Controversial, But Important: The Governance of Solar Geoengineering Deployment

In September, the Harvard Project on Climate Agreements hosted a research workshop on an important topic regarding a controversial approach to addressing the threat of global climate change – “Governance of the Deployment of Solar Geoengineering”.  We benefitted from collaboration and support for the workshop from Harvard’s Solar Geoengineering Research Program (HSGRP).  Participants included 26 leading academic researchers addressing the workshop’s topic – as well as leading scholars who had considered the governance of other international regimes that might provide lessons and insights for solar geoengineering governance.  You can find the agenda and participant list (combined in a single document) here, as well as most of the presentations from the workshop.

Motivation for Examining this Topic

We based the workshop on the premise that some types of solar geoengineering (SG) will be associated with incentive structures that are actually the inverse of those associated with efforts to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. Obviously, the latter is a global commons problem, which requires cooperation at the highest jurisdictional level (international cooperation) in order to advance significant mitigation.

But, in contrast, certain types of SG can – in principle – be implemented effectively at relatively low financial cost – low enough to be borne by small states or even non-state entities acting on their own. The impacts of such action, however, might be substantial, at regional or even global scales. These could include the intended beneficial impacts – decreased global average surface temperature – plus other, potentially adverse side effects. Given the incentive structure associated with SG, its potentially substantial impacts, and the uncertainty (of various kinds) surrounding it, the governance of SG deployment will be challenging, to say the least.

Questions Addressed by the Workshop

The workshop began with overviews of research on SG governance from three disciplinary perspectives – social sciences broadly (including economics, political science, and international relations); legal scholarship; and, finally, further insights from economic theory.

Subsequent sessions addressed the following key questions, which arise, in part, from the incentive structure of SG governance:

(1)  Who ought to and/or will specify criteria for SG deployment, and who ought to and/or is likely to decide when criteria are satisfied?

(2)  What will or should these criteria be? They may include: regulatory criteria developed by policy makers; criteria specified by “agents”/actors who might engage in SG deployment; and physical, engineering, social, economic, ethical, and other dimensions.

(3)  How should/will decisions about deployment be made; what decision-making process should/will be utilized?

(4)  What institutions, either existing or new, are appropriate as decision-making venues? What will or should be the legal framework of such institutions?

(5) How might SG complement and/or undermine national, regional, and multilateral institutions and policy to mitigate or adapt to climate change – and, more broadly, to manage climate risks?

(6)  SG is both a hedge against uncertain but potentially catastrophic risks of (or, alternatively, damages from) climate change – and has its own associated risks, known and unknown. How can we better understand these uncertainties and incorporate them into useful decision-making processes?

(7)  How might we best define a research agenda for the governance of SG deployment?

Finally, a panel of international-relations scholars discussed a set of international regimes – including nuclear arms control and cyber security – that may provide lessons for and insights into SG governance.

The Path Ahead

We did not attempt to provide definitive answers to these questions, but to advance understanding of this set of issues and move the research community some steps further toward better understanding of options for the governance of SG deployment.

Each participant in the workshop is preparing a brief on an aspect of the topic of their interest.  These briefs are designed to be readily accessible by practitioners – policy makers, climate negotiators, and leaders in the business and NGO communities.  The entire volume will be released by the Harvard Project on Climate Agreements in February 2019.  Watch this blog for an announcement of the release early in the new year.


Will the Paris Agreement Help or Hinder Cooperation among Nations?

I just returned from Florence, Italy, where I participated in the Second Carbon Market Workshop, organized by the European Commission, and hosted by the European University Institute.  This workshop, which brought together government representatives from around the world (with a sprinkling of academics and NGO representatives to add some spice to the discussion), was convened to examine how regional, national, and sub-national jurisdictions can cooperate in ways that could increase the effectiveness and/or reduce the costs of their respective climate change policies.  One of my tasks at the workshop was to make a brief dinner speech.  Jos Delbeke, the long-time,  legendary Director-General of Climate Action for the Commission, asked me to talk about how the Paris Agreement might help or hinder practical climate policy cooperation around the world.  I drew extensively upon my research with Michael Mehling and Gilbert Metcalf.  Here is the gist of what I said in my dinner speech.

