What Role for U.S. Carbon Sequestration?

With the development of climate legislation proceeding in the U.S. Senate, a key question is whether the United States can cost-effectively reduce a significant share of its contributions to increased atmospheric CO2 concentrations through forest-based carbon sequestration.  Should biological carbon sequestration be part of the domestic portfolio of compliance activities?

The potential costs of carbon sequestration policies should be one major criterion, and so it can be helpful to assess the cost of supplying forest-based carbon sequestration.  This is a topic which I’ve investigated in a series of papers with various co-authors over the past ten years (“Land-Use Change and Carbon Sinks: Econometric Estimation of the Carbon Sequestration Supply Function.” Journal of Environmental Economics and Management 51(2006): 135-152, with Ruben Lubowski and Andrew Plantinga; “Climate Change and Forest Sinks: Factors Affecting the Costs of Carbon Sequestration.” Journal of Environmental Economics and Management 40(2000):211-235, with Richard Newell; and “The Costs of Carbon Sequestration: A Revealed-Preference Approach.” American Economic Review, volume 89, number 4, September 1999, pp. 994-1009.)   Most useful for policy purposes is probably the 2005 report Kenneth Richards and I wrote for the Pew Center on Global Climate Change (“The Cost of U.S. Forest-Based Carbon Sequestration”).  In that report, we surveyed and synthesized the best cost estimates from all available sources.

Human activities — particularly the extraction and burning of fossil fuels and the depletion of forests — are causing the level of CO2 in the atmosphere to rise.  It may be possible to increase the rate at which ecosystems remove CO2 from the atmosphere and store the carbon in plant material, decomposing detritus, and organic soil.  In essence, forests and other highly productive ecosystems can become biological scrubbers by removing (sequestering) CO2 from the atmosphere.  Much of the current interest in carbon sequestration has been prompted by suggestions that sufficient lands are available to use sequestration for mitigating significant shares of annual CO2 emissions, and related claims that this approach provides a relatively inexpensive means of addressing climate change.  In other words, the fact that policy makers are giving serious attention to carbon sequestration can partly be explained by (implicit) assertions about its marginal cost, or (in economists’ parlance) its supply function, relative to other mitigation options.

Among the key factors that affect estimates of the cost of forest carbon sequestration are: (1) the tree species involved, forestry practices utilized, and related rates of carbon uptake over time; (2) the opportunity cost of the land-that is, the value of the affected land for alternative uses; (3) the disposition of biomass through burning, harvesting, and forest product sinks; (4) anticipated changes in forest and agricultural product prices; (5) the analytical methods used to account for carbon flows over time; (6) the discount rate employed in the analysis; and (7) the policy instruments used to achieve a given carbon sequestration target.

Given the diverse set of factors that affect the cost and quantity of potential forest carbon sequestration in the United States, it should not be surprising that cost studies have produced a broad range of estimates.  Ken Richards and I identified eleven previous analyses that were good candidates for comparison and synthesis, and we made their results mutually consistent by adjusting them for constant-year dollars, use of equivalent annual costs as outcome measures, identical discount rates, and identical geographic scope.  We also employed econometric methods to estimate the central tendency (or “best-fit”) of the normalized marginal cost functions from the eleven studies as a rough guide for policy makers of the projected availability of carbon sequestration at various costs.

Three major conclusions emerged from our survey and synthesis.  First, there is a broad range of possible forest-based carbon sequestration opportunities available at various magnitudes and associated costs.  The range depends upon underlying biological and economic assumptions, as well as analytical cost-estimation methods employed.

Second, a systematic comparison of sequestration supply estimates from national studies produces a range of $25 to $75 per ton for a program size of 300 million tons of annual carbon sequestration. The range increases somewhat- to $30-$90 per ton of carbon-for programs sequestering 500 million tons annually.

Third, when a transparent and accessible econometric technique was employed to estimate the central tendency (or “best-fit”) of costs estimated in the studies, the resulting supply function for forest-based carbon sequestration in the United States is approximately linear up to 500 million tons of carbon per year, at which point marginal costs reach approximately $70 per ton.

