The Promise and Problems of Pricing Carbon

Friday, October 21st was a significant day for climate change policy worldwide and for the use of market-based approaches to environmental protection, but it went largely unnoticed across the country and around the world, outside, that is, of the State of California.  On that day, the California Air Resources Board voted unanimously to adopt formally the nation’s most comprehensive cap-and-trade system, intended to provide financial incentives to firms to reduce the state’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, notably carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, to their 1990 level by the year 2020, as part of the implementation of California’s Assembly Bill 32, the Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006.  Compliance will begin in 2013, eventually covering 85% of the state’s emissions.

This policy for the world’s eighth-largest economy is more ambitious than the much heralded (and much derided) Federal policy proposal – H.R. 2454, the Waxman-Markey bill – that was passed by the U.S. House of Representatives in June of 2009, and then died in the U.S. Senate the following year.  With a likely multi-year hiatus on significant climate policy action in Washington now in place, California’s system – which will probably link with similar cap-and-trade systems being developed in Ontario, Quebec, and possibly British Columbia – will itself become the focal point of what may evolve to be the “North American Climate Initiative.”

The Time is Ripe for Reflection

California’s formal adoption of its CO2 cap-and-trade system is an important milestone on the multinational path to carbon pricing policies, and signals that the time is ripe to reflect on the promise and problems of pricing carbon, which is the title of a new paper that Joe Aldy and I have written for a special issue of the Journal of Environment and Development edited by Thomas Sterner and Maria Damon on “Experience with Environmental Taxation” (“The Promise and Problems of Pricing Carbon:  Theory and Experience,” October 27, 2011).  [For anyone who is not familiar with my co-author, let me state for the record that Joseph Aldy is an Assistant Professor of Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School, having come to Cambridge, Massachusetts, from Washington, D.C., where he served, most recently, during 2009 and 2010, as Special Assistant to the President for Energy and Environment.  Before that, he was a Fellow at Resources for the Future, the Washington think tank.]

Why Price Carbon?

In a modern economy, nearly all aspects of economic activity affect greenhouse gas – in particular, CO2 – emissions.  Hence, for a climate change policy to be effective, it must affect decisions regarding these diverse activities.  This can be done in one of three ways:  mandating that businesses and individuals change their behavior; subsidizing businesses and individuals; or pricing the greenhouse gas externality.

As economists and virtually all other policy analysts now recognize, by internalizing the externalities associated with CO2 emissions, carbon pricing can promote cost-effective abatement, deliver powerful innovation incentives, and – for that matter – ameliorate rather than exacerbate government fiscal problems.  [See the concise and compelling argument made by Yale Professor William Nordhaus in his essay, “Energy:  Friend or Enemy?” in The New York Review of Books, October 27, 2011.]

By pricing CO2 emissions (or, more likely, by pricing the carbon content of the three fossil fuels – coal, petroleum, and natural gas), governments wisely defer to private firms and individuals to find and exploit the lowest cost ways to reduce emissions and invest in the development of new technologies, processes, and ideas that could further mitigate emissions.

Can Market-Based Instruments Really Work?

Market-based instruments have been used with considerable success in other environmental domains, as well as for pricing CO2 emissions.  The U.S. sulfur dioxide (SO2) cap-and-trade program cut U.S. power plant SO2 emissions more than 50 percent after 1990, and resulted in compliance costs one half of what they would have been under conventional regulatory mandates.

The success of the SO2 allowance trading program motivated the design and implementation of the European Union’s Emission Trading Scheme (EU ETS), the world’s largest cap-and-trade program, focused on cutting CO2 emissions from power plants and large manufacturing facilities throughout Europe.  The U.S. lead phase-down of gasoline in the 1980s, by reducing the lead content per gallon of fuel, served as an early, effective example of a tradable performance standard.  These and other positive experiences provide motivation for considering market-based instruments as potential approaches to mitigating GHG emissions.

What Policy Instruments Can be Used for Carbon Pricing?

In our paper, Joe Aldy and I critically examine the five generic policy instruments that could conceivably be employed by regional, national, or even sub-national governments for carbon pricing:  carbon taxes, cap-and-trade, emission reduction credits, clean energy standards, and fossil fuel subsidy reduction.  Having written about these approaches many times in previous essays at this blog, today I will simply direct the reader to those previous posts or, better yet, to the paper we’ve written for the Journal of Environment and Development.

Although it is natural to think and talk about carbon pricing using the future tense, a few carbon pricing regimes are already in place.

