually require the use of benefit-cost analysis.  At the same time, Presidents Carter, Reagan, Bush, Clinton, and Bush all put in place formal processes for reviewing economic implications of major environmental, health, and safety regulations. Apparently the Executive Branch, charged with designing and implementing regulations, has seen a greater need than the Congress to develop a yardstick against which regulatory proposals can be assessed.  Benefit-cost analysis has been the yardstick of choice

It was in this context that ten years ago a group of economists from across the political spectrum jointly authored an article in Science magazine, asking whether there is role for benefit-cost analysis in environmental, health, and safety regulation.  That diverse group consisted of Kenneth Arrow, Maureen Cropper, George Eads, Robert Hahn, Lester Lave, Roger Noll, Paul Portney, Milton Russell, Richard Schmalensee, Kerry Smith, and myself.  That article and its findings are particularly timely, with President Obama considering putting in place a new Executive Order on Regulatory Review.

In the article, we suggested that benefit-cost analysis has a potentially important role to play in helping inform regulatory decision making, though it should not be the sole basis for such decision making.  We offered eight principles.

First, benefit-cost analysis can be useful for comparing the favorable and unfavorable effects of policies, because it can help decision makers better understand the implications of decisions by identifying and, where appropriate, quantifying the favorable and unfavorable consequences of a proposed policy change.  But, in some cases, there is too much uncertainty to use benefit-cost analysis to conclude that the benefits of a decision will exceed or fall short of its costs.

Second, decision makers should not be precluded from considering the economic costs and benefits of different policies in the development of regulations.  Removing statutory prohibitions on the balancing of benefits and costs can help promote more efficient and effective regulation.

Third, benefit-cost analysis should be required for all major regulatory decisions. The scale of a benefit-cost analysis should depend on both the stakes involved and the likelihood that the resulting information will affect the ultimate decision.

Fourth, although agencies should be required to conduct benefit-cost analyses for major decisions, and to explain why they have selected actions for which reliable evidence indicates that expected benefits are significantly less than expected costs, those agencies should not be bound by strict benefit-cost tests.  Factors other than aggregate economic benefits and costs may be important.

Fifth, benefits and costs of proposed policies should be quantified wherever possible.  But not all impacts can be quantified, let alone monetized.  Therefore, care should be taken to assure that quantitative factors do not dominate important qualitative factors in decision making.  If an agency wishes to introduce a “margin of safety” into a decision, it should do so explicitly.

Sixth, the more external review that regulatory analyses receive, the better they are likely to be.  Retrospective assessments should be carried out periodically.

Seventh, a consistent set of economic assumptions should be used in calculating benefits and costs.  Key variables include the social discount rate, the value of reducing risks of premature death and accidents, and the values associated with other improvements in health.

Eighth, while benefit-cost analysis focuses primarily on the overall relationship between benefits and costs, a good analysis will also identify important distributional consequences for important subgroups of the population.

From these eight principles, we concluded that benefit-cost analysis can play an important role in legislative and regulatory policy debates on protecting and improving the natural environment, health, and safety.  Although formal benefit-cost analysis should not be viewed as either necessary or sufficient for designing sensible public policy, it can provide an exceptionally useful framework for consistently organizing disparate information, and in this way, it can greatly improve the process and hence the outcome of policy analysis.

If properly done, benefit-cost analysis can be of great help to agencies participating in the development of environmental regulations, and it can likewise be useful in evaluating agency decision making and in shaping new laws (which brings us full-circle to the climate legislation that will be developed in the U.S. Senate over the weeks and months ahead, and which I hope to discuss in future posts).

Does economic analysis shortchange the future?

Decisions made today usually have impacts both now and in the future. In the environmental realm, many of the future impacts are benefits, and such future benefits — as well as costs — are typically discounted by economists in their analyses.  Why do economists do this, and does it give insufficient weight to future benefits and thus to the well-being of future generations?

This is a question my colleague, Lawrence Goulder, a professor of economics at Stanford University, and I addressed in an article in Nature.  We noted that as economists, we often encounter skepticism about discounting, especially from non-economists. Some of the skepticism seems quite valid, yet some reflects misconceptions about the nature and purposes of discounting.  In this post, I hope to clarify the concept and the practice.

