Policy Options for Addressing Climate Change

Economists (including myself) have long recommended carbon-pricing policy instruments – principally carbon taxes or carbon cap-and-trade systems – for achieving meaningful reductions of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions in large and complex economies.  However, such economy-wide policies are not in favor in the United States within the Biden administration, despite some interest in the Congress.  Rather, a set of alternative (second-best) options – such as a Clean Electricity Standard (CES) – are receiving more attention. 

Fortunately, economists have developed models with which both economy-wide carbon-pricing systems and sectoral policies, including a CES and increased gasoline taxes, can be consistently analyzed and compared.  Stanford University Professor Lawrence Goulder has analyzed a relatively broad set of such climate policy options available to government, and he discusses his analysis and its implications in the newest episode of “Environmental Insights: Discussions on Policy and Practice from the Harvard Environmental Economics Program,” a podcast produced by the Harvard Environmental Economics Program.  Listen to our conversation here.

In these podcasts, I converse with leading experts from academia, government, industry, and NGOs.  Larry Goulder, the Shuzo Nishihara Professor of Environmental and Resource Economics at Stanford University, is well qualified to talk about the economics of climate change policy.  Also, I’m pleased to note that he is my long-time colleague, co-author, and good friend.

Goulder, who graduated from Harvard College with an A.B. in philosophy in 1973 and from Stanford University with a Ph.D. in economics in 1982, served on the faculty of the Department of Economics at Harvard before returning to Stanford’s economics department in 1989.  Along the way, he spent a year studying music composition at Ecole Normale de Musique de Paris with the late, great Nadia Boulanger.

Larry Goulder’s research has spanned a range of energy, environmental, and other issues, including green tax reform, the design of environmental tax systems, and climate change policy.  He is co-author with Mark Hafstead of Resources for the Future of a book I highly recommend, “Confronting the Climate Challenge: US Policy Options,” published by Columbia University Press in 2018.

In this book, Goulder and Hafstead examine alternative climate change policy options available for lawmakers through the lens of a general equilibrium framework, considering both the aggregate benefits and costs of various policies as well as the distribution of policy impacts across industries, income groups, and generations.  Included in the set of policy instruments they examine are carbon taxes, CO2 cap-and-trade, a clean energy (electricity) standard, and increased gasoline taxes.

In our conversation, Goulder explains that the research shows that price-based approaches such as carbon taxes or cap-and-trade would be the most cost-effective methods to achieve desired changes, but also that a clean energy standard could have significant impacts.

“The reasons it does pretty well … have to do with interactions between this policy and preexisting taxes in the U.S. economy,” Goulder says. “I think this result is quite relevant to current policy discussions, since today there’s a lot of focus on the CES, the Clean Energy Standard, as a way of addressing climate change. And even though our results tend to favor a carbon tax, we find that the CES could do pretty well, as well.”

When I ask Larry to assess the Trump Administration’s environmental policy portfolio, he says that he can find little to be positive about, noting that the administration caused substantial damage, some of which will be long-term.

“The reversal or elimination of some of the Obama efforts was very problematic, in particular a signature effort by the Obama administration, its Clean Power Plan, which would have put limits on the emissions of CO2 per unit of electricity generated by power plants throughout the U.S. I think dismantling that is a real problem,” Goulder remarks. “I must say also just the general tenor of the Trump Administration to deny the science and to deny, in particular, the idea that there is serious human-caused climate change is very problematic to the extent that it reinforces political opposition to dealing with this immense problem.”

Some of Goulder’s recent research has examined the impacts of China’s new emissions trading system, in which trading was launched just last month (and which was discussed in some detail in a recent webinar by Valerie Karplus, and featured in my previous blog post).  I ask Larry to provide a brief assessment. 

“This is going to be the largest emissions trading system in the world; it will more than double the amount of carbon dioxide covered by emissions pricing. And it is also using an approach that has some attractions in terms of keeping costs down,” he says. “The tradable performance standard approach used in China is somewhat less cost effective than would be an equivalently scaled cap-and-trade system, but it’s a tremendous step forward that China is taking this national level effort, that it’s employing a tradable system, and that it’s intent on achieving very significant reductions.”

