AB 32, RGGI, and Climate Change: The National Context of State Policies for a Global Commons Problem

Why should anyone be interested in the national context of a state policy?  In the case of California’s Global Warming Solutions Act (AB 32), the answer flows directly from the very nature of the problem — global climate change, the ultimate global commons problem.  Greenhouse gases (GHGs) uniformly mix in the atmosphere.  Therefore, any jurisdiction taking action — whether a nation, a state, or a city — will incur the costs of its actions, but the benefits of its actions (reduced risk of climate change damages) will be distributed globally.  Hence, for virtually any jurisdiction, the benefits it reaps from its climate‑policy actions will be less than the cost it incurs.  This is despite the fact that the global benefits of action may well be greater — possibly much greater — than global costs.

This presents a classic free-rider problem, in which it is in the interest of each jurisdiction to wait for others to take action, and benefit from their actions (that is, free-ride).  This is the fundamental reason why the highest levels of effective government should be involved, that is, sovereign states (nations).  And this is why international, if not global, cooperation is essential. [See the extensive work in this area of the Harvard Project on International Climate Agreements.]

Despite this fundamental reality, there can still be a valuable role for sub-national climate policies.  Indeed, my purpose in this essay is to explore the potential for such state and regional policies — both in the presence of Federal climate policy and in the absence of such policy.  I begin by describing the national climate policy context, and then turn to sub-national policies, such as California’s AB 32 and the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) in the northeast.  My focus is on how these sub-national policies will interact with a Federal climate policy.  It turns out that some of the interactions will be problematic, others will be benign, and still others could be positive.  I also examine the role that could be played by sub-national policies in the absence of a meaningful Federal policy, with the conclusion that — like it or not — we may find that Sacramento comes to take the place of Washington as the center of national climate policy.

The (Long-Term) National Context:  Carbon-Pricing

I need not tell readers of this blog that virtually all economists and most other policy analysts favor a national carbon‑pricing policy (whether carbon tax or cap-and-trade) as the core of any meaningful climate policy action in the United States.  Why is this approach so overwhelmingly favored by the analytical community?

First, no other feasible approach can provide truly meaningful emissions reductions (such as an 80% cut in national CO2 emissions by mid-century).  Second, it 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.  Fourth, although carbon pricing is not sufficient on its own (because of other market failures that reduce the impact of price signals — more about this below), it is a necessary component of a sensible climate policy, because of factors 1 through 3, above.  [I’ve written about carbon-pricing in many previous blog posts, including on June 23, 2010, “The Real Options for U.S. Climate Policy.”]

But carbon-pricing is a hot-button political issue.  This is primarily because it makes the costs of the policy transparent, unlike conventional policy instruments, such as performance and technology standards, which tend to hide costs.  Carbon-pricing is easily associated with the dreaded T-word.  Indeed, in Washington, cap-and-trade has been successfully demonized as “cap-and-tax.” As a result, the political reality now appears to be that a national, economy-wide carbon-pricing policy is unlikely to be enacted before 2013.  Does this mean that there will be no Federal climate policy in the meantime?  No, not at all.

The (Short-Term) National Context:  Federal Regulations on the Way or Already in Place

Regulations of various kinds may soon be forthcoming — and in some cases, will definitely be forthcoming — as a result of the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Massachusetts v. EPA and the Obama administration’s subsequent “endangerment finding” that emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases endanger public health and welfare.  This triggered mobile source standards earlier this year, the promulgation of which identified carbon dioxide as a pollutant under the Clean Air Act, thereby initiating a process of using the Clean Air Act for stationary sources as well.

Those new standards are scheduled to begin on January 2, 2011, with or without the so‑called “tailoring rule” that would exempt smaller sources.  Among the possible types of regulation that could be forthcoming for stationary sources under the Clean Air Act are:  new source performance standards; performance standards for existing sources (Section 111(d)); and New Source Review with Best Available Control Technology standards under Section 165.

The merits that have been suggested of such regulatory action are that it would be effective in some sectors, and that the threat of such regulation will spur Congress to take action with a more sensible approach, namely, an economy-wide cap‑and‑trade system.  However, regulatory action on carbon dioxide under the Clean Air Act will accomplish relatively little and do so at relatively high cost, compared with carbon pricing.  Also, it is not clear that this threat will force the hand of Congress; it clearly has not yet done so.  Indeed, it is reasonable to ask whether this is a credible threat, or will instead turn out to be counter‑productive (when stories about the implementation of inflexible, high‑cost regulatory approaches lend ammunition to the staunchest opponents of climate policy).