A 500 million ton per year sequestration program would be very significant, offsetting approximately one-third of annual U.S. carbon emissions.  At this level, the estimated costs of carbon sequestration are comparable to typical estimates of the costs of emissions abatement through fuel switching and energy efficiency improvements.  This result indicates that sequestration opportunities ought to be included in the economic modeling of climate policies.  And it further suggest that if it is possible to design and implement a domestic carbon sequestration program, then such a program ought to be included in a cost-effective portfolio of compliance strategies when the United States enacts a mandatory domestic greenhouse gas reduction program.  Large-scale forest-based carbon sequestration can be a cost-effective tool that should be considered seriously by policy makers.

Of course, this raises the question of whether a policy that will bring about such biological carbon sequestration cost-effectively can be developed, whether as part of a cap-and-trade system, a related offset scheme, or through some other policy mechanism.  That is a question without easy answers (as I’ve noted in a previous post on the Waxman-Markey legislation), but the cost analyses I’ve reviewed in this post suggest that it is important to explore possible ways of incorporating biological carbon sequestration in future U.S. climate policy.

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National Climate Change Policy: A Quick Look Back at Waxman-Markey and the Road Ahead

Like any legislation, the Waxman‑Markey bill has its share of flaws, but its cap-and-trade system has medium and long‑term targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions that are sensible, and the cap‑and‑trade system is — for the most part — well designed.  With some exceptions, the bill’s cap‑and‑trade system will achieve meaningful reductions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions at minimal cost to the economy.

There has been much lamenting about the corporate give-away in the bill, but this is unfounded, as I explained in detail in my May 27th post on The Wonderful Politics of Cap-and-Trade: A Closer Look at Waxman-Markey. Concerns have also been expressed — such as by a number of Republican members of Congress during last Friday’s floor debate in the House of Representatives — about negative impacts on the international competitiveness of U.S. firms.  The only real solution to the international competitiveness issue in the long term 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.)  But that solution is fundamentally outside of the scope of the domestic policy action of any individual nation, including the United States.

In the meantime, the Waxman‑Markey approach of combining output‑based updating allocations in the short term for select sectors with the option in the long term of a Presidential determination (under stringent conditions) for import allowance requirements for specific countries and sectors was sensible and pragmatic (see my June 18th post on Worried About International Competitiveness? Another Look at the Waxman-Markey Cap-and-Trade Proposal).

That’s the good news.  But the bad news is that last-minute changes in the bill changed what was a Presidential option regarding long-term back-up border adjustments (tariffs) to a requirement that the President put such tariffs in place under specified conditions.  This moved the legislation considerably closer to risky protectionism, as President Obama rightly noted in comments to the press on Sunday.

Also, the compromise amendments with the House agriculture committee that provide for generous numbers of potential offsets from the agricultural sector (regulated not by EPA, but by USDA!) are troubling — not in terms of driving up compliance costs, but in terms of reducing the real environmental performance of the system.  This is because of the general problem of limited additionality of claimed reductions under offset (or emission-reduction-credit) systems, as opposed to cap-and-trade systems, plus the well-known difficulties of measuring non-point emissions, let alone emissions reductions, from agriculture.

These and other design issues will be important topics when the Senate takes up its own climate legislation, although the debate in that body on some of these issues will likely be quite different.  For example, there is likely to be more interest in the Senate in the use of a “price collar,” a mechanism to constrain both the maximum and the minimum market price of allowances over time.  This would be a move beyond the safety-valve mechanism that is provided in the House legislation.

