Greening an Economic Stimulus: Lessons from Experience

As the U.S. Congress and the Trump administration continue to discuss the possibility of a second major economic relief bill, many observers in this country and other countries maintain that any eventual economic recovery package ought to include green elements that can help move the country along a path toward a more carbon-friendly society.  That is the topic of the most recent (October 19th) webinar in our series, Conversations on Climate Change and Energy Policy, sponsored by the Harvard Project on Climate Agreements (HPCA), in which I have the pleasure of hosting my colleague, Joseph Aldy, Professor of the Practice of Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School

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 this latest webinar are available here.

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Joe Aldy has had significant experience in more than one of those realms.  In addition to being a professor at Harvard, Joe has worked in government in a variety of positions, most recently as Special Assistant to the President for Energy and Environment in the Obama administration.  On a personal note, I’m pleased to say that we have been colleagues for many years, going back to when Joe was a Ph.D. student in economics at Harvard.  Subsequent to that, when he was a Fellow at Resources for the Future in Washington, D.C., he and I were the co-founders of the Harvard Project on Climate Agreements.  Over the years, we’ve co-authored quite a few books and articles, including one that will be published later this year in Climate Change Economics.

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In his webinar presentation and the subsequent discussion, Joe shares his perspectives on lessons that can be learned from the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which policymakers can apply to future economic stimulus negotiations.

“There is clearly a growing interest in thinking about ways in which we can both tackle the COVID-19 recession, establish an economic recovery, and rebuild the economy, and do so in a way that addresses climate change,” Aldy remarks. To do so, he continues, a plan must be timely, targeted, and in some ways temporary, so as not to outlast its need and effectiveness. “At the end of the day you need something that is politically viable. You need something that is a bill that can then become a law. All of this should play into how we think about the design, crafting, and subsequent implementation of a recovery program.”

Aldy highlights the successes of the 2009 Recovery Act, pointing to the 900,000 jobs it created through green energy investments, and the subsequent growth in renewable power, particularly solar and wind.

“I think what’s important is not just to think about what was the impact of having subsidies for two or three years during the Recovery Act period for wind and solar, but recognizing that pushing out those technologies in those early years helped drive down the cost over time to enable even more significant expansion in our capacity of wind and solar in the past half dozen years,” he said.

But Joe also points out the shortcomings of the Recovery Act, arguing that some elements, like the “Cash for Appliances” subsidy program, were poorly targeted, rewarding those who would have purchased the items even without government assistance. He also cites the fact that some green projects, like carbon capture and storage and high-speed rail, were nixed or downscaled when non-federal partners withdrew from their obligations and the federal government chose not to move forward on its own.

Targeting programs so that they reach underserved and lower-income populations is important, Aldy notes, but so is the simplicity of design.

“Simplicity is really important, although I recognize there is a tension between wanting to be very thoughtful and how you target. Sometimes you might need to be a little less simple to be more effective in targeting, but you want to try to strike the right balance so that you don’t make the program so complicated that a lot of potential participants in the program shy away from its complexity, or delays the rollout of the program.” 

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When we are halfway through the one-hour session, I pose some questions submitted by members of the virtual audience on a wide range of issues.  One question seeks Joe’s insights about how a Biden Administration, if elected in November, would differ from a second-term Trump Administration in its approach to advancing a green economic stimulus package.

“If Trump were to be re-elected, I don’t think there will be much that would be meaningful that would be focused on green energy in a recovery package,” he said. “For a President-elect Biden, I think that there could be considerable investment here. He has talked about…a significant ramping up of spending on the order of $2 trillion over four years, and a large fraction, about 40-percent, would try to target underserved communities.” 

Regardless of who is elected, Aldy says, policymakers need to be cognizant of the politics of green energy investment, and design their programs accordingly to appeal to elected officials in red as well as blue states.

“They may not talk much about climate change, but if it means creating demand for new construction jobs in their district or in their state, that might be something that they find attractive,” he argues. “At the end of the day, there’s a bit of the politics and the sausage making, if you will, in how you craft all the different kinds of components into a piece of legislation that effective leaders, people who know how to pass bills in Congress, know how to do that so they can then count the votes and get their bills passed in their chamber.”

All of this and more can be seen and heard at this website.  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,” and Joseph Stiglitz’s reflections on “Carbon Pricing, the COVID-19 Pandemic, and Green Economic Recovery

The next HPCA Conversation on Climate Change and Energy Policy is scheduled for November 12th with guest Jason Bordoff, Professor of Professional Practice in International and Public Affairs at Columbia University.  Please register in advance for that event on the HPCA website.

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Opportunities and Risks for Green Economic Recovery

In our most recent (August 19th) webinar in the series of Conversations on Climate Change and Energy Policy, sponsored by the Harvard Project on Climate Agreements (HPCA), I had the pleasure of hosting Rachel Kyte, Dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.  This webinar series features leading authorities on climate change policy, whether from academia, the private sector, NGOs, or government.  In this case, my guest has had her feet planted firmly in more than one of those realms.  Previously Dean Kyte served as a Special Representative of the U.N. Secretary-General, and before that was Vice President and Special Envoy for Climate Change at the World Bank.  A video recording and transcript of the webinar are available here.

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Due to the global COVID pandemic, the webinar was executed remotely.  The consequent economic downturns have made many countries think about the design of their respective economic recovery packages, including the possibility of greening recovery policies and instruments.  This was the topic of Rachel Kyte’s presentation, “Using the Pandemic Recovery to Spur the Clean Transition – Opportunities and Potential Pitfalls.”

