A Key Moment for California Climate Policy

The past year has been a crucial time in international climate negotiations.  In December, 2015, in Paris, negotiators established an agreement on the next round of targets and actions to succeed the Kyoto Protocol, which was signed in 1997 and will effectively close down in 2020.  In Paris, negotiators set up a new and meaningful agreement for multinational action through individual country “Intended Nationally Determined Contributions” (INDCs).  The Paris round was crucial, because it expanded the coalition of contributions from countries responsible for 14% of global emissions under Kyoto (Europe and New Zealand) to 187 countries responsible for 96% of emissions under the Paris Agreement.

California’s Role in Global Climate Change Policy

California sent a delegation to the Paris talks. While not officially a party to the negotiations, California government officials attended to show support for broad and meaningful action.  For many years, spurring action beyond California’s borders has been the key rationale for developing a California-based climate policy.  This began with Assembly Bill 32 (AB 32), the Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006.  Initially, the focus was on encouraging action within the United States, including federal legislation, state-level actions, and multi-state compacts, but subsequent domestic action turned out to be much less than originally anticipated. As a result, California’s focus shifted to the international domain.

This is a good time to consider how the State can best demonstrate leadership on this global stage.  Action by all key countries, including the large emerging economies – China, India, Brazil, Korea, and South Africa – will be necessary to meaningfully address the climate problem.  Significant multinational contributions will be necessary to avoid having California’s aggressive in-state actions be for naught.  Absent such multilateral action, ambitious California policies do little or nothing to address the real problem.

But California can play a very important role by showing leadership – in two key ways.  One is to demonstrate a commitment to meaningful reductions in (greenhouse gas) GHG emissions.  In this regard, California has more than met the bar, with policies that are as aggressive as – if not more aggressive than – those of most countries.

The other way is to show leadership regarding how reductions of GHG emissions can best be accomplished – that is, in regard to progressive policy design.  California has a sophisticated GHG cap-and-trade system in place, which while not perfect, has many excellent design elements.  Countries around the world are now planning or implementing cap-and-trade systems, including in Europe, China, and Korea.  These countries are carefully watching decisions made in California, with particular attention to the design and implementation of its cap-and-trade system.  California’s system, possibly with a few improvements, could eventually be a model for even larger systems in other countries.

Can California Provide a Good Model of Progressive Policy?

Unfortunately, California’s climate policy has not relied heavily on its cap-and-trade system to achieve state targets.  Furthermore, rather than increasing reliance on this innovative market-based climate policy over time, recent proposals have doubled-down on the use of less efficient conventional policies to achieve GHG reductions. While some of these so-called “complementary policies” can be valuable under particular circumstances, they can also create severe problems.

One example of this is the attempt to employ aggressive sector-based targets through technology-driven policies, such as the Low Carbon Fuels Standard (LCFS).  In the presence of a binding cap-and-trade regime, the LCFS has the perverse effect of relocating carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions to other sectors but not reducing net emissions, while driving up statewide abatement costs, and suppressing allowance prices in the cap-and-trade market, thereby reducing incentives for technological change.  That is bad news all around.  These perverse outcomes render such policies of little interest or value to other regions of the world.

The magnitude of the economic distortion is illustrated by the fact that allowances in the California cap-and-trade market have recently been trading in the range of $12 to $13 per ton of CO2, while LCFS credits have traded this summer for about $80 per ton of CO2.

While reduction in transportation sector GHG emissions is clearly an important long-run objective of an effective climate policy, if the approach taken to achieving such reductions is unnecessarily costly, it will be of little use to most of the world, which has much less financial wealth than California and the United States, and will therefore be much less inclined to follow the lead on such costly policies.

The Path Ahead

With China now the largest emitter in the world, and India and other large developing countries not very far behind, California policies that achieve emission reductions through excessively costly means will fail to encourage other countries to follow, or even recognize, California’s leadership.  On the other hand, by increasing reliance on its progressive market-based system, California can succeed at home and be influential around the world.

Misleading Talk about Decoupling CO2 Emissions and Economic Growth

You can call it my pet peeve or even my obsession, but whenever I read about the claimed “decoupling” of CO2 emissions and economic growth, I get annoyed.  Webster’s Dictionary defines decoupling as “eliminating the interrelationship” between two processes.  But the interrelationship between CO2 emissions and economic growth has certainly not been eliminated.

Decoupling is the wrong word and metaphor to describe what has been happening.  When a caboose is decoupled from a train, it stops moving altogether.  A better metaphor, although less linguistically appealing, would be a “slipping clutch.”  The engine continues to transmit power, and as a result the driveshaft continues to rotate, but with less velocity than when the clutch was new.

