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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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.

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The Making of a Conventional Wisdom

Despite the potential cost-effectiveness of market-based policy instruments, such as pollution taxes and tradable permits, conventional approaches –  including design and uniform performance standards – have been the mainstay of U.S. environmental policy since before the first Earth Day in 1970.  Gradually, however, the political process has become more receptive to innovative, market-based strategies.  In the 1980s, tradable-permit systems were used to accomplish the phasedown of lead in gasoline ­(at a savings of about $250 million per year), and to facilitate the phaseout of ozone-depleting chloroflourocarbons (CFCs); and in the 1990’s, tradable permits were used to implement stricter air pollution controls in the Los Angeles metropolitan region, and –  most important of all – a cap-and-trade system was adopted to reduce sulfur dioxide (SO2) emissions and consequent acid rain by 50 percent under the Clean Air Act amendments of 1990 (saving about $1 billion per year in abatement costs).  Most recently, cap-and-trade systems have emerged as the preferred national and regional policy instrument to address carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions linked with global climate change (see my previous posts of February 6th on an “Opportunity for a Defining Moment” and March 7th on “Green Jobs”).

Why has there been a relatively recent rise in the use of market-based approaches?  For academics like me, it would be gratifying to believe that increased understanding of market-based instruments had played a large part in fostering their increased political acceptance, but how important has this really been?  In 1981, my Harvard colleague, political scientist Steven Kelman surveyed Congressional staff members, and found that support and opposition to market-based environmental policy instruments was based largely on ideological grounds: Republicans, who supported the concept of economic-incentive approaches, offered as a reason the assertion that “the free market works,” or “less government intervention” is desirable, without any real awareness or understanding of the economic arguments for market-based programs.  Likewise, Democratic opposition was based largely upon ideological factors, with little or no apparent understanding of the real advantages or disadvantages of the various instruments.  What would happen if we were to replicate Kelman’s survey today?  My refutable hypothesis is that we would find increased support from Republicans, greatly increased support from Democrats, but insufficient improvements in understanding to explain these changes.  So what else has mattered?

First, one factor has surely been increased pollution control costs, which have led to greater demand for cost-effective instruments.  By the late 1980’s, even political liberals and environmentalists were beginning to question whether conventional regulations could produce further gains in environmental quality.  During the previous twenty years, pollution abatement costs had continually increased, as stricter standards moved the private sector up the marginal abatement-cost curve.  By 1990, U.S. pollution control costs had reached $125 billion annually, nearly a 300% increase in real terms from 1972 levels.

Second, a factor that became important in the late 1980’s was strong and vocal support from some segments of the environmental community.  By supporting tradable permits for acid rain control, the Environmental Defense Fund seized a market niche in the environmental movement, and successfully distinguished itself from other groups.  Related to this, a third factor was that the SO2 allowance trading program, the leaded gasoline phasedown, and the CFC phaseout were all designed to reduce emissions, not simply to reallocate them cost-effectively among sources. Market-based instruments are most likely to be politically acceptable when proposed to achieve environmental improvements that would not otherwise be achieved.

Fourth, deliberations regarding the SO2 allowance system, the lead system, and CFC trading differed from previous attempts by economists to influence environmental policy in an important way:  the separation of ends from means, that is, the separation of consideration of goals and targets from the policy instruments used to achieve those targets.  By accepting – implicitly or otherwise – the politically identified (and potentially inefficient) goal, the ten-million ton reduction of SO2 emissions, for example, economists were able to focus successfully on the importance of adopting a cost-effective means of achieving that goal.

Fifth, acid rain was an unregulated problem until the SO2 allowance trading program of 1990; and the same can be said for leaded gasoline and CFC’s.  Hence, there were no existing constituencies – in the private sector, the environmental advocacy community, or government – for the status quo approach, because there was no status quo approach.  We should be more optimistic about introducing market-based instruments for “new” problems, such as global climate change, than for existing, highly regulated problems, such as abandoned hazardous waste sites.

Sixth, by the late 1980’s, there had already been a perceptible shift of the political center toward a more favorable view of using markets to solve social problems.  The George H. W. Bush Administration, which proposed the SO2 allowance trading program and then championed it through an initially resistant Democratic Congress, was (at least in its first two years) “moderate Republican;” and phrases such as “fiscally responsible environmental protection” and “harnessing market forces to protect the environment” do have the sound of quintessential moderate Republican issues.  But, beyond this, support for market-oriented solutions to various social problems had been increasing across the political spectrum for the previous fifteen years, as was evidenced by deliberations on deregulation of the airline, telecommunications, trucking, railroad, and banking industries. Indeed, by the mid-1990s, the concept (or at least the phrase), “market-based environmental policy,” had evolved from being politically problematic to politically attractive.

Seventh and finally, the adoption of the SO2 allowance trading program for acid rain control – like any major innovation in public policy – can partly be attributed to a healthy dose of chance that placed specific persons in key positions, in this case at the White House, EPA, the Congress, and environmental organizations.  The result was what remains the golden era in the United States for market-based environmental strategies.

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If you would like to read more about the factors that have brought about the changes that have occurred in the political reception given to market-based environmental policy instruments over the past two decades, here are some references:

Stavins, Robert N.  “What Can We Learn from the Grand Policy Experiment? Positive and Normative Lessons from SO2 Allowance Trading.” Journal of Economic Perspectives, Volume 12, Number 3, pages 69-88, Summer 1998.

Keohane, Nathaniel O., Richard L. Revesz, and Robert N. Stavins.  “The Choice of Regulatory Instruments in Environmental Policy.” Harvard Environmental Law Review, volume 22, number 2, pp. 313-367, 1998.

Hahn, Robert W.  “The Impact of Economics on Environmental Policy.” Journal of Environmental Economics and Management 39(2000):375-399.

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