Tag Archives: externalities

Assessing the Energy-Efficiency Gap

Global energy consumption is on a path to grow 30-50 percent over the next 25 years, bringing with it, in many countries, increased local air pollution, greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, and oil consumption, as well as higher energy prices.  Energy-efficient technologies offer considerable promise for reducing the costs and environmental damages associated with energy use, but these technologies appear not to be used by consumers and businesses to the degree that would apparently be justified, even on the basis of their own (private) financial net benefits.

For some thirty years, there have been discussions and debates about this phenomenon among researchers and others in academia, government, non-profits, and private industry, typically couched in terms of potential explanations of the so-called “energy efficiency gap” or “energy paradox.”

Thinking About the Energy-Efficiency Gap

I wrote about this some two years ago at this blog ().  I  noted then that Professor Richard Newell of Duke University and I had just launched an initiative – sponsored by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation — to synthesize past work on potential explanations of the energy paradox and identify key gaps in knowledge. We subsequently conducted a comprehensive review and assessment of social-science research on the adoption of energy-efficient technologies.

We worked with leading social scientists — including scholars from economics, psychology, and other disciplines, at a workshop held at Harvard — to examine the various possible explanations of the energy paradox and thereby to help identify the frontiers of knowledge on the diffusion of energy-efficient technologies.  As materials became available, we posted them at the project’s Harvard website and the project’s Duke website.

Releasing a New Monograph

I’m pleased to inform readers of this blog that we have now released a major monograph, Assessing the Energy Efficiency Gap, co-authored with Todd Gerarden, a Harvard Ph.D. student in Public Policy and a Pre-Doctoral Fellow of the Harvard Environmental Economics Program (HEEP).  The monograph draws in part from the research workshop held at Harvard (in October 2013), in which most of the U.S.-based scholars (primarily, but not exclusively, economists) then conducting research on the energy-efficiency gap participated. HEEP co-sponsored a second such research workshop with the Centre for European Economic Research (ZEW) in Mannheim, Germany in March 2014, where European economists explored the same topic. Closely-related research was presented by panelists at the annual conference of the Allied Social Science Association in January 2015.

In the new monograph, Gerarden, Newell, and I examine both the “energy paradox,” the apparent reality that some energy-efficiency technologies that would pay off for adopters are nevertheless not adopted, and the broader phenomenon we characterize as the “energy-efficiency gap,” the apparent reality that some energy-efficiency technologies that would be socially efficient are not adopted. The contrast is between private and social optimality, which ultimately has important implications for the role of various policies, as well as their expected net benefits.

Four Key Questions

We begin by decomposing cost-minimizing energy-efficiency decisions into their fundamental elements, which allows us to identify four major questions, the answers to which are germane to sorting out the causes (and reality or lack thereof) of the paradox and gap.

First, we ask whether the energy efficiency and associated pricing of products on the market are economically efficient. To answer this question, we examine the variety of energy-efficient products on the market, their energy-efficiency levels, and their pricing. Although the theory is clear, empirical evidence is—in general—quite limited. More data that could facilitate potential future empirical research are becoming available, although firm-level data are much less plentiful than data on consumers. We do not see this area as meriting high priority for future research, however, with the exception of research that evaluates the effectiveness and efficiency of existing energy-efficiency information policies and examines options for improving these policies.

Second, we ask whether energy operating costs are inefficiently priced and/or understood. Even if consumers make privately optimal decisions, energy-saving technology may diffuse more slowly than the socially optimal rate, because of negative externalities. So, even if the energy paradox is not present, the energy-efficiency gap may be. As in the first realm, the theoretical arguments are strong. Empirical evidence is considerable, and in many cases data are likely to be available for additional research. Existing policies appear not to be sufficient from an economic perspective, suggesting that further research is warranted. Indeed, we ascribe high priority to the pursuit of research in this realm.

Third, we ask whether product choices are cost-minimizing in present-value terms, or whether various market failures and/or behavioral phenomena inhibit such cost-minimization. We find that the empirical evidence ranges from strong (split incentives/agency issues and inattention/salience phenomena) to moderate (heuristic decision-making/bounded rationality, systematic risk, and option value) to weak (learning-by-using, loss aversion, myopia, and capital market failures). Importantly, here, as elsewhere in our review, the bulk of previous work has focused on the residential sector and much less attention has been given to the commercial and industrial sectors. Some areas merit priority for future research, such as empirical analysis of split incentives/agency issues in areas where efficiency standards are not present, and much more work can be done in the behavioral realm.

Fourth, we ask whether other unobserved costs may inhibit energy-efficient decisions. We find that the empirical evidence is generally sound, and that data needed for more research are available. We assign a relatively high priority to future research, particularly to aid understanding of consumer demand for product attributes that are correlated with energy efficiency, thereby informing policy and product development decisions.

Three Categories of Potential Explanations of the Gap

Finally, we ask what these findings have to say about the three categories of explanations (reviewed in detail in my 2013 essay at this blog) for the apparent underinvestment in energy-efficient technologies relative to the predictions of some engineering and economic models: (1) market failures, (2) behavioral effects, and (3) modeling flaws.  In brief, potential market-failure explanations include information problems, energy market failures, capital market failures, and innovation market failures. Potential behavioral explanations include inattentiveness and salience, myopia and short sightedness, bounded rationality and heuristic decision-making, prospect theory and reference-point phenomena, and systematically biased beliefs. Finally, potential modeling flaws include unobserved or understated costs of adoption; ignored product attributes; heterogeneity in benefits and costs of adoption across potential adopters; use of incorrect discount rates; and uncertainty, irreversibility, and option value.

It turns out that all three categories of explanations are theoretically sound and that limited empirical evidence exists for every category as well, although the empirical research is by no means consistently strong across all of the specific explanations.  The validity of each of these explanations—and the degree to which each contributes to the energy-efficiency gap—are relevant for crafting sensible policies, so Gerarden, Newell, and I hope that our new monograph can help inform both future research and policy.  Given the many energy-efficiency policies and programs that are already in place, high priority should be given to research that evaluates the effectiveness, cost-effectiveness, and overall economic efficiency of existing energy-efficiency policies, as well as options for their improvement.

What to Expect at COP-20 in Lima

On Monday, December 1st, the Twentieth Conference of the Parties (COP-20) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) commences in Lima, Peru. Over the next two weeks, delegations from 195 countries will discuss and debate the next major international climate agreement, which – under the auspices of the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action – is to be finalized and signed one year from now at COP-21 in Paris, France.

What to Expect in Lima

Because of the promise made in the Durban Platform to include all parties (countries) under a common legal framework, this is a significant departure from the past two decades of international climate policy, which – since the 1995 Berlin Mandate and the 1997 Kyoto Protocol – have featured coverage of only a small subset of countries, namely the so-called Annex I countries (more or less the industrialized nations, as of twenty years ago).

The expanded geographic scope of the incipient Paris agreement – combined with its emerging architecture in the form of a pragmatic hybrid of bottom-up nationally determined contributions (NDCs) plus top-down elements for monitoring, reporting, verification, and comparison of contributions – represents the greatest promise in many years of a future international climate agreement that is truly meaningful.

A Diplomatic Breakthrough:  The Key Role of the China-USA Announcement

If that confluence of policy developments offers the promise, then it is fair to say that the recent joint announcement of national targets by China and the United States (under the future Paris agreement) represents the beginning of the realization of that promise. From the 14% of global CO2 emissions covered by nations participating (a subset of the Annex I countries) in the Kyoto Protocol’s current commitment period, the future Paris agreement with the announced China and USA NDCs covers more than 40% of global CO2 emissions. With Europe, already on board, the total amounts to more than 50% of emissions.

It will not be long before the other industrialized countries announce their own contributions – some quite possibly in Lima over the next two weeks. More importantly, the pressure is now on the other large, emerging economies – India, Brazil, Korea, South Africa, Mexico, and Indonesia – to step up. Some (Brazil, Korea, Mexico?) may well announce their contributions in Lima, but all countries are due to announce their NDCs by the end of the first quarter of 2015.

The announced China-USA quantitative contributions are themselves significant. For China, capping its emissions by 2030 (at the latest) plus increasing its non-fossil energy generation to 20% by the same year will require very aggressive measures, according to a recent MIT analysis. For the USA, cutting its emissions by 26-28% below the 2005 level by 2025 means doubling the pace of cuts under the country’s previous international commitment.

Thus, the China-USA announcement begins the fulfillment of the promise of the Durban Platform. A sufficient foundation is being established for meaningful future steps, and thereby the likelihood of a successful outcome in Paris has been greatly increased.  The talks in Lima over the next two weeks will produce at least a rough draft of the the Paris agreement, which can then be elaborated and finalized over the coming year, and signed (with abundant photo opportunities for heads of state) in Paris in December, 2015.

Keeping Our Eyes on the Prize

There will be — indeed, already have been — pronouncements of failure of the Lima/Paris talks from some green groups, primarily because the talks will not lead to an immediate decrease in emissions and will not prevent atmospheric temperatures from rising by more than 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit), which has become an accepted, but essentially unachievable political goal. These well-intentioned advocates mistakenly focus on the short-term change in emissions among participating countries (for example, the much-heralded 5.2% cut by the Annex I countries in the Kyoto Protocol’s first commitment period), when it is the long-term change in global emissions that matters.

In other words, they ignore the geographic scope of participation, and do not recognize that — given the stock nature of the problem — what is most important is long-term action.  Each agreement is no more than one step to be followed by others.  And most important now for ultimate success later is a sound foundation, which is precisely what may finally be provided by the China-USA announced contributions under the Durban Platform structure of a hybrid international policy architecture.

All in all, this may turn out to be among the most important moments in two decades of international climate negotiations. And this means – at a minimum – that the next two weeks in Lima should be very interesting indeed.

Upcoming Events at COP-20 in Lima

As with previous Conferences of the Parties, we – the Harvard Environmental Economics Program and the Harvard Project on Climate Agreements (HPCA) – will be at the Lima talks for their second week, December 7-12. We will be participating in a number of events, and will be holding bilateral meetings with key national delegations.

In all cases, our contributions to the discussions will draw on our compendium of knowledge from our 70 research initiatives in Argentina, Australia, China, Europe, India, Japan, and the United States. Our purpose continues to be to help identify and advance scientifically sound, economically sensible, and politically pragmatic policy options for addressing global climate change.

For those of you who will be in Lima (as well as the rest of you), here is the schedule of COP-20 events that are co-sponsored by HPCA or in which I am participating as HPCA Director. It is going to be a very busy week, but I will try to blog – or at least tweet – about these events and other developments. After I return from Lima, I will follow up with an assessment.


Monday, December 8, 4:45 – 6:15 pm, Room: Machu Picchu

Sponsors: Harvard Project on Climate Agreements, Centre for European Economic Research (ZEW), and Enel Foundation

“Implications of the energy-efficiency gap for reducing greenhouse-gas emissions”

The discussion will be based on our Duke-Harvard research project (sponsored by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation) on the “energy-efficiency gap”—the apparent difference between predicted and measured rates of adoption of energy-efficiency technology. Panelists will explore the implications of this gap for climate-change mitigation.


Daniele Agostini, Head of Low Carbon Policies and Carbon Regulation, Enel Group

Andreas Löschel, Chair of Microeconomics, and Energy and Resource Economics, University of Münster, and Research Associate, ZEW

Richard Newell, Gendell Professor of Energy and Environmental Economics, Nicholas School of the Environment, Duke University, and Director, Duke University Energy Initiative

Robert Stavins, Director, Harvard Project on Climate Agreements and Albert Pratt Professor of Business and Government, Harvard Kennedy School

Jesus Tamayo Pacheco, President of the Supervisory Body for investment in energy and mines of Peru

See also background paperhttp://belfercenter.ksg.harvard.edu/publication/24749


Tuesday, December 9, 12:00 – 2:00 pm, China Pavilion

Sponsors: National Center for Climate Change Strategy and International Cooperation (NCSC), National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), People’s Republic of China

“International Cooperation: Towards the 2015 Agreement –A perspective from international think tanks”

This event aims at exchanging ideas from various international think tanks on the design of the 2015 Agreement with consideration of interaction and cooperation of parties on bilateral and multilateral basis, with a view to provide for inputs to the debates of the negotiation of the 2015 Agreement.


H.E. Minister Xie Zhenhua, Head of Chinese Delegation to COP-20 and Vice Chairman, NDRC

Li Junfeng, Director General, NCSC

Zou Ji, Deputy Director, NCSC

Robert Stavins, Director, Harvard Project on Climate Agreements

Du Xiangwan, Former Vice President, Chinese Academy of Engineering

Martin Kohl, President, South Center

Jennifer Morgan, Global Director of Climate Program, World Resources Institute

Teresa Ribera, President, Institute for Sustainable Development and International Relations


Tuesday, December 9, 4:30 – 6:10 pm, International Emissions Trading Association (IETA) Pavilion

“What Role will Markets Play in the 2015 Climate Agreement? How can the Agreement Facilitate Linkage of Carbon Pricing Policies?”


Dirk Forrister, President & CEO, IETA

Robert Stavins, Director, Harvard Project on Climate Agreements

David Hone, Chief Climate Change Adviser, Shell Research

Anna Lindstedt, Ambassador for Climate Change, Government of Sweden

Mary Nichols, Chair, California Air Resources Board

Amber Rudd, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change, Government of the United Kingdom

See also background paperhttp://belfercenter.ksg.harvard.edu/publication/24568


Thursday, December 11, 11:30 am – 1:00 pm, Room: Caral

Sponsors: International Emissions Trading Association, Arizona State University, Harvard Project on Climate Agreements

“Linkage among climate policies in the 2015 Paris agreement”

Panelists will discuss how the Paris agreement might facilitate or impede linkage among cap-and-trade, carbon tax, and non-market regulatory systems. Panelists will also address related issues involving market mechanisms in the new agreement.


Daniel Bodansky, Foundation Professor of Law, Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law, Arizona State University

Dirk Forrister, President & CEO, IETA

Robert Stavins, Director, Harvard Project on Climate Agreements

Alexia Kelley, Senior Climate Change Advisor, U.S. Department of State

Nathaniel Keohane, Vice President for International Climate, Environmental Defense Fund

Ulrika Raab, Senior Advisor Climate Change, Swedish Energy Agency

See also background paperhttp://belfercenter.ksg.harvard.edu/publication/24568


EPA’s Proposed Greenhouse Gas Regulation: Why are Conservatives Attacking its Market-Based Options?

This week, the Obama Administration’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released its long-awaited proposed regulation to reduce carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from existing sources in the electricity-generating sector.  The regulatory (rule) proposal calls for cutting CO2 emissions from the power sector by 30 percent below 2005 levels by 2030.

The Fundamentals in Brief

Through a carefully designed formula, EPA’s proposal lists specific targets for each state, under Section 111(d) of the Clean Air Act. States are given broad flexibility for how to meet their targets, including:  increasing the efficiency of fossil-fuel power plants; switching electricity dispatch from coal-fired generating plants to natural gas-fired generating plants; developing new low-emissions generation, such as new natural gas combined cycle plants, more renewable sources (wind and solar), nuclear, or coal with carbon capture and storage; and more efficient end-use of electricity.

States are also given flexibility to employ (in their implementation plans to be submitted to EPA) any of a wide variety of policy instruments, including but by no means limited to market-based trading systems.  Furthermore, states can work together to submit multi-state plans.

The proposed regulation will be finalized after receipt of comments one year from now (June 30, 2015).  Then states will have until July 2016 to submit their plans, and can request one-year extensions (or two-year extensions for multi-state plans). Compliance commences in 2020.

A Big-Picture Assessment of the Proposed Rule

Let’s start by acknowledging that the proposed policy will be less effective environmentally and less cost-effective economically than the economy-wide approach the Administration previously tried with the Waxman-Markey bill, which passed the U.S. House of Representatives in 2009, but failed to receive a vote in the U.S. Senate.  Electricity generation is responsible for about 38 percent of U.S. CO2 emissions, and about 32 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

Given ongoing political polarization in Washington and the inability of Congress to approve that more comprehensive and more cost-effective approach, this is probably the best the administration could do.  Together with the motor-vehicle fuel efficiency and appliance energy efficiency standards previously put in place, this is certainly a step in the right direction.

More broadly, the importance of these U.S. moves in the international context should not be underestimated.  Although the United States accounts for only about 17% of global CO2 emissions (second to China’s 26% in 2010), these steps by the U.S. government can help international efforts to bring the large emerging economies (China, India, Brazil, Korea, South Africa, and Mexico) on board for a future (Paris, 2015) agreement under the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action.

Domestically, EPA’s proposed state-by-state approach does not guarantee cost-effectiveness, because under the formula employed, marginal abatement costs will initially vary across states.  However, freedom is given to the states to employ market-based instruments, in particular, cap-and-trade systems (with carbon taxes presumably also an option).  And EPA has emphasized its willingness to consider multi-state implementation plans (think, for example, of the existing Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative – RGGI – the cap-and-trade system operating in nine northeast states; and the likelihood of a future linked policy bringing together California’s AB-32 cap-and-trade system with policies in Oregon and Washington).

The ability of states to develop under EPA’s rule such linked systems of market-based instruments, as well as the freedom for states and regions to subsequently establish linkages means that although EPA may not be guaranteeing cost-effectiveness, it is certainly allowing for it, indeed it is facilitating it.

Response from Environmental Advocacy Groups and Industry

Much of the response this week has not been surprising.  The major environmental advocacy groups have been supportive of the proposed rule, despite the fact that they would prefer even greater ambition.  Many in industry have also offered praise for the approach, particularly because of the flexibility that EPA has given for the means of achieving emissions reductions.  In fact, some electricity-sector executives have been supportive, precisely for this reason, and appear to be encouraging the adoption of cap-and-trade systems.  At a minimum, leading electric utilities, including some that are fossil-heavy, such as FirstEnergy Corporation and American Electric Power, Inc., have taken a “wait-and-see” attitude, rather than attacking the proposal.

Also not surprising has been strong opposition from the coal industry, as well as some prominent industry trade associations, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.  Once the rule has become final (about a year from now), lawsuits will surely be filed by some of these private industry opponents and by a number of resistant states.

I will leave it to the lawyers to comment on the likely grounds of those anticipated lawsuits, as well as their probabilities of success.  But, clearly, for the plan to succeed it will need to survive those legal challenges, which will work their way through the courts over several years.

Also, a significant change in the senate majority and in the party holding power after the next presidential election could result in progress being slowed to a crawl, if not the abandonment of the approach proposed by the current administration.

None of that is particularly surprising, but what should be surprising is the fact that conservative attacks on EPA’s proposed rule have focused, indeed fixated, on one of the options that is given to the states for implementation, namely the use of market-based instruments, that is, cap-and-trade systems.  Given the demonization of cap-and-trade as “cap-and-tax” over the past few years by conservatives, why do I say that this fixation should be surprising?

The Irony of Conservatives Targeting Cap-and-Trade

Not so long ago, cap-and-trade mechanisms for environmental protection were popular in Congress. Now, such mechanisms are denigrated. What happened?  Professor Richard Schmalensee (MIT) and I recently told the sordid tale of how conservatives in Congress who once supported cap and trade had come to lambast climate change legislation as “cap-and-tax.” Ironically, in doing this, conservatives have chosen to demonize their own market-based creation.

In the late 1980s, there was growing concern that acid precipitation – the result of SO2 and, to a lesser extent, nitrogen oxides (NOx) reacting in the atmosphere to form sulphuric and nitric acids – was damaging forests and aquatic ecosystems, particularly in the northeast U.S. and southern Canada. In response, the U.S. Congress passed (and President George H.W. Bush signed into law) the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990. Title IV of this law established the SO2 allowance-trading system.

By the close of the 20th century, the SO2 allowance-trading system had come to be seen as both innovative and successful.  However, the successful enactment and implementation of the SO2 cap-and-trade system in 1990 combined with the subsequent Congressional defeat of CO2 cap-and-trade legislation 20 years later has produced a striking irony. Market-based, cost-effective policy innovation in environmental regulation – in particular, cap-and-trade – was originally championed and implemented by Republican administrations from that of President Ronald Reagan to that of President George W. Bush.  But in recent years, Republicans have led the way in demonizing cap-and-trade, particularly as an approach to limiting carbon emissions.

For a long time, market-based approaches to environmental protection, such as cap-and-trade, bore a Republican label.  In the 1980s, President Ronald Reagan’s EPA put in place a trading program to phase out leaded gasoline. It produced a more rapid elimination of leaded gasoline from the marketplace than had been anticipated, and at a saving of some $250 million per year, compared with a conventional no-trade, command-and-control approach. Not only did President George H.W. Bush successfully propose the use of cap-and-trade to cut SO2 emissions, his administration advocated in international forums the use of emissions trading to cut global CO2 emissions (a proposal initially resisted but ultimately adopted by the European Union). In 2005, President George W. Bush’s EPA issued the Clean Air Interstate Rule, aimed at reducing SO2 emissions by a further 70% from their 2003 level. Cap-and-trade was again the policy instrument of choice.

From Bi-Partisan Support to Ideological Polarization

When the Clean Air Act Amendments were being considered in the Congress in 1989-1990, political support was not divided on partisan lines. Indeed, environmental and energy debates from the 1970s through much of the 1990s typically broke along geographic lines, rather than partisan lines, with key parameters being degree of urbanization and reliance on specific fuel types. Thus, the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990 passed the Senate by a vote of 89-11 with 87% of Republican members and 91% of Democrats voting yea, and passed the House of Representatives by a vote of 401-21 with 87% of Republicans and 96% of Democrats voting in support.

But twenty years later, when climate change legislation was receiving serious consideration in Washington, environmental politics had changed dramatically, with Congressional support for environmental legislation coming mainly to reflect partisan divisions. In 2009, the House of Representatives passed the American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009 (H.R. 2454) – the Waxman-Markey bill – that included an economy-wide cap-and-trade system to cut CO2 emissions. The Waxman-Markey bill passed the House by a narrow margin of 219-212, with support from 83% of Democrats, but only 4% of Republicans. In July 2010, the Senate abandoned its attempt to pass companion legislation. In the process of debating this legislation, conservatives (largely Republicans and some coal-state Democrats) attacked the cap-and-trade system as “cap-and-tax,” much as an earlier generation of liberals had denigrated cap-and-trade as “selling licenses to pollute.”