It’s also possible that air pollution policies for non‑greenhouse gas pollutants, the emissions of some of which are highly correlated with CO2 emissions, may play an important role.  For example, three‑pollutant legislation focused on SOx, NOx, and mercury could have profound impacts on the construction and operation of coal‑fired electricity plants, without any direct CO2 requirements.  Without any new legislation, a set of rules which could have significant impacts on coal-fired power plants are now making their way through the regulatory process — including regulations affecting ambient ozone, SO2/NO2, particulates, ash, hazardous air pollutants (mercury), and effluent water.

There is also the possibility of new energy policies (not targeted exclusively at climate change) having significant impacts on CO2 emissions.  The possible components of such an approach that would be relevant in the context of climate change include:  a national renewable electricity standard; Federal financing for clean energy projects: energy efficiency measures (building, appliance, and industrial efficiency standards; home retrofit subsidies; and smart grid standards, subsidies, and dynamic pricing policies); and new Federal electricity‑transmission siting authority.

Even without action by the Congress or by the Administration, legal action on climate policy is likely to take place within the judicial realm.  Public nuisance litigation will no doubt continue, with a diverse set of lawsuits being filed across the country in pursuit of injunctive relief and/or damages.  Due to recent court decisions, the pace, the promise, and the problems of this approach remain uncertain.

Beyond the well‑defined area of public nuisance litigation, other interventions which are intended to block permits for new fossil energy investments, including both power plants and transmission lines will continue.  Some of these interventions will be of the conventional NIMBY character, but others will no doubt be more strategic.

But with political stalemate in Washington on carbon-pricing or national climate policy, attention is inevitably turning to regional, state, and even local policies intended to address climate change.

Sub-National Climate Policies

The Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) in the Northeast has created a cap‑and‑trade system among electricity generators.  More striking, California’s Global Warming Solutions Act (Assembly Bill 32, or AB 32) will likely lead to the creation of a very ambitious set of climate initiatives, including a statewide cap‑and‑trade system (unless it’s stopped by ballot initiative — Proposition 23 — or a new Governor, depending on the outcome of the November 2010 elections).  The California system is likely to be linked with systems in other states and Canadian provinces under the Western Climate Initiative.  Currently, more than half of the 50 states are contemplating, developing, or implementing climate policies.

In the presence of a Federal policy, will such state efforts achieve their objectives?  Will the efforts be cost-effective?  The answer is that the interactions of state policies with Federal policy can be problematic, benign, or positive, depending upon their relative scope and stringency, and depending upon the specific policy instruments used.  This is the topic of a paper which Professor Lawrence Goulder (Stanford University) and I have written, “Interactions Between State and Federal Climate Change Policies” (National Bureau of Economic Research Working Paper 16123, June 2010).

Problematic Interactions

Let’s start with the case of a Federal policy which limits emission quantities (as with cap-and-trade) or uses nationwide averaging of performance (as with some proposals for a national renewable portfolio standard).  In this case, emission reductions accomplished by a “green state” with a more stringent policy than the Federal policy — for example, AB 32 combined with Waxman-Markey/H.R. 2454 — will reduce pressure on other states, thereby freeing, indeed encouraging (through lower allowance prices) emission increases in the other states.  The result would be 100% leakage, no gain in environmental protection from the green state’s added activity, and a national loss of cost-effectiveness.

Potential examples of this — depending upon the details of the regulations — include: first, AB 32 cap-and-trade combined with Federal cap-and-trade (H.R. 2454) or combined with some U.S. Clean Air Act performance standards; second, state limits on GHGs/mile combined with Federal CAFE standards; and third, state renewable fuels standards combined with a Federal RFS, or state renewable portfolio standards combined with a Federal RPS.  A partial solution would be for these Federal programs to allow states to opt out of the Federal policy if they had an equally or more stringent state policy.  Such a partial solution would not, however, be cost-effective.

Benign Interactions

One example of benign interactions of state and Federal climate policy is the case of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) in the northeast.  In this case, the state policies are less stringent than an assumed Federal policy (such as H.R. 2454).  The result is that the state policies become non-binding and hence largely irrelevant.

