The Wonderful Politics of Cap-and-Trade: A Closer Look at Waxman-Markey

The headline of this post is not meant to be ironic.   Despite all the hand-wringing in the press and the blogosphere about a political “give-away” of allowances for the cap-and-trade system in the Waxman-Markey bill voted out of committee last week, the politics of cap-and-trade systems are truly quite wonderful, which is why these systems have been used, and used successfully.

The Waxman-Markey allocation of allowances has its problems, which I will get to, but before noting those problems it is exceptionally important to keep in mind what is probably the key attribute of cap-and-trade systems:  the allocation of allowances – whether the allowances are auctioned or given out freely, and how they are freely allocated – has no impact on the equilibrium distribution of allowances (after trading), and therefore no impact on the allocation of emissions (or emissions abatement), the total magnitude of emissions, or the aggregate social costs.  (Well, there are some relatively minor, but significant caveats – those “problems” I mentioned — about which more below.)  By the way, this independence of a cap-and-trade system’s performance from the initial allowance allocation was established as far back as 1972 by David Montgomery in a path-breaking article in the Journal of Economic Theory (based upon his 1971 Harvard economics Ph.D. dissertation). It has been validated with empirical evidence repeatedly over the years.

Generally speaking, the choice between auctioning and freely allocating allowances does not influence firms’ production and emission reduction decisions.  Firms face the same emissions cost regardless of the allocation method.  When using an allowance, whether it was received for free or purchased, a firm loses the opportunity to sell that allowance, and thereby recognizes this “opportunity cost” in deciding whether to use the allowance.  Consequently, the allocation choice will not influence a cap’s overall costs.

Manifest political pressures lead to different initial allocations of allowances, which affect distribution, but not environmental effectiveness, and not cost-effectiveness.  This means that ordinary political pressures need not get in the way of developing and implementing a scientifically sound, economically rational, and politically pragmatic policy.  Contrast this with what would happen when political pressures are brought to bear on a carbon tax proposal, for example.  Here the result will most likely be exemptions of sectors and firms, which reduces environmental effectiveness and drives up costs (as some low-cost emission reduction opportunities are left off the table).  Furthermore, the hypothetical carbon tax example is the norm, not the exception.  Across the board, political pressures often reduce the effectiveness and increase the cost of well-intentioned public policies.  Cap-and-trade provides natural protection from this.  Distributional battles over the allowance allocation in a cap-and-trade system do not raise the overall cost of the program nor affect its environmental impacts.

In fact, the political process of states, districts, sectors, firms, and interest groups fighting for their share of the pie (free allowance allocations) serves as the mechanism whereby a political constituency in support of the system is developed, but without detrimental effects to the system’s environmental or economic performance.  That’s the good news, and it should never be forgotten.

But, depending upon the specific allocation mechanisms employed, there are several ways that the choice to freely distribute allowances can affect a system’s cost.  Here’s where the “caveats” and “problems” come in.

First, auction revenue may be used in ways that reduce the costs of the existing tax system or fund other socially beneficial policies.  Free allocations to the private sector forego such opportunities.  Below I will estimate the actual share of allowance value that accrues to the private sector.

Second, some proposals to freely allocate allowances to electric utilities may affect electricity prices, and thereby affect the extent to which reduced electricity demand contributes to limiting emissions cost-effectively.  Waxman-Markey allocates allowances to local distribution companies, which are subject to cost-of-service regulation even in regions with restructured wholesale electricity markets.  So, electricity prices would likely be affected by these allocations under existing state regulatory regimes.  The Waxman-Markey legislation seeks to address this problem by specifying that the economic value of the allowances given to electricity and natural gas local distribution companies should be passed on to consumers through lump-sum rebates, not through a reduction in electricity rates, thereby compensating consumers for increases in electricity prices, but without reducing incentives for energy conservation.

Third, and of most concern in the context of the Waxman-Markey legislation, “output-based updating allocations” provide perverse incentives and drive up costs of achieving a cap.  This merits some explanation.  If allowances are freely allocated, the allocation should be on the basis of some historical measures, such as output or emissions in a (previous) base year, not on the basis of measures which firms can affect, such as output or emissions in the current year.  Updating allocations, which involve periodically adjusting allocations over time to reflect changes in firms’ operations, contrast with this.