It may be that some conservatives in Congress opposed climate policies because of disagreement about the threat of climate change or the costs of the policies, but instead of debating those risks and costs, they chose to launch an ultimately successful campaign to demonize and thereby tarnish cap-and-trade as an instrument of public policy, rendering it “collateral damage” in the wider climate policy battle.

Today that “scorched-earth” approach may have come back to haunt conservatives.  Have they now boxed themselves into a corner, unable to support the power of the marketplace to reduce their own states’ compliance costs under the new EPA CO2 regulation?  I hope not, but only time will tell.

Remembering Ronald Coase’s Contributions

On September 2nd, Ronald Coase, professor emeritus of economics at the University of Chicago Law School, Nobel laureate, and principal creator of the academic field of law and economics, passed away at the age of 102.  Numerous, lengthy obituaries have appeared in the national and international press.  And in an effective essay posted at the Energy Economics Exchange web site, Severin Borenstein, professor of economics at the University of California, Berkeley, wrote about the effect that Coase’s thinking had decades ago on his own intellectual development (while lamenting that the Wall Street Journal in its own tribute to Coase had twisted the implications of his work to fit the Journal’s view of the world).

The passing of Professor Coase brings to mind an essay I wrote for this blog in July of 2012, in which I recalled that a group of economists and legal scholars had gathered in December, 2010, at the University of Chicago to celebrate two notable events.  One was the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Ronald Coase’s “The Problem of Social Cost” (Coase 1960).  The other was Professor Coase’s 100th birthday.  The conference resulted in a special issue of The Journal of Law and Economics.

Robert Hahn (of the University of Oxford) and I were privileged to participate in the conference (a video of our presentation is available here).  We recognized that the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Coase’s landmark study provided an opportunity for us to examine one of that study’s key implications, which is of great importance not only for economics but for public policy as well, in particular, for environmental policy.

The Coase Theorem and the Independence Property

In our article, “The Effect of Allowance Allocations on Cap-and-Trade System Performance,” Hahn and I took as our starting point a well-known result from Coase’s work, namely, that bilateral negotiation between the generator and the recipient of an externality will lead to the same efficient outcome regardless of the initial assignment of property rights, in the absence of transaction costs, income effects, and third party impacts. This result, or a variation of it, has come to be known as the Coase Theorem.

We focused on an idea that is closely related to the Coase theorem, namely, that the market equilibrium in a cap-and-trade system will be cost-effective and independent of the initial allocation of tradable rights (typically referred to as permits or allowances). That is, the overall cost of achieving a given emission reduction will be minimized, and the final allocation of permits will be independent of the initial allocation, under certain conditions (conditional upon the permits being allocated freely, i.e., not auctioned). We called this the independence property. It is closely related to a core principle of general equilibrium theory (Arrow and Debreu 1954), namely, that when markets are complete, outcomes remain efficient even after lump-sum transfers among agents.

The Practical Political Importance of the Independence Property

We were interested in the independence property because of its great political importance.  The reason why this property is of such great relevance to the practical development of public policy is that it allows equity and efficiency concerns to be separated. In particular, a government can set an overall cap of pollutant emissions (a pollution reduction goal) and leave it up to a legislature to construct a constituency in support of the program by allocating shares of the allowances to various interests, such as sectors and geographic regions, without affecting either the environmental performance of the system or its aggregate social costs.  Indeed, this property is a key reason why cap-and-trade systems have been employed and have evolved as the preferred instrument in a variety of environmental policy settings.

In Theory, Does the Property Always Hold?

Because of the importance of this property, we examined the conditions under which it is more or less likely to hold — both in theory and in practice.  In short, we found that in theory, a number of factors can lead to the independence property being violated. These are particular types of transaction costs in cap-and-trade markets; significant market power in the allowance market; uncertainty regarding the future price of allowances; conditional allowance allocations, such as output-based updating-allocation mechanisms; non-cost-minimizing behavior by firms; and specific kinds of regulatory treatment of participants in a cap-and-trade market.

In Reality, Has the Property Held?

Of course, the fact that these factors can lead to the violation of the independence property does not mean that in practice they do so in quantitatively significant ways.  Therefore, Hahn and I also carried out an empirical assessment of the independence property in past and current cap-and-trade systems: lead trading; chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) under the Montreal Protocol; the sulfur dioxide (SO2) allowance trading program; the Regional Clean Air Incentives Market (RECLAIM) in Southern California; eastern nitrogen oxides (NOX) markets; the European Union Emission Trading Scheme (EU ETS); and Article 17 of the Kyoto Protocol.

I hope some of may find time to read our article, but a quick summary of our assessment is that we found modest support for the independence property in the seven cases we examined (but also recognized that it would surely be useful to have more empirical research in this realm).

Political Judgments

That the independence property appears to be broadly validated provides support for the efficacy of past political judgments regarding constituency building through legislatures’ allowance allocations in cap-and-trade systems. Governments have repeatedly set the overall emissions cap and then left it up to the political process to allocate the available number of allowances among sources to build support for an initiative without reducing the system’s environmental performance or driving up its cost.

This success with environmental cap-and-trade systems should be contrasted with many other public policy proposals for which the normal course of events is that the political bargaining that is necessary to develop support reduces the effectiveness of the policy or drives up its overall cost.  So, the independence property of well-designed and implemented cap-and-trade systems is hardly something to be taken for granted.  It is of real political importance and remarkable social value.  It is just one of many lasting contributions of Ronald Coase.

Economics and Politics in California: Cap-and-Trade Allowance Allocation and Trade Exposure

In my previous essay at this blog – The Importance of Getting it Right in California – I wrote about the precedents and lessons that  California’s Global Warming Solutions Act (AB 32) and its greenhouse gas (GHG) cap-and-trade system will have for other jurisdictions around the world, including other states, provinces, countries, and regions.  This is particularly important, given the failure of the U.S. Senate in 2009 to pass companion legislation to the Waxman-Markey bill, passed by the U.S. House of Representatives, highlighting the absence of a national, economy-wide carbon pricing policy.

In my previous essay, I focused on three pending design issues in the emerging rules for the AB-32 cap-and-trade system:  (1) the GHG allowance reserve; (2) the role of offsets; and (3) proposals for allowance holding limits.  I drew upon a presentation I made on “Offsets, Holding Limits, and Market Liquidity (and Other Factors Affecting Market Performance)” at the 2013 Summer Issues Seminar of the California Council for Environmental and Economic Balance.

At the same conference, I made another presentation, which was on “Allowance Value Distribution and Trade Exposure,” a topic that is of great importance both economically and politically, not only in the context of the design of California’s AB-32 cap-and-trade system, but for the design of any cap-and-trade instrument in any jurisdiction.  It is to that topic that I turn today.  (For a much more detailed discussion, please see a white paper I wrote with Dr. Todd Schatzki of Analysis Group, “Using the Value of Allowances from California’s GHG Cap-and-Trade System,” August, 2012).

Why Does Anyone Care About the Allowance Value Distribution?

A cap-and-trade policy creates a valuable new commodity – emissions allowances.  In a well-functioning emissions trading market, the financial value of these allowances (per ton of emissions, for example) is approximately equivalent to their opportunity cost, which is the marginal cost of emissions reductions.  This is because of the existence of the overall cap, which – if binding – fosters scarcity of available allowances, and hence generates their economic value.

It should not be surprising, then, that the initial allocation of these allowances can have important consequences both for environmental and for economic outcomes.

Environmental Consequences of the Initial Allowance Allocation

No matter how many times I meet with policy makers around the world to talk about alternative policy instruments (for climate change and other environmental problems), I never cease to be struck by the confusion that abounds regarding the environmental (and the economic) consequences of the initial allocation of allowances in a cap-and-trade system.  As I have written many times in the past at this blog, the initial allocation does not directly affect environmental outcomes.  Regardless of the allocation method used, aggregate emissions are limited by the emissions cap.  This is true whether the allowances are sold (auctioned) or distributed without charge.  Furthermore, which firms or sources receive the initial allocation of allowances has no effect on either aggregate emissions or the ultimate distribution of emissions reductions among sources.

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.  (More below about the initial allocation’s potential effects on economic performance.)

However, it is also true that the initial allocation method can indirectly affect emissions.  In particular, emissions leakage can arise if economic activity shifts to unregulated sources – this risk is greatest with auctions or free fixed allocations.  In contrast, an updating, output-based allocation (used in AB 32 for “industry assistance”) can reduce leakage risk by making the free allocation of allowances marginal, rather than infra-marginal (as is the case with a simple free allocation).

Economic Consequences of the Initial Allowance Allocation

A favorite topic of academic economists is that the allowance allocation method in a cap-and-trade system can affect the overall social cost of the policy if the allowances are auctioned (sold by government to compliance entities), and if the revenues are then used to reduce distortionary taxes (such as taxes on labor and investment), thereby eliminating some deadweight loss and cutting overall social cost.  I discuss this a bit more below, but for now let’s recognize that the combination of two California propositions and subsequent court rulings means that the State is not permitted to use the auction proceeds to cut taxes (rather, any auction proceeds must be used to achieve the purposes of AB 32, that is, reducing GHG emissions).

So, within the set of feasible options, the initial allowance allocation will not directly affect the cost-effectiveness of actions taken by emission sources to reduce emissions.  In other words, aggregate abatement costs will not be directly affected by the nature of the initial allocation.

I was careful to use the word, “directly,” because the initial allowance allocation can indirectly affect economic outcomes.  In particular, the use of updating, output-based allocations can:  (1) lower the costs seen by consumers, which can reduce incentives to conserve; (2) avoid reductions in economic activity within California, with associated distributional impacts; and (3) avoid potential shifts of production to less efficient, more distant producers.

Auction Revenue Use

Decisions about how auction revenues are used can have profound consequences for the potential benefits of auctioning.  There are three basic options.

First, as I emphasized above, in theory, reducing distortionary taxes provides the greatest net economic benefit (by reducing the social cost of the policy).  But California’s unique legal context takes this option off the table.

Second, funding programs to address other market failures that are not addressed by the price signals provided by the cap-and-trade system can be meritorious.   For example, information spillovers can be addressed through financing of research and development activities, and the principal-agent problems that infect energy-efficiency adoption decisions in rental properties can be addressed — to some degree — through zoning and other local policies.

The third and final option, however, is highly problematic, if not completely without merit, and yet, ironically, there are strong incentives in place for policy makers to go this third route.  This third option is to use auction revenues to fund programs to subsidize emission reductions.  There is a strong incentive to do this, because of California’s legal constraint to employ any auction revenues in pursuit of the objectives of the statute, that is, reducing GHG emissions.

What’s the problem?  The AB-32 cap-and-trade system will cover approximately 85% of the economy.  In other words, the vast majority of sources are under the cap.  As I have explained in detail in several previous essays at this blog, under the umbrella of a cap-and-trade mechanism, (successful) efforts to further reduce emissions of capped sources will have three consequences:  (1) allowance prices will be supressed (take a look at the hand-wringing in Europe over allowance prices in its CO2 Emissions Trading System); (2) aggregate compliance costs will be increased (cost-effectiveness is reduced because marginal abatement costs are no longer equated among all sources); and (3) nothing is accomplished for the environment, in the sense that there are no additional CO2 emissions reductions (rather, the CO2 emissions reductions are simply relocated among sources under the cap).

Economics, Policy, and Politics

As I concluded in my previous essay, the California Air Resources Board has done an impressive job in its initial design of the rules for its GHG cap-and-trade system.  Of course, there are flaws, and therefore there are areas for improvement. A major issue continues to be the mechanisms used for the initial allocation of allowances.  Because of the economics and politics of this issue, it will not go away.  But, going forward, it would be helpful if those debating this issue could demonstrate better understanding of the allowance allocation’s real – as opposed to fictitious – environmental and economic consequences.

Thinking About the Energy-Efficiency Gap

Adoption of energy-efficient technologies could reap both private and social rewards, in the form of economic, environmental, and other social benefits from reduced energy consumption. Social benefits include improvements in air quality, reduced greenhouse-gas emissions, and increased energy security. In response, governments around the world have adopted policies to increase energy efficiency.  Still, there is a broadly held view that various barriers to the adoption of energy-efficient technologies have prevented the realization of a substantial portion of these benefits.

For some thirty years, there have been discussions and debates among researchers and others in academia, government, non-profits, and private industry regarding the so-called “energy efficiency gap” (or “energy paradox”) — the apparent reality that many energy-efficiency technologies are not adopted even when it makes sense for consumers and businesses to do so, based on their private costs and benefits. That is, decision makers appear to “under-invest” in energy-efficient technologies, relative to the predictions of some engineering and economic models.

What causes this gap?  The answer to that question could presumably help inform the development of better public policy in this realm.

Possible Explanations for the Energy-Efficiency Gap

Potential explanations for the energy efficiency gap tend to fall into three broad categories: (1) market failures, such as lack of information or misplaced incentives; (2) behavioral effects, such as inattentiveness to future energy savings when purchasing energy-consuming products; and (3) modeling flaws, such as assumptions that understate the costs or overstate the benefits of energy efficiency.  In this essay, I simply want to outline the types of hypothetical explanations of the gap that have been posited within these three broad categories.

Market-Failure Explanations

First, various Innovation Market Failures have been posited, including:  research and development (R&D) and learning-by-doing spillovers; inefficient product quality and differentiation due to market power; and inefficient introduction of new products due to consumer taste spillovers (for example, consumers becoming comfortable with a new technology).

Second, another set of potential market-failure explanations for the gap may be characterized as Information Problems.  These include:  lack of information on the part of consumers (learning-by-using or so-called experience goods; energy prices; energy consumption of products; and available substitutes); asymmetric information (the “lemons problem”); and split incentives and principal-agent issues (such as the frequently-discussed renter/owner dichotomy).

Third, there are Capital Market Failures and Liquidity Constraints, which may be a particularly significant issue in developing-country contexts.

Fourth, there are Energy Market Failures, including various externalities (environmental, energy security, congestion, and accident risk), as well as average-cost pricing of electricity.

Behavioral Explanations

The rise of behavioral economics has brought to the fore another well-defined set of potential explanations of the energy efficiency gap.  A variety of alternative taxonomies could be employed to separate these explanations, but one such taxonomy would categorize the explanations as:

Model and Measurement Explanations

The third category of possible explanations of the energy efficiency gap consists essentially of a set of reasons why observed levels of diffusion of energy-efficiency technologies may actually be privately optimal.

First, there is the possibility of unobserved or understated adoption costs, including unaccounted for product characteristics.

Second, there may be overstated benefits of adoption, due to inferior project execution relative to assumptions, and/or poor policy design.

Third, an incorrect discount rate may be employed in an analysis, when the correct consumer and firm discount rates should vary with:

  • opportunity cost of and access to capital
  • income
  • buying versus retrofitting equipment
  • systematic risk
  • option value (see below)

Fourth, there is frequently heterogeneity across end users in the benefits and costs of employing energy-efficiency technologies, so that what is privately optimal on average will not be privately optimal for all.  This can refer either to static (cross-sectional) heterogeneity or to dynamic (intertemporal) heterogeneity, that is, technology improvements over time, which raises two possibilities:  the reality of some potential adopters being short of the frontier, and the presence of option value to waiting.

Fifth and finally, there is the possibility of uncertainty (real, not informational, as above), irreversibility, and option value.  This could be due to uncertainty regarding future energy prices, or can be linked with option value that arises for delaying investments that have only minimal if any salvage value.

Public Policy and Next Steps

Determining the validity of each of these possible explanations — and the degree to which each contributes to the energy efficiency gap — are crucial steps in crafting the most appropriate public policy responses.

To inform future research and policy, Professor Richard Newell of Duke University and I have launched an initiative – sponsored by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation — to synthesize past work on these potential explanations of the energy paradox and identify key gaps in knowledge.  We are conducting a comprehensive review and assessment of published and ongoing social-science research on the adoption of energy-efficient technologies, including scholarly literature, industry case studies, reports from national and sub-national governments, and, to the extent possible, consulting reports evaluating specific programs.

We are working with leading social scientists — including scholars from economics, psychology, and other disciplines — to examine the various possible explanations of the energy paradox and thereby to help identify the frontiers of knowledge on the diffusion of energy-efficient technologies.  We hope the products of this initiative will help decision makers in industry and government better understand the energy efficiency gap, and will thereby contribute to decisions that maximize the potential economic, environmental, and other social benefits associated with optimal adoption of energy-efficient technologies.  As materials become available, we will post them at the project’s Harvard website and the project’s Duke website, and I will alert readers of this blog.  In the meantime, please stay tuned.

On the Origins of Research

In response to my last essay at this web site, “On Becoming an Environmental Economist,” several readers suggested that someday I should write about the origins of my various research initiatives over the past 25 years.  Today, I’m doing that sooner than anyone might have expected!

This is feasible because — also quite recently — I was asked by my colleague, Hannah Riley Bowles, the instructor in the Harvard Kennedy School’s Doctoral Research Seminar, to make a presentation to the first-year students in the Ph.D. program in public policy on how research programs develop.  To prepare for this, I reflected on my research projects over the past 25 years since receiving my PhD in economics at Harvard and joining the Kennedy School faculty, and as I began to write some notes for my presentation, a flow chart of research origins, subjects, and products started to emerge.  You can view my PowerPoint presentation (you need to use Slide Show mode to see the animation) here.

In this essay, I describe the elements of that flow chart of research sources, topics, and selected publications (and provide some screen shots of the PowerPoint deck).

As will probably be apparent, I found the process of preparing for Professor Bowles’s seminar valuable, because it forced me – for the first time in 25 years – to step back and reflect systematically on the origins of my research projects and the connections among them.  So, I recommend this process to other researchers, as I think you may find it rewarding.  And, for would-be researchers, that is, PhD students, I hope the results below will be informative.

An Ex Post Exploration of How Research Programs Develop

In carrying out this ex post exploration of how research programs may develop, I identified eleven types of sources of research ideas and projects.  In approximate chronological order (but not necessarily in order of importance), these are:

      • Dissertation
      • Involvement with the Policy World
      • Picking Up on Someone Else’s Work
      • Conferences
      • Funders
      • Student Interest
      • Responding to Others’ Work
      • Teaching
      • Consulting
      • Class Assignment
      • Invitation

I begin with how my dissertation research subsequently led to several avenues of further research and writing.

Dissertation — Analyzing Land Use

My 1988 Ph.D. thesis examined econometrically the factors that had led to the dramatic depletion of forested wetlands in the southern United States over the previous five decades.  Before commenting on how my dissertation stimulated my subsequent research, I should acknowledge that my dissertation topic itself grew of out of some consulting work I was doing at the time for the Environmental Defense Fund, in particular an analysis for James T. B. Tripp of how U.S. Army Corps of Engineers flood control projects were providing economic incentives for landowners to convert their forested wetlands to agricultural croplands.

My dissertation led directly to a pair of journal articles published in 1990 in the American Economic Review (with Adam Jaffe) and the Journal of Environmental Economics and Management.  But more striking – given the theme of this essay – is that several years later I realized that the general econometric approach and simulation model could be applied to a very different question, namely, analyzing the anticipated costs of biological carbon sequestration as a means of reducing net concentrations of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere, linked with global climate change.  That recognition led to another article in the American Economic Review (1999), and then to a series of other, related projects on carbon sequestration (with Richard Newell 2000, and with Ruben Lubowski and Andrew Plantinga 2006, both in the Journal of Environmental Economics and Management), as well as a broader research initiative on factors affecting land-use decisions (with Plantinga and Lubowski in the Journal of Urban Economics in 2002 and Land Economics in 2008).  More recent work with Andrew Plantinga and Robin Cross (that does not appear in the schematic below) has involved an econometric analysis of the concept and reality of “terroir” associated with the production of premium wines (American Economic Review 2011, Journal of Wine Economics 2011).

A Less Direct Legacy of Dissertation:  Economics of Technological Change

A fundamental aspect of the econometric modeling involved in some of the land-use models above, including my dissertation research, was the estimation of the parameters of an empirical distribution of some heterogeneous attribute of land parcels, such as potential crop revenue (due to varying land quality, for example).  As costs of production fall, for example, that distribution would be swept, with various parcels going into production at various points in time.  Adam Jaffe and I hoped that this same sort of model could be applied to the process of technological diffusion, that is, the process of gradual adoption of some new technology over time.

As it turned out, however, the model was less useful than we first thought it would be for analyzing the factors affecting technology diffusion, and so we abandoned it for that purpose.  But this led us to explore other conceptual and empirical approaches to assessing the factors that lead to the diffusion of environmental technologies.  We developed a new framework for comparing empirically the effects of alternative environmental policy instruments on the diffusion of new technology, including Pigouvian taxes, technology adoption subsidies, and technology standards, with an empirical application to the diffusion of thermal insulation in new home construction, comparing the effects of energy prices, insulation cost, and building codes (Journal of Environmental Economics and Management 1995).  Related work with Nolan Miller and Lori (Snyder) Bennear followed in 2003 (American Economic Review).

Given our interest in the diffusion (adoption) of energy-efficiency technologies, it was natural to think about exploring the factors that affect the innovation (commercialization) of such technologies.  A very different model was developed — with Richard Newell taking the lead as part of his Harvard dissertation research — and an empirical application was made to analyzing the innovation of specific household energy-consuming durable goods (such as water heaters and air conditioners).  This work appeared in the Quarterly Journal of Economics in 1999.

More broadly, our interest in the innovation and diffusion energy efficiency technologies led us to explore in a series of articles the so-called “energy paradox” of apparently slow diffusion of technologies that appear to pay for themselves, as well as other issues related to energy-efficiency technological change (Energy Journal 1994, Resource and Energy Economics 1994, Energy Policy 1994, Elsevier Handbook of Economics 2003, Ecological Economics 2005, Energy Economics 2006, and many others).  And, recently, with a resurgence of interest in the energy paradox in the context of global climate change, Richard Newell and I have launched a new research initiative, with support from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

Because I’ve sought to describe the origins of my research somewhat chronologically, I began with my dissertation research.  The fact that several strands of research — some directly related and some indirectly related to my dissertation — subsequently emerged will surely not surprise academic readers of this essay.  However, a considerably greater influence (indeed, the most important influence) on my research portfolio has come from my involvement — not with fellow scholars — but with practitioners in the world of public policy.  That may come as a surprise to some readers, and it is to this illustration of the two-way street between research and practice to which I now turn.