What Has Been Happening

True enough, the carbon intensities of many economies in the world, particularly those of the industrialized nations, have – for many years – been falling, as those economies have become less energy intensive (less energy use per unit of economic activity – Gross Domestic Product or GDP), and therefore less carbon intensive.  For each dollar of economic activity, CO2 emissions are less than they used to be.  For each unit of economic growth, there is less growth in CO2 emissions than previously.

Furthermore, in some cases, as economies grow, CO2 emissions can actually fall.  First, picture an economy which is growing exclusively in its services sector.  In this case, economic growth might be accompanied by no change in CO2 emissions.  Now picture an economy which is growing in its services sector, while shrinking in its manufacturing sector (sound familiar?).  In this case, economic growth might be accompanied by reduced CO2 emissions.  Now add to this picture the presence of some public policies, such as those that cause the closure of coal-fired electric generation plants, as well as greater dispatch of electricity from natural gas-fired plants.  The result:  economic growth continues, with falling CO2 emissions.  But there has been no decoupling.

Confusion Due to Failure to Employ Appropriate Counterfactual

The problem and the confusion arises from a very common mistake in the popular press and, for that matter, in many casual conversations:  failure to use the right counterfactual for analysis.  The fact that GDP is rising while emissions are falling does not mean that GDP is not affecting emissions.  The appropriate counterfactual for comparison is how much would emissions have fallen had there been no growth in GDP.  Presumably, emissions would have fallen even more.  The excess of emissions in the factual case, compared with the counterfactual case, is the magnitude of emissions growth due to (actually, “associated with”) economic growth.  There has been no elimination of the relationship between the two, although the nature and the magnitude of that relationship has changed.

What Factors Affect CO2 Emissions?

So, why have CO2 emissions been declining in some countries?  Or, more broadly and more to the point, what factors have affected CO2 emissions?  Four stand out (although there are others).

First, energy comes at a cost in all economies, and so economic incentives exist to economize on energy use through technological change.  The energy-intensity of the U.S. economy has gradually fallen – almost monotonically – since early in the twentieth century.

Second, putting aside energy-intensity and focusing on carbon intensity, some technological change has worked against the use of carbon-intensive sources of energy.  The most dramatic example, specific to the United States, has been the combination of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing (fracking), which has caused a significant increase in supply and dramatic fall in the market price of natural gas, which has thereby led to a massive shift of investment and electricity dispatch from coal to natural gas.

Third, in the richer countries of the world, including this one, the process of economic growth has led to changing sectoral composition:  heavy industry to light manufacturing to services.  The deindustrialization of California is a graphic example.  Does the fact that California’s economy has grown while emissions have fallen mean that decoupling has occurred?  Of course not.  And, in the California case, there has also been a fourth factor …

Fourth, public policies have in some jurisdictions of the world (Europe, the United States, and most of the other OECD countries) discouraged carbon intensity.  In the USA, this has happened both through climate policies and other, non-climate policies.  Some non-climate policies, such as EPA’s Mercury Rule, discourage investment, encourage retirement, and discourage dispatch of coal-fired electricity, while other non-climate policies, such as CAFE standards for motor vehicles, bring about greater fuel efficiency of the fleet of cars and trucks over time.  Climate-specific policies have also mattered, such as in California, where the Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006 (AB-32) has brought down emissions through a portfolio of policies, including an economy-wide CO2 cap-and-trade system.

The Bottom Line

So, yes, the carbon intensity of many economies continues to fall – for a variety of reasons, including but by no means limited to public policies.  And, in some cases, the combination of energy price changes, technological change, changes in sectoral composition, and climate and other public policies has meant that emissions have fallen in years when economic growth has continued.  But don’t be fooled.  Economic growth does affect CO2 emissions.  There has been no decoupling; just some (desirable) slipping of the clutch.

Of course, this is not an anti-environment message.  On the contrary, a belief in decoupling per se could lead to a misguided laissez-faire attitude about the path of CO2 emissions.  Being honest and accurate about the links between (desirable) economic growth and (desirable) CO2 emissions reductions puts our focus and emphasis where it ought to be:  finding better ways to have both.

Paris Can Be a Key Step

I returned from a brief trip to Paris two days before the horrific events of November 13th, which have shocked and saddened civilized people everywhere. I was in Paris for discussions regarding climate change policy at OECD headquarters. Now, I’m preparing to return to Paris in less than two weeks with my colleagues from the Harvard Project on Climate Agreements (I’ve inserted a list of our forthcoming “public” activities at the Paris climate talks at the end of this blog post).