An output-based updating allocation ties the quantity of allowances that a firm receives to its output (production).  Such an allocation is essentially a production subsidy.  This distorts firms’ pricing and production decisions in ways that can introduce unintended consequences and may significantly increase the cost of meeting an emissions target.  Updating therefore has the potential to create perverse, undesirable incentives.

In Waxman-Markey, updating allocations are used for specific sectors with high CO2 emissions intensity and unusual sensitivity to international competition, in an effort to preserve international competitiveness and reduce emissions leakage.  It’s an open question whether this approach is superior to an import allowance requirement, whereby imports of a small set of specific commodities must carry with them CO2 allowances.  The problem with import allowance requirements is that they can damage international trade relations.  The only real solution to the competitiveness issue is to bring non-participating countries within an international climate regime in meaningful ways.  (On this, please see the work of the Harvard Project on International Climate Agreements.)

Also, output-based allocations are used in Waxman-Markey for merchant coal generators, thereby discouraging reductions in coal-fired electricity generation, another significant and costly distortion.

Now, let’s go back to the hand-wringing in the press and blogosphere about the so-called massive political “give-away” of allowances.  Perhaps unintentionally, there has been some misleading press coverage, suggesting that up to 75% or 80% of the allowances are given away to private industry as a windfall over the life of the program, 2012-2050 (in contrast with the 100% auction originally favored by President Obama).

Given the nature of the allowance allocation in the Waxman-Markey legislation, the best way to assess its implications is not as “free allocation” versus “auction,” but rather in terms of who is the ultimate beneficiary of each element of the allocation and auction, that is, how the value of the allowances is allocated.  On closer inspection, it turns out that many of the elements of the apparently free allocation accrue to consumers and public purposes, not private industry.

First of all, let’s looks at the elements which will accrue to consumers and public purposes.  Next to each allocation element is the respective share of allowances over the period 2012-2050 (measured as share of the cap, after the removal – sale — of allowances to private industry from a “strategic reserve,” which functions as a cost-containment measure.):

a.  Electricity and natural gas local distribution companies (22.2%), minus share (6%) that benefits industry as consumers of electricity (note:  there is a consequent 3% reduction in the allocation to energy-intensive trade-exposed industries, below, which is then dedicated to broad-based consumer rebates, below), 22.2 – 6 = 16.2%

b.  Home heating oil/propane, 0.9%

c.  Protection for low- and moderate-income households, 15.0%

d.  Worker assistance and job training, 0.8%

e.  States for renewable energy, efficiency, and building codes, 5.8%

f.   Clean energy innovation centers, 1.0%

g.  International deforestation, clean technology, and adaptation, 8.7%

h.  Domestic adaptation, 5.0%

The following elements will accrue to private industry, again with average (2012-2050) shares of allowances:

i.   Merchant coal generators, 3.0%

j.   Energy-intensive, trade-exposed industries (minus reduction in allocation due to EITE benefits from LDC allocation above) 8.0% – 3% = 5%

k.  Carbon-capture and storage incentives, 4.1%

l.   Clean vehicle technology standards, 1.0%

m. Oil refiners, 1.0%

n.  Net benefits to industry as consumers of lower-priced electricity from allocation to LDCs, 6.0%

The split over the entire period from 2012 to 2050 is 53.4% for consumers and public purposes, and 20.1% for private industry.  This 20% is drastically different from the suggestions that 70%, 80%, or more of the allowances will be given freely to private industry in a “massive corporate give-away.”

All categories – (a) through (n), above – sum to 73.5% of the total quantity of allowances over the period 2012-2050.  The remaining allowances — 26.5% over 2012 to 2050 — are scheduled in Waxman-Markey to be used almost entirely for consumer rebates, with the share of available allowances for this purpose rising from approximately 10% in 2025 to more than 50% by 2050.  Thus, the totals become 79.9% for consumers and public purposes versus 20.1% for private industry, or approximately 80% versus 20% — the opposite of the “80% free allowance corporate give-away” featured in many press and blogosphere accounts.  Moreover, because some of the allocations to private industry are – for better or for worse – conditional on recipients undertaking specific costly investments, such as investments in carbon capture and storage, part of the 20% free allocation to private industry should not be viewed as a windfall.

Speaking of the conditional allocations, I should also note that some observers (who are skeptical about government programs) may reasonably question some of the dedicated public purposes of the allowance distribution, but such questioning is equivalent to questioning dedicated uses of auction revenues.  The fundamental reality remains:  the appropriate characterization of the Waxman-Markey allocation is that 80% of the value of allowances go to consumers and public purposes, and 20% to private industry.