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Citing the fact that 180 nations are in severe recessions, with some possibly teetering on the brink of depression, Dean Kyte describes the current moment as an opportunity to “pivot to a trajectory that would get us closer to being on track for the kind of economic pathway forward that we would need to reach zero net emissions by mid-century … in order to combat the worst impacts of climate change.”  Leveraging that opportunity, however, will be complicated, Kyte explained, noting that the severe economic stress caused by the pandemic is “testing the boundaries of international solidarity.”

“We are about to see over the fall, I think, some of the cumulative impacts of the economic crisis on our financial systems. And we can see that the traditional mechanisms and multinational cooperation which we rely upon in order to attack issues of global public good are straining. They are straining with COVID and they are straining with the impacts of climate change,” she says.

It is imperative, she argues, for citizens, institutions, and governments to recognize the severity of the situation, and muster the political will to address the severe economic pains caused both by the pandemic and unmitigated climate change.

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“We will really be putting pressure on the systems that are normally in place to support that – the IMF, the multinational development banks, the role of central banks,” she points out. “In these economic crises, it is the least well off, the most vulnerable, and the most vulnerable to climate change, who are impacted the most. And what we’re looking at is wiping out the advances that have been made in poverty alleviation over the last few years. That has huge impacts for the way we think about vulnerability to climate change going forward.”

Over the short-term, however, Rachel Kyte acknowledges that economic contractions have reduced carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, as global energy demand is expected to fall by about six percent in 2020, compared with 2019. But demand will pick back up when economies rebound, she notes, unless there are systematic efforts to change it. Those efforts, she remarks, can be strategically incorporated into economic relief packages that will continue to emerge.

“There are, I think, a number of think tank groups, [and other] regional bodies now suggesting that there are clear policy priorities in order to be able to hit that sweet spot of short-term recovery, but also a cleaner and faster pathway down the energy transition,” she remarks. She specifically cites the need for green “shovel-ready” projects aligned with rescue plans for distressed industries that adhere to a pathway of deep decarbonization and increased energy efficiency. Rachel also discusses the need for smart private finance and investment in green technologies, and sufficient international cooperation necessary to spare developing countries crushing debt loads that would cripple their climate change mitigation efforts.

Referring to the nature of such a green energy pivot, she remarks that, “We’re at a moment where we need both scaffolding and scholarship or new design. The scaffolding is that we have an international system that helps us respond to pandemics, that helps us respond to economic crises, and that should help us to respond to climate change. And that system is really underperforming, at risk, and under strain.  So, we have to in this immediate phase put scaffolding around it and help it limp forward and help us all limp forward together.”

During the webinar, after concluding her presentation, Dean Kyte fields questions from the audience, including the risks of economic rescue packages that worsen the effects of climate change, the potential for reductions in Overseas Development Assistance budgets to the developing world, the challenges of green aid in Africa, obstacles facing the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in making substantive progress, Mexico’s mixed record on climate change policy, and potential incentives to encourage developing countries to adopt green recovery trajectories. 

All of this and more can be heard and seen at this website.  I hope you will check it out.

Previous webinar in this series – Conversations on Climate Change and Energy Policy – have featured Meghan O’Sullivan’s thoughts on Geopolitics and Upheaval in Oil Markets, and Jake Werksman’s assessment of the European Union’s Green New Deal

The next HPCA Conversation on Climate Change and Energy Policy is scheduled for September 8th with guest Joseph Stiglitz, University Professor at Columbia University.  Click here to register in advance for that webinar.

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How Have Companies Responded to the Coronavirus Pandemic and Climate Change?

We have just released the latest episode of our podcast, “Environmental Insights: Discussions on Policy and Practice from the Harvard Environmental Economics Program.”  In this latest episode, I engage in a conversation with Rebecca Henderson, the John and Natty McArthur University Professor at Harvard University.  She shares her perspectives on how large organizations are changing in response to the coronavirus pandemic and global climate change.  A full transcript of our conversation is available here.

Rebecca makes her home at Harvard Business School, where she was the founding co-director with Professor Forest Reinhardt of the Business and Environment Initiative.  She is also a Research Fellow of the National Bureau of Economic Research, and a Faculty Fellow of the Harvard Environmental Economics Program.

In this podcast episode, we first discuss how the attention given to environmental matters has changed at business schools in the three decades since she received her Ph.D. in Business Economics at Harvard and joined the faculty at the MIT Sloan School of Management, prior to moving on to Harvard Business School.

Henderson’s research and writing explore how organizations respond to large-scale technological shifts, most recently in regard to energy and the environment.  This has also given her a special perspective to think about the role of the private sector in responding to the Covid-19 crisis.  In this regard, she notes that she is reminded that “when organizations decide they must change, they can change,” pointing to the quick shift to remote work across many sectors, the effort by biomedical firms to speed up supply changes, and the ways in which retail and grocery distribution channels are mobilizing their resources. “You’re seeing profound changes in methods of operation across the economy,” she remarks.

“The potential upside is that this emergency is making it very clear that the stability of the entire community is critical to the success of business,” Rebecca states. “I think the emergency is also highlighting that one needs a strong, effective federal government to deal with problems like this. I think both of those insights could conceivably translate into business pressure for coherent climate policy in ways that could be very helpful.”

“Climate change can seem distant; it can seem invisible. Why should I worry about it? To see the whole economy mobilized when the threat becomes very, very concrete reminds me that, as we think about climate change, we have to find a way to make that threat as concrete as possible. So that’s one thing I take away from the current moment.”

All of this and much 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, by the way, you can also find a complete transcript of our conversation.

My conversation with Rebecca Henderson is the ninth 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.

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