It helps to begin with the use of discounting in private investments, where the rationale stems from the fact that capital is productive ­– money earns interest.  Consider a company trying to decide whether to invest $1 million in the purchase of a copper mine, and suppose that the most profitable strategy involves extracting the available copper 3 years from now, yielding revenues (net of extraction costs) of $1,150,000. Would investing in this mine make sense?  Assume the company has the alternative of putting the $1 million in the bank at 5 per cent annual interest. Then, on a purely financial basis, the company would do better by putting the money in the bank, as it will have $1,000,000 x (1.05)3, or $1,157,625, that is, $7,625 more than it would earn from the copper mine investment.

I compared the alternatives by compounding to the future the up-front cost of the project. It is mathematically equivalent to compare the options by discounting to the present the future revenues or benefits from the copper mine. The discounted revenue is $1,150,000 divided by (1.05)3, or $993,413, which is less than the cost of the investment ($1 million).  So the project would not earn as much as the alternative of putting the money in the bank.

Discounting translates future dollars into equivalent current dollars; it undoes the effects of compound interest. It is not aimed at accounting for inflation, as even if there were no inflation, it would still be necessary to discount future revenues to account for the fact that a dollar today translates (via compound interest) into more dollars in the future.

Can this same kind of thinking be applied to investments made by the public sector?  Since my purpose is to clarify a few key issues in the starkest terms, I will use a highly stylized example that abstracts from many of the subtleties.  Suppose that a policy, if introduced today and maintained, would avoid significant damage to the environment and human welfare 100 years from now. The ‘return on investment’ is avoided future damages to the environment and people’s well-being. Suppose that this policy costs $4 billion to implement, and that this cost is completely borne today.  It is anticipated that the benefits – avoided damages to the environment – will be worth $800 billion to people alive 100 years from now.  Should the policy be implemented?

If we adopt the economic efficiency criterion I have described in previous posts, the question becomes whether the future benefits are large enough so that the winners could potentially compensate the losers and still be no worse off?  Here discounting is helpful. If, over the next 100 years, the average rate of interest on ordinary investments is 5 per cent, the gains of $800 billion to people 100 years from now are equivalent to $6.08 billion today.  Equivalently, $6.08 billion today, compounded at an annual interest rate of 5 per cent, will become $800 billion in 100 years. The project satisfies the principle of efficiency if it costs current generations less than $6.08 billion, otherwise not.

Since the $4 billion of up-front costs are less than $6.08 billion, the benefits to future generations are more than enough to offset the costs to current generations. Discounting serves the purpose of converting costs and benefits from various periods into equivalent dollars of some given period.  Applying a discount rate is not giving less weight to future generations’ welfare.  Rather, it is simply converting the (full) impacts that occur at different points of time into common units.

Much skepticism about discounting and, more broadly, the use of benefit-cost analysis, is connected to uncertainties in estimating future impacts. Consider the difficulties of ascertaining, for example, the benefits that future generations would enjoy from a regulation that protects certain endangered species. Some of the gain to future generations might come in the form of pharmaceutical products derived from the protected species. Such benefits are impossible to predict. Benefits also depend on the values future generations would attach to the protected species – the enjoyment of observing them in the wild or just knowing of their existence. But how can we predict future generations’ values?  Economists and other social scientists try to infer them through surveys and by inferring preferences from individuals’ behavior.  But these approaches are far from perfect, and at best they indicate only the values or tastes of people alive today.

The uncertainties are substantial and unavoidable, but they do not invalidate the use of discounting (or benefit-cost analysis).  They do oblige analysts, however, to assess and acknowledge those uncertainties in their policy assessments, a topic I discussed in my last post (“What Baseball Can Teach Policymakers”), and a topic to which I will return in the future.