Finally, it should be noted that this 80-20 split is roughly consistent with empirical economic analyses of the share that would be required – on average — to fully compensate (but no more) private industry for equity losses due to the policy’s implementation.  In a series of analyses that considered the share of allowances that would be required in perpetuity for full compensation, Bovenberg and Goulder (2003) found that 13 percent would be sufficient for compensation of the fossil fuel extraction sectors, and Smith, Ross, and Montgomery (2002) found that 21 percent would be needed to compensate primary energy producers and electricity generators.

In my work for the Hamilton Project in 2007, I recommended beginning with a 50-50 auction-free-allocation split, moving to 100% auction over 25 years, because that time-path of numerical division between the share of allowances that is freely allocated to regulated firms and the share that is auctioned is equivalent (in terms of present discounted value) to perpetual allocations of 15 percent, 19 percent, and 22 percent, at real interest rates of 3, 4, and 5 percent, respectively.  My recommended allocation was designed to be consistent with the principal of targeting free allocations to burdened sectors in proportion to their relative burdens, while being politically pragmatic with more generous allocations in the early years of the program.

So, the Waxman-Markey 80/20 allowance split turns out to be consistent  — on average, i.e. economy-wide — with independent economic analysis of the share that would be required to fully compensate (but no more) the private sector for equity losses due to the imposition of the cap, and consistent with my Hamilton Project recommendation of a 50/50 split phased out to 100% auction over 25 years.

Going forward, many observers and participants in the policy process may continue to question the wisdom of some elements of the Waxman-Markey allowance allocation.  There’s nothing wrong with that.

But let’s be clear that, first, for the most part, the allocation of allowances affects neither the environmental performance of the cap-and-trade system nor its aggregate social cost.

Second, questioning should continue about the output-based allocation elements, because of the perverse incentives they put in place.

Third, we should be honest that the legislation, for all its flaws, is by no means the “massive corporate give-away” that it has been labeled.  On the contrary, 80% of the value of allowances accrue to consumers and public purposes, and some 20% accrue to covered, private industry.  This split is roughly consistent with the recommendations of independent economic research.

Fourth and finally, it should not be forgotten that the much-lamented deal-making that took place in the House committee last week for shares of the allowances for various purposes was a good example of the useful, important, and fundamentally benign mechanism through which a cap-and-trade system provides the means for a political constituency of support and action to be assembled (without reducing the policy’s effectiveness or driving up its cost).

Although there has surely been some insightful press coverage and intelligent public debate (including in the blogosphere) about the pros and cons of cap-and-trade, the Waxman-Markey legislation, and many of its design elements, it is remarkable (and unfortunate) how misleading so much of the coverage has been of the issues and the numbers surrounding the proposed allowance allocation..

The New Auto Fuel-Efficiency Standards — Going Beyond the Headlines

On My 19th, 2009, President Obama announced new Federal fuel-efficiency standards for motor-vehicles that would make the current standards — known as Corporate Average Fuel Economy — or CAFE — standards significantly more stringent. These CAFE standards measure compliance as the average of a company’s entire fleet of cars, and so are more flexible and less costly than model-by-model standards, better matching consumer preferences and lowering production costs.

Other good news is that the administration’s proposal will yield a single standard nationwide, rather than two fuel efficiency standards, one for California and the 13 other states that chose to follow its more stringent Pavley standards, and another standard for the rest of the country under the existing CAFE program.  The result would have been that the states adopting the more stringent California standard would have brought about little incremental benefit for the environment beyond the national CAFE program, because auto manufacturers and importers would have largely undone the effects of the more stringent state-level fuel-efficiency requirements by selling more of the less fuel-efficient models in their fleets in the non-Pavley states.  This has been validated in an interesting research paper by Lawrence Goulder (Stanford University), Mark Jacobsen (University of California, San Diego), and Arthur van Benthem (Stanford University).  Thus, dual standards would have increased costs, but with little or no additional benefit to the environment.

These new Federal standards proposed by the Obama administration can therefore be one small step along the path to meaningful reductions in greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change. That’s the good news. But it’s also true that the new standards are inferior to other possible approaches.

First of all, CAFE affects only the cars we buy, not how much we drive them, and so CAFE standards are less cost-effective than gasoline prices at reducing gasoline consumption, because gas prices (whether reflecting market conditions or government taxes) affect both which cars we buy and our choices about driving.

