Forty-Plus Years of Leadership on Climate and Sustainability

In our podcast series, “Environmental Insights: Discussions on Policy and Practice from the Harvard Environmental Economics Program,” I’ve had the pleasure of engaging with a number of real stars from the environmental policy world, asking them not only to comment on relevant policy issues, but also to reflect on their own experiences over the years.  To have done an adequate job of this with my most recent guest, I would have needed an entire day, not just the 30 minutes that we had for a podcast recording.  I say that because my guest was Mary Nichols, whom I first became aware of some 40 years ago in the early-1980s when I was working at the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) in Berkeley, California, before I moved across the country to enroll in the PhD program in economics at Harvard.  What is astonishing to me is that at the time Mary Nichols already had a prominent and highly successful career in environmental protection and regulation, and she has accomplished so much more in the decades since then!  I hope you will listen to our complete conversation here.

Mary is the former Chair of the California Air Resources Board, having served on the Board under Governor Edmund G. Brown, Jr. (1975–1982 and 2010–18), Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger (2007–2010), and Governor Gavin Newsom (2019–2020).  She also served as California’s Secretary for Natural Resources (1999–2003), appointed by Governor Gray Davis.  If that’s not enough, let me note that when not working directly for the State of California, she founded the Los Angles office of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), and held the Senate-confirmed position of Assistant Administrator for U.S. EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation, in the administration of President Bill Clinton.  Suffice it to say that as an environmental lawyer and leader in government and NGOs over 45 years, she has played a key role in U.S. progress toward healthy air and a clean environment, including having led CARB in crafting and implementing California’s internationally recognized climate action plan.

A graduate of Yale Law School, Mary Nichols was first appointed to CARB by then-Governor Jerry Brown in 1975, and played a key role in the State’s intensive efforts to mitigate urban air pollution, and much later returned to leadership of the Board to help craft and then implement California’s climate action plan, including its well designed cap-and-trade system.

“I have had a lot of good fortune as a lawyer to be in places where there was important work going on and where it was an opportunity to actually make changes happen,” Nichols says. “For me, it was more a question of not wanting to join the corporate establishment, not wanting to do what at that time seemed like the default, which was to go join a big law firm, but to do something that was more aimed at making the world a better place, which is why I had gone to law school in the first place.”

In our conversation, Mary notes that her early work on environmental regulation was focused on clean air, but eventually progressed to climate change policy as well.

“My focus was, and pretty much always has been, on implementation, on taking the statutory enactments laws and using them to actually make something happen in the real world, as we like to say, and climate just seemed to be too esoteric as well as distant. Obviously, my views changed on that and so has those of most of the rest of the world. But it took a while,” she says. “The key was recognizing that when it came to dealing with the causes of climate change, what was actually causing the increasing buildup of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, it was essentially the same root causes, the same fundamental issues about how we use energy, how we use electricity, how we move ourselves around.”

“The combustion of fossil fuels is at the heart of it all. It’s obviously more complicated and nuanced than that, but to me, the recognition that if you were doing your job correctly in terms of dealing with air pollution that hurts people’s health and that they can see you were also potentially going to be able to make a real dent in the climate problem as well,” she says.

Nichols argues that the early work on environmental regulation in California, including the path-breaking Global Warming Solutions Act, has had an important impact on national policy (and – I will add – on international climate policy) in the subsequent decades.

“Our goal, of course, was to try to push the US government to adopt meaningful climate legislation. And while we’re still only, I think in some ways, working around the edges of that in terms of having a single comprehensive climate law, the work that we’ve done absolutely has formed the basis for other states to act, as well as help to give some of the backdrop and provide the experience that enabled the federal government to pass President Biden’s very ambitious agenda,” she states.

When I ask Mary where she places herself on the spectrum of hope for climate policy today, she describes herself as an optimist.

“I see that there are signs all over the world of people demanding action to deal with the climate change, which is now no longer theoretical but real, and the massive disruptions in patterns of weather are evidence. It’s not something that requires statistics or a deep knowledge to see what’s happening,” she remarks. “I think politicians are being increasingly pushed to do something meaningful, and it’s not just a matter of mitigation versus adaptation, which used to be the big question. The big argument was, are we going to do things that will protect ourselves against climate change versus trying to stop it. We have to be doing both, and I think there’s a lot of interest in doing that, certainly among the larger financial institutions in all of the countries and companies that do business around the globe.”

For this and much, much more, I encourage you to listen to this 46th episode of 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.


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.


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.