Why the U.S. Should Remain in the Paris Climate Agreement

            It was widely reported last week that a White House meeting scheduled for Tuesday, April 18th, was to consider whether the United States should remain a party to the Paris Climate Agreement.  At the last second, that meeting was postponed.  As of today, there is no public information about when it may occur.  All that is known is that the Trump Administration had indicated previously that it will make known its position on the Paris Agreement before the G7 Summit, which takes place in Italy in late May.

With that in mind – and with Earth Day being celebrated on April 22nd – I was pleased to co-author with Ban Ki-moon an op-ed which just appeared in The Boston Globe, “Why the US Should Stay in the Paris Climate Agreement” (April 21, 2017).  As you no doubt know, Ban Ki-moon was Secretary-General of the United Nations (2007-2016), but what you may not know is that he is currently my colleague at the Harvard Kennedy School, where he is the Angelopoulos Global Public Leaders Fellow.

Before the Secretary-General Emeritus and I produced the final version of our Boston Globe op-ed, we had written a considerably longer, more detailed essay on the same topic, and so in today’s blog essay, I’m pleased to provide below an expanded version of that longer essay, with hyperlinks added.  I hope you find this of interest.

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Why the U.S. Should Remain in the Paris Climate Agreement:  An Earth Day Message for President Trump

 by Ban Ki-moon and Robert N. Stavins

In the five decades since the first Earth Day was celebrated in 1970, remarkable economic growth around the world has inevitably been accompanied by significant environmental challenges.  While tremendous progress has been made to address concerns about air and water quality, hazardous waste, species extinction, and maintenance of stratospheric ozone, leaders around the world continue to struggle to address the threat of global climate change in the face of the steady accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

The Necessity of International Cooperation

There is broad scientific consensus that human-based emissions of greenhouse gases – including carbon dioxide (CO2) from fossil-fuel combustion and land-use changes – will change the earth’s climate in ways that will have serious environmental, economic, and social consequences. Sixteen of the warmest years on record have occurred since 2000, including 2016 as the warmest of all.  At the same time, winter arctic sea ice is at its lowest extent in recorded history.

Increased temperatures – which might be welcome in some places – are only part of the story.  More important are changes in precipitation, decreased snowpack, glacier melting, droughts in mid to low latitudes, decreased cereal crop productivity at lower latitudes, increased sea level, loss of islands and coastal wetlands, increased flooding, greater storm intensity, species loss, and spread of infectious disease.

These biophysical impacts will have significant economic, social, and political consequences. Estimates of economic damages of unrestrained climate change vary, with most falling in the range of 1 to 3% of world GDP per year by the middle of the current century.

In order to have a 50-50 chance of keeping temperature increases below 2o C (a long-term goal acknowledged by most national governments), it would be necessary to stabilize atmospheric concentrations at 450 parts per million, which in principle could be achieved by cutting global emissions by 60 to 80% below 2005 levels by 2050.

Reducing emissions will not be cheap or easy, but the greatest obstacles are political.  The severe political challenges are due to the fact that greenhouse gases mix in the atmosphere, and so the location of damages is independent of the location of emissions. Any political jurisdiction that takes action incurs the direct costs of that action, but the climate benefits are spread globally. Hence, for any country, the direct climate benefits of taking action will likely be much less than the costs, despite the fact that the global benefits may exceed, possibly greatly, the costs. Therefore, due to the global commons nature of the problem, meaningful international cooperation is necessary.

The Paris Climate Agreement:  A Breakthrough After 20 Years

The countries of the world have been struggling to come up with a solution since they agreed in 1992 to establish the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). After more than 20 years of negotiations, an important, historic breakthrough came with the signing of the Paris Climate Agreement in 2015, a path-breaking approach that increased the scope of participation from countries accounting for just 14% of global emissions (in the current, second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol) to countries accounting for 97% under the Paris Agreement!

Contrary to some claims, China, India, Brazil, Korea, South Africa, Mexico, and the other large emerging economies do have obligations under this new approach.  Far from being a “bad deal” for the United States, as EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt has asserted, the Paris Agreement is actually the answer to U.S. prayers going back to the U.S. Senate’s bipartisan (95-0) Byrd-Hagel Resolution in 1997, which rejected the Kyoto approach and called for an agreement that would include not only industrialized countries, but the large emerging economies as well. That is precisely what the Paris Agreement has finally delivered!