Regional, National, and Sub-National Experiences with Carbon Pricing

Explicit carbon pricing policy regimes currently in place include the European Union’s Emissions Trading Scheme (EU ETS); the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative in the northeast United States; New Zealand’s cap-and-trade system; the Kyoto Protocol’s Clean Development Mechanism; a number of northern European carbon tax policies; British Columbia’s carbon tax; and Alberta’s tradable carbon performance standard (similar to a clean energy standard).  We describe and assess all of these in our paper.

Also, the Japanese Voluntary Emissions Trading System has operated since 2006 (Japan is considering a compulsory emissions trading system), and Norway operated its own emissions trading system for several years before joining the EU ETS in 2008.  Legislation to establish cap-and-trade systems is under debate in Australia (combined with a carbon tax for an initial three-year period) and in the Canadian provinces of Ontario and Quebec.  And, of course, California is now committed to launching its own GHG cap-and-trade system.

International Coordination Will Be Needed

Of course, climate change is truly a global commons problem:  the location of greenhouse gas emissions has no effect on the global distribution of damages.  Hence, free-riding problems plague unilateral and multilateral approaches, because mitigation costs are likely to exceed direct benefits for virtually all countries.  Cost-effective international policies – insuring that countries get the most environmental benefit out of their mitigation investments – will help promote participation in an international climate policy regime.

In principle, internationally-employed market-based instruments can achieve overall cost effectiveness.  Three basic routes stand out.  First, countries could agree to apply the same tax on carbon (harmonized domestic taxes) or adopt a uniform international tax.  Second, the international policy community could establish a system of international tradable permits, – effectively a nation-state level cap-and-trade program.  In its simplest form, this represents the Kyoto Protocol’s Annex B emission targets and the Article 17 trading mechanism.  Third and most likely, a more decentralized system of internationally-linked domestic cap-and-trade programs could ensure internationally cost-effective emission mitigation.  We examine the merits and the problems associated with each of these means of international coordination in the paper.

What Lies in the Future?

In reality, political responses in most countries to proposals for market-based approaches to climate policy have been and will continue to be largely a function of issues and factors that transcend the scope of environmental and climate policy.  Because a truly meaningful climate policy – whether market-based or conventional in design – will have significant impacts on economic activity in a wide variety of sectors and in every region of a country, proposals for these policies inevitably bring forth significant opposition, particularly during difficult economic times.

In the United States, political polarization – which began some four decades ago, and accelerated during the economic downturn – has decimated what had long been the key political constituency in the Congress for environmental action, namely, the middle, including both moderate Republicans and moderate Democrats.  Whereas Congressional debates about environmental and energy policy had long featured regional politics, they are now fully and simply partisan.  In this political maelstrom, the failure of cap-and-trade climate policy in the U.S. Senate in 2010 was essentially collateral damage in a much larger political war.

It is possible that better economic times will reduce the pace – if not the direction – of political polarization.  It is also possible that the ongoing challenge of large budgetary deficits in many countries will increase the political feasibility of new sources of revenue.  When and if this happens, consumption taxes (as opposed to traditional taxes on income and investment) could receive heightened attention, and primary among these might be energy taxes, which can be significant climate policy instruments, depending upon their design.

That said, it is probably too soon to predict what the future will hold for the use of market-based policy instruments for climate change.  Perhaps the two decades we have experienced of relatively high receptivity in the United States, Europe, and other parts of the world to cap-and-trade and offset mechanisms will turn out to be no more than a relatively brief departure from a long-term trend of reliance on conventional means of regulation.  It is also possible, however, that the recent tarnishing of cap-and-trade in U.S. political dialogue will itself turn out to be a temporary departure from a long-term trend of increasing reliance on market-based environmental policy instruments.  It is much too soon to say.


What’s Good for the Goose is Good for the Gander: Rahm’s Doctrine and Mercutio’s Complaint

In a January 2009 article – “The Big Fix” – in the New York Times Magazine, David Leonhardt introduced a frequently-employed political strategy into popular political culture by identifying it with the new President’s Chief of Staff, Rahm Emanuel:

Two weeks after the election, Rahm Emanuel, Obama’s chief of staff, appeared before an audience of business executives and laid out an idea that Lawrence H. Summers, Obama’s top economic adviser, later described to me as Rahm’s Doctrine. “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste,” Emanuel said. “What I mean by that is that it’s an opportunity to do things you could not do before.” … That’s the crux of the doctrine.

Exploiting a Crisis

Stated less sympathetically, perhaps, the argument seems to be that sensible political strategy calls for exploiting the existence of a crisis by using it as an opportunity (excuse) to pursue policies you want, whether or not they are the best responses to the specific crisis. The crisis in this case was the worst recession since the Great Depression, and the “opportunities” on the new President’s mind were ambitious policies for health care costs and coverage, energy and climate change, and taxes.