My complete conversation with Larry Goulder is the 26th episode in the Environmental Insights series, with future episodes scheduled to drop each month.  You can find a transcript of our conversation at the website of the Harvard Environmental Economics Program.  Previous episodes have featured conversations with:

“Environmental Insights” is hosted on SoundCloud, and is also available on iTunes, Pocket Casts, Spotify, and Stitcher.

Share

The Future of European Climate Change Policy

In my previous blog post, on January 14th, I offered my personal views regarding “International Climate Change Policy & Action in the Biden Administration.”  Today, I’m pleased to turn to a parallel assessment of future European climate change policy by Ottmar Edenhofer, a greatly-accomplished German economist, admired by academics, as well as leaders in government, industry, and non-governmental organizations.

Professor Edenhofer’s presentation, “The European Green Deal – Reform or Regulatory Tsunami?” and our subsequent discussion is the most recent webinar in our series, Conversations on Climate Change and Energy Policy, sponsored by the Harvard Project on Climate Agreements (HPCA).  As you know, in this webinar series we feature leading authorities on climate change policy, whether from academia, the private sector, NGOs, or government.  A video recording (and transcript) of the entire webinar is available here.

Ottmar Edenhofer is Professor of Economics at the Technical University of Berlin, the Founding Director of the Mercator Research Institute on Global Commons and Climate Change, and Co-Director and Chief Economist of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research.  He has been a major contributor to scholarship on the economics of energy and climate change, and served as Co-Chair of Working Group III of Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, where I had the pleasure of working under his leadership.  He is a key advisor of the German Government, as well as the European Union.  He holds a Ph.D. in economics and a B.A. degree in philosophy (a pairing of degrees which –  I’m delighted to say – he and I share).

In his presentation and the discussion that follows, Ottmar Edenhofer offers a frank assessment of the European Green Deal’s potential to significantly address the impacts of global climate change. 

“It’s a very good time to talk about the European Green Deal because now the prospects that United States and Europe could work closer together on climate change or climate policy and energy policy are very good,” Ottmar notes, referring to the change in U.S. administrations and recent remarks by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen reaffirming the European Union’s (EU’s) intent to reduce its target for emission reductions from 40 percent to 55 percent by the year 2030 and to achieve net carbon neutrality by the year 2050.

Calling it a “huge task,” Edenhofer outlines the actions that would need to occur to achieve such ambitious goals, including enhanced efforts to decarbonize the power sector, accelerated electrification for end-users, increased investments in bio-energy and semi-synthetic fuels, and advancements in carbon dioxide removal technologies. Using the EU’s climate policy impact assessment as a framework, he walks us through three different policy scenarios, ranging from one that relies heavily on regulation to one structured primarily around carbon pricing.

Characterizing the heavily regulatory approach as a “high-risk scenario,” he instead promotes the idea of an “intermediate step” in a which a mix of policy measures and carbon pricing are deployed to move toward the goal of a 55-percent carbon emissions reduction, and toward a longer-term strategy of using carbon pricing alone as the primary driver in CO2 reduction efforts.

“The crucial question therefore is, how can we design this intermediate step, and this is really the most important debate around this reform proposal,” he says, noting that several issues would need to be addressed.  “The intermediate step has to address the distributional issues and guarantee the stability and manage the political economy challenge between the sectors.”

Professor Edenhofer suggests that the intermediate step that may gain the political support necessary to succeed would be one that would allow for two separate emissions trading systems – one for the energy and industry sector, and the other for transportation and buildings.

“Meanwhile we could define gateways between these two systems. “Creating such gateways might have a two-fold effect – the first one is that market participants already anticipate that there are gateways and they anticipate these enterprise expectations, and this could lead to a convergence of the different prices across the sectors. And secondly, this is a starting point to manage the division of labor among the sectors, and this could be a credible pathway toward a carbon-price scenario when we have one ETS with one credible CO2 price scenario.”

In his presentation, Edenhofer also acknowledges the role that fiscal federalism could play in affecting the future direction of climate policy in Europe. While arguing that carbon pricing could generate roughly 800 billion euros between now and 2050, he notes that the funding base would shrink over time as emissions decrease, and therefore would not serve as a stable revenue source.  He has answers for this challenge as well.

After his presentation, Professor Edenhofer responds to questions from the virtual audience of more than 200 people. One question focuses on the impact of the new Biden-Harris Administration in Washington on global efforts to address climate change.