My purpose today, in this essay, is to explain why I believe that the Paris talks may turn out to be a key step in the international negotiations, and more important, a significant step in efforts to address the threat of climate change.

Background on the Paris Climate Talks

The international climate change negotiations that will take place in Paris the first two weeks of December, 2015, are officially the 21st Conference of the Parties of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.   It will be many years before any of us can truly assess the impact of the Paris talks, but it is clear now that they represent – at the very least – an important attempt to break with the past thrust of international climate policy and start anew with a much more promising approach.

The Kyoto Protocol, which has been the primary international agreement to reduce the greenhouse-gas emissions that cause global climate change, included mandatory emissions-reduction obligations only for developed countries. Developing countries had no emissions-reduction commitments. The stark demarcation in the Kyoto Protocol between developed and developing countries was one approach to realizing a principle in the underlying United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), that countries should act to “protect the climate system … on the basis of equity and in accordance with their common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities.”

The dichotomous distinction between the developed and developing countries in the Kyoto Protocol has made progress on climate change impossible, because growth in emissions since the Protocol came into force in 2005 is entirely in the large developing countries—China, India, Brazil, Korea, South Africa, Mexico, and Indonesia. The big break came at the annual UNFCCC negotiating session in Durban, South Africa in 2011, where a decision was adopted by member countries to “develop [by December 2015, in Paris] a protocol, another legal instrument or an agreed outcome with legal force under the Convention applicable to all Parties.” This “Durban Platform for Enhanced Action” broke with the Kyoto Protocol and signaled a new opening for innovative thinking (which we, at the Harvard Project on Climate Agreements, took to heart).

The Road to Paris

In Paris next month, countries will likely adopt a new hybrid international climate policy architecture that includes: bottom-up elements in the form of “Intended Nationally Determined Contributions” (INDCs), which are national targets and actions that arise from national policies; and top-down elements for oversight, guidance, and coordination. Now, all countries will be involved.

The current commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol covers countries (Europe and New Zealand) accounting for no more than 14% of global emissions (and 0% of global emissions growth). But as of November 9th, 156 of the 196 members of the UNFCCC had submitted INDCs, representing some 87% of global emissions (and this will likely reach 90% or 95% by the time of the Paris talks)!

Such broad scope of participation is a necessary condition for meaningful action, but it is not a sufficient condition. Also required is adequate ambition of the individual contributions. But keep in mind that this is only the first step with this new approach. The INDCs will likely be assessed and revised every five years, with their collective ambition ratcheted up over time. That said, even this initial set of contributions could cut anticipated temperature increases this century to about 2.7-3.5 degrees Centigrade, more than the frequently-discussed aspirational goal of limiting temperature increases to 2 degrees C, but much less than the 5-6 degrees C increase that would be expected without this action. (An amendment to the Montreal Protocol to address hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) will quite possibly shave an addition 0.5 C of warming.)

The problem has not been solved, and it will not be for years to come, but the new approach being taken in the forthcoming Paris Agreement can be a key step toward reducing the threat of global climate change. Only time will tell.

A Paris Scorecard

I’ve been asked many times what success will look like in Paris. Here’s my scorecard and my predictions of five key elements that – if all were achieved — would constitute an exceptionally successful 21st Conference of the Parties:

  1. Include approximately 90% of global emissions in the set of INDCs that are submitted and part of the Paris Agreement (compared with 14% in the current commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol). This will definitely be achieved.
  1. Establish credible reporting and transparency requirements. It is likely that this will be achieved.
  1. Begin to set up a system to finance climate adaptation (and mitigation) — the famous $100 billion commitment.  A key question is whether it includes private-sector finance, in addition to public-sector finance (that is, foreign aid). This is likely to be achieved.
  1. Agree to return to negotiations periodically, such as every 5 years, to revisit the ambition and structure of the INDCs. It is likely this will be achieved.
  1. Put aside unproductive disagreements, such as on so-called “loss and damage,” which looks to rich countries like unlimited liability for bad weather events in developing countries. Another unproductive disagreement is the insistence by some parties that the INDCs themselves be binding under international law. This would probably mean that the Paris Agreement would require Senate ratification in the United States, which means that the United States would not be a party to the Agreement. I can only hope that the delegates will realize the futility of pursuing such unproductive elements.

As you can see, I anticipate that elements #1 through #4 will be achieved in the Paris Agreement, and hopefully #5 as well. So, my fundamental prediction for Paris is success. (Unfortunately, some greens and some members of the press will mistakenly characterize this same outcome as “failure,” because the 2 degree C target has not been achieved immediately.)