Involvement with the Policy World

A phone call I received in the late spring of 1988 — a week before my Harvard graduation — from Senator Timothy Wirth (D-Colorado), and a meeting shortly thereafter in Washington with Senator Wirth and his long-time friend and colleague, Senator John Heinz (R-Pennsylvania) led to an agreement that I would direct for them a study intended to inform the Presidential debates on environmental policy in that election year — Project 88:  Harnessing Market Forces to Protect the Environment (and a follow-up study in 1991, Project 88 — Round II, Incentives for Action: Designing Market-Based Environmental Strategies).

Many pages could be written — and, indeed, many have been written — about the influence that Project 88, sponsored by Senators Wirth and Heinz, subsequently had on policy developments at the federal level in Washington (including the path-breaking SO2 allowance trading program in the 1990 Clean Air Act amendments), within many states, and internationally in locations ranging from the European Union to China.  But my purpose in this essay is to examine the origins of my research portfolio, and so I will turn instead to reflect on the ways my experience with Project 88 (and related policy engagements with the White House, the Congress, and others) stimulated new paths of my scholarly research.

One path of research activity soon focused on normative analysis of alternative policy instruments, including work on:  transaction costs in cap-and-trade markets (Journal of Environmental Economics and Management 1995), the effects of correlated uncertainty on the choice between price and quantity instruments (Journal of Environmental Economics and Management 1996), vintage-differentiated regulations (Stanford Environmental Law Journal 2006), and policy instruments in second-best settings (with Lori Bennear, Environmental and Resource Economics 2007).  [The work on correlated uncertainty also illustrates an example of another source of research ideas, namely picking up on research by someone else, because this work was directly inspired by a footnote in Professor Martin Weitzman‘s classic work on “Prices vs. Quantities” (Review of Economic Studies 1974).]

Another area of work on normative analysis of policy instruments focused broadly on market-based instruments (with Robert Hahn, American Economic Review 1992; with Richard Newell, Journal of Regulatory Economics 2003; and the Elsevier Handbook of Environmental Economics 2003).  Other work focused more specifically on cap-and-trade systems (Journal of Economic Perspectives 1998; with Robert Hahn, Journal of Law and Economics 2011; and with Richard Schmalensee, Journal of Economic Perspectives 2013).

A conceptually distinct path of research that also found its origins in my work on Project 88 has involved examinations of the positive political economy of environmental policy (with Robert Hahn, Ecology Law Quarterly 1991; with Nathaniel Keohane and Richard Revesz, Harvard Environmental Law Review 1998; with Robert Hahn and Sheila Olmstead, Harvard Environmental Law Review 2003).

Even this extensive set of research projects and publications that derive from my work on Project 88 — depicted in the figure above — understates the influence that my work on Project 88 with Senators Wirth and Heinz has had on my scholarly research over the years.  This is because much of my work on global climate change policy, for example, has in fact focused on the potential use of market-based instruments in that realm, but for purposes of this essay, I associate that later work on climate policy with two other origins, namely, conferences and funders.

Conferences and Funders

Gradually over the 25 years since receipt of my PhD, my research has evolved from diverse work across environmental and natural resources economics, to more and more focus each year on various aspects of global climate change and related public policies.

“Climate skeptics” and other opponents of action to address climate change have sometimes accused the research community of focusing on climate change because “that is where the money is.”  Although there are sound reasons for focusing on climate change other than the availability of funds (such as the importance of the problem, and the methodological challenges it poses), there is some partial truth to the accusation.  Indeed, numerous national governments and major philanthropic foundations have made it their goal to stimulate research (and action) on climate change.

One part of my work in this realm has been research on national and sub-national climate policy instruments, often focused on the design of market-based instruments, including but not limited to cap-and-trade mechanisms (Brookings Institution 2007; Harvard Environmental Law Review 2008; Oxford Review of Economic Policy 2008; and my work on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Second, 1995, and Third, 2001, and Fifth Assessment Reports.

An invitation from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation to propose and eventually direct an international research and outreach project on international climate policy architecture led to much (but not all) of my work on international climate policy cooperation (with Joseph Aldy and Scott Barrett, Climate Policy 2003; with Scott Barrett, International Environmental Agreements 2003: with Sheila Olmstead, American Economic Review 2006; three books with Joseph Aldy published by Cambridge University Press 2007, 2009, 2010; an article with Judson Jaffe and Matthew Ranson, Ecology Law Quarterly 2010; and ongoing work on the IPCC Fifth Assessment Report 2010-2014; and much more).

Student Interest

Many professors who are reading this essay will not be the least bit surprised to learn that another origin of research ideas has been interest expressed by graduate students.  Three important examples stand out in my case.

One I have already written about above.  When Richard Newell (my very first PhD student) came to Harvard for graduate school in 1993, he brought with him an abiding interest in the relationship between science, technology, and policy.  At the time, Adam Jaffe and I were continuing our work on the diffusion of energy-efficiency technologies, and then the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) solicited proposals for research that could improve the modeling of technological change in integrated assessment models of climate change (so this covers two other origins — involvement with the policy world, and potential funding).  All of this came together in a joint research initiative, funded by DOE, which supported Newell’s dissertation research on factors affecting the pace and direction of energy-efficiency technology innovation.  This led to a subsequent publication with Jaffe and Newell (Quarterly Journal of Economics 1999), as well as series of other collaborations with Newell, which are on-going to this day.

In 1999, Sheila (Cavanagh) Olmstead came to the Harvard PhD program in public policy with a strong background and keen interests in water resources and water policy.  I brought on board Michael Hanemann, then a professor at the University of California at Berkeley, as a collaborator, and together we applied (successfully) to the National Science Foundation for a grant that supported Sheila’s dissertation research on econometrically estimating demand for municipal water in the presence of block-rate pricing schedules.  Not only did that lead directly to some published work (with Olmstead and Hanemann, Journal of Environmental Economics and Management 2007), but led indirectly to other research on water pricing(with Olmstead, Water Resources Research 2009).

The work on carbon sequestration and land use described above with Ruben Lubowski and Andrew Plantinga (Journal of Environmental Economics and Management 2006; Journal of Urban Economics 2002; Land Economics 2008) also deserves mention in this part of the essay, because it all grew out of Ruben Lubowski‘s PhD dissertation research at Harvard.

Responding to Others’ Work

I mentioned above an example of picking up on someone else’s work (in a positive sense), namely a footnote in Marty Weitzman’s classic 1974 article on “Prices vs Quantities” in which he noted that he was assuming statistical independence between marginal benefits and marginal costs, which stimulated me to relax that assumption and pursue the analysis (which led to my article on the effects of correlated uncertainty in 1996 in the Journal of Environmental Economics and Management).

By contrast, sometimes researchers can be stimulated to do work in order to question others’ previous work (and related conventional wisdom).  This was the case with my collaborative work examining the topic of “corporate social responsibility,” an area of scholarship that some colleagues and I believed was populated by research and writing that generated more heat than light.  A conference we organized at Harvard led to a subsequent book that examined Environmental Protection and the Social Responsibility of Firms:  Perspectives from Law, Economics, and Business (with Harvard Law School professor, Bruce Hay, and Harvard Business School professor, Richard Vietor, 2005).  Later, I took the next step with a follow-up article with Vietor and his Harvard Business School colleague, Forest Reinhardt (Review of Environmental Economics and Policy 2008), and another with Reinhardt (Oxford Review of Economic Policy 2010).


Classroom teaching can itself provide inspiration for research.  In 2002, I was teaching a small “reading and research course” for PhD students interested in environmental economics, and lamented one day that the increasingly popular concept of “sustainability” seemed to lack a clear definition or interpretation that made sense in economic terms.  I offered a possible economic interpretation in class, and within a week, two students — Gernot Wagner and Alexander Wagner (unrelated) — had written out a mathematically formalized version of my interpretation.  We collaborated on writing a brief article that provided background as well as further exploration (Economic Letters 2003).


It may (or may not) come as a surprise that consulting (work I do outside of my Harvard responsibilities, sometimes for compensation, sometimes not) can also lead to interesting research ideas.  In my case, this has led to my thinking more carefully — with collaborators — about the analytical methods that surround net present value analysis (also called, benefit-cost analysis).

This has led to a series of papers on various dimensions of net present value analysis in the environmental realm, including such topics as:  the meaning, limits, and value of the Kaldor-Hicks criterion (with Kenneth Arrow and others, Science 1996); the role of discounting (with Lawrence Goulder, Nature 2002); new benefit-estimation methods (with Paul Portney, Journal of Risk and Uncertainty 1994; and with Lori Bennear and Alexander Wagner, Journal of Regulatory Economics 2005); and the use of Monte Carlo analysis to incorporate uncertainty in regulatory impact analysis (with Judson Jaffe, Regulation and Governance 2007).

Also, as I mentioned at the outset, my 1988 dissertation topic had grown out of some consulting work I was doing at the time for the Environmental Defense Fund.

Class Assignments

Many of my PhD students over the years have written term papers for courses that led to manuscript that were eventually published in academic journals.  But in my own case, because my PhD training in economics at Harvard did not include any courses in environmental economics (none existed at the time, as you may have noted in my previous essay, “On Becoming an Environmental Economist”), the only example I can provide of this origin of research is in a different area, namely economic history.  This is an area in which I took two wonderful courses from Professor Jeffrey Williamson (about which I wrote in my previous post).  An econometric analysis I carried out for one of those courses — “A Model of English Demographic Change: 1573-1873” was subsequently published (Explorations in Economic History 1988).

Invitations (and other origins)

There’s a clear positive correlation between the onset of grey hair and the frequency of invitations to write articles (or books) for publication.  These have included:  an article with Don Fullerton on how economists view the environment in Nature (1998); an article on common property resources in the American Economic Review (2011); my ongoing column, “An Economic Perspective” in The Environmental Forum (2006-present); my blog, “An Economic View of the Environment,” which was launched in 2009; two books of my collected works, 1988-1999 and 2000-2011 (Edward Elgar 2001, 2013); and three editions of a book of selected readings in environmental economics (W. W. Norton 2000, 2005, 2012).

Results of an Ex Post Exploration of Research Origins

Putting all of that together in a single flow chart results in the figure below, which is much clearer in a PDF version.  You can also view the entire PowerPoint presentation (you need to use Slide Show mode to see the animation) here.

As I said at the outset, I found the process of preparing this slide deck for Professor Bowles’s seminar valuable, because it enabled me to step back and reflect systematically on the origins of my research initiatives over the years and the relationships among them.  I recommend this process to other academics, because I believe it can be rewarding.  And, for academics in-the-making, that is, PhD students, I hope this essay may be informative.

The Second Term of the Obama Administration

In his inaugural address on January 21st, President Obama surprised many people – including me – by the intensity and the length of his comments on global climate change.  Since then, there has been a great deal of discussion in the press and in the blogosphere about what climate policy initiatives will be forthcoming from the administration in its second term.

Given all the excitement, let’s first take a look at the transcript of what the President actually said on this topic:

            We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations. Some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science, but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires, and crippling drought, and more powerful storms.  The path towards sustainable energy sources will be long and sometimes difficult. But American cannot resist this transition.  We must lead it.  We cannot cede to other nations the technology that will power new jobs and new industries.  We must claim its promise. That’s how we will maintain our economic vitality and our national treasure, our forests and waterways, our crop lands and snow capped peaks.  That is how we will preserve our planet, commanded to our care by God.

Strong and plentiful words.  Although I was certainly surprised by the strength and length of what the President said in his address, I confess that it did not change my thinking about what we should expect from the second term.  Indeed, I will stand by an interview that was published by the Harvard Kennedy School on its website five days before the inauguration (plus something I wrote in a previous essay at this blog in December, 2012).  Here it is, with a bit of editing to clarify things, and some hyperlinks inserted to help readers.

The Second Term: Robert Stavins on Energy and Environmental Policy

January 16, 2013

By Doug Gavel, Harvard Kennedy School Communications

President Obama’s second term in office began on Inauguration Day, January 21st, and the list of policy challenges facing his administration is daunting. Aside from the difficult task of addressing the nation’s economic woes, the president and his administration will also deal with the increasing complexities of global climate change, a rapidly changing energy market, entitlement and tax reform, healthcare reform, and the repercussions from the still simmering “Arab Spring.” Throughout this month, we will solicit the viewpoints of a variety of HKS faculty members to provide a range of perspectives on the promise and pitfalls of The Second Term.

We spoke with Robert Stavins, Albert Pratt Professor of Business and Government, and Director of the Harvard Environmental Economics Program, about energy and environmental policy issues the president will face in the next four years.

Q: What are the top priorities for a second Obama administration in energy and environmental policy?

A: The Obama administration faces a number of impending challenges in the energy and environmental policy realm in its second term, which I would characterize – in very general terms – as finding balance among three competing factors: (1) demands from some constituencies for more aggressive environmental policies; (2) demands from other constituencies – principally in the Congress – for progress on so-called “energy security;” and (3) recognition that nothing meaningful is likely to happen if the country’s economic problems are not addressed.

Q: What will be the potential challenges/roadblocks in the way of implementing those top priorities?

A: The key challenge the administration faces in its second term as it attempts to achieve some balance among these three competing objectives is the reality of a very high degree of political polarization in the two houses of Congress.

The numbers are dramatic.  For example, when the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990 that established the landmark SO2 allowance trading system were being considered in the U.S. Congress, political support was not divided on partisan lines. Indeed, environmental and energy debates from the 1970s through much of the 1990s typically broke along geographic lines, rather than partisan lines, with key parameters being degree of urbanization and reliance on specific fuel types, such as coal versus natural gas. The Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990 passed the U.S. Senate by a vote of 89-11 with 87 percent of Republican members and 91 percent of Democrats voting yea, and the legislation passed the House of Representatives by a vote of 401-21 with 87 percent of Republicans and 96 percent of Democrats voting in support.

But, 20 years later when climate change legislation was receiving serious consideration in Washington, environmental politics had changed dramatically, with Congressional support for environmental legislation coming mainly to reflect partisan divisions. In 2009, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009 (H.R. 2454), often known as the Waxman-Markey bill, that included an economy-wide cap-and-trade system to cut carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. The Waxman-Markey bill passed by a narrow margin of 219-212, with support from 83 percent of Democrats, but only 4 percent of Republicans. (In July 2010, the U.S. Senate abandoned its attempt to pass companion legislation.) Political polarization in the Congress (and the country) has implications far beyond energy and environmental policy, but it is particularly striking in this realm.

Q: In the Obama administration’s second term, are there openings/possibilities for compromises in those areas?

A: It is conceivable – but in my view, unlikely – that there may be an opening for implicit (not explicit) “climate policy” through a carbon tax. At a minimum, we should ask whether the defeat of cap-and-trade in the U.S. Congress, the virtual unwillingness over the past 18 months of the Obama White House to utter the phrase “cap-and-trade” in public, and the defeat of Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney indicate that there is a new opening for serious consideration of a carbon-tax approach to meaningful CO2 emissions reductions in the United States.

First of all, there surely is such an opening in the policy wonk world. Economists and others in academia, including important Republican economists such as Harvard’s Greg Mankiw and Columbia’s Glenn Hubbard, remain enthusiastic supporters of a national carbon tax. And a much-publicized meeting in July, 2012, at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C. brought together a broad spectrum of Washington groups – ranging from Public Citizen to the R Street Institute – to talk about alternative paths forward for national climate policy. Reportedly, much of the discussion focused on carbon taxes.

Clearly, this “opening” is being embraced with enthusiasm in the policy wonk world. But what about in the real political world? The good news is that a carbon tax is not “cap-and-trade.” That presumably helps with the political messaging! But if conservatives were able to tarnish cap-and-trade as “cap-and-tax,” it surely will be considerably easier to label a tax – as a tax! Also, note that President Obama’s silence extends beyond disdain for cap-and-trade per se. Rather, it covers all carbon-pricing regimes.

So as a possible new front in the climate policy wars, I remain very skeptical that an explicit carbon tax proposal will gain favor in Washington. Note that the only election outcome that could have lead to an aggressive and successful move to a meaningful nationwide carbon pricing regime would have been: the Democrats took back control of the House of Representatives, the Democrats achieved a 60+ vote margin in the Senate, and the President was reelected. Only the last of these happened. It’s not enough.

A more promising possibility – though still unlikely – is that if Republicans and Democrats join to cooperate with the Obama White House to work constructively to address the short-term and long-term budgetary deficits the U.S. government faces, and if as part of this they decide to include not only cuts in government expenditures, but also some significant “revenue enhancements” (the t-word is not allowed), and if (I know, this is getting to be a lot of “ifs”) it turns out to be easier politically to eschew increases in taxes on labor and investment and turn to taxes on consumption, then there could be a political opening for new energy taxes, even a carbon tax.

Such a carbon tax – if intended to help alleviate budget deficits – could not be the economist’s favorite, a revenue-neutral tax swap of cutting distortionary taxes in exchange for implementing a carbon tax. Rather, as a revenue-raising mechanism – like the Obama administration’s February 2009 budget for a 100%-auction of allowances in a cap-and-trade scheme – it would be a new tax, pure and simple. Those who recall the 1993 failure of the Clinton administration’s BTU-tax proposal – with a less polarized and more cooperative Congress than today’s – will not be optimistic.

Nor is it clear that a carbon tax would enjoy more support in budget talks than a value added tax (VAT) or a Federal sales tax. The key question is whether the phrases “climate policy” and “carbon tax” are likely to expand or narrow the coalition of support for an already tough budgetary reconciliation measure.  The key group to bring on board will presumably be conservative Republicans, and it is difficult to picture them being more willing to break their Grover Norquist pledges because it’s for a carbon tax.

What remains most likely to happen is what I’ve been saying for several years, namely that despite the apparent inaction by the Federal government, the official U.S. international commitment — a 17 percent reduction of CO2 emissions below 2005 levels by the year 2020 – is nevertheless likely to be achieved!  The reason is the combination of CO2 regulations which are now in place because of the Supreme Court decision [freeing the EPA to treat CO2 like other pollutants under the Clean Air Act], together with five other regulations or rules on SOX [sulfur compounds], NOX [nitrogen compounds], coal fly ash, particulates, and cooling water withdrawals. All of these will have profound effects on retirement of existing coal-fired electrical generation capacity, investment in new coal, and dispatch of such electricity.

Combined with that is Assembly Bill 32 (AB 32) in the state of California, which includes a CO2 cap-and-trade system that is more ambitious in percentage terms than Waxman-Markey was in the U.S. Congress, and which became binding on January 1, 2013.  Add to that the recent economic recession, which reduced emissions. And more important than any of those are the effects of developing new, unconventional sources of natural gas in the United States on the supply, price, and price trajectory of natural gas, and the consequent dramatic movement that has occurred from coal to natural gas for generating electricity.  In other words, there will be actions having significant implications for climate, but most will not be called “climate policy,” and all will be within the regulatory and executive order domain, not new legislation.

Q: Are there lessons that a second Obama administration can draw upon from the first administration, or from history, when constructing its energy & environmental policy over the next four years?

A: It will take a great deal of dedicated effort and profound luck to find political openings that can bridge the wide partisan divide that exists on climate change policy and other environmental issues. Think about the following. Nearly all our major environmental laws were passed in the wake of highly publicized environmental events or “disasters,” including the spontaneous combustion of the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1969, and the discovery of toxic substances at Love Canal in Niagara Falls, New York, in the mid-1970s. But note that the day after the Cuyahoga River caught on fire, no article in The Cleveland Plain Dealer commented that the cause was uncertain, that rivers periodically catch on fire from natural causes. On the contrary, it was immediately apparent that the cause was waste dumped into the river by adjacent industries. A direct consequence of the observed “disaster” was, of course, the Clean Water Act of 1972.

But climate change is distinctly different. Unlike the environmental threats addressed successfully in past U.S. legislation, climate change is essentially unobservable to the general population. We observe the weather, not the climate.  Notwithstanding last year’s experience with Super Storm Sandy, it remains true that until there is an obvious, sudden, and perhaps cataclysmic event – such as a loss of part of the Antarctic ice sheet leading to a dramatic sea-level rise – it is unlikely that public opinion in the United States will provide the tremendous bottom-up demand that inspired previous congressional action on the environment over the past forty years.

That need not mean that there can be no truly meaningful, economy-wide climate policy (such as carbon-pricing) until disaster has struck.  But it does mean that bottom-up popular demand may not come in time, and that instead what will be required is inspired leadership at the highest level that can somehow bridge the debilitating partisan political divide.

Postscript:  Please note that the Kennedy School series on the second term of the Obama administration also includes an interview with my colleague, Professor Joseph Aldy, offering his own views on potential environmental policy developments in the next four years.

While International Climate Negotiations Continue, the World’s Ninth Largest Economy Takes an Important Step Forward

A little more than two weeks ago, while some 195 nations prepared to meet in Doha, Qatar, for the Eighteenth Conference of the Parties (COP-18) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in an ongoing effort to hammer out a durable scheme of effective international cooperation, the ninth largest economy in the world took an important step forward to achieve its own ambitious greenhouse gas reduction goals.  I’m referring to the CO2 cap-and-trade allowance auction held by the State of California (which ranks just below Brazil and just above India in the size of its economy) on November 14, 2012.

The Design

Under the California auction design (a single-round, sealed-bid, uniform price auction), all allowances are sold at the same price, no matter what the specific bid submitted.  This is done by awarding the first allowances to the highest bidder, then the next highest bidder, and so on until all allowances (or bids) are exhausted.  The bid for the last allowance becomes the price of all allowances sold in the auction.  The auction had two parts:  a current auction of 2013 vintage allowances, and advance auction of 2015 vintage allowances.

The Results

Just a few days after the auction, the California Air Resources Board released the results.  In brief, they were as follows:

  • All 23,126,110 (metric tons of) allowances for 2013 emissions were sold, with the number of qualified bids exceeding the number available by about 6 percent.
  •  These 2013 vintage allowances sold for $10.09, just above the auction’s reserve price of $10.00.  (Note, however, that the bids ranged from $10 to over $90, with a median bid of about $13 and a mean bid of nearly $14.)
  • Some 97% of the allowances were bought by compliance entities, as opposed to investors of various kinds.
  • The advance auction of 2015 allowances produced significantly different results, with only 14% of available allowances sold, at the auction reserve price of $10.00.  (The bids ranged from $10 to about $17, with median and mean bids of about $11.)