Some people may think that CAFE standards — unlike gas taxes — are costless for consumers. But according to the administration, the increases in CAFE standards (including both scheduled increases already on the books and the new Obama proposal) will add — on average — $1,300 to the cost of producing a new car.

Because CAFE standards increase the price of new cars, the standards have the unintentional effect of keeping older — dirtier and less fuel-efficient — cars on the road longer.  This counterproductive effect is typical of any vintage-differentiated-regulation, a topic which I have addressed in a previous post.  There is abundant empirical research on this issue.

Also, by decreasing the cost per mile of driving, CAFE standards — like any energy-efficiency technology standard — exhibit a “rebound effect,” namely, people have an incentive to drive more, not less, thereby lessening the anticipated reduction in gasoline usage.  This has also been documented empirically.

The bottom line is that gasoline prices are a much more effective – and more cost-effective – means of cutting gasoline demand, both in the short term and the long term. But if increasing gasoline prices through gas taxes is politically impossible – which certainly appears to be the case in the current political climate – why raise all of these objections? Am I allowing the (infeasible) perfect to be the enemy of the good? Not at all, as I will explain.

There is, in fact, another policy instrument available that has the same desirable impacts as gas taxes on gasoline prices (and, more importantly, on all other fossil fuel prices, as well), but inspires dramatically less political opposition.  And this instrument is not only politically feasible, but is right now achieving remarkable, broad-based political support in Washington. I’m talking about the economy-wide CO2 cap-and-trade system in Congressmen Waxman and Markey’s legislation in the House of Representatives. Their cap-and-trade system will serve to increase the price of gasoline, cut demand, and reduce emissions.  But, in addition, its impacts will go far beyond automobiles and trucks, and beyond the transportation sector, as well.

To seriously and cost-effectively address climate change, it is essential to put in place a single carbon price that affects all fossil fuels and all uses throughout the economy — not only in the transportation sector, but also electric power, and the manufacturing, commercial, and residential sectors. This is precisely what cap-and-trade does.  A meaningful, upstream, economy-wide cap-and-trade system will serve to increase the price of gasoline, as well as other fuels, electricity, and all goods and services in proportion to their carbon-intensity in production, and it does this (as would a carbon tax) in the right proportions for each fuel, energy source, and product, so that the overall cap is achieved at the least possible cost.  The real bottom line is that cap-and-trade is the cheapest, best, and only politically feasible approach that can achieve the significant reductions in CO2 emissions that will be necessary to meet President Obama’s ambitious climate goals.

Back to the Obama administration’s CAFE proposal, a separate and distinct question is what will the effects be on the U.S. automobile industry?  Will this be “good for the auto industry,” as the White House press release claimed?  Doesn’t the presence of so many leading auto executives on the podium with the President clearly indicate that this regulatory change is good for the U.S. auto industry?

First, it is surely the case that a single national standard is better for the auto industry – and society more broadly – than the dual system that would have been brought about by the 14 Pavley states going forward with more stringent standards.  There’s nothing new about the U.S. auto industry wanting a single national standard.  Indeed, for this reason, the industry supported the enactment of Federal clean air legislation in the 1970s.  We all prefer bad news to worse news, but that does not mean we welcome the bad news or that’s it good for us.

It’s also true that the U.S. auto industry has vastly less political clout now than it has had in decades, plus a much smaller share of the U.S. automobile market.  The industry is in severe economic decline, indeed on the verge of bankruptcy, and it is depending now on massive government handouts.  In this climate, it is hardly surprising that the U.S. auto industry is being exceptionally cooperative with the Federal government.

But is this policy in the long-term interest of the U.S. auto industry; is this “good for the U.S. auto industry?”  The answer to that question is unknown.  Keep in mind that for decades the U.S. auto manufacturers have just barely complied with CAFE standards each year, while Japanese manufacturers and importers have exceeded the standards.  So, at first blush, it would appear that it may be easier — less costly — for Japanese companies than U.S. companies to meet the heightened fuel-efficiency standards.  I’m not saying that the new standards will put the U.S. companies out of business, but simply that we don’t know at this point what the long-term impacts will be.  In my view, one should be skeptical about claims to the contrary.  As I’ve suggested in previous posts, the best reason to carry out environmental policies is that they are expected to be good for the environment..