A second example — that warms the hearts of economists, but appears to be politically irrelevant for the time being — is the case of a Federal policy that sets price, not quantity, i.e., a carbon tax, or a binding safety-valve or price collar in a cap-and-trade system.  In this case, more stringent actions in green states do not lead to offsetting emissions in other states induced by a changing carbon price.  It should be noted, however, that there will be different marginal abatement costs across states, and so aggregate reductions would not be achieved cost-effectively.

Positive Interactions

Three scenarios suggest the possibility of positive interactions of state and Federal climate policies.  First, states can — in principle — address market failures not addressed by a Federal carbon-pricing policy.  A prime example is the principal‑agent problem of insufficient energy‑efficiency investments in renter‑occupied properties, even in the face of high energy prices.  This is a problem that is best addressed at the state or even local level, such as through building codes and zoning.

Second, state and regional authorities frequently argue that states can serve as valuable “laboratories” for policy design, and thereby provide useful information for the development of Federal policy.  However, it is reasonable to ask whether state authorities will allow their “laboratory” to be closed after the experiment has been completed, the information delivered, and a Federal policy put in place.  Pronouncements from some state leaders should cause concern in this regard.

Third, states can create pressure for more stringent Federal policies.  A timely example is provided by California’s Pavley I motor-vehicle fuel-efficiency standards and the subsequent change in Federal CAFE requirements.  There is historical validation of this effect, with California repeatedly having increased the stringency of its local air pollution standards, followed by parallel Federal action under the Clean Air Act.  This linkage is desirable if the previous Federal policy is insufficiently stringent, but whether that is the case is an empirical question.

Thus, in the presence of Federal climate policy, interactions with sub-national policies can be problematic, benign, or positive, depending upon the relative scope and stringency of the sub-national and national policies, as well as the particular policy instruments employed at both levels. [For a more rigorous derivation of the findings above, as well as an examination of a larger set of examples, please see my paper with Stanford Professor Lawrence Goulder, referenced above.]

But comprehensive Federal carbon-pricing policy appears to be delayed until 2013, at the earliest.  And it is possible that pending Federal regulatory action under the Clean Air Act will be curtailed or significantly delayed either by the new Congress or by litigation.  Therefore, it is important to consider the role of state and regional climate policies in the absence of Federal action.

Sub-National Climate Policies in the Absence of Federal Action

In brief, in the absence of meaningful Federal action, sub‑national climate policies could well become the core of national action.  Problems will no doubt arise, including legal obstacles such as possible Federal preemption or litigation associated with the so‑called Dormant Commerce Clause.

Also, even a large portfolio of state and regional policies will not be comprehensive of the entire nation, that is, not truly national in scope (for a quick approximation of likely coverage, check out a recent map of blue states and red states).

And even if the state and regional policies were nationally comprehensive, there would be different policies of different stringency in different parts of the country, and so carbon shadow‑prices would by no means be equivalent, meaning that the overall policy objectives would be achieved at excessive social cost.

Is there a solution (if only a partial one)?  Yes.  If the primary policy instrument employed in the state and regional policies is cap-and-trade, then the respective carbon markets can be linked.  Such linkage occurs through bilateral recognition of allowances, which results in reduced costs, reduced price volatility, reduced leakage, and reduced market power.  Good news all around.

Such bottom‑up linkage of state and regional cap‑and‑trade systems could be an important part or perhaps even the core of future of U.S. climate policy, at least until there is meaningful action at the Federal level.  In the meantime, it is at least conceivable — and perhaps likely — that linkage of state‑level cap‑and‑trade systems will become the (interim) de facto national climate policy architecture.

In this way, Sacramento would take the place of Washington as the center of national climate policy deliberations and action.  No doubt, this possibility will please some, and frighten others.

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P.S.  For those of you interested in the topic of this blog post, you may also find of particular interest a conference organized by the University of California, taking place in Sacramento on October 4th, “California’s Climate Change Policy:  The Economic and Environmental Impacts of AB 32.”  You can learn more about it by clicking on this link.

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Eyes on the Prize: Federal Climate Policy Should Preempt State and Regional Initiatives

In just a few days, Senators John Kerry, Lindsey Graham, and Joe Lieberman will release their much-anticipated proposal for comprehensive climate and energy legislation – the best remaining shot at forging a bipartisan consensus on this issue in 2010.  Their proposal has many strengths, but there’s an issue brewing that could undermine its effectiveness and drive up its costs.  I wrote about this in a Boston Globe op-ed on Earth Day, April 22nd (the original version of which can be downloaded here).