Those are the results, but what do they mean?  Here’s my view of the implications.

The Implications

First of all, the fact that the auction ran smoothly and compliance entities and others put their money down is one important step in establishing the program’s credibility and operational success.

Second, given that all 2013 vintage allowances sold and there was significant demand above the clearing price (mean prices were $13.75 per MT), the cap is clearly binding.

Third, the expected marginal abatement cost (accounting for market uncertainty and regulatory risk) is roughly at the reservation price of $10/ton (fairly close to the current price in the European Union Emissions Trading System, it so happens).

On the one hand, it is very good news that the allowance price is as low as it is, because this is indicative of the market’s prediction of what the marginal cost of abatement will be.  Lower cost is good news for the California economy.  Of course, low prices mean smaller funds raised by the auction ($233 million raised by the 2013 auction, and $56 million by the 2015 auction).  However, given that the fundamental purpose of the auction is to cap emissions through the cap-and-trade system, not to raise revenues for the state, this doesn’t appear to be bad news either.

But there is some “bad news” in these low allowance prices, and in the 2015 results.  First, the 2015 results may indicate that there is significant “regulatory risk” that is lowering prices firms are willing to pay for allowances.  Such regulatory risk could arise from concerns that state legislators will back-pedal on the program, or that legal challenges to certain rules (for example, reshuffling requirements or regulation of out-of-state electricity) or Federal policy action in Washington will reduce allowance demand.

It could also arise from this being the first auction, bringing about reluctance to put a lot of money down before seeing any results.   Significant uncertainty over abatement costs could also have been a factor.  In these regards, it will be interesting to see whether bidding is much different at the second auction next year.

An Ongoing Concern

Other factors driving down demand for allowances and the auction price are the emission reductions that have already been achieved or are expected to be achieved by so-called “complementary programs,” such as energy efficiency programs, renewable portfolio standards, and low-carbon fuel standards.  You might think this is good news, but it’s not.  Why?

These “complimentary programs” exist under the cap of the cap-and-trade system.  Hence, there are two possible outcomes from this situation.  On the one hand, these additional programs can be irrelevant in terms of CO2 emissions; that is, their emission reductions would be achieved anyway by the cap-and-trade system on its own, which – remember – allocates the abatement burden cost-effectively across sectors and sources.  Or, on the other hand, these programs could achieve greater emissions reductions in some sector or by some sources than the cap-and-trade regime would have done on its own.  But, by doing this, the effect is simply to free up allowances for other sources and/or other sectors through the trading mechanism.

On the margin, nothing is accomplished in terms of additional CO2 emissions reductions; rather the emissions are simply relocated.  And, because under such circumstances marginal abatement costs are no longer equated, the allocation of the reductions is no longer cost-effective, that is, aggregate costs are driven up.  As I recently wrote, this is precisely what has happened in the European Union Emissions Trading System.  (By the way, for a more favorable view of the role of the complimentary measures under the California cap-and-trade scheme, see this essay by Dallas Burtraw and Clayton Munnings.)

So, this specific “bad news” about perverse policy interactions is not a problem of the cap-and-trade system per se, any more than it is in the European system.  Rather, the problem is with adding well-intentioned “complimentary programs” under the coverage of a cap-and-trade (or any “quantity-based averaging”) system.  Unfortunately, it is misguided public policy, at least from the perspective of this environmental economist.

Can Market Forces Really be Employed to Address Climate Change?

Debate continues in the United States, Europe, and throughout the world about whether the forces of the marketplace can be harnessed in the interest of environmental protection, in particular, to address the threat of global climate change.  In an essay that appears in the Spring 2012 issue of Daedalus, the journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, my colleague, Joseph Aldy, and I take on this question.  In the article – “Using the Market to Address Climate Change:  Insights from Theory & Experience” – we investigate the technical, economic, and political feasibility of market-based climate policies, and examine alternative designs of carbon taxes, cap-and-trade, and clean energy standards.

The Premise

Virtually all aspects of economic activity – individual consumption, business investment, and government spending – affect greenhouse gas emissions and, therefore, the global climate. In essence, an effective climate change policy must change the nature of decisions regarding these activities in order to promote more efficient generation and use of energy, lower carbon-intensity of energy, and a more carbon-lean economy.

Basically, there are three possible ways to accomplish this: (1) mandate that businesses and individuals change their behavior; (2) subsidize business and individual investment; or (3) price the greenhouse gas externality proportional to the harms that these emissions cause.

Harnessing Market Forces by Pricing Externalities

The pricing of externalities can promote cost-effective abatement, deliver efficient innovation incentives, avoid picking technology winners, and ameliorate, not exacerbate, government fiscal conditions.

By pricing carbon emissions (or, equivalently, the carbon content of the three fossil fuels – coal, petroleum, and natural gas), the government provides incentives for firms and individuals to identify and exploit the lowest-cost ways to reduce emissions and to invest in the development of new technologies, processes, and ideas that can mitigate future emissions. A fairly wide variety of policy approaches fall within the concept of externality pricing in the climate-policy context, including carbon taxes, cap-and-trade, and clean energy standards.

What About Conventional Regulatory Approaches?

In contrast, conventional approaches to environmental protection typically employ uniform mandates to protect environmental quality. Although uniform technology and performance standards have been effective in achieving some established environmental goals and standards, they tend to lead to non-cost-effective outcomes in which some firms use unduly expensive means to control pollution.

In addition, conventional technology or performance standards do not provide dynamic incentives for the development, adoption, and diffusion of environmentally and economically superior control technologies. Once a firm satisfies a performance standard, it has little incentive to develop or adopt cleaner technology. Indeed, regulated firms may fear that if they adopt a superior technology, the government will tighten the standard.

Given the ubiquitous nature of greenhouse gas emissions from diverse sources, it is virtually inconceivable that a standards-based approach could form the centerpiece of a truly meaningful climate policy. The substantially higher cost of a standards-based policy may undermine support for such an approach, and securing political support may require weakening standards and lowering environmental benefits.

How About Technology Subsidies?

Government support for lower-emitting technologies often takes the form of investment or performance subsidies. Providing subsidies for targeting climate-friendly technologies entails revenues raised by taxing other economic activities. Given the tight fiscal environment throughout the developed world, it is difficult to justify increasing (or even continuing) the subsidies that would be necessary to change significantly the emissions intensity of economic activity.

Furthermore, by lowering the cost of energy, climate-oriented technology subsidies can actually lead to excessive levels of energy supply and consumption. Thus, subsidies can undermine incentives for efficiency and conservation, and impose higher costs per ton abated than cost-effective policy alternatives.

In practice, subsidies are typically designed to be technology specific. By designating technology winners, such approaches yield special-interest constituencies focused on maintaining subsidies beyond what would be socially desirable. They also provide little incentive for the development of novel, game-changing technologies.

That said, there is still a role for direct technology policies in combination with externality pricing, as I have argued in a previous essay at this blog.  This is because in addition to the environmental market failure (appropriately addressed by externality pricing) there exists another market failure in the climate change context, namely, the public-good nature of information produced by research and development.  I addressed this in my essay, “Both Are Necessary, But Neither is Sufficient: Carbon-Pricing and Technology R&D Initiatives in a Meaningful National Climate Policy.”

Back to Markets, and Some Real-World Experience

Empirical analysis drawing on actual experience has demonstrated the power of markets to drive profound changes in the investment and use of emission-intensive technologies.

The run-up in gasoline prices in 2008 increased consumer demand for more fuel-efficient new cars and trucks, while also reducing vehicle miles traveled by the existing fleet. Likewise, electricity generators responded to the dramatic decline in natural gas prices in 2009 and 2010 by dispatching more electricity from gas plants, resulting in lower CO2 emissions.

Longer-term evaluations of the impacts of energy prices on markets have found that higher prices have induced more innovation – measured by frequency and importance of patents – and increased the commercial availability of more energy-efficient products, especially among energy-intensive goods such as air conditioners and water heaters.

Experience with Externality Pricing

Real-world experience with policies that price externalities has illustrated the effectiveness of market-based instruments. Congestion charges in London, Singapore, and Stockholm have reduced traffic congestion in busy urban centers, lowered air pollution, and delivered net social benefits.  Likewise, the British Columbia carbon tax has reduced carbon dioxide emissions since 2008.

More prominently, the U.S. sulfur dioxide (SO2) cap-and-trade program has cut SO2 emissions from U.S. power plants by more than 50 percent since 1990, resulting in compliance costs one-half of what they would have been under conventional regulatory mandates.

The success of the SO2 allowance trading program motivated the design and implementation of the European Union’s Emissions Trading Scheme (EU ETS), the world’s largest cap-and-trade program, focused on cutting CO2 emissions from power plants and large manufacturing facilities throughout Europe.

And the 1980s phasedown of lead in gasoline, which reduced the lead content per gallon of fuel, served as an early, effective example of a tradable performance standard.

These positive experiences have provided ample reason to consider market-based instruments – carbon taxes, cap-and-trade, and clean energy standards – as potential approaches to mitigating greenhouse gas emissions.

The Rubber Hits the Road

The U.S. political response to possible market-based approaches to climate policy has been and will continue to be largely a function of issues and structural factors that transcend the scope of environmental and climate policy. Because a truly meaningful climate policy – whether market-based or conventional in design – will have significant impacts on economic activity in a wide variety of sectors and in every region of the country, it is not surprising that proposals for such policies bring forth significant opposition, particularly during difficult economic times.

In addition, U.S. political polarization – which began some four decades ago and accelerated during the economic downturn – has decimated what had long been the key political constituency in Congress for environmental (and energy) action: namely, the middle, including both moderate Republicans and moderate Democrats. Whereas congressional debates about environmental and energy policy have long featured regional politics, they are now largely partisan. In this political maelstrom, the failure of cap-and-trade climate policy in the Senate in 2010 was collateral damage in a much larger political war.

Better economic times may reduce the pace – if not the direction – of political polarization. And the ongoing challenge of large federal budgetary deficits may at some point increase the political feasibility of new sources of revenue. When and if this happens, consumption taxes – as opposed to traditional taxes on income and investment – could receive heightened attention; primary among these might be energy taxes, which, depending on their design, can function as significant climate policy instruments.

Many environmental advocates would respond that a mobilizing event will surely precipitate U.S. climate policy action.  But the nature of the climate change problem itself helps explain much of the relative apathy among the U.S. public and suggests that any such mobilizing events may come “too late.”

Nearly all our major environmental laws have been passed in the wake of highly publicized environmental events or “disasters,” including the spontaneous combustion of the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1969, and the discovery of toxic substances at Love Canal in Niagara Falls, New York, in the mid-1970s. But note that the day after the Cuyahoga River caught on fire, no article in The Cleveland Plain Dealer commented that the cause was uncertain, that rivers periodically catch on fire from natural causes. On the contrary, it was immediately apparent that the cause was waste dumped into the river by adjacent industries. A direct consequence of the observed “disaster” was, of course, the Clean Water Act of 1972.

But climate change is distinctly different. Unlike the environmental threats addressed successfully in past U.S. legislation, climate change is essentially unobservable to the general population. We observe the weather, not the climate. Until there is an obvious and sudden event – such as a loss of part of the Antarctic ice sheet leading to a dramatic sea-level rise – it is unlikely that public opinion in the United States will provide the bottom-up demand for action that inspired previous congressional action on the environment over the past forty years.

A Half-Full Glass of Water?

Despite this rather bleak assessment of the politics of climate change policy in the United States, it is really much too soon to speculate on what the future will hold for the use of market-based policy instruments, whether for climate change or other environmental problems.

On the one hand, it is conceivable that two decades (1988–2008) of high receptivity in U.S. politics to cap-and-trade and offset mechanisms will turn out to be no more than a relatively brief departure from a long-term trend of reliance on conventional means of regulation.

On the other hand, it is also possible that the recent tarnishing of cap-and-trade in national political dialogue will itself turn out to be a temporary departure from a long-term trend of increasing reliance on market-based environmental policy instruments. Perhaps the ongoing interest in these policy mechanisms in California (Assembly Bill 32), the Northeast (Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative), Europe, and other countries will eventually provide a bridge to a changed political climate in Washington.

Reflections on Twenty Years of Policy Innovation

In 2009, the U.S. Congress considered but ultimately failed to enact legislation aimed at limiting U.S. greenhouse-gas (GHG) emissions.  The bill under consideration at that time, the American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009, was the last in a series considered over several years.  Sponsored by Representatives Henry Waxman (D-California) and Edward Markey (D-Massachusetts), the bill passed the U.S. House of Representatives but failed to win sufficient support in the Senate.  No legislation was enacted, and by 2010, both Congress and the White House had abandoned efforts to pass federal climate legislation.

Over months of contentious debate, while the Waxman-Markey bill and subsequent Senate action were being considered, millions of Americans were introduced for the first time to the phrase “cap and trade,” a regulatory approach that first came to prominence in the 1990s as the centerpiece of a national program to address the threat of acid rain by limiting emissions of sulfur dioxide (SO2), primarily from electric power plants.

The 1990 SO2 cap-and-trade program was conceived by the administration of President George H. W. Bush and was widely viewed as a success.  Yet cap and trade became a lightning rod for congressional opposition to climate legislation from 2009 through 2010.

Some of that hostility reflected skepticism about whether climate change was real and, if it was, whether humans played a key role in causing it. A larger group of opponents in Congress worried about the proper role of government and the costs of combating climate change, particularly given the lack of commitments for action by the large emerging economies of China, India, Brazil, Korea, South Africa, and Mexico.  The congressional debate touched only lightly on the relative merits of various policy options to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. Thus, cap and trade may not have been defeated on its merits (or demerits), but rather as collateral damage in the larger climate policy wars.

Congress (to the extent it did assess policy alternatives to cap and trade), as well as the broader community of analysts and observers in the late 2000s, raised a number of substantive questions about the merits of this policy instrument as a means for responding to a major environmental policy challenge of the sort posed by climate change:

  • How do the costs of a market-based approach, such as cap-and-trade, compare with traditional regulatory policies to reduce pollution?
  • Can market-based policies—and the markets they create—be trusted to reduce emissions? That is, are they environmentally effective?
  • What are the distributional impacts of market-based environmental policies; who are the winners and losers?
  • How well does a cap-and-trade system stimulate technological innovation, as compared with an environmental policy that sets performance standards, specifies technologies for reducing pollution, or both?

In May 2011, the Harvard Environmental Economics Program hosted a two-day research workshop and policy roundtable in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to reflect on these and other questions in light of twenty years of experience implementing the SO2 cap-and-trade program, established under Title IV of the Clean Air Act Amendments (CAAA) of 1990. Also known as the Acid Rain Program and the SO2 allowance-trading system, Title IV represented the first large-scale application of cap and trade to control pollution—in the United States or any other country.  (Of course, the largest emissions trading program in the world is now the European Union Emissions Trading System (EU ETS), a greenhouse-gas, cap-and-trade system that was implemented in 2005 and whose design was influenced by the U.S. SO2 program.)

A “policy brief” synthesizing the main conclusions and insights that emerged from the May 2011 Harvard workshop and roundtable has just been released, The SO2 Allowance Trading System and the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990:  Reflections on Twenty Years of Policy Innovation.  The workshop and roundtable – sponsored by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation – featured a dream team of economists and legal experts who had conducted extensive research on the SO2 allowance-trading system, as well as leaders of non-governmental organizations and former government officials who had guided the formulation and passage of the CAAA.

The new policy brief examines the design, enactment, implementation, and performance of the SO2 allowance trading system, with an eye toward identifying lessons learned for future efforts to apply cap and trade to other environmental challenges, including global climate change.  The first section provides background on the acid rain program and summarizes data and analysis on its benefits. Subsequent sections examine key questions regarding cost, environmental effectiveness, market performance, distributional implications, and effects on technology innovation.  The report also examines the political context of the formulation, enactment, and implementation of the SO2 allowance-trading system.  Finally, the conclusions feature some reflection on implications for climate change policy.

The participants in the research workshop were:  Joseph Aldy, Assistant Professor of Public Policy, Harvard Kennedy School; Dallas Burtraw, Darius Gaskins Senior Fellow, Resources for the Future; Denny Ellerman, Part-time Professor, European University Institute, Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies; Michael Greenstone, 3M Professor of Environmental Economics, Massachusetts Institute of Technology; Lawrence H. Goulder, Shuzo Nishihara Professor of Environmental and Resource Economics, Stanford University; Robert Hahn, Director of Economics, Smith School, University of Oxford; Paul L. Joskow, President, Alfred P. Sloan Foundation; Erin T. Mansur, Associate Professor of Economics, Dartmouth College; Albert McGartland, Director, National Center for Environmental Economics, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency; Brian J. McLean, Former Director, Office of Atmospheric Programs, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency; W. David Montgomery, Senior Vice President, NERA Economic Consulting; Erich J. Muehlegger, Associate Professor of Public Policy, Harvard Kennedy School; Karen L. Palmer, Senior Fellow, Resources for the Future; John Parsons, Executive Director, Center for Energy and Environmental Policy Research, MIT Sloan School of Management; Forest L. Reinhardt, John D. Black Professor of Business Administration, Harvard Business School; Richard L. Schmalensee, Howard W. Johnson Professor of Economics and Management, MIT Sloan School of Management; Daniel Schrag, Sturgis Hooper Professor of Geology, Harvard University; Robert N. Stavins, Albert Pratt Professor of Business and Government, Harvard Kennedy School; Thomas Tietenberg, Mitchell Family Professor of Economics, Emeritus, Colby College; and Jonathan B. Wiener, William R. and Thomas L. Perkins Professor of Law, Duke University Law School.

The participants in the policy and politics roundtable were:  Robert Grady, General Partner, Cheyenne Capital Fund (1989–1991: Associate Director, Office of Management and Budget for Natural Resources, Energy & Science; 1991–1993 Executive Associate Director, OMB, and Deputy Assistant to the President); C. Boyden Gray, Principal, Boyden Gray & Associates (1989–1993: White House Counsel); Fred Krupp, President (1984–present), Environmental Defense Fund; Mary D. Nichols, Chairman, California Air Resources Board (1993–1997: Assistant Administrator for Air and Radiation, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency); Roger Porter, IBM Professor of Business and Government, Harvard Kennedy School (1989–1993: Assistant to the President for Economic and Domestic Policy); Richard L. Schmalensee, Howard W. Johnson Professor of Economics and Management, MIT Sloan School of Management (1989–1991: Member, President’s Council of Economic Advisers); and Philip Sharp, President, Resources for the Future (1975–1995: Member, U.S. House of Representatives, Indiana, and Chairman, Energy and Power Subcommittee, House Committee on Natural Resources).

I want to acknowledge the contributions of all of these participants in the research workshop and policy roundtable, as well as the comments and edits some provided on earlier drafts of the policy brief.  Their expertise and experience made this project possible. And, of course, I’m very grateful to the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation for having provided generous support for the workshop and for the preparation of the study.  I hope you find it of interest and value.

Economics of the Environment

The Sixth Edition of Economics of the Environment: Selected Readings has just been published by W. W. Norton & Company of New York and London.  Through five previous editions, Economics of the Environment has served as a valuable supplement to environmental economics texts and as a stand-alone book of original readings in the field of environmental economics.  Nearly seven years have passed since the previous edition of this volume was published, and it is now more than three decades since the first edition appeared, edited by Robert and Nancy Dorfman.  The Sixth Edition continues this tradition.

Motivation and Audience

Environmental economics continues to evolve from its origins as an obscure application of welfare economics to a prominent field in its own right, which combines elements from public finance, industrial organization, microeconomic theory, and many other areas of economics.  The number of articles on the environment appearing in mainstream economics periodicals continues to increase, and more and more economics journals are dedicated exclusively to environmental and resource topics.

There has also been a proliferation of environmental economics textbooks for college courses.  Many are excellent, but none can be expected to provide direct access to timely and original contributions by the field’s leading scholars.  As most teachers of economics recognize, it is valuable to supplement the structure and rigor of a text with original readings from the literature.

Scope and Style

With that in mind, this new edition of Economics of the Environment consists of thirty-four chapters that instructors will find to be of great value as a complement to their chosen text and their lectures.  The scope is comprehensive, and the list of authors is a veritable “who’s who” of environmental economics, including:  Joseph Aldy, Kenneth Arrow, Trudy Cameron, Ronald Coase, Maureen Cropper, Peter Diamond, George Eads, Jeffrey Frankel, Rick Freeman, Don Fullerton, Lawrence Goulder, John Graham, Robert Hahn, Michael Hanemann, Jerry Hausman, Steven Kelman, Nathaniel Keohane, Alan Krupnick, Lester Lave, John Livernois, Eric Maskin, Leonardo Maugeri, Gilbert Metcalf, Richard Newell, Roger Noll, William Nordhaus, Wallace Oates, Sheila Olmstead, Elinor Ostrom, Karen Palmer, Ian Parry, Carl Pasurka, Robert Pindyck, William Pizer, Michael Porter, Paul Portney, Forest Reinhardt, Richard Revesz, Milton Russell, Michael Sandel, Richard Schmalensee, Steven Shavell, Jason Shogren, Kerry Smith, Robert Solow, Nicholas Stern, Laura Taylor, Richard Vietor, and myself.

The articles are timely, with more than 90 percent published since 1990, and half since 2005.  There are two completely new sections of the book, “Economics of Natural Resources” and “Corporate Social Responsibility,” and all of the chapters in the section on global climate change are new to the sixth edition.

In order to make the readings in Economics of the Environment accessible to students at all levels, one criterion I use in the selection process is that articles should not only be original and well written — and meet the highest standards of economic scholarship — but also be non-technical in their presentations.  Hence, readers will find virtually no formal mathematics in any of the book’s 34 chapters throughout its 733 pages.

The Path Ahead

Environmental economics is a rapidly evolving field.  Not only do new theoretical models and improved empirical methods appear on a regular basis, but entirely new areas of investigation open up when the natural sciences indicate new concerns or the policy world turns to new issues.  Therefore, this book remains a work in progress.  I owe a great debt to the teachers and students of previous editions who have sent their comments and suggestions for revisions.  Looking to future editions, I invite all readers — whether teachers, students, or practitioners — to send me any thoughts or suggestions for improvement.