Straight Talk about Corporate Social Responsibility

Critical thinking about “corporate social responsibility” (CSR) is needed, because there are few topics where discussions feature greater ratios of heat to light.  With this in mind, two of my Harvard colleagues – law professor Bruce Hay and business school professor Richard Vietor – and I co-edited a book, Environmental Protection and the Social Responsibility of Firms: Perspectives from Law, Economics, and Business.

At issue is the appropriate role of business with regard to environmental protection.  Everyone agrees that firms should obey the law. But beyond the law – beyond compliance with regulations – do firms have additional responsibilities to commit resources to environmental protection?  How should we think about the notion of firms sacrificing profits in the social interest?

Much of what has been written on this question has been both confused and confusing.  Advocates, as well as academics, have entangled what ought to be four distinct questions about corporate social responsibility:  may they, can they, should they, and do they.

First, may firms sacrifice profits in the social interest – given their fiduciary responsibilities to shareholders?  Does management have a fiduciary duty to maximize corporate profits in the interest of shareholders, or can it sacrifice profits by voluntarily exceeding the requirements of environmental law?  Einer Elhauge, a professor at Harvard Law School, challenges the conventional wisdom that managers have a simple legal duty to maximize corporate profits.  He argues that managers have freedom to diverge from the goal of profit maximization, partly because their legal duties to shareholders are governed by the “business judgment rule,” which gives them broad discretion to use corporate resources as they see fit.

If a company’s managers decide, for example, to use “green” inputs, devise cleaner production technologies, or dispose of their waste more safely, courts will not stop them from doing so, no matter how disgruntled shareholders may be at such acts of public charity.  The reason is that for all a judge knows, such measures – particularly when they are well publicized – will add to the firm’s bottom line in the long run by increasing public goodwill.  But this line of argument contradicts the very premise, since it is based upon the notion that the actions are not sacrificing profits, but contributing to them.

This leads directly to the second question.  Can firms sacrifice profits in the social interest on a sustainable basis, or will the forces of a competitive market render such efforts transient at best?  Paul Portney, Dean of the Eller College of Management at the University of Arizona, notes that for firms that enjoy monopoly positions or produce products for well-defined niche markets, such extra costs can well be passed on to customers.  But for the majority of firms in competitive industries – particularly firms that produce commodities – it is difficult or impossible to pass on such voluntarily incurred costs to customers.  Such firms have to absorb those extra costs in the form of reduced profits, reduced shareholder dividends, and/or reduced compensation, suggesting that, in the face of competition, such behavior is not sustainable.

This leads to the third question of CSR:  even if firms may carry out such profit-sacrificing activities, and can do so, should they – from society’s perspective?  Is this likely to lead to an efficient use of social resources?  To be more specific, under what conditions are firms’ CSR activities likely to be welfare-enhancing?  Portney finds that this is most likely to be the case if firms pursuing CSR strategies are doing so because it is good business – that is, profitable.  Once again, a positive response violates the premise of the question.  But for more costly CSR investments, concern exists about the opportunity costs that will be involved for firms. Further, in the case of companies that behave strategically with CSR to anticipate and shape future regulations, welfare may be reduced if the result is less stringent standards (that would have been justified).

Finally, do firms behave this way?  Do some firms reduce their earnings by voluntarily engaging in environmental stewardship?  Forest Reinhardt of the Harvard Business School addresses this question by surveying the performance of a broad cross-section of firms, and finds that only rarely does it pay to be green.  That said, situations do exist in which it does pay. Where one can increase customers’ willingness to pay, reduce one’s costs, manage future risk, or anticipate and defer costly governmental regulation, then it may pay to be green.  Overall, Reinhardt acknowledges the existence of these opportunities for some firms – examples such as Patagonia and DuPont stand out – but the empirical evidence does not support broad claims of pervasive opportunities.

So, where does this leave us?  May firms engage in CSR, beyond the law? An affirmative though conditional answer seems appropriate.  Can firms do so on a sustainable basis?  Outside of monopolies and limited niche markets, the answer is probably negative.  Should they carry out such beyond-compliance efforts, even when doing so is not profitable?  Here – if the alternative is sound and effective government policy – the answer may not be encouraging.  And the last question – do firms generally carry out such activities – seems to lead to a negative assessment, at least if we restrict our attention to real cases of “sacrificing profits in the social interest.”

But definitive answers to these questions await the results of rigorous, empirical research.  In the meantime, we ought to prevent muddled thinking by keeping separate these four questions of corporation social responsibility..