Using Markets to Make Fisheries Sustainable

Around the world, over-fishing is leading to severe depletion of valuable fisheries.  This is as true in U.S. coastal waters as it is in many other parts of the world.  In New England waters, for example, after two decades of ever more intensive fishing, the groundfish fishery has essentially collapsed.  But, we are not alone.  According to the United Nations Environment Program, fully 25 percent of fisheries worldwide are in jeopardy of collapse due to over-fishing.  Clearly, something needs to be done.  Yet, what has long been considered the obvious answer – restrictions on fishing – has been shown time and time again to be the wrong answer.  The right answer is enlightened use of markets.

The fundamental cause of the depletion of fish stocks is well known to economists:  virtually all ocean fisheries are “open-access,” that is, fishermen – small operations or large corporations – can fish all they want.  These individuals and companies are no more greedy than the rest of us, but because no one holds title to fish stocks in the open ocean, everyone races to catch as much as possible.  Each fisherman receives the full benefit of aggressive fishing (that is, a larger catch), but none pay the full cost (an imperiled fishery for everyone).  One fisherman’s choices have an effect on other fishermen (of this generation and the next), but in an open-access fishery – unlike a privately-held copper mine, for example – these impacts are not taken into account.  What is individually rational adds up to collective foolishness, as the shared resource is over-exploited.  This is the “tragedy of the commons.”  What to do?

Government intervention is, alas, required.  Fishermen don’t welcome such regulation in their economic sphere any more than anyone else does.  And they have a point.  Conventional regulatory approaches have driven up costs, but not solved the problem.  And we know why.  If the government limits the season, fishermen put out more boats.  If the government limits net size, fishermen use more labor or buy more costly sonar.  Economists call this over-capitalization.  Costs go up for fishermen (as resources are squandered), but pressure on fish stocks is not relieved.

The answer is to adopt in fisheries management the same type of innovative policy that has been used for decades in the realm of pollution  control – tradeable permits, called “Individual Transferable Quotas” ( ITQs) in the fisheries realm.  Sixteen countries – some with economies much more dependent than ours on fishing – have adopted such systems with great success.  New Zealand regulates virtually its entire commercial fishery this way.  It’s had the system in place since 1986, and it’s been a great success, putting a brake on over-fishing and restoring stocks to sustainable levels ­- while increasing fishermen’s profitability!

There are several ITQ systems already in operation in the United States, including for Alaska’s pacific halibut and Virginia’s striped-bass fisheries.  More important, the time is ripe for broader adoption of this innovative approach, because a short-sighted ban imposed by the U.S. Congress on the establishment of new ITQ systems has expired.

The first step in establishing an ITQ system is to establish the “total allowable catch.”  The next step – and a crucial one – is to allocate shares of that total limit to fishermen in individual quotas that are theirs and theirs alone (read:  well-defined property rights).  Setting the individual quotas will not be easy.  The guiding principle should be simple pragmatism – using the allocations to build political support for the system.  Making the quotas transferable eliminates the problem of overcapitalization and increases efficiency, because the least efficient fishing operations find it more profitable to sell their quotas than to exploit them through continued fishing.  If you can’t catch your whole share, you can sell part of your quota to someone else, instead of buying a bigger boat.

In addition, these systems improve safety by reducing incentives for fishermen to go out (or stay out) when weather conditions are dangerous.  And it was just such perverse incentives of conventional fisheries regulation that were blamed for the tragic loss of life when a fishing boat was lost in a storm off the New England coast just a few winters ago.

Further, because ITQ systems eliminate the motivation for government to limit the duration of the fishing season, supplies available to consumers improve in quality.  Prior to the establishment of an ITQ system for Alaskan halibut, for example, the government had reduced the fishing season to just two days, but subsequent to the introduction of the system, the season length grew to more than 200 days.

A decade ago, environmental advocates – led by the Environmental Defense Fund – played a central role in the adoption of the sulfur dioxide allowance trading program that’s cut acid rain by half and saved electricity generators and rate-payers nearly $1 billion annually, compared with conventional approaches.  The time has come for environmentalists to join forces with progressive voices in the fishing industry and in government to set up ITQ systems that can keep fishermen in business while moving fisheries onto sustainable paths.