Some Paris Agreement Fundamentals

The hybrid design of the Paris Agreement was key to its successful enactment in 2015 and its coming into force in November, 2016.  The hybrid design to which I refer is the combination of top-down (centralized) and bottom-up (decentralized) elements.  The top-down elements include, for example, the requirement that countries state their national contributions every five years, a schedule which is binding under international law for those jurisdictions that have ratified the Agreement.  The key bottom-up element is the set of individual Nationally Determined Contributions (or NDCs) themselves, which are not part of the Paris Agreement itself, but rather are listed in a separate Registry.  These are not binding under international law, but rather are left to the domestic authority of the respective countries.

This dual structure led to the achievement of one of two necessary conditions for ultimate success of the Paris Agreement, namely adequate scope of participation, which now includes countries accounting for 97% of global emissions, compared with the 14% that are covered by the current, second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol.

But adequate scope of participation is only one of two necessary conditions; the other is adequate collective ambition.  Unfortunately, the fundamentally voluntary nature of the NDCs – which is precisely what facilitated the exceptionally broad scope of participation – works against adequate ambition to address this global commons phenomenon, which is plagued by free rider problems.

The Challenge for Climate Negotiators

This raises the key overall challenge that faced the negotiators in Bonn in May and will face them in Katowice, Poland, in December (at the Twenty-Fourth Conference of the Parties of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change):  What can they do, when writing rules to put flesh onto the skeletal Paris Agreement, to encourage countries to increase their ambition over time?  That’s where carbon markets and cooperation among jurisdictions potentially come in.

International Cooperation under the Paris Agreement

Largely because cooperation among jurisdictions — including through carbon markets — can lower abatement costs, such cooperation may be essential for the ultimate success of the Agreement.  This cooperation might take the form of international linkage, where by “linkage,” I mean connections among policy systems that allow emissions reduction efforts to be redistributed among those systems.

Such linkage is typically framed as between cap-and-trade systems, but regional, national, and sub-national policies are and will be highly heterogeneous, including not only cap-and-trade, but offset systems, carbon taxes, performance standards, and technology standards.  Note that we already see this sort of heterogeneity within the European Union’s own set of climate change policies, as well as within California’s suite of climate initiatives.

The good news is that linkage among highly heterogeneous policies is eminently feasible, as I have written about previously in this blog, drawing on my research with Michael Mehling (MIT) and Gib Metcalf (Tufts University).  The even better news is that one part of the Paris Agreement provides a potential home for such international cooperation, linkage, and carbon markets – Article 6.  (If you are interested in the details, I recommend a recent report from the Asian Development Bank, “Decoding Article 6 of the Paris Agreement.”)

The Promise and Problems of Article 6

In the negotiations that led up to the 2015 Paris climate talks, it was by no means clear what role — if any — market mechanisms would play in the Paris Agreement.  In the negotiations, the European Union, Brazil, and other countries played crucial roles in generating the compromise that became Article 6 of the Agreement.

That compromise resulted in text that — to put it kindly — is very much subject to interpretation.  Now, as Benito Müller, Kelley Kizzier, and their colleagues have observed, intentional vagueness and ambiguity of text can be quite helpful in achieving a negotiated compromise, but such vagueness is decidedly not helpful when it comes to making an agreement operational.

This compromised home for markets emerged in Article 6 despite the entrenched opposition of a small set of vocal countries — including some Latin American socialist economies (the so-called ALBA coalition) — who wanted nothing of the kind to appear in the Paris Agreement.  They succeeded in keeping the word “market” out the Paris Agreement, but the concept and the potential reality is very much there!  (Ironically, at their insistence, the phrase “non-market” does appear in the Agreement.)