In the meantime, if you’re interested finding out more about the book, immediately below is a chapter-by-chapter summary of the book.  Alternatively, you can check out the W. W. Norton or Amazon web sites.


Appendix:  A Summary of Economics of the Environment, Sixth Edition

Part I of the volume provides an overview of the field and a review of its foundations.  Don Fullerton and I start things off with a brief essay about how economists think about the environment (Nature 1998).  This is followed by the classic treatment of social costs and bargaining by Ronald Coase (Journal of Law and Economics 1960), and a new article by Jason Shogren and Laura Taylor on the important, emerging field of behavioral environmental economics (Review of Environmental Economics and Policy 2008).

The Costs of Environmental Protection

Part II examines the costs of environmental protection, which might seem to be without controversy or current analytical interest.  This is not, however, the case.  This section begins with a survey article by Carl Pasurka that reviews the theory and empirical evidence on the relationship between environmental regulation and so-called “competitiveness” (Review of Environmental Economics and Policy 2008).

A somewhat revisionist view is provided by Michael Porter and Class van der Linde, who suggest that the conventional approach to thinking about the costs of environmental protection is fundamentally flawed (Journal of Economic Perspectives 1995).  Karen Palmer, Wallace Oates, and Paul Portney provide a careful response (Journal of Economic Perspectives 1995).

The Benefits of Environmental Protection

In Part III, the focus turns to the other side of the analytic ledger — the benefits of environmental protection.  This is an area that has been even more contentious — both in the policy world and among scholars.  Here the core question is whether and how environmental amenities can be valued in economic terms for analytical purposes.

The book features a provocative debate on the stated-preference method known as “contingent valuation.”  Paul Portney outlines the structure and importance of the debate, Michael Hanemann makes the affirmative case, and Peter Diamond and Jerry Hausman provide the critique (all three articles are from the Journal of Economic Perspectives 1994).

In the final article in Part III, the book turns to a concept that is both very important in assessments of the benefits of environmental regulations and is also very widely misunderstood — the value of a statistical life.  In an insightful essay, Trudy Cameron seeks to set the record straight (Review of Environmental Economics and Policy 2010).

There are two principal policy questions that need to be addressed in the environmental realm:  how much environmental protection is desirable; and how should that degree of environmental protection be achieved.  The first of these questions is addressed in Part IV and the second in Part V.

The Goals of Environmental Policy:  Economic Efficiency and Benefit-Cost Analysis

In an introductory essay, Kenneth Arrow, Maureen Cropper, George Eads, Robert Hahn, Lester Lave, Roger Noll, Paul Portney, Milton Russell, Richard Schmalensee, Kerry Smith, and I ask whether there is a role for benefit-cost analysis to play in environmental, health, and safety regulation (Science 1996).

Then, Lawrence Goulder and I focus on an ingredient of benefit-cost analysis that non-economists seem to find particularly confusing, or even troubling — intertemporal discounting (Nature 2002).  Next, Robert Pindyck examines a subject of fundamental importance — the role of uncertainty in environmental economics (Review of Environmental Economics and Policy 2007).  Steven Kelman provides an ethically-based critique of benefit-cost analysis, which is followed by a set of responses (Regulation 1981).

Part IV concludes with an up-to-date essay by John Graham on the critical role of the U.S. Office of Management and Budget in federal regulatory impact analysis (Review of Environmental Economics and Policy 2008).

The Means of Environmental Policy:  Cost Effectiveness and Market-Based Instruments

Part V examines the policy instruments — the means — that can be employed to achieve environmental targets or goals.  This is an area where economists have made their greatest inroads of influence in the policy world, with tremendous changes having taken place over the past twenty  years in the reception given by politicians and policy makers to so-called market-based or economic-incentive instruments for environmental protection.

Lawrence Goulder and Ian Parry start things off with a broad-ranging essay on instrument choice in environmental policy (Review of Environmental Economics and Policy 2008).  Following this, I examine lessons that can be learned from the innovative sulfur dioxide allowance trading program, set up by the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990 (Journal of Economic Perspectives 1998).  Finally, Michael Sandel provides a critique of market-based instruments, with responses offered by Eric Maskin, Steven Shavell, and others (New York Times 1997).

Economics of Natural Resources

Part VI consists of three essays on a new topic for this book — the economics of natural resources.  First, John Livernois examines the empirical significance of a central tenet in natural resource economics, namely the Hotelling Rule — the proposition that under conditions of efficiency, the scarcity rent (price minus marginal extraction cost) of natural resources will rise over time at the rate of interest (Review of Environmental Economics and Policy 2009).

Essays by Leonardo Maugeri (Review of Environmental Economics and Policy 2009) and Sheila Olmstead (Review of Environmental Economics and Policy 2010), respectively, examine two particularly important resources:  petroleum and water.

The next four sections of the book treat some timely and important topics and problems.

Corporate Social Responsibility and the Environment

Part VII examines corporate social responsibility and the environment, discussion of which has too often been characterized by more heat than light.  Forest Reinhardt, Richard Vietor, and I provide an overview of this realm from the perspective of economics, examining the notion of firms voluntarily sacrificing profits in the social interest.  In a second essay, Paul Portney provides a valuable empirical perspective (both are from the Review of Environmental Economics and Policy 2008).

Global Climate Change

Part VIII is dedicated to investigations of economic dimensions of global climate change, which may in the long term prove to be the most significant environmental problem that has arisen, both in terms of its potential damages and in terms of the costs of addressing it.  First, a broad overview of the topic is provided in a survey article by Joseph Aldy, Alan Krupnick, Richard Newell, Ian Parry, and William Pizer (Journal of Economic Literature 2010).

Next, William Nordhaus critiques the well-known Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change, and Nicholas Stern and Chris Taylor respond (both are from Science 2007).  In the final essay in this section, Gilbert Metcalf examines market-based policy instruments that can be used to address greenhouse gas emissions (Journal of Economic Perspectives 2009).

Sustainability, the Commons, and Globalization

Part IX begins with Robert Solow’s economic perspective on the concept of sustainability.  This is followed by Elinor Ostrom’s development of a general framework for analyzing sustainability (Science 2009), and my own historical view of economic analysis of problems associated with open-access resources (American Economic Review 2011).  Then, Jeffrey Frankel draws on diverse sources of empirical evidence to examine whether globalization is good or bad for the environment (Council on Foreign Relations 2004).

Economics and Environmental Policy Making

The final section of the book, Part X, departs from the normative concerns of much of the volume to examine some interesting and important questions of political economy.  It turns out that an economic perspective can provide useful insights into questions that might at first seem to be fundamentally political.

Nathaniel Keohane, Richard Revesz, and I utilize an economic framework to ask why our political system has produced the particular set of environmental policy instruments it has (Harvard Environmental Law Review 1998).  Myrick Freeman reflects on the benefits that U.S. environmental policies have brought about since the first Earth Day in 1970 (Journal of Economic Perspectives 2002).  Lastly, Robert Hahn addresses the question that many of the articles in this volume raise:  what impact has economics actually had on environmental policy (Journal of Environmental Economics and Management 2000)?

The Promise and Problems of Pricing Carbon

Friday, October 21st was a significant day for climate change policy worldwide and for the use of market-based approaches to environmental protection, but it went largely unnoticed across the country and around the world, outside, that is, of the State of California.  On that day, the California Air Resources Board voted unanimously to adopt formally the nation’s most comprehensive cap-and-trade system, intended to provide financial incentives to firms to reduce the state’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, notably carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, to their 1990 level by the year 2020, as part of the implementation of California’s Assembly Bill 32, the Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006.  Compliance will begin in 2013, eventually covering 85% of the state’s emissions.

This policy for the world’s eighth-largest economy is more ambitious than the much heralded (and much derided) Federal policy proposal – H.R. 2454, the Waxman-Markey bill – that was passed by the U.S. House of Representatives in June of 2009, and then died in the U.S. Senate the following year.  With a likely multi-year hiatus on significant climate policy action in Washington now in place, California’s system – which will probably link with similar cap-and-trade systems being developed in Ontario, Quebec, and possibly British Columbia – will itself become the focal point of what may evolve to be the “North American Climate Initiative.”

The Time is Ripe for Reflection

California’s formal adoption of its CO2 cap-and-trade system is an important milestone on the multinational path to carbon pricing policies, and signals that the time is ripe to reflect on the promise and problems of pricing carbon, which is the title of a new paper that Joe Aldy and I have written for a special issue of the Journal of Environment and Development edited by Thomas Sterner and Maria Damon on “Experience with Environmental Taxation” (“The Promise and Problems of Pricing Carbon:  Theory and Experience,” October 27, 2011).  [For anyone who is not familiar with my co-author, let me state for the record that Joseph Aldy is an Assistant Professor of Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School, having come to Cambridge, Massachusetts, from Washington, D.C., where he served, most recently, during 2009 and 2010, as Special Assistant to the President for Energy and Environment.  Before that, he was a Fellow at Resources for the Future, the Washington think tank.]

Why Price Carbon?

In a modern economy, nearly all aspects of economic activity affect greenhouse gas – in particular, CO2 – emissions.  Hence, for a climate change policy to be effective, it must affect decisions regarding these diverse activities.  This can be done in one of three ways:  mandating that businesses and individuals change their behavior; subsidizing businesses and individuals; or pricing the greenhouse gas externality.

As economists and virtually all other policy analysts now recognize, by internalizing the externalities associated with CO2 emissions, carbon pricing can promote cost-effective abatement, deliver powerful innovation incentives, and – for that matter – ameliorate rather than exacerbate government fiscal problems.  [See the concise and compelling argument made by Yale Professor William Nordhaus in his essay, “Energy:  Friend or Enemy?” in The New York Review of Books, October 27, 2011.]

By pricing CO2 emissions (or, more likely, by pricing the carbon content of the three fossil fuels – coal, petroleum, and natural gas), governments wisely defer to private firms and individuals to find and exploit the lowest cost ways to reduce emissions and invest in the development of new technologies, processes, and ideas that could further mitigate emissions.

Can Market-Based Instruments Really Work?

Market-based instruments have been used with considerable success in other environmental domains, as well as for pricing CO2 emissions.  The U.S. sulfur dioxide (SO2) cap-and-trade program cut U.S. power plant SO2 emissions more than 50 percent after 1990, and resulted in compliance costs one half of what they would have been under conventional regulatory mandates.

The success of the SO2 allowance trading program motivated the design and implementation of the European Union’s Emission Trading Scheme (EU ETS), the world’s largest cap-and-trade program, focused on cutting CO2 emissions from power plants and large manufacturing facilities throughout Europe.  The U.S. lead phase-down of gasoline in the 1980s, by reducing the lead content per gallon of fuel, served as an early, effective example of a tradable performance standard.  These and other positive experiences provide motivation for considering market-based instruments as potential approaches to mitigating GHG emissions.

What Policy Instruments Can be Used for Carbon Pricing?

In our paper, Joe Aldy and I critically examine the five generic policy instruments that could conceivably be employed by regional, national, or even sub-national governments for carbon pricing:  carbon taxes, cap-and-trade, emission reduction credits, clean energy standards, and fossil fuel subsidy reduction.  Having written about these approaches many times in previous essays at this blog, today I will simply direct the reader to those previous posts or, better yet, to the paper we’ve written for the Journal of Environment and Development.

Although it is natural to think and talk about carbon pricing using the future tense, a few carbon pricing regimes are already in place.

Regional, National, and Sub-National Experiences with Carbon Pricing

Explicit carbon pricing policy regimes currently in place include the European Union’s Emissions Trading Scheme (EU ETS); the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative in the northeast United States; New Zealand’s cap-and-trade system; the Kyoto Protocol’s Clean Development Mechanism; a number of northern European carbon tax policies; British Columbia’s carbon tax; and Alberta’s tradable carbon performance standard (similar to a clean energy standard).  We describe and assess all of these in our paper.

Also, the Japanese Voluntary Emissions Trading System has operated since 2006 (Japan is considering a compulsory emissions trading system), and Norway operated its own emissions trading system for several years before joining the EU ETS in 2008.  Legislation to establish cap-and-trade systems is under debate in Australia (combined with a carbon tax for an initial three-year period) and in the Canadian provinces of Ontario and Quebec.  And, of course, California is now committed to launching its own GHG cap-and-trade system.

International Coordination Will Be Needed

Of course, climate change is truly a global commons problem:  the location of greenhouse gas emissions has no effect on the global distribution of damages.  Hence, free-riding problems plague unilateral and multilateral approaches, because mitigation costs are likely to exceed direct benefits for virtually all countries.  Cost-effective international policies – insuring that countries get the most environmental benefit out of their mitigation investments – will help promote participation in an international climate policy regime.

In principle, internationally-employed market-based instruments can achieve overall cost effectiveness.  Three basic routes stand out.  First, countries could agree to apply the same tax on carbon (harmonized domestic taxes) or adopt a uniform international tax.  Second, the international policy community could establish a system of international tradable permits, – effectively a nation-state level cap-and-trade program.  In its simplest form, this represents the Kyoto Protocol’s Annex B emission targets and the Article 17 trading mechanism.  Third and most likely, a more decentralized system of internationally-linked domestic cap-and-trade programs could ensure internationally cost-effective emission mitigation.  We examine the merits and the problems associated with each of these means of international coordination in the paper.

What Lies in the Future?

In reality, political responses in most countries to proposals for market-based approaches to climate policy have been and will continue to be largely a function of issues and factors that transcend the scope of environmental and climate policy.  Because a truly meaningful climate policy – whether market-based or conventional in design – will have significant impacts on economic activity in a wide variety of sectors and in every region of a country, proposals for these policies inevitably bring forth significant opposition, particularly during difficult economic times.

In the United States, political polarization – which began some four decades ago, and accelerated during the economic downturn – has decimated what had long been the key political constituency in the Congress for environmental action, namely, the middle, including both moderate Republicans and moderate Democrats.  Whereas Congressional debates about environmental and energy policy had long featured regional politics, they are now fully and simply partisan.  In this political maelstrom, the failure of cap-and-trade climate policy in the U.S. Senate in 2010 was essentially collateral damage in a much larger political war.

It is possible that better economic times will reduce the pace – if not the direction – of political polarization.  It is also possible that the ongoing challenge of large budgetary deficits in many countries will increase the political feasibility of new sources of revenue.  When and if this happens, consumption taxes (as opposed to traditional taxes on income and investment) could receive heightened attention, and primary among these might be energy taxes, which can be significant climate policy instruments, depending upon their design.

That said, it is probably too soon to predict what the future will hold for the use of market-based policy instruments for climate change.  Perhaps the two decades we have experienced of relatively high receptivity in the United States, Europe, and other parts of the world to cap-and-trade and offset mechanisms will turn out to be no more than a relatively brief departure from a long-term trend of reliance on conventional means of regulation.  It is also possible, however, that the recent tarnishing of cap-and-trade in U.S. political dialogue will itself turn out to be a temporary departure from a long-term trend of increasing reliance on market-based environmental policy instruments.  It is much too soon to say.

Reflecting on a Century of Progress and Problems

As the first decade of the twenty-first century comes to a close, the problem of the commons is more important to our lives – and more central to economics – than a century ago when the first issue of the American Economic Review appeared, with an examination by Professor Katharine Coman of Wellesley College of “Some Unsettled Problems of Irrigation” (1911).  Since that time, 100 years of remarkable economic progress have accompanied 100 years of increasingly challenging problems.

As the U.S. and other economies have grown, the carrying-capacity of the planet – in regard to natural resources and environmental quality – has become a greater concern, particularly for common-property and open-access resources.  In an article that appears in the 100th anniversary issue of the American Economic Review (AER) “The Problem of the Commons:  Still Unsettled After 100 Years” – I focus on some important, unsettled problems of the commons.

100 Years of Economic Progress and More Challenging Environmental Problems

Within the realm of natural resources, there are special challenges associated with renewable resources, which are frequently characterized by open-access.  An important example is the degradation of open-access fisheries.  Critical commons problems are also associated with environmental quality, including the ultimate commons problem of the twenty-first century – global climate change.

Small communities frequently provide modes of oversight and methods for policing their citizens, a topic about which Professor Elinor Ostrom of Indiana University has written extensively.  But as the scale of society has grown, commons problems have spread across communities and even  across nations.  In some of these cases, no over-arching authority can offer complete control, rendering commons problems more severe.

Although the type of water allocation problems of concern to Coman have frequently been addressed by common-property regimes of collective management, less easily governed problems of open-access are associated with growing concerns about air and water quality, hazardous waste, species extinction, maintenance of stratospheric ozone, and – most recently – the stability of the global climate in the face of the steady accumulation of greenhouse gases.

Whereas common property resources are held as private property by some group, open-access resources are non-excludable.  My article in the AER focuses exclusively on the latter, and thereby reflects on some important, unsettled problems of the commons.  It identifies both the contributions made by economic analysis and the challenges facing public policy.

The article begins with natural resources, highlighting the difference between most non-renewable natural resources, pure private goods that are both excludable and rival in consumption, and renewable natural resources, many of which are non-excludable.

Some of these are rival in consumption but characterized by open-access.  An example is the degradation of ocean fisheries. An economic perspective on these resources helps identify the problems they present for management, and provides guidance for sensible solutions.

The article then turns to a major set of commons problems that were not addressed until the last three decades of the twentieth century – environmental quality.  Although frequently characterized as textbook examples of externalities, these problems can also be viewed as a particular category of commons problems:  pure public goods, that are both non-excludable and non-rival in consumption.

A key contribution of economics has been the development of market-based approaches to environmental protection, including emission taxes and tradable rights.  These have potential to address the ultimate commons problem of the twenty-first century, global climate change.

Themes That Emerge

First, economic theory – by focusing on market failures linked with incomplete systems of property rights – has made major contributions to our understanding of commons problems and the development of prudent public policies.

Second, as our understanding of the commons has become more complex, the design of economic policy instruments has become more sophisticated, enabling policy makers to address problems that are characterized by uncertainty, spatial and temporal heterogeneity, and long duration.

Third, government policies that have not accounted for economic responses have been excessively costly, often ineffective, and sometimes counter-productive.

Fourth, commons problems have not diminished.  While some have been addressed successfully, others have emerged that are more important and more difficult.

Fifth, environmental economics is well positioned to offer better understanding and better policies to address these ongoing challenges.


Although I hope you will read the full article – which is very accessible — I will summarize its conclusions here.

Problems of the commons are both more widespread and more important today than when Coman wrote about unsettled problems in the first issue of the American Economic Review 100 years ago.  A century of economic growth and globalization have brought unparalleled improvements in societal well-being, but also unprecedented challenges to the carrying-capacity of the planet.  What would have been in 1911 inconceivable increases in income and population have come about and have greatly heightened pressures on the commons, particularly where there has been open access to it.

The stocks of a variety of renewable natural resources – including water, forests, fisheries, and numerous other species of plant and animal – have been depleted below socially efficient levels, principally because of poorly-defined property-right regimes.  Likewise, the same market failures of open-access – whether characterized as externalities, following A. C. Pigou (1920), or public goods, following Ronald Coase (1960) – have led to the degradation of air and water quality, inappropriate disposal of hazardous waste, depletion of stratospheric ozone, and the atmospheric accumulation of greenhouse gases linked with global climate change.

Over this same century, economics – as a discipline – has gradually come to focus more and more attention on these commons problems, first with regard to natural resources, and more recently with regard to environmental quality.  Economic research within academia and think tanks has improved our understanding of the causes and consequences of excessive resource depletion and inefficient environmental degradation, and thereby has helped identify sensible policy solutions.

Conventional regulatory policies, which have not accounted for economic responses, have been excessively costly, ineffective, or even counter-productive.  The problems behind what Garrett Hardin (1968) characterized as the “tragedy of the commons” might better be described as the “failure of commons regulation.”  As our understanding of the commons has become more complex, the design of economic policy instruments has become more sophisticated.

Problems of the commons have not diminished, and the lag between understanding and action can be long.  While some commons problems have been addressed successfully, others continue to emerge.  Some – such as the threat of global climate change – are both more important and more difficult than problems of the past.

Fortunately, economics is well positioned to offer better understanding and better policies to address these ongoing challenges.  As the first decade of the twenty-first century comes to a close, natural resource and environmental economics has emerged as a productive field of our discipline and one that shows even greater promise for the future.

Both Are Necessary, But Neither is Sufficient: Carbon-Pricing and Technology R&D Initiatives in a Meaningful National Climate Policy

For many years, there has been a great deal of discussion about carbon-pricing – whether carbon taxes or cap-and-trade – as an essential part of a meaningful national climate policy.  It has long been recognized that although carbon-pricing will be necessary, it will not be sufficient. Economists and other policy analysts have noted that policies intended to foster climate-friendly technology research and development (R&D) will also be necessary, but likewise will not be sufficient on their own.

Some recent studies and press accounts, which I reference below, have identified these two approaches to addressing CO2 emissions as substitutes, rather than complements.  That is fundamentally inconsistent with decades of research, and so my purpose in this essay is to set the record straight.

Carbon Pricing:  Necessary But Not Sufficient

First of all, why is there so much talk among policy analysts and policy makers – not simply among academics – about carbon‑pricing as the core of a meaningful strategy to reduce CO2 emissions?  Why, in fact, is this approach so overwhelmingly favored by the analytical community?  The answer is simple and surprisingly pragmatic.

First, there is no other feasible approach that can provide meaningful emissions reductions, such as the 80 percent reduction in national CO2 emissions by 2050 that was part of the legislation passed by the U.S. House of Representatives and proposed in the Senate and part of the Obama administration’s conditional pledge under the Copenhagen Accord.  Because of the ubiquity and diversity of energy use in a modern economy, conventional regulatory approaches –standards of various kinds – simply cannot do the job.  Only carbon pricing – either in the form of carbon taxes or cap-and-trade – can significantly tilt in a climate-friendly direction the millions of decentralized decisions that are made in our economy every day.

Second, carbon-pricing is the least costly approach in the short term, because abatement costs are exceptionally heterogeneous across sources.  Only carbon-pricing provides strong incentives that push all sources to control at the same marginal abatement cost, thereby achieving a given aggregate target at the lowest possible cost.

Third, it is the least costly approach in the long term, because it provides incentives for carbon-friendly technological change, which brings down costs over time.