Will the U.S. Remain Part of the Process?

This is a pivotal moment.  President Trump’s recent executive order in which he laid out his plans to roll back much of the Obama administration’s climate policy, was silent on the Paris Agreement, reportedly reflecting disagreements among the President’s closest advisers.

During the campaign last year, the President said he would “cancel” the Paris Agreement.  But because it has already come into force, under its rules, any party must wait three years before requesting to withdraw, followed by a one-year notice period.  The United States is part of the agreement for the next four years. Any White House announcement of pulling out of the pact will have no direct effects for this Presidential term.

In theory, the President could try to bypass that four-year delay by taking the one-year route of dropping out of the overall UNFCCC — signed by President George H.W. Bush and ratified by the Senate in 1992. But that could require another two-thirds vote of the Senate, would be challenged in the courts, and would be unwise in the extreme, given that the U.S. would then be the only one among 197 countries in the world not to be a party to the Climate Convention. At a time when the United States wants cooperation from a diverse set of countries around the world on matters of national security, trade, and a host of other issues, it would be counter-productive in the extreme to willingly become an international pariah on global climate change.

Key Support Inside and Outside the Administration

Fortunately, key voices in the Administration have argued for remaining in the Paris Agreement. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has stated that it is better for the U.S. to be at this table of ongoing negotiations. More broadly, Secretary of Defense James Mattis said in Congressional testimony that he views climate change as a national security threat.

Remarkably, support for the Paris Agreement is broad-based within U.S. private industry – from electricity generators such as PG&E and National Grid, to oil companies such as BP, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, Exxon-Mobil, and Shell, mining companies such as Rio Tinto, and a very long list of manufacturers, including giant firms such as General Motors. Even some of the largest coal producers, such as Arch Coal, Cloud Peak Energy, and Peabody Energy, have told the President about their support for the U.S. remaining in the Agreement. This broad support is due to a simple reality – leaders of successful businesses make decisions not on the basis of ideology, but based on available evidence.

True enough, there is also opposition from some especially vocal coal industry executives, and the President seems to have shaped his domestic climate policies around their interests, with his repeated pledge to “bring back coal.” But the job losses in coal mining over the past decades have been due to technological change (increased productivity) in the coal sector, and more recently by low natural gas prices, not by environmental regulations (particularly not by regulations – such as the Clean Power Plan – that have not even been implemented).

The Paris Agreement Provides Flexibility

The U.S. could stay in the Paris Agreement, and seek to revise the Obama-era numerical target of a 26% reduction in emissions below 2005 levels by 2025, an approach recommended by North Dakota Republican Representative Kevin Cramer. However, by 2016, energy-related emissions were already down by 14% below 2005, so it is not clear that the existing pledge even needs to be re-assessed. Also, state climate policies in California, Oregon, Washington, and the Northeast will remain in place, and likely be strengthened. And more than half of all states have renewable energy policies; just since election day, the Republican governors of Illinois and Michigan have signed legislation aimed at increasing solar and wind generation. At the Federal level, the important tax credits for wind and solar power continue to receive bi-partisan support in the Congress.

Putting it All Together

In summary, climate change is a serious threat, which requires international cooperation because of its global commons nature.  After twenty years of negotiations, the path-breaking Paris Climate Agreement, with its exceptionally broad participation, is the answer to long-standing, bipartisan appeals, and provides an excellent foundation for progress.

The President cannot “cancel” the Agreement, and it would take four years for the U.S. to withdraw. Pulling out of the foundational United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change might be quicker, but would be unwise in the extreme, jeopardizing U.S. relationships with countries around the world on a host of pressing issues, ranging from national security to international trade.

Fortunately, key voices in the Administration have argued for keeping the U.S. in the Paris Agreement, and support from the business community is exceptionally broad and deep. If necessary, the U.S. can seek to revise the specific U.S. pledge under Paris made by the Obama administration, while remaining a party to the Agreement. But given the pace of emissions reductions already achieved, combined with ongoing state and Federal climate policies, it is not clear that those targets need to be changed.