In any event, provision for markets and international cooperation is implicit in Article 6.2, which allows for cooperative approaches involving Internationally Transferred Mitigation Outcomes (or ITMOs), which are vague and without definition, but can function as an international accounting mechanism for international trades, exchanges, and cooperation.  And Article 6.4 establishes a more centralized mechanism to contribute to emissions mitigation and support sustainable development, essentially as a successor to the Clean Development Mechanism (and may soon come to be called the “Sustainable Development Mechanism” or SDM).

Advantages and Concerns about Cooperation and Linkage

Despite the opposition I mentioned, most parties to the Paris Agreement are supportive of cooperative approaches (and more than half explicitly mentioned carbon markets in their respective NDCs).

This may be because of six important advantages of such cooperation:  first, cost savings by allowing firms to take advantage of lower cost abatement opportunities in other jurisdictions; second, reducing market power of individual firms by enlarging the market’s scope, and reducing total price volatility by thickening markets; third, political benefits to Parties, by providing a sign of “momentum” as jurisdictions band together, possibly influencing other parties to participate; fourth, administrative economies of scale through knowledge sharing in design and operations, as well as shared administrative and oversight costs; fifth reducing leakage and competitiveness impacts by harmonizing the shadow price of carbon across jurisdictions; and sixth, allowing for the achievement of the UNFCCC’s critical principle of “Common but Differentiated Responsibilities” without sacrificing cost-effectiveness.

There are also real concerns about linkage:  first, distributional impacts within and across linked jurisdictions; second, automatic propagation of certain design elements, in particular, cost-containment elements (banking, borrowing, and price collars); and third, decreased national autonomy.

Back to the Article 6 Negotiations and International Policy Linkage

Article 6 can be a home both to linkage of the sort we usually talk about, as well as “soft linkage,” such as an agreement — explicit or implicit — to harmonize carbon prices either at some level or within overlapping bands.

Thinking about the UNFCCC negotiations taking place now, most types of heterogeneity – of policy instruments, level of political jurisdiction, and nature of NDC targets – do not present insurmountable obstacles to linkage, but some do present real challenges, and indicate the need for specific guidance as the rulebook of the Paris Agreement is written.

Unfortunately, some countries want the Article 6 guidance to go beyond fundamental issues of accounting and environmental integrity to broader matters of environmental ambition, which properly belong in other parts of the Paris Agreement.  Whereas, accounting provisions to avoid double-counting of NDC actions through ITMOs surely belong in the Article 6 rulebook, some countries have proposed, for example, that all ITMO exchanges themselves must actually reduce net emissions.

This sounds very much like the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s 20% rule in its 1970’s Emissions Trading Program, which required that net emissions fall by 20% with each trade.  This was a tax and an inhibition on trading, and the result was that virtually no trading occurred.  This reminds me of a corrupted version of George Santayana’s admonition that those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.  Instead we have, “I’ve learned from my mistakes, and I can repeat them exactly the same again.”

The general problem is that if the guidance extends much beyond basic accounting rules, then restrictive requirements could actually impede effective cooperation.  True to the nature and spirit of the Paris Agreement, less can be more!

UNFCCC Update from Bonn

I closed my dinner comments in Florence with a brief update on the negotiations that concluded the previous week in Bonn.  The two weeks of meetings of the Article 6 group were reported to be much tougher than they had been previously, yet the progress on the Article 6 work is actually ahead of that of groups focused on other parts of the Paris Agreement.  Although positions on Article 6 are hardening, there is no clear blocking party or coalition (unlike in the work on some of the other parts of the Agreement).  There may be less resistance to agreement simply because participation in Article 6 instruments would ultimately be voluntary.

The Path Ahead

So, as the negotiations proceed, a combination of common accounting rules and an absence of restrictive conditions can accelerate linkage, allow for broader and deeper climate policy cooperation, facilitate the emergence of a robust global carbon market, and – most important – increase the latitude of the Parties to the Paris Agreement to scale up the ambition of their long-term contributions to global greenhouse gas emission reductions.

Whether that will come to pass, we simply do not know as of now.  As usual, only time will tell.