Government officials from California, New England, New York, and other northeastern states are vociferously lobbying in Washington to retain their existing state and regional systems for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, even after a new federal system comes into force. That would be a mistake – and a potentially expensive one for residents of those states, who could wind up subsidizing the rest of the country.  The Senate should do as the House did in its climate legislation:  preempt state and regional climate policies.  There’s no risk, because if Federal legislation is not enacted, preemption will not take effect.

The regional systems – including the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) in the Northeast and Assembly Bill 32 in California – seek to limit carbon dioxide emissions from power plants and other sources, mainly by making emissions more costly for firms and individuals.  These systems were explicitly developed because the federal government was not moving fast enough.

But times have changed.  Like the House climate legislation passed last June, the new Senate bill will feature at its heart an economy-wide carbon-pricing scheme to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, including a cap-and-trade system (under a different name) for the electricity and industrial sectors.  (In a departure from the House version, it may have a carbon fee for transportation fuels.)

Though the Congress has a history of allowing states to act more aggressively on environmental protection, this tradition makes no sense when it comes to climate change policy.  For other, localized environmental problems, California or Massachusetts may wish to incur the costs of achieving cleaner air or water within their borders than required by a national threshold.  But with climate change, it is impossible for regions, states, or localities to achieve greater protection for their jurisdictions through more ambitious actions.

This is because of the nature of the climate change problem. Greenhouse gases, including carbon dioxide, uniformly mix in the atmosphere – a unit of carbon dioxide emitted in California contributes just as much to the problem as carbon dioxide emitted in Tennessee.  The overall magnitude of damages – and their location – are completely unaffected by the location of emissions.  This means that for any individual jurisdiction, the benefits of action will inevitably be less than the costs. (This is the same reason why U.S. federal action on climate change should occur at the same time as other countries take actions to reduce their emissions).

If federal climate policy comes into force, the more stringent California policy will accomplish no additional reductions in greenhouse gases, but simply increase the state’s costs and subsidize other parts of the country. This is because under a nationwide cap-and-trade system, any additional emission reductions achieved in California will be offset by fewer reductions in other states.

A national cap-and-trade system – which is needed to address emissions meaningfully and cost-effectively – will undo the effects of a more stringent cap within any state or group of states.  RGGI, which covers only electricity generation and which will be less stringent than the Federal policy, will be irrelevant once the federal system comes into force.

In principle, a new federal policy could allow states to opt out if they implement a program at least as stringent.  But why should states want to opt out?  High-cost states will be better off joining the national system to lower their costs. And states that can reduce emissions more cheaply will be net sellers of Federal allowances.

Is there any possible role for state and local policies?  Yes.  Price signals provided by a national cap-and-trade system are necessary to meaningfully address climate change at sensible cost, but such price signals are not sufficient.  Other market failures call for supplementary policies.  Take, for example, the principal-agent problem through which despite higher energy prices, both landlords and tenants lack incentives to make economically-efficient energy-conservation investments, such as installing thermal insulation.  This problem can be handled by state and local authorities through regionally-differentiated building codes and zoning.

But for the core of climate policy – which is carbon pricing – the simplest, cleanest, and best way to avoid unnecessary costs and unnecessary actions is for existing state systems to become part of the federal system.  Political leaders from across the country – including the Northeast and California – would do well to follow the progressive lead of Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick and Secretary of Energy and Environmental Affairs Ian Bowles, who have played key roles in the design and implementation of RGGI, and yet have also publicly supported its preemption by a meaningful national program.

California’s leaders and those in the Northeast may take great pride in their state and regional climate policies, but if they accomplish their frequently-stated goal – helping to bring about the enactment of a meaningful national climate policy – they will better serve their states and the country by declaring victory and getting out of the way.

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What’s the Proper Role of Individuals and Institutions in Addressing Climate Change?

This may seem like a trivial question with an obvious answer.  But what really is the proper role for individuals and institutions in addressing climate change?  An immediate and natural response may be that everyone should do their part.  Let’s see what that really means.