Having considered this diverse set of considerations that should bear upon this U.S. decision, we find the arguments for the country remaining in the Paris Climate Agreement to be compelling. The truth is that in the 47 years since the first Earth Day, much has been accomplished.  But much of that remarkable progress could be undone in the short span of 4 years or less. We are confident – or at least hopeful – that this will not happen.

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Ban Ki-moon was Secretary-General of the United Nations (2007-2016), and is the Angelopoulos Global Public Leaders Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School.  Robert Stavins is the Albert Pratt Professor of Business and Government at the Harvard Kennedy School, and was Coordinating Lead Author of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Delighted and Depressed

I’m pleased to announce that my blog website – An Economic View of the Environment – has been thoroughly cleaned and purged of the malware that had plagued it since the website was attacked in January.  That’s the source of my being delighted.

It’s probably not necessary to state that the source of my “depression” is the ongoing attack by President Trump and his administration on sensible public policy – in the environmental and energy realm, as well as so many others.  In nearly every case, the administration’s combination of incompetence and malevolence has been breathtaking.

Goodbye to the Malware Attack

As for the malware attack on my blog website, which occurred shortly after I had written and posted two blog essays that were harshly critical of Presidential candidate and then President-Elect Trump, quite a few of you wrote to me suggesting that the timing was not a coincidence and that the attack was probably from supporters of the administration (if not from people in the administration).  I do not believe that was the case, although I honestly don’t know.  Rather, I believe it was simply an attack intended to drive traffic to particular websites.  I’m hoping that the outside firm we hired to clean the site may be able to give us the answer.  Stay tuned for that.

Back to Business

Much has transpired since I announced the hiatus in my blog posts (An Explanation and Apology, February 5, 2017) and even more has transpired since I last wrote a regular essay here before the presidential inauguration (Trying to Remain Positive, January 3, 2017).  It would take more time than you or I have — for you to read and for me to write – about all that’s transpired in this policy realm since Inauguration Day, including:

Saving Us Time

Happily, I can save you time for reading – and myself for writing – by referring you to two new audio recordings:

Speaking of saving time, if you have time for only one of these, I suggest the second one, which is both briefer (about 17 minutes) and more comprehensive.

The Path Ahead

With my blog website having been purged of its contamination and with my feeling that I’ve more or less caught up, I will return to my usual approach with a brief essay in my next posting at this blog.  In the meantime, thanks for your tolerance of the recent hiatus and your interest in what transpires here.

Trying to Remain Positive

With inauguration day in the United States just two weeks away, it is difficult to harbor optimism about what the Trump presidency will mean for this country and for the world in realms ranging from economic progress to national security to personal liberty (as I wrote in this space one month before the November election – This is Not a Time for Political Neutrality, October 9, 2016).  In the wake of the election, expectations are no better, including in the environmental realm (as I wrote shortly after the election – What Does the Trump Victory Mean for Climate Change Policy?, November 10, 2016).  And since then, the President-elect’s announced nominations for key positions in the administration have probably eliminated whatever optimism some progressives may have been harboring.

Remarkably, the least worrisome development in regard to anticipated climate change policy may be the nomination of Rex Tillerson to become U.S. Secretary of State.  Two months ago it would have been inconceivable to me that I would write this about the CEO of Exxon-Mobil taking over the State Department (and hence the international dimensions of U.S. climate change policy).  But, think about the other likely candidates.  And unlike many of the other top nominees, Mr. Tillerson is at least an adult, and – in the past (before the election) – he had led his company to reverse course and recognize the scientific reality of human-induced climate change (unlike the President-elect), support the use of a carbon tax when and if the U.S. puts in place a meaningful national climate policy, and characterize the Paris Climate Agreement as “an important step forward by world governments in addressing the serious risks of climate change.”

It’s fair to say that it is little more than damning with faint praise to characterize this pending appointment as “the least worrisome development in regard to climate change policy,” but the reality remains.  Everything is relative.  Of course, whether Mr. Tillerson will maintain and persevere with his previously stated views on climate change is open to question.  And if he does, can he succeed in influencing Oval Office policy when competing with Scott Pruitt, Trump’s pick to run EPA, not to mention Rick Perry, Trump’s bizarre choice to become Secretary of Energy?