For these reasons, carbon-pricing is a necessary component of a truly meaningful national climate policy.  [I’ve written about this in many previous blog posts, including on June 23, 2010, “The Real Options for U.S. Climate Policy.”]  However, although it is a necessary policy component, carbon-pricing is not sufficient on its own. This is because there are other market failures that dilute the impacts of price signals on decision makers.

Technology R&D Policies:  Also Necessary, Also Not Sufficient

The most important of these “other market failures” is the public good nature of information.  Companies carrying out research and development (R&D) incur the full costs of their efforts, but they do not capture the full benefits.  This is because even with a perfectly-enforced system of intellectual property rights (such as patents), there are tremendous spillover benefits to other firms.  Decades of economic research – much of it by my former colleague and co-author, Professor Adam Jaffe, now Dean of Arts and Sciences at Brandeis University – has analyzed with empirical (econometric) analysis the remarkable degree to which inventions and innovations by one firm provide valuable information that leads to new inventions and innovations by other firms.

So, firms pay the costs of their R&D, but do not reap all the benefits.  The existence of this positive externality of firms’ R&D – or put differently, the public-good nature of the information generated by R&D – means that the private sector will carry out less than the “efficient” amount of R&D of new climate-friendly technologies in response to given carbon prices.  Hence, other public policies are needed to address this “R&D market failure.”

New path-breaking technologies will be needed to address climate change, and public support for private-sector or public-sector R&D will be crucial to meet this need.  But, at the same time, to address the climate-change market failure itself (that is, the externality associated with greenhouse gas emissions), carbon pricing will be necessary, for all of the reasons I gave above.  This is an application of an important and fundamental principle in economics:  two market failures require the use of two policy instruments.

Empirical analyses have repeatedly verified this crucial point – that combining carbon-pricing with R&D support is more cost-effective than adopting either approach alone.  Included in this set of studies are the following:  Carolyn Fischer (Resources for the Future) and Richard Newell (U.S. Energy Information Administration, on leave from Duke University), “Environmental and Technology Policies for Climate Mitigation”; Stephen Schneider (late of Stanford University) and Lawrence Goulder (Stanford University), “Achieving Low-Cost Emissions Targets”; and Daren Acemoglu (MIT), Philippe Aghion, Leonardo Bursztyn, and David Hemous (Harvard University), “The Environment and Directed Technical Change.”

Complements, Not Substitutes

An interesting, recent column, “Next Step on Policy for Climate,” by David Leonhardt in the New York Times (October 13, 2010, p. B1) might give some people the mistaken impression that technology policies are an adequate, even sensible substitute for carbon-pricing.  That was not the intended message of the column.  In fact, Leonhardt – perhaps the leading economic journalist writing today in the United States ­– indicates clearly in his column that he is skeptical of the notion of thinking of technology subsidies as an adequate substitute for carbon-pricing (in particular, cap-and-trade).  And in a follow-up post at the New York Times’ Economix, he makes clear that “these two policies are not mutually exclusive.”

Nevertheless, Leonhardt’s original column (which included a very nice profile of my colleague, Professor Michael Greenstone of MIT) focused attention on a recent report –  a report that could give the false impression that technology policies would be a sensible substitute for serious carbon-pricing.  The report in question – “Post-Partisan Power” – received significant coverage, primarily because of its sponsorship:  a combination of a prominent Republican-oriented Washington think tank, the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), and an equally prominent Democratic-oriented Washington think tank, the Brooking Institution (and a third partner, the Breakthrough Institute, a California-based environmental think tank).

The report may well garner some bi-partisan political support, because it promises a free lunch of painless, win-win solutions, a promise that will resonate with many elected officials.  Indeed, the report’s sub-title is “how a limited and direct approach to energy innovation can deliver clean, cheap energy, economic productivity, and national prosperity.”  What’s not to like? And the authors are presumably smart and politically shrewd.  I know that’s the case with the AEI author, Steven Hayward, who I debated last year in the pages of the Wall Street Journal.

To its credit, the report lays out a menu of policies intended to stimulate carbon-friendly technological change, ranging from $500 million of Federal government funding of K-12 curriculum development and teacher training to $25 billion annually of direct Federal funding of energy innovation.

For the reasons I explained above (the “R&D market failure” and the “carbon emissions externality”), both direct technology R&D policies and serious carbon-pricing are necessary, but neither is sufficient on its own.  Unfortunately, this new report ­­– and some of the press coverage surrounding it – makes the claim that such direct government funding of technology innovation is a sufficient and sensible substitute for meaningful carbon-pricing.  That claim is both unfortunate and wrong, as it is supported neither by sound reasoning nor empirical research, as I have described above.

Again, many of the individual technology policy recommendations offered by the AEI-Brookings-BI report are worthy of serious consideration (as a complement, not a substitute for an economy-wide carbon-pricing policy).  But the specifics – indeed, much of the meat – are missing.  “Reform the nation’s morass of energy subsidies” – yes, but exactly which subsidies (all of which have important political constituencies behind them) will be eliminated?  “Recognize the potential for nuclear power” – yes, and both the House and Senate carbon-pricing schemes would have provided tremendous incentives for nuclear power investment.

Overall, there should be concern about how all of this will be funded.  Where will the $25 billion per year come from?  The report appropriately states that this should not come from general revenues, and thus add to the Federal debt.  “Phasing out current subsidies for wind, solar, ethanol, and fossil fuels” could be meritorious on its own, but how much does this generate, and does it even pass a political laugh-test?  Interestingly, beyond this, despite considerable rhetoric about moving beyond debates about carbon-pricing, the report recommends that in order to avoid adding to the Federal debt, it would be necessary to impose new taxes, including increased royalties for oil and gas extraction, a tax on imported oil, a tax on electricity sales, and a “very small carbon price” (presumably from a modest carbon tax or unambitious cap-and-trade system).

The actual numbers would be helpful, and the political feasibility remains a serious question.  The political challenges that emerged in the effort to pass cap-and-trade climate legislation will not magically disappear if there’s an attempt to induce Congress to approve $25 billion in funding.  As Tom Friedman noted on October 12th in the New York Times, Congress has not come close to fully funding the outstanding requests for about $4 billion for ARPA-E (energy) research.

More broadly, despite the attraction of the AEI-Brookings-BI proposal as a potential complement to carbon-pricing (and I am serious that the proposal is of value in that context), one has to be very careful about comparing proposed new policies in idealized form (for example, precisely the right subsidies eliminated and precisely the right new subsidies introduced) with real policies with all their warts (for example, the cap-and-trade bill that was passed by the House last year).  Making such comparisons can lead to flawed analysis and misleading results.

This is not a new issue.  Robert Hahn and I wrote about this generic problem nearly 20 years ago in an article (“Economic Incentives for Environmental Protection:  Integrating Theory and Practice”) which appeared the American Economic Review Papers and Proceedings (May 1992).  At the time, our concern was that this mistake was being made not by the opponents but by the supporters of cap-and-trade and other (then essentially untested) market-based instruments.  We worried that “many analysts use highly stylized benchmarks for comparison that ignore likely political realities,” and suggested that an appropriate “comparison would be between actual command-and-control policies and either actual trading [cap-and-trade] programs … or a reasonably constrained theoretical … program.”

Likewise today, when carrying out comparisons of policy alternatives, it is fine to compare two theoretical, idealized alternatives, or to compare two real-world policies, but it is problematic and usually misleading to compare a theoretical, idealized policy of one type with a real-world example of another type of policy.

The Bottom Line

Carbon-pricing – whether carbon taxes or cap-and-trade – will be an essential part of any truly meaningful national climate policy.  Likewise, to address the “R&D market failure,” direct technology innovation policies will also be required.  Both are necessary.  Neither is sufficient.  These are complements, not substitutes.


Postscript: Four years ago, the U.S. Congressional Budget Office (CBO) — widely recognized for its non-partisan, first-rate research — produced a study on the same topic as the AEI-Brookings-BI report, but did so with rigor and without ideology.  The CBO report — Evaluating the Role of Prices and R&D in Reducing Carbon Dioxide Emissions (September 2006) — was prepared by Dr. Terry Dinan, a long-time, respected CBO economist, and was peer reviewed by an impressive set of academic and other experts.  Sadly, the CBO paper received little press coverage, despite its high quality and its relevance.  For anyone interested in the topic of this post, particularly those who disagree with my theme, I hope you will read the CBO report.

Also, a reader of this blog post sent me a paper by David Hart and Kadri Kallas (from MIT’s Energy Innovation working paper series) that examines “Alignment and Misalignment of Technology Push and Regulatory Pull.” It’s worth reading in the context of combining carbon pricing and technology R&D policies.

Here We Go Again: A Closer Look at the Kerry-Lieberman Cap-and-Trade Proposal

As with the Waxman-Markey bill (H.R. 2454), passed by the House of Representatives last June, there is now some confusing commentary in the press and blogosphere about the allocation of allowances in the new Senate proposal — the American Power Act of 2010 — sponsored by Senator John Kerry, Democrat of Massachusetts, and Senator Joseph Lieberman, Independent of Connecticut.  As before, the mistake is being made of confusing the share of allowances that are freely allocated versus auctioned with (the appropriate analysis of) the actual incidence of the allowance value, that is, who ultimately benefits from the allocation and auction revenue.

In this essay, I assess quantitatively the actual incidence of the allowance value in the new Senate proposal, much as I did last year with the House legislation.  I find (as with Waxman-Markey) that the lion’s share of the allowance value — some 82% — goes to consumers and public purposes, and only 18% accrues to covered, private industry.   First, however, I place this in context by commenting briefly on the overall Senate proposal, and by examining in generic terms the effects that allowance allocations have — and do not have — in cap-and-trade systems.

The American Power Act of 2010

You may be wondering why I am bothering to write about the Kerry-Lieberman proposal at all, given the conventional wisdom that the likelihood is very small of achieving the 60 votes necessary in the Senate to pass the legislation (particularly with the withdrawal of Senator Lindsay Graham — Republican of South Carolina — from the former triplet of Senate sponsors).  Two reasons.  First, conventional wisdoms often turn out to be wrong (although I must say that the vote count on Kerry-Lieberman does not look good, with the current tally according to Environment & Energy Daily being 26 Yes, 11 Probably Yes, 31 Fence Sitters, 10 Probably No, and 22 No).  Second, if the conventional wisdom turns out to be correct, and the 60-vote margin proves insurmountable in the current Congress, then when the Congress returns to this issue — which it inevitably will in the future  — among the key starting points for Congressional thinking will be the Waxman-Markey and Kerry-Lieberman proposals.  Hence, the design issues do matter.

The American Power Act, like its House counter-part, is a long and complex piece of legislation with many design elements in its cap-and-trade system (which, of course, is not called “cap-and-trade” — but rather “reduction and investment”), and many elements that go well beyond the cap-and-trade system (sorry, I meant to say the “reduce-and-invest” system).  Perhaps in a future essay, I will examine some of those other elements (wherein there is naturally both good news and bad news), but for today, I am focusing exclusively on the allowance allocation issue, which is of central political importance.

Before turning to an empirical examination of the Kerry-Lieberman allowance allocation, it may be helpful to recall some generic facts about the role that allowance allocations play in cap-and-trade systems.

The Role of Allowance Allocations in Cap-and-Trade Systems

It is exceptionally important to keep in mind what is probably the key attribute of cap-and-trade systems:  the particular allocation of those allowances which are freely distributed 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.  (There are some caveats, 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 (although it’s true that the revenue from auctioned allowances can be used for a variety of public purposes, including cutting distortionary taxes, which can thereby reduce the net cost of the program).  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 — for the most part — 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.   With other policy instruments — both in the environmental realm and in other policy domains — political pressures often reduce the effectiveness and/or 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 come in.

Some Important Caveats

First, as I said above, auction revenue may be used in ways that reduce the costs of the existing tax system or fund other socially beneficial policies.  Free allocations forego such opportunities.

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 and Kerry-Lieberman both allocate a significant number of allowances to local (electricity) distribution companies, which are subject to cost-of-service regulation even in regions with restructured wholesale electricity markets.  Because the distribution companies are subject to cost-of-service regulation, the benefit of the allocation will ultimately accrue to electricity consumers, not the companies themselves.  While these allocations could increase the overall cost of the program if the economic value of the allowances is passed on to consumers in the form of reduced electricity prices, if that value is instead passed on to consumers through lump-sum rebates, the effect can be to compensate consumers for increased electricity prices without reducing incentives for energy conservation.  (There are some legitimate behavioral questions here about how consumers will respond to such rebates; these questions are best left to ongoing economic research.)

Third, “output-based updating allocations” can be useful for addressing competitiveness impacts of a climate policy on particularly energy-intensive and trade-sensitive sectors, but these allocations can provide perverse incentives and drive up the costs of achieving a cap if they are poorly designed.  This merits some explanation.

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.  While this affects firms’ pricing and production decisions in ways that can, in some cases, introduce unintended consequences and increase the cost of meeting an emissions target, when applied to energy-intensive trade-exposed industries, the incentives created by such allocations can contribute to the goal of reducing emission leakage abroad.

This approach is probably superior to an import allowance requirement, whereby imports of a small set of specific commodities must carry with them CO2 allowances, because import allowance requirements can damage international trade relations.  The only real solution to the competitiveness issue is to bring key non-participating countries within an international climate regime in meaningful ways, an obviously difficult objective to achieve.  (On this, please see the work of the Harvard Project on International Climate Agreements.)

Is the Kerry-Lieberman Allowance Allocation a Corporate Give-Away?

Perhaps unintentionally, there has been some potentially misleading coverage on this issue.  At first glance, about half of the allowances would be auctioned and about half freely allocated over the life of the program, 2012-2050.  (In the early years, the auction share is smaller, reflecting various transitional allocations that phase out over time.)  But looking at the shares that are auctioned and freely allocated can be very misleading.

Instead, the best way to assess the real 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 and auction revenue are 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.  Indeed, my conclusion is that over the period 2012-2050, less than 18% of the allowance value accrues to industry.

First, 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:

I.  Cost Containment

a.  Auction from cost containment reserve, 3.1%

II.  Indirect Assistance to Mitigate Impacts on Energy Consumers

b.  Electricity local distribution companies, 18.6%

c.  Natural gas local distribution companies, 4.1%

d.  State programs for home heating oil, propane, and kerosene consumers, 0.9%

III.  Direct Assistance to Households and Taxpayers

e.  Allowances auctioned to provide tax and energy refunds for low-income households, 11.7%

f.  Allowances auctioned for universal tax refunds, 22.3%

IV.  Other Domestic Priorities

g.  State renewable and energy efficiency programs, 0.6%

h.  State and local agency programs to reduce emissions through transportation projects, 1.9%

i.  Grants for national surface transportation system, 1.9%

j.  Auctioned allowances for Highway Trust Fund, 1.9%

k.  Domestic adaptation, 1.0%

l.  Rural energy savings (consumer loans to implement energy efficiency measures), 0.1%

V.  International Funding

m.  International adaptation, 1.0%

VI.  Deficit Reduction

n.  Allowances auctioned for deficit reduction, 7.4%

o.  Remaining allowances auctioned to offset bill’s impact on deficit, 6.1%

Next, the following elements will accrue to private industry, again with average (2012-2050) shares of allowances:

I.  Allocations to Covered Entities

a.  Energy-intensive, trade-exposed industries, 7.0%

b.  Petroleum refiners, 2.2%

c.  Merchant coal-fired electricity generators, 2.2%

d.  Generators under long-term contracts without cost recovery, 0.9%

II.  Technology Funding

e.  Carbon capture and sequestration incentives, 3.8%

f.  Clean energy technology R&D, 0.7%

g.  Low-carbon manufacturing R&D, 0.3%

h.  Clean vehicle technology incentives, 0.3%

III.  Other Domestic Priorities

i.  Manufacturing plant energy efficiency retrofits, 0.1%

j.  Compensation for early action emissions reductions prior to cap’s implementation, 0.1%

The bottom line?  Over the entire period from 2012 to 2050, 82.6% of the allowance value goes to consumers and public purposes, and 17.6% to private industry. Rounding error brings the total to 100.2%, so to be conservative, I’ll call this an 82%/18% split.

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 18% free allocation to private industry should not be viewed as a windfall.

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 Kerry-Lieberman allocation is that about 82% of the value of allowances go to consumers and public purposes, and 18% to private industry.

Comparing the Kerry-Lieberman 82/18 Split with Recommendations from Economic Analyses

The 82-18 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 Kerry-Lieberman 82/18 allowance split (like the 80/20 Waxman-Markey 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.

The Path Ahead

Going forward, many observers and participants in the policy process may continue to question the wisdom of some elements of the Kerry-Lieberman proposal, including its allowance allocation.  There’s nothing wrong with that.

But let’s be clear that, first, for the most part, the specific allocation of free allowances affects neither the environmental performance of the cap-and-trade system nor its aggregate social cost.

Second, we should recognize that the legislation is by no means a corporate give-away.  On the contrary, 82% of the value of allowances accrue to consumers and public purposes, and some 18% accrue to covered, private industry.  This split is roughly consistent with the recommendations of independent economic research.

Finally, it should not be forgotten that the much-lamented deal-making for shares of the allowances for various purposes that took place in the deliberations leading up the announcement by Senators Kerry and Lieberman 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.

Any Hope for Meaningful U.S. Climate Policy? You be the Judge.

The current conventional wisdom ­– broadly echoed by the news media and the blogosphere – is that comprehensive, economy-wide CO2 cap-and-trade legislation is dead in the current U.S. Congress, and perhaps for the next several years.

Watch out for conventional wisdoms!  They inevitably appear to be the collective judgment of numerous well-informed observers and sources, but frequently they are little more than the massive repetition of a few sample points of opinion across the echo-chamber of the professional news media and the blogosphere.

Keep in mind that the conventional wisdom as recently as June of 2009 had it that – with the Waxman-Markey bill having been passed triumphantly by the House of RepresentativesSenate action would follow; the only question raised by many commentators was whether the final legislation could be sent to the President for his signature by the time of the Copenhagen climate talks in December.  My, how the conventional wisdom has changed!

But over the past nine months, the politics have not fundamentally changed.  In June of 2009, passage of meaningful climate legislation in the Senate was already unlikely, because of the terrible economic recession in which the country found itself, and – of even greater political salience ­– lingering high rates of unemployment.  And with the lack of Republican support for the stimulus bill, the relatively small (partisan) margin by which the House passed Waxman-Markey, the then-upcoming challenges of health care and financial regulatory reform dominating the legislative calendar, and concerns voiced about climate legislation by moderate Senate Democrats, success in the Senate was always a long-shot.

What is the Likely Legislative Outcome?

In addition to ongoing consideration of an economy-wide cap-and-trade system, another possibility now receiving attention is a utility-only cap-and-trade system, which some members of the Congress inexplicably find more attractive than an economy-wide approach.  The result of such a system would be much less accomplished (forget about the President’s “conditional commitment” under the Copenhagen Accord), and at much greater cost.  This would be equivalent to taking the Northeast’s Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) as a model for national action.  Not a good idea.

Even more likely is that the Congress would develop a so-called energy-only bill, which would – to a large degree – consist of killing the one part of Waxman-Markey worth saving (the comprehensive CO2 cap-and-trade system), and moving forward with the worst parts of that legislation – the smorgasbord of regulatory initiatives.  As I’ve written previously, those additional elements of the legislation are highly problematic.  When implemented under the cap-and-trade umbrella, many of those conventional standards and subsidies would have no net greenhouse-gas-reducing benefits, would limit flexibility, and would thereby have the unintended consequence of driving up compliance costs. That’s the soft under‑belly of the House legislation.

Without the cap-and-trade umbrella, that same set of standards and subsidies will accomplish very little, and do so at exceedingly high cost.  Take just one example that seems to be popular among politicians – “renewable portfolio standards” (RPS), requirements that all states or all electricity utilities derive some fixed share of their power, say 20%, from renewable sources.  Note, for example, that such an approach does not distinguish between coal and natural gas, despite the dramatically different impacts these fuels have on CO2 emissions (and a host of other environmental outcomes).  Furthermore, although an RPS may displace some new coal-fired generation with other types of generation, there is little, if any, effect on the operation of existing coal-fired power plants.

If those other, regulatory parts of the climate legislation are so ineffective and so costly, why are they so popular with politicians?  The reason is simple.  The costs are hidden.  The government simply mandates that electric utilities or manufacturers take particular actions, employing the best technology available.  Where’s the cost?  Unlike a cap-and-trade system, there’s no analysis and debate about the cost of allowances (and the marginal abatement costs they represent); and unlike a carbon tax, there’s no analysis and no focus on the dollar amount of the tax and the aggregate cost.  That is the unfortunate but fundamental political economy behind much of U.S. environmental policy since the first Earth Day in 1970.

What about Court-Ordered Regulation?

Whether “best-available-control technology standards” are crafted by the Congress or put in place by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) under the court-ordered mandate stemming from the Supreme Court decision in Massachusetts v. EPA and the Obama administration’s subsequent “endangerment finding,” such an approach will be relatively ineffective and terribly costly for what is accomplished.  The EPA route would essentially apply the mechanisms of the Clean Air Act, intended for localized, “criteria air pollutants,” to CO2, resulting in ineffective and costly regulations.

The White House (and most member of Congress) recognize that this is an inappropriate way to address climate change, but they seem determined to go forward, claiming that this threat will force the hand of Congress to do something more sensible instead.  Unfortunately, this is akin to my telling you that if you don’t do what I want, I will shoot myself in the foot – not a very credible or intelligent threat.  What I am referring to is that costly Clean Air Act regulation of CO2 will play into the hands of right-wing opponents of climate action, creating a poster-child of excessive regulatory intervention that will bring about a backlash against sensible climate policies.  EPA claims that there will be no such excessive regulatory actions, because it will exempt small sources through a so-called “tailoring rule.”  But legal scholars have noted that the tailoring rule stands on questionable legal grounds and could be invalidated by the courts.  In this regard, note that the first lawsuits to stop EPA from exempting small sources are coming from groups on the right, not the left.