When the action moves to the Senate, the greatest attention and the greatest skepticism should be directed not to the cap‑and‑trade mechanism, which is — for the most part — well designed in Waxman‑Markey, but rather to other elements of the legislation, some of which are highly problematic. While the titles of Waxman‑Markey that create the cap‑and‑trade system are ‑‑ on balance ‑‑ sensible, and will result in meaningful emissions reductions cost effectively, the other titles of the bill include a host of conventional standards and subsidies, many of which (under the cap‑and‑trade umbrella) will have minimal or no environmental benefits, but will limit flexibility and thereby have the unintended consequence of driving up compliance costs. That’s the soft under‑belly of this legislation that needs to be selectively, surgically repaired.

It is the fault of economists — myself included — that we have given so much attention to the cap-and-trade system that we have ignored these other important elements of the legislation, elements that unfortunately can degrade significantly the cost-effectiveness of the package while providing little if any incremental benefits to the environment.  Even the Congressional Budget Office, in its excellent economic analysis of HR 2454, focused exclusively on the bill’s cap-and-trade program.  Going forward, CBO, EPA, and independent analysts need to examine the bill’s other elements, and assess what those elements provide at what incremental cost.

A broader question — also raised by House Republicans in the floor debate — is whether the United States should be moving towards the enactment of a domestic climate policy before a sensible, post‑Kyoto international agreement has been negotiated and ratified. Such an international agreement should include not only the countries of the industrialized world, but also the key, rapidly‑growing economies of the developing world ‑‑ China, India, Brazil, Korea, Mexico, South Africa, and Indonesia ‑‑ which are and will increasingly be major contributors to emissions.

It’s natural for such a question to be raised about the very notion of the U.S. adopting a policy to help address what is fundamentally a global problem.  The environmental benefits of any single nation’s reductions in greenhouse gas emissions are spread worldwide, unlike the costs. This means that for any single country, the costs of action will inevitably exceed its direct benefits, despite the fact that the global costs of action will be less than global benefits.  This is the nature of a global commons problem, and this is the very reason why international cooperation is required.

The U.S. is now engaged in international negotiations, and the credibility of the U.S. as a participant, let alone as a leader, in shaping the international regime is dependent upon our demonstrated willingness to take actions at home.

Europe has put its climate policy in place, and Australia, New Zealand, and Japan are moving to have their policies in place within a year. If the United States is to play a leadership role in international negotiations for a sensible post‑Kyoto international climate regime, the country must begin to move towards an effective domestic policy ‑ with legislation that is timed and structured to coordinate with the emerging post‑Kyoto climate regime.

Without evidence of serious action by the U.S., there will be no meaningful international agreement, and certainly not one that includes the key, rapidly‑growing developing countries. U.S. policy developments can and should move in parallel with international negotiations.

So, the Waxman‑Markey bill has its share of flaws, but it represents a reasonable starting point for Senate deliberation on what can become a national climate policy that will place the United States where it ought to be -‑ in a position of international leadership to help develop a global climate agreement that is scientifically sound, economically rational, and politically acceptable to the key nations of the world.

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Worried About International Competitiveness? Another Look at the Waxman-Markey Cap-and-Trade Proposal

The potential impacts of proposed U.S. climate policies on the competitiveness of U.S. industries is a major political issue, and it was one of the key issues in the Energy and Commerce Committee of the House of Representatives in the design of Henry Waxman and Edward Markey’s H.R. 2454 (the American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009). In the floor debate that will soon take place as the full House considers the bill, it will be an important issue. It promises to be an equally important topic when the Senate takes up its own climate legislation, although the debate in that body on this issue will likely be quite different.

The ultimate answer to the question of how best to address concerns about international competitiveness is to bring all countries – both the industrialized nations and the developing world’s large, rapidly-growing economies (China, India, Brazil, Korea, Mexico, South Africa, and Indonesia) – into a meaningful (post-Kyoto) international climate change agreement (a topic on which I’ve spent much time over the past several years).  But – for the most part — that long-term objective is outside of the reach of the domestic policy of any single nation, even the United States.

Can Domestic Climate Policy Address Competitiveness Concerns?