“The good thing is they are back in the Paris Agreement.  The announcement alone that the U.S. is committed has already helped.”

All of this and much more can be seen and heard in the full webinar here.  I hope you will check it out.

Previous webinars in this series – Conversations on Climate Change and Energy Policy – have featured Meghan O’Sullivan’s thoughts on Geopolitics and Upheaval in Oil Markets, Jake Werksman’s assessment of the European Union’s Green New Deal, Rachel Kyte’s examination of “Using the Pandemic Recovery to Spur the Clean Transition,” Joseph Stiglitz’s reflections on “Carbon Pricing, the COVID-19 Pandemic, and Green Economic Recovery,” Joe Aldy describing “Lessons from Experience for Greening an Economic Stimulus,” and Jason Bordoff commenting on “Prospects for Energy and Climate Change Policy under the New U.S. Administration.”

The next bi-monthly HPCA Conversation on Climate Change and Energy Policy will take place in March.  You can register in advance for that event at the HPCA website.

Share

Bringing Ambition and Pragmatism to Climate Change Policy

In the world of environmental policy, it is frequently the case that pragmatism and effectiveness are framed as being at odds with passion and ambition.  Even more so, in the realm of climate change, it is the rare individual who can successfully merge ambition and pragmatism in the pursuit of intelligent and effective public policy.  Richard Schmalensee, my guest in the newest episode of our podcast, “Environmental Insights: Discussions on Policy and Practice from the Harvard Environmental Economics Program,” is just such a person.

In my conversation with Dick Schmalensee, the Howard W. Johnson Professor of Management, and Professor of Economics Emeritus at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he reflects on his many years working on environmental policy in public service and in academia.  Abundant insights arise, including important lessons for current climate policy deliberations in the United States, Europe, China, and other countries.

Professor Schmalensee was Dean of the MIT Sloan School of Management for 10 years, and Director of the MIT Center for Energy and Environmental Policy Research for 12 years.  Before and during those years, his research and teaching were in multiple areas of application of industrial organization, including antitrust, regulatory, energy, and environmental policies.

He is a Fellow of the Econometric Society and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, a Director of the National Bureau of Economic Research, and Chairman Emeritus of the Board of Directors of Resources for the Future.  And I’m pleased to say that Dick is also an Associate Scholar of the Harvard Environmental Economics Program, and in recent years, has been my frequent co-author (for example, here, here, and here).

In addition to all of this, during a leave of absence from MIT, he served as a Member of the President’s Council of Economic Advisers in the George H.W. Bush administration.

Professor Schmalensee in his home study in Boston, 2020

In this latest Podcast episode, our conversation begins with Dick’s upbringing in a small town in southern Illinois, his move east to college and graduate school at MIT, his dissertation research, and the professional path that took him after receipt of his Ph.D. degree, first to California, and then back east to MIT’s Sloan School of Management.  We turn to his career in regulatory economics and policy – both his scholarly research and his close involvement in policy development and implementation, where he was “in the words of ‘Hamilton,” in the room where it happened.” 

Speaking at the Harvard Kennedy School, 2020

You won’t be surprised that we take time to focus on:  the pathbreaking cap-and-trade program launched by the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990; and political changes in the United States that have moved environmental policy from being a truly bipartisan issue to a partisan one in today’s highly polarized politics.  Much of our conversation is about the current state of climate change policy – and policy research – both domestically and globally.

Delivering Keynote Address at the Toulouse School of Economics, 2017

Throughout the interview, Dick is at home in his disarming style of candid conversation, with no punches pulled.  He terms current U.S. climate change policy “a disaster,” saying it was a mistake “walking away from Paris, walking away from any sense that it’s important that we deal with our emissions and indeed walking away from the potential federal role in helping states and localities adapt to change.”

All of this and more is found in the newest episode of “Environmental Insights: Discussions on Policy and Practice from the Harvard Environmental Economics Program.” Listen to this latest discussion here, where you can also find a complete transcript of our conversation.

My conversation with Dick Schmalensee is the eleventh episode in the Environmental Insights series.  Previous episodes have featured conversations with:

 “Environmental Insights” is hosted on SoundCloud, and is also available on iTunes, Pocket Casts, Spotify, and Stitcher.

Share