Perhaps Senator Murkowski’s proposed joint resolution (H.J. Res. 66), introduced on January 21, 2010, disapproving (stopping) EPA’s regulatory action under the endangerment finding could save the Administration.  The conventional wisdom is that Senator Murkowski’s resolution has no political future, but with a bi-partisan list of 40 co-sponsors, that’s a total of 41 votes (more than the current total of 40 “Yes” and “Probably Yes” votes in the Senate for serious climate legislation, according to Environment and Energy Daily).  And remember that the disapproval resolution requires only 51, not 60 votes in the Senate, under the rules of the enabling statute, the Congressional Review Act of 1996 (signed by President Clinton, and part of the Republican “Contract with America”).  Of course, House action, not to mention signature by President Obama, would also be required for the resolution to take effect.  But a positive vote in the Senate will send a strong political message.

So Is There No Hope for Good Climate Policy?

Here is where it gets interesting, because as much as the current political environment in Washington may seem increasingly unreceptive to an economy-wide cap-and-trade system or some other meaningful and sensible climate policy, there is one promising approach that could actually benefit from the national political climate.

In these pages, I have expressed support for cap-and-trade mechanisms to address climate change, including the system embodied in the Waxman-Markey legislation that emerged from the House in June of last year.  Although that approach is scientifically sound, economically sensible, and may still turn out to be politically acceptable, there’s a modified version of cap-and-trade that could be much more attractive in this era of rampant expressions of populism, coming both from the right (“no new taxes”) and the left (“bash the corporations”).  Neither of those views, of course, is consistent with sound economic thinking on the environment, but it’s nevertheless possible to recognize their national appeal and build upon them.

This could be done with a simple upstream cap-and-trade system in which all of the needed allowances are sold (auctioned) – not given freely – to fossil-fuel producers and importers, and a very large share – say 75% – of the revenue is rebated directly to American households through monthly checks in a progressive scheme through which all individuals receive identical payments.

Such an approach could appeal to the populist sentiments that are increasingly dominating political discourse and judgments in this mid-term election year.  Such a system – which would have direct and visible positive financial consequences (i.e., rebate checks larger than energy price increases) for 80% of American households – might not only not be difficult for politicians to support, but it might actually be difficult for politicians to oppose!

Importantly, even though this is a specific type of cap-and-trade design (which has been known, studied, and proposed for decades), for better political optics, it should be called something else.  How about “cap-and-dividend?”

A CLEAR Answer?

What I’ve described bears a close resemblance to the “Carbon Limits and Energy for America’s Renewal (CLEAR) Act,” sponsored by Senators Maria Cantwell (D-Washington) and Susan Collins (R-Maine).  So, the politics of their proposal looks appealing, and the substance of it looks promising – a simple upstream cap-and-trade system (called something else), with 100% of the allowances auctioned (with a “price collar” on allowance prices to reduce cost uncertainty), 75% of the revenue refunded to all legal U.S. residents, each month, on an equal per capita basis as non-taxable income, the other 25% of the revenue dedicated to specified purposes, including “transition assistance,” and some built-in measures of protection for particularly energy-intensive, trade-sensitive sectors (not unlike Waxman-Markey).

That’s the good news.  The bad news, however, is that the proposal needs to be changed before it can promise to be not only politically attractive, but economically and environmentally sensible.  In particular, as it is currently structured, only producers and importers of fossil fuels can buy the carbon allowances.  In an up-stream system – an approach I have endorsed for years – it is producers and importers that are subject to compliance, that is, must eventually hold the allowances.  That’s fine.  But there is no sound reason to exclude other entities from participating in the auction markets; and doing so will greatly reduce market liquidity.

Furthermore, the Senators’ proposal says that holders of carbon allowances are actually prohibited from creating, selling, purchasing, or trading carbon derivatives, thereby tremendously reducing the efficiency of the market and needlessly driving up costs.  While no doubt borne out of a well-intentioned desire to protect consumers (remembering the recent impacts of mortgage-backed securities on financial markets), the Senators’ approach is akin to responding to a tragic airplane crash by concluding that the best way to protect consumers from air disasters in the future is simply to ban flying.

Less important structurally, but most important environmentally, an analysis by the World Resources Institute (which I have not validated) indicates that the caps – as currently set – would not bring about emissions reductions by 2020 that would even come close to the President’s announced goal of 17% reductions (equivalent to the Waxman-Markey targets), as submitted by the United States under the Copenhagen Accord.

But these and other problems with the CLEAR proposal can – in principle – be addressed while maintaining its basic structure and political attraction.

An Economic Perspective

It is interesting to note that many – perhaps most – economists have long favored the variant of cap-and-trade whereby allowances are auctioned and the auction revenue is used to cut distortionary taxes (on capital and/or labor), thereby reducing the net social cost of the policy.  Cap-and-Dividend moves in another direction.  This system (which was introduced several years ago in the “Sky Trust” proposal) has some merits compared with the economist’s favorite approach of tax cuts, namely that the Cap-and-Dividend scheme addresses some of the distributional issues that would be raised by using the auction revenue to fund tax cuts (which could favor higher income households).  On the other hand, it eliminates the efficiency (cost-effectiveness) gains associated with the tax-cut approach.  In fact, Stanford’s Larry Goulder has estimated that the tax-and-dividend approach would cost 40% more than an approach of combining an auction of allowances with ideal income tax rate cuts.  (By “ideal,” I mean focusing on tax cuts that would lead to the lowest net cost.)

In general, there are sound reasons to seek to compensate consumers for the energy price increases that will be brought about by a cap-and-trade system, or any meaningful climate change policy. But it is important not to insulate consumers from those price increases, as diluting the price signal reduces the effectiveness and drives up the cost of the overall policy.  Thus, “compensation” as in Cap-and-Dividend is fine, but “insulation” is not.

The most politically salient question with the Waxman-Markey approach of freely allocating a significant portion of the allowances to the private sector is how to distribute (that is, who gets) those allowances which are freely allocated.  In this regard, contrary to much of the hand-wringing in the press, the deal-making that took place in the House and may still take place in the Senate for shares of free allowances is an example of the useful and important 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.

The ultimate political question seems to be whether there is greater (geographic and sectoral) political support for the Waxman-Markey (H.R. 2454) approach of substantial free allocations and targeted use of auction revenue, or if there is greater (populist) political support for the full auction combined with lump-sum rebate which characterizes the “cap-and-dividend” approach.  Alas, the textbook economics preference — full auction combined with cuts of distortionary taxes — appears to be a political, if not academic, orphan.

Unintended Consequences of Government Policies: The Depletion of America’s Wetlands

Private land-use decisions can be affected dramatically by public investments in highways, waterways, flood control, or other infrastructure.  The large movement of jobs from central cities to suburbs in the postwar United States and the ongoing destruction of Amazon rain forests have occurred with major public investment in supporting infrastructure.  As these examples suggest, private land-use decisions can generate major environmental and social externalities – or, in common language, unintended consequences.

In an analysis that appeared in 1990 in the American Economic Review, Adam Jaffe of Brandeis University and I demonstrated that the depletion of forested wetlands in the Mississippi Valley – an important environmental problem and a North American precursor to the loss of South American rain forests – was exacerbated by Federal water-project investments, despite explicit Federal policy to protect wetlands.

Wetland Losses

Forested wetlands are among the world’s most productive ecosystems, providing improved water quality, erosion control, floodwater storage, timber, wildlife habitat, and recreational opportunities.  Their depletion globally is a serious problem; and preservation and protection of wetlands have been major Federal environmental policy goals for forty years.

From the 1950s through the mid-1970s, over one-half million acres of U.S. wetlands were lost each year.  This rate slowed greatly in subsequent years, averaging approximately 60 thousand acres lost per year in the lower 48 states from 1986 through 1997.  And by 2006, the Bush administration’s Secretary of the Interior, Gale Norton, was able to announce a net gain in wetland acreage in the United Sates, due to restoration and creation activities surpassing wetland losses.

What Caused the Observed Losses?

What were the causes of the huge annual losses of wetlands in the earlier years?  That question and our analysis are as germane today as in 1990, because of lessons that have emerged about the unintended consequences of public investments.

The largest remaining wetland habitat in the continental United States is the bottomland hardwood forest of the Lower Mississippi Alluvial Plain.  Originally covering 26 million acres in seven states, this resource was reduced to about 12 million acres by 1937.  By 1990, another 7 million acres had been cleared, primarily for conversion to cropland.

The owner of a wetland parcel faces an economic decision involving revenues from the parcel in its natural state (primarily from timber), costs of conversion (the cost of clearing the land minus the resulting forestry windfall), and expected revenues from agriculture.  Agricultural revenues depend on prices, yields, and, significantly, the drainage and flooding frequency of the land.  Needless to say, landowners typically do not consider the positive environmental externalities generated by wetlands; thus conversion may occur more often than is socially optimal.

Such externalities are the motivation for Federal policy aimed at protecting wetlands, as embodied in the Clean Water Act.  Nevertheless, the Federal government engaged in major public investment activities, in the form of U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and U.S. Soil Conservation Service flood-control and drainage projects, which appeared to make agriculture more attractive and thereby encourage wetland depletion.  The significance of this effect had long been disputed by the agencies which construct and maintain these projects; they attributed the extensive conversion exclusively to rising agricultural prices.

In an econometric (statistical) analysis of data from Arkansas, Mississippi, and Louisiana, from 1935 to 1984, Jaffe and I sought to sort out the effects of Federal projects and other economic forces.  We discovered that these public investments were a very substantial factor causing conversion of wetlands to agriculture, with between 30 and 50 percent of the total wetland depletion over those five decades due to the Federal projects.

More broadly, four conclusions emerged from our analysis.  First, landowners had responded to economic incentives in their land-use decisions.  Second, construction of Federal flood-control and drainage projects caused a higher rate of conversion of forested wetlands to croplands than would have occurred in the absence of projects, leading to the depletion of an additional 1.25 million acres of wetlands.  Third, Federal projects had this impact because they made agriculture feasible on land where it had previously been infeasible, and because, on average, they improved the quality of feasible land.  Fourth, adjustment of land use to economic conditions was gradual.

Government Working at Cross-Purposes

The analysis highlighted a striking inconsistency in the Federal government’s approach to wetlands.  In articulated policies, laws, and regulations, the government recognized the positive externalities associated with some wetlands, with the George H.W. Bush administration first enunciating a “no net loss of wetlands” policy.  But public investments in wetlands – in the form of flood-control and drainage projects – had created major incentives to convert these areas to alternative uses.  The government had been working at cross-purposes.

The conclusion that major public infrastructure investments affect private land-use decisions (thereby often generating negative externalities) may not be a surprise to some readers, but it was the 1990 analysis described here that first provided rigorous evidence which contrasted sharply with the accepted wisdom among policy makers.

The Ongoing Importance of Induced Land-Use Changes

As wetlands, tropical rain forests, barrier islands, and other sensitive environmental areas become more scarce, their marginal social value rises.  In general, if induced land-use changes are not considered, the country will engage in more public investment programs whose net social benefits are negative.

Three Pillars of a New Climate Pact

THE climate change summit at the United Nations on Tuesday, September 22nd,  is aimed to build momentum for the 15th Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change in Copenhagen in December, where nations will continue negotiations on a successor to the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, which expires in 2012.   Later this week, the G20 finance ministers will meet in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where international climate policy will be high on the agenda.

In the midst of this, Professor Sheila Olmstead of Yale University and I wrote an opinion piece which appeared as an op-ed in The Boston Globe on Sunday, September 20th.  (See the original here, with the artwork; and/or for a detailed description of our proposal, see our discussion paper for the Harvard Project on International Climate Agreements.)

In the op-ed, we argued that to be successful, any feasible successor agreement must contain three essential elements: meaningful involvement by a broad set of key industrialized and developing nations; an emphasis on an extended time path of emissions targets; and inclusion of policy approaches that work through the market, rather than against it.

Consider the need for broad participation. Industrialized countries have emitted most of the stock of man-made carbon dioxide in our atmosphere, so shouldn’t they reduce emissions before developing countries are asked to contribute? While this seems to make sense, here are four reasons why the new climate agreement must engage all major emitting countries – both industrialized and developing.

First, emissions from developing countries are significant and growing rapidly. China surpassed the United States as the world’s largest CO2 emitter in 2006, and developing countries may account for more than half of global emissions within the next decade. Second, developing countries provide the best opportunities for low-cost emissions reduction; their participation could dramatically reduce total costs. Third, the United States and several other industrialized countries may not commit to significant emissions reductions without developing country participation. Fourth, if developing countries are excluded, up to one-third of carbon emissions reductions by participating countries may migrate to non-participating economies through international trade, reducing environmental gains and pushing developing nations onto more carbon-intensive growth paths (so-called “carbon leakage’’).

How can developing countries participate in an international effort to reduce emissions without incurring costs that derail their economic development? Their emissions targets could start at business-as-usual levels, becoming more stringent over time as countries become wealthier. If such “growth targets’’ were combined with an international emission trading program, developing countries could fully participate without incurring prohibitive costs (or even any costs in the short term).  (For a very insightful analysis of such growth targets, please see Harvard Professor Jeffrey Frankel‘s discussion paper for the Harvard Project on International Climate Agreements.)

The second pillar of a successful post-2012 climate policy is an emphasis on the long run. Greenhouse gases remain in the atmosphere for decades to centuries, and major technological change is needed to bring down the costs of reducing CO2 emissions. The economically efficient solution will involve firm but moderate short-term targets to avoid rendering large parts of the capital stock prematurely obsolete, and flexible but more stringent long-term targets.

Third, a post-2012 global climate policy must work through the market rather than against it. To keep costs down in the short term and bring them down even lower in the long term through technological change, market-based policy instruments must be embraced as the chief means of reducing emissions. One market-based approach, known as cap-and-trade, is emerging as the preferred approach for reducing carbon emissions among industrialized countries.

Under cap-and-trade, sources with low control costs may take on added reductions, allowing them to sell excess permits to sources with high control costs. The European Union’s Emission Trading Scheme, established under the Kyoto Protocol, is the world’s largest cap-and-trade system. In June, the US federal government took a significant step toward establishing a national cap-and-trade policy to reduce CO2 emissions, with the passage in the House of Representatives of the American Clean Energy and Security Act (about which I have written in many previous posts at this blog). Other industrialized countries are instituting or planning national CO2 cap-and-trade systems, including Australia, Canada, Japan, and New Zealand.

Linking such cap-and-trade systems under a new international climate treaty would bring cost savings from increasing the market’s scope, greater liquidity, reduced price volatility, lessened market power, and reduced carbon leakage. Cap-and-trade systems can be linked directly, which requires harmonization, or indirectly by linking with a common emissions-reduction credit system; indeed, this is what appears to be emerging even before a new agreement is forged. Kyoto’s Clean Development Mechanism allows parties in wealthy countries to purchase emissions-reduction credits in developing countries by investing in emissions-reduction projects. These credits can be used to meet emissions commitments within the EU-ETS, and other systems are likely to accept them as well.

Countries meeting in New York and Pittsburgh this week, and in Copenhagen in December, should consider these three essential elements as they negotiate a new climate agreement. A new international climate agreement missing any of these three pillars may be too costly, and provide too little benefit, to represent a meaningful attempt to address the threat of global climate change.

Too Good to be True?

Global climate change is a serious environmental threat, and sound public policies are needed to address it effectively and sensibly.

There is now significant interest and activity within both the U.S. Administration and the U.S. Congress to develop a meaningful national climate policy in this country.  (If you’re interested, please see some of my previous posts:  “Opportunity for a Defining Moment” (February 6, 2009); “The Wonderful Politics of Cap-and-Trade:  A Closer Look at Waxman-Markey” (May 27, 2009); “Worried About International Competitiveness?  Another Look at the Waxman-Markey Cap-and-Trade Proposal” (June 18, 2009); “National Climate Change Policy:  A Quick Look Back at Waxman-Markey and the Road Ahead” (June 29, 2009).  For a more detailed account, see my Hamilton Project paper, A U.S. Cap-and-Trade System to Address Global Climate Change.)

And as we move toward the international negotiations to take place in December of this year in Copenhagen, it is important to keep in mind the global commons nature of the problem, and hence the necessity of designing and implementing an international policy architecture that is scientifically sound, economically rational, and politically pragmatic.

Back in the U.S., with domestic action delayed in the Senate, several states and regions in the United States have moved ahead with their own policies and plans.  Key among these is California’s Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006, intended to return the state’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in 2020 to their 1990 level.  In 2006, three studies were released indicating that California can meet its 2020 target at no net economic cost.  That is not a typographical error.  The studies found not simply that the costs will be low, but that the costs will be zero, or even negative!  That is, the studies found that California’s ambitious target can be achieved through measures whose direct costs would be outweighed by offsetting savings they create, making them economically beneficial even without considering the emission reductions they may achieve.  Not just a free lunch, but a lunch we are paid to eat!

Given the substantial emission reductions that will be required to meet California’s 2020 target, these findings are ­- to put it mildly – surprising, and they differ dramatically from the vast majority of economic analyses of the cost of reducing GHG emissions.  As a result, I was asked by the Electric Power Research Institute – along with my colleagues, Judson Jaffe and Todd Schatzki of Analysis Group – to evaluate the three California studies.

In a report titled, “Too Good To Be True?  An Examination of Three Economic Assessments of California Climate Change Policy,” we found that although some limited opportunities may exist for no-cost emission reductions, the studies substantially underestimated the cost of meeting California’s 2020 target — by omitting important components of the costs of emission reduction efforts, and by overestimating offsetting savings some of those efforts yield through improved energy efficiency.  In some cases, the studies focused on the costs of particular actions to reduce emissions, but failed to consider the effectiveness and costs of policies that would be necessary to bring about those actions.  Just a few of the flaws we identified lead to underestimation of annual costs on the order of billions of dollars.  Sadly, the studies therefore did not and do not offer reliable estimates of the cost of meeting California’s 2020 target.

This episode is a reminder of a period when similar studies were performed by the U.S. Department of Energy at the time of the Kyoto Protocol negotiations.  Like the California studies, the DOE (Interlaboratory Work Group) studies in the late 1990s suggested that substantial emission reductions could be achieved at no cost.  Those studies were terribly flawed, which was what led to their faulty conclusions.  I had thought that such arguments about massive “free lunches” in the energy efficiency and climate domain had long since been laid to rest.  The debates in California (and some of the rhetoric in Washington) prove otherwise.

While the Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006 sets an emissions target, critical policy design decisions remain to be made that will fundamentally affect the cost of the policy.  For example, policymakers must determine the emission sources that will be regulated to meet those targets, and the policy instruments that will be employed.  The California studies do not directly address the cost implications of these and other policy design decisions, and their overly optimistic findings may leave policymakers with an inadequate appreciation of the stakes associated with the decisions that lie ahead.

On the positive side, a careful evaluation of the California studies highlights some important policy design lessons that apply regardless of the extent to which no-cost emission reduction opportunities really exist.  Policies should be designed to account for uncertainty regarding emission reduction costs, much of which will not be resolved before policies must be enacted.  Also, consideration of the market failures that lead to excessive GHG emissions makes clear that to reduce emissions cost-effectively, policymakers should employ a market-based policy (such as cap-and-trade) as the core policy instrument.

The fact that the three California studies so egregiously underestimated the costs of achieving the goals of the Global Warming Solutions Act should not be taken as indicating that the Act itself is necessarily without merit.  As I have discussed in previous posts, that judgment must rest – from an economic perspective – on an honest and rigorous comparison of the Act’s real benefits and real costs.

Policies Can Work in Strange Ways

Whether the policy domain is global climate change or local hazardous waste, it’s exceptionally important to understand the interaction between public policies and technological change in order to assess the effects of laws and regulations on environmental performance.  Several years ago, my colleagues ­- Professor Lori Bennear of Duke University and Professor Nolan Miller of the University of Illinois – examined with me the effects of regulation on technological change in chlorine manufacturing by focusing on the diffusion of membrane-cell technology, widely viewed as environmentally superior to both mercury-cell and diaphragm-cell technologies.  Our results were both interesting and surprising, and merit thinking about in the context of current policy discussions and debates in Washington.

The chlorine manufacturing industry had experienced a substantial shift over time toward the membrane technology. Two different processes drove this shift:  adoption of cleaner technologies at existing plants (that is, adoption), and the closing of facilities using diaphragm and mercury cells (in other words, exit).  In our study, we considered the effects of both direct regulation of chlorine manufacturing and regulation of downstream uses of chlorine.    (By the way, you can read a more detailed version of this story in our article in the American Economic Review Papers and Proceedings, volume 93, 2003, pp. 431-435.)

In 1972, a widely publicized incident of mercury poisoning in Minamata Bay, Japan, led the Japanese government to prohibit the use of mercury cells for chlorine production. The United States did not follow suit, but it did impose more stringent constraints on mercury-cell units during the early 1970’s. Subsequently, chlorine manufacturing became subject to increased regulation under the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, and the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act.  In addition, chlorine manufacturing became subject to public-disclosure requirements under the Toxics Release Inventory.

In addition to regulation of the chlorine manufacturing process, there was also increased environmental pressure on industries that used chlorine as an input. This indirect regulation was potentially important for choices of chlorine manufacturing technology because a large share of chlorine was and is manufactured for onsite use in the production of other products. Changes in regulations in downstream industries can have substantial impacts on the demand for chlorine and thereby affect the rate of entry and exit of chlorine production plants.

Two major indirect regulations altered the demand for chlorine. One was the Montreal Protocol, which regulated the production of ozone-depleting chemicals, such as chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), for which chlorine is a key ingredient. The other important indirect regulation was the “Cluster Rule,” which tightened restrictions on the release of chlorinated compounds from pulp and paper mills to both water and air. This led to increased interest by the industry in non-chlorine bleaching agents, which in turn affected the economic viability of some chlorine plants.

In our econometric (statistical) analysis, we analyzed the effects of economic and regulatory factors on adoption and exit decisions by chlorine manufacturing plants from 1976 to 2001.  For our analysis of adoption, we employed data on 51 facilities, eight of which had adopted the membrane technology during the period we investigated.

We found that the effects of the regulations on the likelihood of adopting membrane technology were not statistically significant.  Mercury plants, which were subject to stringent regulation for water, air, and hazardous-waste removal, were no more likely to switch to the membrane technology than diaphragm plants. Similarly, TRI reporting appeared to have had no significant effect on adoption decisions.

We also examined what caused plants to exit the industry, with data on 55 facilities, 21 of which ceased operations between 1976 and 2001. Some interesting and quite striking patterns emerged. Regulations clearly explained some of the exit behavior.  In particular, indirect regulations of the end-uses of chlorine accelerated shutdowns in some industries. Facilities affected by the pulp and paper cluster rule and the Montreal Protocol were substantially more likely to shut down than were other facilities.