Decisions affecting carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, for example, are made primarily by companies and consumers.  This includes decisions by companies about how to produce electricity, as well as thousands of other goods and services; and decisions by consumers regarding what to buy, how to transport themselves, and how to keep their homes warm, cool, and light.

However, despite the fact that these decisions are made by firms and individuals, government action is clearly key, because climate change is an externality, and it is rarely, if ever, in the self-interest of firms or individuals to take unilateral actions.  That’s why the climate problem exists, in the first place.  Voluntary initiatives – no matter how well-intended – will not only be insufficient, but insignificant relative to the magnitude of the problem.

So, the question becomes how to shift decisions by firms and individuals in a climate-friendly direction, such as toward emissions reductions.  Whether conventional standards or market-based instruments are used, meaningful government regulation will be required.

But where does this leave the role and responsibility of individuals and institutions?  Let me use as an example my employer, a university.  A couple of years ago, I met with students advocating for a reduced “carbon foot-print” for the school.  Here is what I told them.

“I was asked by a major oil company to advise on the design of an internal, voluntary tradable permit systems for CO2 emissions.  My response to the company was ‘fine, but the emissions from your production processes — largely refineries — are trivial compared with the emissions from the use of your products (combustion of fossil fuels).  If you really want to do something meaningful about climate change, the focus should be on the use of your products, not your internal production process.’  (My response would have been different had they been a cement producer.)  The oil company proceeded with its internal measures, which – as I anticipated – had trivial, if any impacts on the environment (and they subsequently used the existence of their voluntary program as an argument against government attempts to put in place a meaningful climate policy).”

My view of a university’s responsibilities in the environmental realm is similar.  Our direct impact on the natural environment — such as in terms of CO2 emissions from our heating plants — is absolutely trivial compared with the impacts on the environment (including climate change) of our products:  knowledge produced through research, informed students produced through our teaching, and outreach to the policy world carried out by faculty.

So, I suggested to the students that if they were really concerned with how the university affects climate change, then their greatest attention should be given to priorities and performance in the realms of teaching, research, and outreach.

Of course, it is also true that work on the “greening of the university” can in some cases play a relevant role in research and teaching.  And, more broadly — and more importantly — the university’s actions in regard to its “carbon footprint” can have symbolic value.  And symbolic actions — even when they mean little in terms of real, direct impacts — can have effects in the larger political world.  This is particularly true in the case of a prominent university, such as my own.

But, overall, my institution’s greatest opportunity — indeed, its greatest responsibility — with regard to addressing global climate change is and will be through its research, teaching, and outreach to the policy community.

Why not focus equally on reducing the university’s carbon foot-print while also working to increase and improve relevant research, teaching, and outreach?  The answer brings up a phrase that will be familiar to readers of this blog – opportunity cost.  Faculty, staff, and students all have limited time; indeed, as in many other professional settings, time is the scarcest of scarce resources.  Giving more attention to one issue inevitably means – for some people – giving less time to another.

So my advice to the students was to advocate for more faculty appointments in the environmental realm and to press for more and better courses.  After all, it was student demand at my institution that resulted in the creation of the college’s highly successful concentration (major) in environmental science and public policy.

My bottom line?  Try to focus on actions that can make a real difference, as opposed to actions that may feel good or look good but have relatively little real-world impact, particularly when those feel-good/look-good actions have opportunity costs, that is, divert us from focusing on actions that would make a significant difference.  Climate change is a real and pressing problem.  Strong government actions will be required, as well as enlightened political leadership at the national and international levels.

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Epilogue:  After I posted the above essay, I was reminded of an incident that took place many years ago (before I came to Harvard for graduate school, in fact) when I was working full-time for the Environmental Defense Fund in Berkeley, California, under the inspired leadership of the late (and truly great) Tom Graff, the long-time guru of progressive California water policy.  EDF was very engaged at the time in promoting better water policies in California, including the use of trading mechanisms and appropriate pricing schemes for scarce water supplies.  A prominent national newspaper which was not friendly to EDF’s work sent a reporter to EDF’s office to profile the group’s efforts on water policy in the State.  A staff member found the reporter in the office bathroom examining whether EDF had voluntarily installed various kinds of water conservation devices.  Our reaction at the time was that whether or not EDF had voluntarily installed water conservation devices was simply and purely an (intentional) distraction from the important work the group was carrying out.   After several decades, my view of that incident has not changed.

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