A range of approaches has been considered for implementing sound, domestic climate policy while seeking to “level the economic playing field” with other countries. While no approach is without its flaws (as I describe below), the approach taken in the Waxman-Markey legislation is sensible and pragmatic:  in the short term, output-based updating allocations of allowances are employed for a few energy-intensive, trade-sensitive sectors; and in the long term, the President is given the option to put in place (under specific, stringent conditions) import-allowance-requirements in selected cases.

In order to explain my reasoning for coming to this conclusion, let’s back up for a moment and reflect on the reasons for the high level of political attention and receptiveness in the United States toward employing a cap-and-trade system nationally to address emissions of greenhouse gases.

It is because of the significant economic and political advantages of cap-and-trade systems to address carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions that most (but not all) attention by policy makers has been focused on this policy approach. First, it provides a cost-effective means of achieving meaningful reductions in emissions over relevant time horizons. Second, it offers an easy means of compensating for the inevitably unequal burdens imposed by virtually any climate policy. Third, it is less likely than alternative approaches (such as a carbon tax) to be degraded – in terms of environmental performance and cost-effectiveness – by political forces. Fourth, it has a history of successful adoption and implementation over two decades. And fifth, it provides a straightforward means to link and harmonize with other countries’ climate policies.

The Waxman-Markey bill, H.R. 2454, would establish such a U.S. cap-and-trade system to reduce emissions that contribute to global climate change. The bill would put a declining cap on emissions and create a corresponding number of emission permits. Regulated firms could trade these permits at a price determined by the market – creating powerful incentives to reduce emissions cost-effectively.

But imposing a price (cost) on carbon in the United States at a time when some other countries (in the developing world) are not taking comparable actions raises concerns about negative impacts on the competitiveness of U.S. industry, particularly in energy-intensive, trade-sensitive sectors. This heightens worries about possible job losses, a particularly troubling concern when the United States find itself in the worst global recession in a generation.

The environmental side of the same coin is “carbon leakage.” Again, imposing a cost on the production of carbon-intensive goods and services shifts comparative advantage in the production of those same goods and services in the direction of countries not taking on such costs.  Also, reduced demand in the United States for carbon-intensive fuels such as coal can be expected to reduce worldwide demand enough that the world price of coal would fall, thereby making it more attractive for use in countries that are not participating in a meaningful international climate agreement (or otherwise taking significant domestic climate actions).

Both routes can result in a shift of carbon-intensive production to countries without climate controls, and therefore an increase in their CO2 emissions. This is carbon leakage, which reduces the environmental benefits of mitigating emissions and reduces cost-effectiveness of any actions (properly measured in terms of net changes in CO2 atmospheric concentrations).  Given that the United States, the European Union, and Japan are net importers of embodied CO2, while China and India are net exporters, the environmental – as well as the economic – impacts of carbon leakage are a natural concern of lawmakers.

Despite the high levels of attention that international competitiveness therefore receives in debates about domestic climate policies, economic research has consistently found that the actual competitiveness impacts of proposed domestic climate policies would not — in quantitative terms — constitute a major economy-wide economic issue for the United States, partly because differences in other costs of production (including labor and energy costs, without accounting for carbon constraints) across countries swamp differences in costs due to environmental policies, including prospective climate policies.

On the other hand, this is a real issue for some specific sectors, in particular, energy-intensive industries subject to international competition, such as aluminum, cement, fossil fuels, glass, iron and steel, and paper. More importantly, it is in any event a major (economy-wide) political issue.  So, it needs to be addressed in any domestic climate policy which is to be both meaningful and politically pragmatic.

How About Free Allowance Allocations?

The approach frequently proposed by policy makers and the approach utilized in the European Union for its Emission Trading Scheme, and discussed in a number of other countries for their planned cap-and-trade programs is generous and free allocation of allowances to specific sectors and companies.  This makes the receiving companies happy, but has no effect on their international competitiveness. This is because such a free grant of allowances is no different than cash, that is, a fixed subsidy. The allowances can be sold by the receiving companies, are as good as cash, and represent a lump-sum transfer from the government, not tied to carbon abatement efforts or production (and hence, in the language of economics, are infra-marginal subsidies rather than marginal incentives).