It is good to remember that the diffusion of new technology is the result of a combination of adoption at existing facilities and entry and exit of facilities with various technologies in place. In the case of chlorine manufacturing, our results indicated that regulatory factors did not have a significant effect on the decision to adopt the greener technology at existing plants. On the other hand, indirect regulation of the end-uses of chlorine accelerated facility closures significantly, and thereby increased the share of plants using the cleaner, membrane technology for chlorine production.

Environmental regulation did affect technological change, but not in the way many people assume it does. It did so not by encouraging the adoption of some technology by existing facilities, but by reducing the demand for a product and hence encouraging the shutdown of facilities using environmentally inferior options.  This is a legitimate way for policies to operate, although it’s one most politicians would probably prefer not to recognize.

Is Benefit-Cost Analysis Helpful for Environmental Regulation?

With the locus of action on Federal climate policy moving this week from the House of Representatives to the Senate, this is a convenient moment to step back from the political fray and reflect on some fundamental questions about U.S. environmental policy.

One such question is whether economic analysis – in particular, the comparison of the benefits and costs of proposed policies – plays a truly useful role in Washington, or is it little more than a distraction of attention from more important perspectives on public policy, or – worst of all – is it counter-productive, even antithetical, to the development, assessment, and implementation of sound policy in the environmental, resource, and energy realms.   With an exceptionally talented group of thinkers – including scientists, lawyers, and economists – now in key environmental and energy policy positions at the White House, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Energy, and the Department of the Treasury, this question about the usefulness of benefit-cost analysis is of particular importance.

For many years, there have been calls from some quarters for greater reliance on the use of economic analysis in the development and evaluation of environmental regulations.  As I have noted in previous posts on this blog, most economists would argue that economic efficiency — measured as the difference between benefits and costs — ought to be one of the key criteria for evaluating proposed regulations.  (See:  “The Myths of Market Prices and Efficiency,” March 3, 2009; “What Baseball Can Teach Policymakers,” April 20, 2009; “Does Economic Analysis Shortchange the Future?” April 27, 2009)  Because society has limited resources to spend on regulation, such analysis can help illuminate the trade-offs involved in making different kinds of social investments.  In this sense, it would seem irresponsible not to conduct such analyses, since they can inform decisions about how scarce resources can be put to the greatest social good.

In principle, benefit-cost analysis can also help answer questions of how much regulation is enough.  From an efficiency standpoint, the answer to this question is simple — regulate until the incremental benefits from regulation are just offset by the incremental costs.  In practice, however, the problem is much more difficult, in large part because of inherent problems in measuring marginal benefits and costs.  In addition, concerns about fairness and process may be very important economic and non-economic factors.  Regulatory policies inevitably involve winners and losers, even when aggregate benefits exceed aggregate costs.

Over the years, policy makers have sent mixed signals regarding the use of benefit-cost analysis in policy evaluation.  Congress has passed several statutes to protect health, safety, and the environment that effectively preclude the consideration of benefits and costs in the development of certain regulations, even though other statutes actually require the use of benefit-cost analysis.  At the same time, Presidents Carter, Reagan, Bush, Clinton, and Bush all put in place formal processes for reviewing economic implications of major environmental, health, and safety regulations. Apparently the Executive Branch, charged with designing and implementing regulations, has seen a greater need than the Congress to develop a yardstick against which regulatory proposals can be assessed.  Benefit-cost analysis has been the yardstick of choice

It was in this context that ten years ago a group of economists from across the political spectrum jointly authored an article in Science magazine, asking whether there is role for benefit-cost analysis in environmental, health, and safety regulation.  That diverse group consisted of Kenneth Arrow, Maureen Cropper, George Eads, Robert Hahn, Lester Lave, Roger Noll, Paul Portney, Milton Russell, Richard Schmalensee, Kerry Smith, and myself.  That article and its findings are particularly timely, with President Obama considering putting in place a new Executive Order on Regulatory Review.

In the article, we suggested that benefit-cost analysis has a potentially important role to play in helping inform regulatory decision making, though it should not be the sole basis for such decision making.  We offered eight principles.

First, benefit-cost analysis can be useful for comparing the favorable and unfavorable effects of policies, because it can help decision makers better understand the implications of decisions by identifying and, where appropriate, quantifying the favorable and unfavorable consequences of a proposed policy change.  But, in some cases, there is too much uncertainty to use benefit-cost analysis to conclude that the benefits of a decision will exceed or fall short of its costs.

Second, decision makers should not be precluded from considering the economic costs and benefits of different policies in the development of regulations.  Removing statutory prohibitions on the balancing of benefits and costs can help promote more efficient and effective regulation.

Third, benefit-cost analysis should be required for all major regulatory decisions. The scale of a benefit-cost analysis should depend on both the stakes involved and the likelihood that the resulting information will affect the ultimate decision.

Fourth, although agencies should be required to conduct benefit-cost analyses for major decisions, and to explain why they have selected actions for which reliable evidence indicates that expected benefits are significantly less than expected costs, those agencies should not be bound by strict benefit-cost tests.  Factors other than aggregate economic benefits and costs may be important.

Fifth, benefits and costs of proposed policies should be quantified wherever possible.  But not all impacts can be quantified, let alone monetized.  Therefore, care should be taken to assure that quantitative factors do not dominate important qualitative factors in decision making.  If an agency wishes to introduce a “margin of safety” into a decision, it should do so explicitly.

Sixth, the more external review that regulatory analyses receive, the better they are likely to be.  Retrospective assessments should be carried out periodically.

Seventh, a consistent set of economic assumptions should be used in calculating benefits and costs.  Key variables include the social discount rate, the value of reducing risks of premature death and accidents, and the values associated with other improvements in health.

Eighth, while benefit-cost analysis focuses primarily on the overall relationship between benefits and costs, a good analysis will also identify important distributional consequences for important subgroups of the population.

From these eight principles, we concluded that benefit-cost analysis can play an important role in legislative and regulatory policy debates on protecting and improving the natural environment, health, and safety.  Although formal benefit-cost analysis should not be viewed as either necessary or sufficient for designing sensible public policy, it can provide an exceptionally useful framework for consistently organizing disparate information, and in this way, it can greatly improve the process and hence the outcome of policy analysis.

If properly done, benefit-cost analysis can be of great help to agencies participating in the development of environmental regulations, and it can likewise be useful in evaluating agency decision making and in shaping new laws (which brings us full-circle to the climate legislation that will be developed in the U.S. Senate over the weeks and months ahead, and which I hope to discuss in future posts).

Straight Talk about Corporate Social Responsibility

Critical thinking about “corporate social responsibility” (CSR) is needed, because there are few topics where discussions feature greater ratios of heat to light.  With this in mind, two of my Harvard colleagues – law professor Bruce Hay and business school professor Richard Vietor – and I co-edited a book, Environmental Protection and the Social Responsibility of Firms: Perspectives from Law, Economics, and Business.

At issue is the appropriate role of business with regard to environmental protection.  Everyone agrees that firms should obey the law. But beyond the law – beyond compliance with regulations – do firms have additional responsibilities to commit resources to environmental protection?  How should we think about the notion of firms sacrificing profits in the social interest?

Much of what has been written on this question has been both confused and confusing.  Advocates, as well as academics, have entangled what ought to be four distinct questions about corporate social responsibility:  may they, can they, should they, and do they.

First, may firms sacrifice profits in the social interest – given their fiduciary responsibilities to shareholders?  Does management have a fiduciary duty to maximize corporate profits in the interest of shareholders, or can it sacrifice profits by voluntarily exceeding the requirements of environmental law?  Einer Elhauge, a professor at Harvard Law School, challenges the conventional wisdom that managers have a simple legal duty to maximize corporate profits.  He argues that managers have freedom to diverge from the goal of profit maximization, partly because their legal duties to shareholders are governed by the “business judgment rule,” which gives them broad discretion to use corporate resources as they see fit.

If a company’s managers decide, for example, to use “green” inputs, devise cleaner production technologies, or dispose of their waste more safely, courts will not stop them from doing so, no matter how disgruntled shareholders may be at such acts of public charity.  The reason is that for all a judge knows, such measures – particularly when they are well publicized – will add to the firm’s bottom line in the long run by increasing public goodwill.  But this line of argument contradicts the very premise, since it is based upon the notion that the actions are not sacrificing profits, but contributing to them.

This leads directly to the second question.  Can firms sacrifice profits in the social interest on a sustainable basis, or will the forces of a competitive market render such efforts transient at best?  Paul Portney, Dean of the Eller College of Management at the University of Arizona, notes that for firms that enjoy monopoly positions or produce products for well-defined niche markets, such extra costs can well be passed on to customers.  But for the majority of firms in competitive industries – particularly firms that produce commodities – it is difficult or impossible to pass on such voluntarily incurred costs to customers.  Such firms have to absorb those extra costs in the form of reduced profits, reduced shareholder dividends, and/or reduced compensation, suggesting that, in the face of competition, such behavior is not sustainable.

This leads to the third question of CSR:  even if firms may carry out such profit-sacrificing activities, and can do so, should they – from society’s perspective?  Is this likely to lead to an efficient use of social resources?  To be more specific, under what conditions are firms’ CSR activities likely to be welfare-enhancing?  Portney finds that this is most likely to be the case if firms pursuing CSR strategies are doing so because it is good business – that is, profitable.  Once again, a positive response violates the premise of the question.  But for more costly CSR investments, concern exists about the opportunity costs that will be involved for firms. Further, in the case of companies that behave strategically with CSR to anticipate and shape future regulations, welfare may be reduced if the result is less stringent standards (that would have been justified).

Finally, do firms behave this way?  Do some firms reduce their earnings by voluntarily engaging in environmental stewardship?  Forest Reinhardt of the Harvard Business School addresses this question by surveying the performance of a broad cross-section of firms, and finds that only rarely does it pay to be green.  That said, situations do exist in which it does pay. Where one can increase customers’ willingness to pay, reduce one’s costs, manage future risk, or anticipate and defer costly governmental regulation, then it may pay to be green.  Overall, Reinhardt acknowledges the existence of these opportunities for some firms – examples such as Patagonia and DuPont stand out – but the empirical evidence does not support broad claims of pervasive opportunities.

So, where does this leave us?  May firms engage in CSR, beyond the law? An affirmative though conditional answer seems appropriate.  Can firms do so on a sustainable basis?  Outside of monopolies and limited niche markets, the answer is probably negative.  Should they carry out such beyond-compliance efforts, even when doing so is not profitable?  Here – if the alternative is sound and effective government policy – the answer may not be encouraging.  And the last question – do firms generally carry out such activities – seems to lead to a negative assessment, at least if we restrict our attention to real cases of “sacrificing profits in the social interest.”

But definitive answers to these questions await the results of rigorous, empirical research.  In the meantime, we ought to prevent muddled thinking by keeping separate these four questions of corporation social responsibility.

A Tale of Two Taxes

Whether they are called “revenue enhancements” or “user charges,” fear of the political consequences of taxes restricts debate on energy and environmental policy options in Washington. In a March 7th post on “Green Jobs,” in which I argued that it is not always best to try to address two challenges with a single policy instrument, I also noted that in some cases such dual-purpose policy instruments can be a good idea, and I gave gasoline taxes as an example.

Although a serious recession is clearly not the time to expect political receptivity to such a proposal, the time will come — we all hope very soon — when the economy turns around, employment rises, and a sustained period of economic growth ensues. When that happens, serious consideration should be given to increases in the Federal tax on gasoline.

A gas tax increase — coupled with an offsetting reduction in other taxes, such as the Social Security tax on wages — could make most American households better off, while reducing oil imports, local pollution, urban congestion, road accidents, and global climate change. This revenue-neutral tax reform would exemplify the market-based approaches to environmental protection and resource management I examined in previous posts.

Such a change need not constitute a new tax, but a reform of existing ones. It is well known ­– both from economic theory and numerous empirical studies ­– that taxes tend to reduce the extent to which people undertake the taxed activity. In the United States, most tax revenues are raised by levies on labor and investment; the resulting reduction in these fundamentally desirable activities is viewed as an unfortunate but unavoidable side-effect of the need to raise revenue for government operations. Would it not make more sense to raise the revenue we need by taxing undesirable activities, instead of desirable ones?

Combustion of gasoline in motor vehicles produces local air pollution as well as carbon dioxide that contributes to global climate change, increases imports of oil, and exacerbates urban highway congestion. Can anyone really claim that — given a choice between discouraging work and discouraging gasoline consumption — it is better to discourage work?

According to the U.S. Department of Energy, a 50 cent gas tax increase could eventually reduce gasoline consumption by 10 to 15%, reduce oil imports by perhaps 500 thousand barrels per day, and generate about $40 billion per year in revenue.

Furthermore, this approach would be far more effective than on-going proposals to increase the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards, which affect only new vehicles and lead to serious safety problems by encouraging auto makers to produce lighter vehicles. Also, remember that a major effect of CAFE standards has been to accelerate the shift from cars to SUVs and light trucks (so that overall fuel efficiency of new vehicles sold is no better than it was a decade ago, despite the great strides that have taken place in fuel efficiency technologies). As my Harvard colleague Martin Feldstein pointed out in The Wall Street Journal in 2006, the conventional approach “does nothing to encourage individuals to drive less, to use their cars more efficiently, or to shift sooner to new and more fuel efficient [and cleaner] vehicles.” A more enlightened approach ­— a market-based approach — would reward consumers who economize on gasoline use. And that is what a revenue-neutral gas tax is all about.

The revenue from the gas tax could be transferred to the Social Security Trust Fund and credited to current workers. If $40 billion per year from new gas tax revenues were transferred to Social Security, the payroll tax — the employee contribution to Social Security — could be cut by perhaps a third: a worker with annual wages of $30,000 would take home an additional $750 per year! The extra income would more than offset the cost of the gas tax, unless the worker drove over 35,000 miles per year in a car getting 25 miles or less per gallon. Rebating the gas tax in this way addresses the greatest concern about higher gas taxes — that they can hit hardest those workers who drive to their jobs. Further, a tax of this magnitude could be phased in gradually, perhaps no more than 10 cents per year over 5 years, allowing individuals and firms to adjust their consuming and producing behavior.

Proposals for gasoline tax increases in recent sessions of Congress would have dedicated the revenue to public spending (for transportation and other programs). A key difference is that the proposal I have outlined here is for a revenue-neutral change in which the gas tax revenue would be returned to Americans through reduced payroll taxes. To adopt some of the language I developed in my previous posts, such a change can be both efficient and equitable, and — for those reasons — perhaps even politically feasible.

Of course, such a scheme is not a panacea for U.S. energy and environmental problems. But it would make a significant contribution if enacted. On the other hand, political fear of the T-word in Washington may mean that it is never discussed seriously in public, let alone adopted. Most fear of taxes is due to politicians’ anxieties about asking their constituents to pay more. But an increase in the Federal gas tax, rebated through reduced payroll taxes would not cost most Americans any more and would have significant long-term benefits for the country. Still, fear of the T-word looms large; maybe it should be called an “All-American Ecologically Sound, Fully Recyclable, Anti-Terror, Energy-Independence Assessment.”

Misconceptions About Water Pricing

Throughout the United States, water management has been approached primarily as an engineering problem, rather than an economic one. Water supply managers are reluctant to use price increases as water conservation tools, instead relying on non-price demand management techniques, such as requirements for the adoption of specific technologies and restrictions on particular uses. In my March 3rd post, “As Reservoirs Fall, Prices Should Rise,” I wrote about how — in principle — price can be used by water managers as an effective and efficient instrument to manage this scarce resource.

In a white paper, “Managing Water Demand: Price vs. Non-Price Conservation Programs,” published by the Pioneer Institute for Public Policy Research, Professor Sheila Olmstead of Yale University and I analyzed the relative merits of price and non-price approaches to water conservation. We reviewed well over a hundred studies, and found strong and consistent empirical evidence that using prices to manage water demand is more cost-effective than implementing non-price conservation programs.

Despite such empirical evidence regarding the higher costs of non-price approaches to water conservation, many constituencies continue to prefer them. Professor Olmstead and I believe that this reliance on inefficient command-and-control approaches to water management may be due — in part — to several common and influential misconceptions regarding the use of water pricing.

One misconception is that “because water prices are low, price cannot be used to manage demand.” This misconception that low prices somehow obviate the use of price as an incentive for water conservation may stem from economists’ definition of a price response in the range observed for water demand as “inelastic.” There is a critical distinction between the technical term “inelastic demand” and the phrase “unresponsive to price”. Inelastic demand will decrease by less than one percent for every one percent increase in price. In contrast, if demand is truly unresponsive to price, the same quantity of water will be demanded at any price. This may be true in theory for a subsistence quantity of drinking water, but it has not been observed for water demand in general in 50 years of published empirical analysis.

A second misconception is that “water customers are unaware of prices, and therefore price cannot be used to manage demand.” If this were true, the hundreds of statistical studies estimating the price elasticity of water demand would have found that effect to be zero. But this is not the case. Instead, consumers behave as if they are aware of water prices. The hundreds of studies we reviewed cover many decades of water demand research in cities that bill water customers monthly, every two months, quarterly, or annually; and in which bills provide everything from no information about prices, to very detailed information. Our conclusion is that water suppliers need not change billing frequency or format to achieve water demand reductions from price increases, but providing more information may boost the impact of price changes.

A third misconception is that “increasing-block pricing provides an incentive for water conservation.” Under increasing-block prices (IBPs), the price of a unit of water increases with the quantity consumed, based on a quantity threshold or set of thresholds. Many water utilities that have implemented IBPs consider them part of their approach to water conservation; and many state agencies and other entities recommend them as water conservation tools. But analysis indicates that increasing-block prices, per se, have no impact on the quantity of water demanded, controlling for price levels.

A fourth and final misconception is that “where water price increases are implemented, water demand will always fall.” Price elasticity estimates measure the reduction in demand to be expected from a one percent increase in the marginal price of water, all else constant. Individual water utilities may increase prices and see demand rise subsequently due to population growth, changes in weather or climate, increases in average household income, or other factors. In these cases, a price increase can reduce the rate of growth in water demand to a level below what would have been observed if prices had remained constant.

Raising water prices (as with the elimination of any subsidy) can be politically difficult. This is probably one of the primary reasons why water demand management through non-price techniques is the overwhelmingly dominant approach in the United States. But the cost-effectiveness advantages of price-based approaches are clear, and there may be some political advantage to be gained by demonstrating these potential cost savings.

The Myth of the Universal Market

Communication among economists, other social scientists, natural scientists, and lawyers is far from perfect. When the topic is the environment, discourse across disciplines is both important and difficult. Economists themselves have likely contributed to some misunderstandings about how they think about the environment, perhaps through enthusiasm for market solutions, perhaps by neglecting to make explicit all of the necessary qualifications, and perhaps simply by the use of technical jargon.

So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that there are several prevalent and very striking myths about how economists think about the environment. Because of this, my colleague Don Fullerton, a professor of economics at the University of Illinois, and I posed the following question in an article in Nature:  how do economists really think about the environment? In this and several succeeding postings, I’m going to answer this question, by examining — in turn — several of the most prevalent myths.

One myth is that economists believe that the market solves all problems. Indeed, the “first theorem of welfare economics” states that private markets are perfectly efficient on their own, with no interference from government, so long as certain conditions are met. This theorem, easily proven, is exceptionally powerful, because it means that no one needs to tell producers of goods and services what to sell to which consumers. Instead, self-interested producers and self-interested consumers meet in the market place, engage in trade, and thereby achieve the greatest good for the greatest number, as if “guided by an invisible hand,” as Adam Smith wrote in 1776 in The Wealth of Nations. This notion of maximum general welfare is what economists mean by the “efficiency” of competitive markets.

Economists in business schools may be particularly fond of identifying markets where the necessary conditions are met, where many buyers and many sellers operate with very good information and very low transactions costs to trade well-defined commodities with enforced rights of ownership. These economists regularly produce studies demonstrating the efficiency of such markets (although even in this sphere, problems can obviously arise).

For other economists, especially those in public policy schools, the whole point of the first welfare theorem is very different. By clarifying the conditions under which markets are efficient, the theorem also identifies the conditions under which they are not. Private markets are perfectly efficient only if there are no public goods, no externalities, no monopoly buyers or sellers, no increasing returns to scale, no information problems, no transactions costs, no taxes, no common property, and no other distortions that come between the costs paid by buyers and the benefits received by sellers.

Those conditions are obviously very restrictive, and they are usually not all satisfied simultaneously. When a market thus “fails,” this same theorem offers us guidance on how to “round up the usual suspects.” For any particular market, the interesting questions are whether the number of sellers is sufficiently small to warrant antitrust action, whether the returns to scale are great enough to justify tolerating a single producer in a regulated market, or whether the benefits from the good are “public” in a way that might justify outright government provision of it. A public good, like the light from a light house, is one that can benefit additional users at no cost to society, or that benefits those who “free ride” without paying for it.

Environmental economists, of course, are interested in pollution and other externalities, where some consequences of producing or consuming a good or service are external to the market, that is, not considered by producers or consumers. With a negative externality, such as environmental pollution, the total social cost of production may thus exceed the value to consumers. If the market is left to itself, too many pollution-generating products get produced. There’s too much pollution, and not enough clean air, for example, to provide maximum general welfare. In this case, laissez-faire markets — because of the market failure, the externalities — are not efficient.

Similarly, natural resource economists are particularly interested in common property, or open-access resources, where anyone can extract or harvest the resource freely. In this case, no one recognizes the full cost of using the resource; extractors consider only their own direct and immediate costs, not the costs to others of increased scarcity (called “user cost” or “scarcity rent” by economists). The result, of course, is that the resource is depleted too quickly. These markets are also inefficient.

So, the market by itself demonstrably does not solve all problems. Indeed, in the environmental domain, perfectly functioning markets are the exception, rather than the rule. Governments can try to correct these market failures, for example by restricting pollutant emissions or limiting access to open-access resources. Such government interventions will not necessarily make the world better off; that is, not all public policies will pass an efficiency test. But if undertaken wisely, government interventions can improve welfare, that is, lead to greater efficiency. I will turn to such interventions in a subsequent posting.