California’s Crude Oil Production and its Climate Change Policies

California is among the most aggressive jurisdictions in the world in its pursuit of public policies to reduce its emissions of greenhouse gases (GHGs), linked with climate change. At a time when the Trump administration in Washington is working to reverse the Obama administration’s climate policy achievements, California and other sub-national entities are taking the lead in the development and implementation of meaningful domestic policies to mitigate the impact of human activity on the climate.

At the same time, California is a producer of crude oil.  Is this inconsistent, or even counter-productive?  In a recent report, advocates have criticized Governor Jerry Brown, and proposed a ban on crude oil production within the State, in furtherance of California’s climate policies.  The thinking goes, crude oil production leads to environmental impacts, so how can it be allowed?

The logic is flawed, and the prohibition – if adopted – would impose tremendous costs on the State with little or no environmental benefit.  As California has developed its climate policies, the need to balance the benefits of these policies with their economic and human consequences has always been a challenging issue.  Achieving aggressive climate goals will not be cheap, so designing sensible, effective policies is critical.  Simply adopting any and all restrictions that might achieve some emission reductions would unnecessarily raise the human cost of limiting GHG emissions.  This is no doubt obvious to some readers of this blog, but for others, let me explain.

At its heart, the climate problem arises because of CO2 emissions associated with the use of energy and related services.  We heat our homes in the winter and cool them in the summer using electricity and natural gas.  We use gasoline to get to work and take vacations.  As each country or state – including California – tries to reduce its GHG emissions, the policies and regulations adopted to achieve this end nearly always target the activities that lead to GHG emissions – the generation of electricity, the use of transportation, and the heating of living spaces.

The proposed ban on crude oil extraction would flip this on its head, focusing instead on the supply of a fossil fuel.  But the simple reality is that the sources of fossil fuel supply are so ubiquitous that crude oil from other regions of the world will replace supplies from California, if California chose not to supply its own on-going needs.  Oil and gas used to heat homes and to power vehicles comes not only from California, but from most every region of the globe.  Many of these regions have expanding supplies of crude oil due to technological improvements, including the Bakken shale of North Dakota, and vast supplies available with relatively little effort, such as in the Middle East.

Advocates claim that reduction of California crude oil production would reduce global consumption of crude – a claim of questionable validity.  But that is not even the right question.  There are many things that can be done to reduce GHG emissions, and a sensible, affordable, and sustainable policy will be one that achieves reductions at the lowest cost.  Even if restricting California’s oil production might reduce global crude consumption, California would certainly bear all of the economic consequences of this policy, as the state would then rely solely on crude oil imports.

In fact, a restriction on California’s crude production is unlikely to reduce GHG emissions within California. The State’s total GHG emissions are limited by the cap of California’s GHG cap-and-trade system.  The most a restriction on California’s crude production can do is to increase costs, while achieving little or no incremental improvement in GHG emissions.

Moreover, supply-side restrictions can limit technological progress that can have very positive economic and environmental consequences.  The same advocates oppose shale “fracking,” but the innovative combination of hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling has led both to tremendous economic benefits by expanding supplies of low-cost domestic energy and reducing energy imports, and to environmental benefits by allowing lower-carbon natural gas to displace higher-carbon coal in the generation of electricity across the United States.

By focusing on policies aimed at achieving the appropriate policy goal of reducing GHG emissions – rather than trying to choose winners and losers among technologies and energy sources used to achieve those goals – California can achieve its climate policy goals in ways that are environmentally effective, economically sensible, and ultimately sustainable.  In my view, Governor Brown merits compliments rather than criticism for California’s progressive environmental and energy policies.


In the past, I have periodically advised the Western States Petroleum Association (WSPA), although on a very different issue, namely the design of California’s CO2 cap-and-trade system.  That was about two years ago, and neither WSPA nor any of its member companies are aware of my writing this essay.  As always in this blog, I am expressing my personal views, and not speaking on behalf of any of the institutions, organizations, or firms with which I am or have been associated.