Since the subsidy has no effect on the company’s marginal cost of production (its supply function), it has no effect on international competitiveness. The company will continue to find it as challenging as it did without the subsidy to produce cement, steel, or whatever at a price that can compete with companies located in countries without climate policies (apart from liquidity effects, which are minor in most cases). And the domestic company will have the same incentives as previously to locate its next production facility in a country without a climate policy.

A Potentially Effective Approach:  Output-Based Updating Allocations

With proper design, allowance allocations can be used effectively to address leakage and competitiveness.  If the free allocation of allowances is tied to the company’s production level, then it does affect marginal production costs, and therefore does affect competitiveness. Such a “home rebate” can thereby reduce leakage. This is, in fact, the approach taken in the Waxman-Markey legislation, and it is a potentially effective means to address concerns about international competitiveness for a select set of energy-intensive trade-sensitive sectors.

There are, however, some legitimate concerns about this approach of linking annual allowance allocations with production levels, as I wrote in my previous post, “The Wonderful Politics of Cap-and-Trade: A Closer Look at Waxman-Markey.” Such output-based updating allocations can provide perverse incentives and thereby drive up the costs of achieving a cap. This is because an output-based updating allocation is essentially a production subsidy. This distorts firms’ pricing and production decisions in ways that can increase the cost of meeting an emissions target.

Think of it this way. On the one hand, the cap-and-trade system is (sensibly) increasing the cost of using carbon-intensive fuels and emitting CO2 into the atmosphere. An aluminum producer, for example, is therefore paying more for the (fossil-fuel generated) electricity it uses, driving up its cost of production. At the same time, the government hands a subsidy to the company for each unit of aluminum it produces, working at cross-purposes with the energy-pricing incentive, and thereby driving up the aggregate social costs of achieving the cap. In addition, these home rebates do not distinguish between competition from countries with and without domestic climate policies.

The Key Question

So, there are problems with output-based updating allocations, but the key question in the real world of legislative design is whether better approaches are available?  The answer – in my view – is that there are several other available approaches, but they are not any better; and indeed, they appear to be significantly worse.

An Alternative Approach:  Import Allowance Requirements

One alternative approach is an import allowance requirement, whereby imports of highly carbon-intensive goods (in terms of their manufacture) must hold allowances for the U.S. cap-and-trade system, mirroring requirements on U.S. sources, if those imports come from countries which have not taken comparable climate policy actions. Note that this approach – which is referred to as a border adjustment, and is an implicit border tax – differentiates according to the country of origin.  In principle, this approach can maintain a level playing-field between imports and domestic production, reduce leakage, and possibly help induce key developing countries to take domestic action to avoid the implicit border tax on their products.

The import allowance requirement approach has its own problems, however. First, it focuses exclusively on imports into the United States, and has no effect on the competitiveness of U.S. exports. Second, it may not be compliant with World Trade Organization (WTO) rules, because it would discriminate among trading nations (I’ll leave that issue for trade economists and trade lawyers to analyze and debate).

Third, it is questionable whether it would be effective as an inducement for developing countries to join an international agreement to reduce emissions. Why is that? Think about China, for example. China is the largest producer of cement in the world, accounting for almost 50% of world output. It is also the world’s largest exporter of cement. This may sound as though the threat of import allowance requirements in the U.S. and European cap-and-trade systems would be a powerful incentive for China to undertake emission reductions at home in order to avoid the border tax on its cement exports.  But China consumes 97% of its cement domestically, exporting only 3%, and much of that to developing countries. So, would a country such as China be willing to increase the costs of producing 97% of its output in order to protect a market for 1% or 2% of its production?(To be fair, for small developing countries for which their exports of a given product are a large share of their total output, the message could potentially be quite different.)