Killing Two Birds with One Stone: Fixing the Economy and the Environment

At about the same time that Leonhardt’s article appeared in the New York Times Magazine, Elizabeth Kolbert’s profile of green jobs activist Van Jones, “Greening the Ghetto: Can a Remedy Serve for Both Global Warming and Poverty,” was published in The New Yorker. Kolbert included the following passage:

When I presented Jones’s arguments to Robert Stavins, a professor of business and government at Harvard who studies the economics of environmental regulation, he offered the following analogy: “Let’s say I want to have a dinner party. It’s important that I cook dinner, and I’d also like to take a shower before the guests arrive. You might think, Well, it would be really efficient for me to cook dinner in the shower. But it turns out that if I try that I’m not going to get very clean and it’s not going to be a very good dinner. And that is an illustration of the fact that it is not always best to try to address two challenges with what in the policy world we call a single policy instrument.”

I elaborated on that analogy and explained my concerns about the “greening of the economic stimulus package” (one element of the White House attempt “not to let a serious crisis go to waste”) in my essay on “Green Jobs” at this blog in March, 2009.

Two activities — each with a sensible purpose — can be very effective if done separately, but sometimes combining them means that one does a poor job with one, the other, or even both. In the policy world, such dual-purpose policy instruments are sometimes a good, even great idea, but other times, they are not. Whether trying to kill two birds with one stone makes sense depends upon the proximity of the birds, the weapon being used, and the accuracy of the stoner. In the real world of important policy challenges — such as environmental degradation and economic recession — these are empirical questions and need to be examined case by case.

In this case, it was (and is) important to separate the two issues: (1) environmental degradation (which in economic terms calls for pricing the externality, i.e. getting relative prices right); and (2) the economic downturn (which calls for increasing and maintaining aggregate demand in the economy). Environmental regulations address the first issue, while broad-based fiscal and/or monetary policies address the second. So, in economic terms, the imperative is to get relative prices right (internalize externalities), and avoid tilting an economic stimulus package toward any particular type of activity (such as “green jobs”).

I argued in my March, 2009 essay (and argue now) that addressing the worst economic recession in generations called for the most effective economic stimulus package that could be devised, not a stimulus package that was diminished in effectiveness through excessive bells and whistles meant to address a myriad of other (legitimate) social concerns. (And, likewise, getting serious about global climate change would require the enactment and implementation of meaningful, dedicated climate policies.)

By the way, I do not wish to add any fuel to the current political fire raging over the bankruptcy of Solyndra, the solar power manufacturer supported by a $500 million Federal loan guarantee under the stimulus package. The failure of Solyndra was largely due to the collapse of silicon prices and the consequent increased competitiveness of conventional solar cell technologies. I will leave it to others to debate whether the government should have seen this coming.

My point rather is that there is a strong counterargument to Rahm’s Doctrine, and that counterargument is – in the words again of David Leonhardt – “hardly trivial — namely, that the financial crisis is so serious that the administration shouldn’t distract itself with other matters. That is a risk, as is the additional piling on of debt for investments that might not bear fruit for a long while.”

That’s the Goose – What About the Gander?

Do not think for a moment that only Democrats are quick to subscribe to and employ Rahm’s Doctrine. On the contrary, Republicans – particularly the ultra-conservative ones that are coming to dominate the Party – have recently embraced it with breathtaking enthusiasm by exploiting national concerns about the sluggish economy and stubbornly high levels of unemployment in order to pursue their anti-regulatory agenda and focused attack on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

As I have also written at this blog (“Good News from the Regulatory Front,” April 25, 2011), the blanket characterization of environmental regulations as “job killers” is simply inconsistent with decades of economic research. In the short term, new environmental regulations can have either positive or negative effects on employment in particular sectors, but in the long term, their employment impacts are trivial when compared with those of the overall set of factors that affect national employment levels. Attacking EPA “to save jobs” is a shameful attempt to exploit economic fears in pursuit of an ideological agenda (whether or not that agenda has social merit).

Enter Mercutio

So, as is so often the case, this economist (like many – maybe most – others) disagrees with the economic arguments put forward by both sides in the political world. Talking about “job-killing environmental regulations” is dishonest, and no more than another cynical application of Rahm’s Doctrine. But the same must be said about the “greening of the stimulus,” and the ongoing, bloated claims about “clean energy jobs.” As usual, those of us in the moderate middle are left to echo Mercutio’s censure: “A plague o’ both your houses!”