In the face of all this (and much else), is it possible to offer any statement of optimism or at least hope?  The answer may be found in the reality that U.S. policy – in many issue areas – consists of much more than the policies of the Federal government.  In a variety of policy realms, the states play an exceptionally important role.  One might not normally think about this in the context of addressing a global commons problem, such as climate change, but these are not normal times.

And so I will try to rescue myself from my current mental state – at least temporarily – by focusing today on policy developments in the State of California.  To do this, I offer an op-ed I recently wrote with Professor Lawrence Goulder of Stanford University, which was published in the Sacramento Bee a week before the November election.  Good policy developments at the state level are, of course, even more important now than they were then.

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Sacramento Bee

October 30, 2016

New emissions targets make cap and trade the best low-cost, market-based approach

By Lawrence H. Goulder and Robert N. Stavins

This is a critical time for California’s climate policies. Recently, Gov. Jerry Brown achieved his hope of extending California’s action beyond 2020, the termination date of Assembly Bill 32. Whereas AB 32 called for reducing the state’s greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020, the newly signed Senate Bill 32 and AB 197 mandate an additional 40 percent reduction by 2030.

Unless these ambitious goals are pursued with the most cost-effective policy instruments, the costs could be unacceptably high. The governor’s targets make it especially important to use a low-cost, market-based approach: cap and trade.

Unfortunately, rather than increasing cap and trade’s role, recent proposals emphasize the use of less efficient, conventional policies. The environmental justice lobby supports this change, contending that emissions trading hurts low-income and minority communities by causing pollution to increase.

In fact, abandoning cap and trade would harm these communities by raising costs to businesses and thereby prices to consumers. With cap and trade, the sources able to reduce emissions least expensively take on more of the pollution-reduction effort. This lowers costs and prices.

When the environmental justice community worries about cap and trade, their concern is not about the greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change: These gases spread evenly worldwide and have no discernible local impact. Rather, it’s about “co-pollutants,” such as nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide and particulates, which often are emitted alongside greenhouse gases.

By reducing California’s greenhouse gas footprint, cap and trade lowers concentrations of these co-pollutants. Still, it’s possible – in theory – for co-pollutant emissions to increase in particular localities. The best defense against this possibility is to tighten existing laws that limit local air pollution. This would prohibit any trades that would violate such limits.

The environmental justice lobby’s concerns about local air pollution are justified: A new report by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights acknowledges that low-income and minority communities face disproportionately high air pollution. The best response to this situation is to strengthen existing local pollution laws rather than abandon cap and trade.

Moreover, it is not clear that cap and trade shifts local air pollution toward low-income communities. One recent report from the University of Southern California identified emission increases and blamed them on cap and trade. But increased emissions have been due mainly to economic and population growth. And although emissions from some sources did increase, they decreased at 70 percent of facilities, according to mandatory reporting to the Air Resources Board.

The key question, however, is not how emission levels changed, but rather how cap and trade contributed to the change. Without cap and trade, it is likely that any increases in emissions would have been even greater.

Beyond the environmental impacts, it’s important to consider economic impacts on these communities. Reducing greenhouse gas emissions tends to raise costs of energy and transportation. Because low-income households devote greater shares of their income to energy and transportation than high-income households, virtually any climate policy places greater burdens on those households. Cap and trade minimizes these costs.

Further, cap and trade offers the government a powerful tool for compensating low-income communities for such economic burdens. Most emission allowances are auctioned and pursuant to SB 535, 25 percent of the proceeds go to projects that provide benefits to disadvantaged communities. This has already amounted to over $158 million.

Cap and trade serves the goal of environmental justice better than the alternatives, and it deserves a central place in the arsenal of weapons California uses to address climate change. Rather than step away from this progressive policy, the state should increase its reliance on this progressive, market-based approach.

Lawrence H. Goulder is a professor in environmental and resource economics at Stanford University and former chair of the AB 32 Economic and Allocation Advisory Committee to the California Air Resources Board. Contact him at goulder@stanford.edu.

Robert N. Stavins is a professor of business and government at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, and contributed to assessment reports to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Contact him at robert_stavins@harvard.edu.