Despite these three problems with the import-allowance-requirement approach, note that it was a key part of the Lieberman-Warner Climate Security Act in the U.S. Senate in 2008, and may re-appear when serious debate commences in the Senate on climate legislation later this year. Also, it should be noted that this approach of import-allowance-requirements is included as a long-term backstop in Waxman-Markey if the President determines by 2022 that the output-based allocation mechanism is insufficient for some of the energy-intensive trade-sensitive sectors (and if a number of stringent conditions are met; see the “International Reserve Allowance Program” in the bill).

Other Possible Approaches

Another potential approach is a border rebate for exports to level the playing field abroad, whereby the government rebates the value of emissions embodied in exports. Imports, however, would retain their competitive advantage at home, and there are problems with WTO compliance. Finally, there is full boarder adjustment, meaning a border (import) tax plus a border (export) subsidy. Here there are questions not only about consistency with international trade law, but also concerns about feasibility. In some cases, there are tremendous challenges of calculating the embodied emissions of foreign products, and more generally, there are difficulties of defining and enforcing reliable rules of origin.

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Thus, none of these approaches are ideal, not home rebates as in Waxman-Markey, nor implicit border taxes on exports as in Lieberman-Warner, nor border rebates, nor full border adjustments.  As I said at the outset, the only real solution to the international competitiveness issue in the long term 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.) But that solution is fundamentally outside of the scope of the domestic policy action of any individual nation, including the United States.

So, among the feasible set of options to address international competitiveness concerns – if only imperfectly and at some cost – which is best? The two live political options appear to be the output-based updating allocation mechanism in the Waxman-Markey legislation and the import allowance requirement, typically associated with the former Lieberman-Warner bill. At this time, meaning in the short term, I would be more worried about the potential damage to the international trade regime that import allowance requirements could foster than about the incremental social costs that an output-based updating allocation mechanism will create.

This is a political problem without a perfect solution (other than bringing all key countries into a meaningful international climate agreement).  For now, the domestic political process has done a credible job of patching together a set of interim solutions. Among the range of possible approaches of trying to level the international economic playing field, none is without its flaws, but the approach taken in the Waxman-Markey legislation appears best.  Subject to possible improvements on the House floor or in the Senate, the Waxman-Markey approach of combining output-based updating allocations in the short term for select sectors with the option in the long term of a Presidential determination (under stringent conditions) for import allowance requirements for specific countries and sectors seems both sensible and pragmatic.

A Broader Question:  Should the U.S. Enact a Domestic Climate Policy without a New, Sound International Climate Agreement in Place?

Stepping back from the specific policy design question, the broader argument has been made (indeed until a few years ago I was among those making it) that there should be no serious movement on a U.S. domestic climate policy until a meaningful and sensible (post-Kyoto) international agreement has been negotiated and ratified.  It is natural for questions to be raised about the very notion of the U.S. adopting a policy to help address a global problem. The environmental benefits of any single nation’s reductions in greenhouse gas emissions are spread worldwide, unlike the costs. This creates the possibility that some countries will want to “free ride” on the efforts of others. It’s for this very reason that international cooperation is required.

That is the why the U.S. is now vigorously engaged in international negotiations, and the credibility of the U.S. as a participant, let alone as a leader, in shaping the international regime is dependent upon our demonstrated willingness to take actions at home. Europe has already put its climate policy in place, and Australia, New Zealand, and Japan are moving to have their policies in place within a year. If the United States is to play a leadership role in international negotiations for a sensible post-Kyoto international climate regime, the country must begin to move towards an effective domestic policy – with legislation that is timed and structured to coordinate with the emerging post-Kyoto climate regime.

Without evidence of serious action by the U.S., there will be no meaningful international agreement, and certainly not one that includes the key, rapidly-growing developing countries.  U.S. policy developments can and should move in parallel with international negotiations.

The Bottom Line

So, like any legislation, the Waxman-Markey bill has its share of flaws. But it represents a solid foundation for a domestic climate policy that can help place the United States where it ought to be – in a position of international leadership to develop a global climate agreement that is scientifically sound, economically rational, and politically acceptable to the key nations of the world.

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