Finally, for those of you who will be in Paris and/or like to keep up on the work of the Harvard Project on Climate Agreements, here is a partial schedule of our activities there (“partial” only because some of our engagements, including numerous bilateral meetings with national negotiating teams, press engagements, and other private meetings, are not included):


Harvard Project on Climate Agreements

Robert Stavins, Director, Robert Stowe, Executive Director, Jason Chapman, Program Manager, Harvard Environmental Economics Program

Events at the Twenty-First Conference of the Parties of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, November 30 – December 11, 2015, Paris, France

Events Co-Sponsored by the Harvard Project on Climate Agreements:

“Dialogue on the Comparison of Climate Change Policies”

Friday, December 4; 1:00 -3:00 pm; Pavilion of the People’s Republic of China (“Blue Zone”) — Co-host: National Center for Climate Change Strategy and International Cooperation (NCSC; Beijing) — Participants: Robert Stavins; Zou Ji, Fu Sha, Qi Yue, Chen Ji (NCSC); Duan Maosheng (Tsinghua University); Thomas Brewer (International Centre for Trade and Sustainable Development); Wang Mou (Chinese Academy of Social Sciences).

“Comparison and Linkage of Mitigation Efforts in a New Paris Regime”

Monday, December 7; 11:45 am – 1:00 pm; Pavilion of the International Emissions Trading Association (IETA) (“Blue Zone”) — Co-Hosts: International Emissions Trading Association (IETA), World Bank Group Networked Carbon Markets initiative — Participants: Robert Stavins; Dirk Forrister (IETA); David Hone (IETA and Shell); Andrei Marcu (Centre for European Policy Studies); Gilbert Metcalf (Tufts University); Vikram Widge (World Bank Group)

“The IPCC at a Crossroads: Enhancing the Usefulness of IPCC to the UNFCCC Process”

Wednesday, December 9; 11:30 am – 1:00 pm; Observer Room 12 (“Blue Zone”) — Co-Hosts: Fondazione Eni Enrico Mattei (FEEM; Venice and Milan), Mercator Research Institute on Global Commons and Climate Change (MCC; Berlin), Stanford Environmental and Energy Policy Analysis Center (SEEPAC) — Participants: Robert Stavins; Carlo Carraro (FEEM); Ottmar Edenhofer (MCC); Charles Kolstad (SEEPAC); Hoesung Lee (Chair, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change)

“Key Elements of the Paris Agreement and Implications for Business”

Wednesday, December 9; 3:30 – 5:00 pm; Room 9, Climate Generations Area (“Green Zone”) — Co-Host: Enel Foundation — Participants: Robert Stavins; Joseph Aldy (Harvard Kennedy School, by Skype); Dirk Forrister (IETA); Simone Mori (Enel SpA)

Other public events at which Robert Stavins is speaking:

“International Carbon Markets in a Post 2020 Climate Regime”

Thursday, December 3; 4:00 – 5:30 pm; Africa Pavilion (“Blue Zone”) — Hosts: African Development Bank Group, European Commission

“China-California Low Carbon and Climate Change Cooperation”

Monday, December 7; 2:00 – 4:00 pm; Pavilion of the People’s Republic of China (“Blue Zone”) — Hosts: State of California and the National Development and Reform Commission (Government of the People’s Republic of China)

“Can National Policies and INDCs Alone Lead to a Workable and Effective Climate Regime?”

Based on new book, Towards a Workable and Effective Climate Regime (available for free here), edited by Scott Barrett, Carlo Carraro, and Jaime de Melo — Tuesday, December 8; 11:30 am – 1:00 pm; Observer Room 4 (“Blue Zone”) — Hosts: Fondation pour les Etudes et Recherches sur le Développement International (FERDI), University of Venice, ClimateWorks Foundation — Participants: Carlo Carraro (University of Venice and Fondazione Eni Enrico Mattei), Surabi Menon (ClimateWorks Foundation), Roger Guesnerie (Collège de France), Jaime de Melo (University of Geneva), Scott Barrett (Columbia University), Robert Stavins

“Exploring the Potential for International Trading Partnerships in Emissions Permits”

Thursday, December 10; 12:00 – 1:30 pm; Pavilion of the International Emissions Trading Association (IETA) (“Blue Zone”) — Host: Electric Power Research Institute

“Building a Low-Carbon Society: Think Tank Views on Long-term Action”

Thursday, December 10; 1:00 – 3:00 pm; Pavilion of the People’s Republic of China (“Blue Zone”) — Host: Government of the People’s Republic of China

I’m exhausted just reading that list, but I promise to report on some of the highlights from Paris during and after COP-21.