The Credit Downgrade and the Congress: Why Polarized Politics Paralyze Public Policy

There’s room for debate about whether U.S. government deficits justify Standard & Poor’s downgrading last week of long-term U.S. debt, but the more important factor cited in S&P’s report is that “the effectiveness, stability, and predictability of American policymaking and political institutions have weakened…” The S&P team emphasizes that “the difficulties in bridging the gulf between the political parties … makes us pessimistic about the capacity of Congress and the Administration” to address the crucial problems the country faces.

Although these S&P judgments were intended to refer exclusively to fiscal policy, they really apply to a much broader set of issues, ranging from economic to health to environmental policies. The key reality is this: there is a widening gulf between the two political parties that is paralyzing sensible policy action.

Political Polarization

This increasing polarization between the political parties has shown up in a number of studies by political scientists employing a diverse set of measures that place roll-call votes by members of Congress on an ideological spectrum from extreme right to extreme left. This polarization – the disappearance of moderates – has been taking place for four decades. The rise of the Tea Party movement within the Republican Party is only the most recent vehicle that has continued a 40-year trend.

Why has this collapse of the middle taken place; why has party polarization increased so dramatically in the Congress over the past 40 years? In my view, three structural factors stand out.

Three Structural Factors

First, there has been the increasing importance of the primary system, a consequence of the “democratization” of the nomination process that took flight in the 1970s. A small share of the electorate vote in primaries, namely those with the strongest political preferences – the most conservative Republicans and the most liberal Democrats. This self-selection greatly favors candidates from the extremes.

Second, decades of redistricting – a state prerogative guaranteed by the Constitution – has produced more and more districts that are dominated by either Republican or Democratic voters. This increases the importance of primary elections, which is where the key choices among candidates are now made in many Congressional districts. Because of this, polarization has proceeded at a much more rapid pace in the House than in the Senate.

Third, the increasing cost of electoral campaigns greatly favors incumbents (with the ratio of average incumbent-to-challenger financing now exceeding 10-to-1). This tends to make districts relatively safe for the party that controls the seat, thereby increasing the importance of primaries.

These three factors operate mainly through the replacement of members of Congress (whether due to death, retirement, or challenges from within the party) – that is, the ideological shifts that cause increasing polarization largely occur when new members are elected (from either party, although a disproportionate share of polarization has been due to the rightward shift of new Republicans).

To a lesser degree, polarization has also taken place through the adaptation of sitting members of Congress as they behave more ideologically once in office. Such political conversions are due to the same pressures noted above: in order to discourage or survive primary challenges, Republican members shift rightward and Democratic members shift leftward.

A recent case in point is Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, who evolved from being a moderate at the time of his 2008 Presidential run to being a solid conservative in 2010, in response to a primary challenge from a Tea Party candidate.

Long-Term Implications

If the increasing polarization of the Congress is due to these factors, then it is difficult to be very optimistic about the prognosis in the near term for American politics. This is because it is unlikely that any of these factors will soon reverse course.

The two parties are not about to abandon the primary system to return to smoke‑filled back rooms. Likewise, no state legislature is willing to abandon its power to redistrict. And public financing of campaigns and other measures that would reduce the advantages of incumbency remain generally unpopular (among incumbents, who would – after all – need to vote for such reforms).

Other Factors?

True enough, in addition to these long-term structural factors that have driven political polarization, shorter-term economic and social fluctuations have also had pronounced effects. In particular, significant economic downturns – whether the Great Depression of the 1930s or the Great Recession of the past several years – increase political polarization.

The 1930s saw not only the rise of American socialists and communists, but also the rise of American right-wing extremism. It took World War II to bring an end both to the economic upheaval of the 1930s and the destructive political polarization that had accompanied it.

U.S. participation in the war brought a degree of political unity at home, largely because U.S. action was precipitated by the attack on Pearl Harbor. Under conditions of less clear motivation for U.S. military action abroad – such as the war in Vietnam – the result has not been political unity, but divisiveness and polarization. The ultimate impacts on domestic politics of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq may hinge on whether they are perceived to be patriotic responses to a foreign attack (9/11) or the latest manifestations of U.S. military adventurism.

The Future

So, it’s reasonable to anticipate – or at least to hope – that better economic times will reduce the pace of ongoing political polarization. However, in the face of the three long-term structural factors I’ve identified above – the increasing importance of primaries, continuing redistricting, and the increasing costs of electoral campaigns – it is difficult to be optimistic about the long-term prognosis for American politics.

No matter how one feels about the wisdom of Standard & Poor’s downgrading of long-term U.S. debt, the issue of greater concern should be their assessment of the state of the U.S. body politic.