COP-25 Disappointment Should Not Be Due to Lack of Aspirations for Future Ambition, But to Lack of Support for Global Carbon Markets

On December 18th, The Conversation (“academic rigor, journalistic flair”) – published my brief essay (“The Madrid climate conference’s real failure was not getting a broad deal on global carbon markets”), and today – in this blog post – I wish to share a slightly edited version with you (without the excellent graphics included in the original article).

The Reality Behind the Press Coverage

Press accounts of the Madrid climate conference that adjourned on Dec. 15 are calling it a failure in the face of inspirational calls from youth activists and others for greater ambition. But based on my 25 years following and analyzing this process together with scholars and government officials from around the world, I believe the reality is more complicated.

True, this round of climate talks did not produce an aspirational statement calling for greater ambition in the next round of national pledges. In my view, that’s not actually very significant in terms of its real effects, even though organizations such as Greenpeace and Extinction Rebellion framed this as the key task for this meeting.

On the other hand, the talks failed to reach one of their key stated goals: writing meaningful rules to help facilitate global carbon markets. As an economist, I see this as a real disappointment – although not the fatal failure some portray it to be.

Tackling the free-rider problem

Here’s some context to explain why international cooperation is essential to tackle climate change. Regardless of where they’re emitted, greenhouse gases mix in the atmosphere. That’s different from other air pollutants, which can affect localities or large areas, but not the entire world.

This means that any jurisdiction that reduces its emissions incurs all of the costs of doing so, but receives only a share of the global benefits. Everyone has an incentive to free-ride, relying on others to cut emissions while taking minimal steps themselves.

Recognizing this problem, nations adopted the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992. As with many other international treaties, member countries agreed to hold regular meetings to devise rules for achieving the goals set out in the agreement. That’s how the Conference of Parties, or COP, process was launched.

Why climate change is a wicked problem

If the pace of progress at these meetings seems slow, keep in mind three factors that make their task enormously challenging.

First, every nation has an incentive to exploit the atmosphere and rely on other countries to cut emissions.

Second, making reductions costs money up front – but since carbon dioxide emissions remain in the atmosphere and warm the Earth for up to a century, many of the benefits of cutting emissions accrue much later.

Third, the costs of cutting emissions fall on particular sectors – notably, fossil fuel interests – that have a strong monetary incentive to fight back. But the benefits are broadly distributed across the general public. Some people care passionately about this issue, while others give it little thought.

At the COP-1 meeting in 1995 in Berlin, members decided that some of the wealthiest countries would commit to targets and timetables for emission reductions, but there would be no commitments for other countries. Two years later, nations adopted the Kyoto Protocol, which set quantitative targets only for Annex I (largely wealthy) countries.

That wasn’t a broad enough foundation to solve the climate challenge. Annex I countries alone could not reduce global emissions, since the most significant growth was coming from large emerging economies – China, India, Brazil, Korea, South Africa, Mexico and Indonesia – that were not part of the Annex I group.

Everybody in

At negotiations in 2009 in Copenhagen and 2010 in Cancun, distinctions between wealthy and developing countries began to blur. This culminated in an agreement at Durban, South Africa, in 2011 that all countries would come under the same legal framework in a post-Kyoto agreement, to be completed in 2015 in Paris.

The Paris Agreement provided a promising, fresh approach. It proposed a bottom-up strategy in which all 195 participating countries would specify their own targets, consistent with their national circumstances and domestic political realities.

This convinced many more nations to sign up. Countries that joined the Paris Agreement represented 97% of global greenhouse gas emissions, compared to 14% currently under the Kyoto Protocol. But it also gave every country an incentive to minimize its own actions while benefiting from other nations’ reductions.

Growing carbon markets

Are there ways to persuade nations to increase their commitments over time? One key strategy is linking national policies, so that emitters can buy and sell carbon emissions allowances or credits across borders.

For example, California and Quebec have linked their emissions trading systems. On Jan. 1, 2020, the European Union and Switzerland will do likewise.

Note, however, that such linking need not be restricted to pairs of cap-and-trade systems. Rather, heterogeneous linkage among cap-and-trade, carbon taxes and performance standards is perfectly feasible.

Expanding carbon markets in this way lowers costs, enabling countries to be more ambitious. One recent study estimates that linkage could, in theory, reduce compliance costs by 75%.

But for such systems to be meaningful, each country’s steps must be correctly counted toward its national target under the Paris Agreement. This is where Article 6 of the Paris Agreement comes in. Writing the rules for this article was the primary task for negotiators in Madrid (28 other articles were completed at the 2018 COP in Katowice, Poland).

Unfortunately, Brazil, Australia and a few other countries insisted on adopting accounting loopholes that made it impossible to reach agreement in Madrid on Article 6. Negotiators had an opportunity to define clear and consistent guidance for accounting for emissions transfers but failed to close a deal.

But if they had adopted guidance that extended much beyond basic accounting rules, as some countries wanted, the result could have been restrictive requirements that would actually impede effective linkage. This would have made it more expensive, not less, for nations to achieve their Paris targets. As Teresa Ribera, Minister for the Ecological Transition of Spain, observed at COP-25, “No deal is better than a bad deal” on carbon markets and Article 6.

The baton for completing Article 6 has been passed to COP-26 in Glasgow in November 2020. In the meantime, without agreement on an overall set of rules, countries may develop their own rules for international linkages that can foster high-integrity carbon markets, as California, Quebec, the European Union and Switzerland already have. If negotiators can keep their eyes on the prize and resist being diverted by demands from activists and interest groups, I believe real success is still possible.

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Sub-National Climate Change Policy in China

At a time when there are considerable political challenges in some countries (such as my own!) for national governments to institute meaningful climate change policies, the potential role of sub-national policies becomes more important than otherwise.  In other countries, sub-national climate policies may be a stepping stone to significant national efforts, as in China.  Partly with this in mind, the Harvard Project on Climate Agreements (HPCA) conducted a research workshop in July of this year on “Sub-National Climate Change Policy in China.”  Tsinghua University’s Institute of Energy, Environment, and Economy — directed by Professor Zhang Xiliang — hosted and co-sponsored the workshop, which was organized by my colleague at the Harvard Kennedy School, Dr. Robert StoweTwenty-seven experts from China, Europe, Canada, India, Australia, and the United States participated (see the photo below).  In addition, a group of students observed the workshop, and the Environmental Defense Fund’s China Program hosted a dinner for workshop participants.  The Harvard Global Institute provided major support for the project.  Here is a link to the full agenda (in both Chinese and English).

Background

Climate change is a global commons problem, and, as such, requires cooperation at the highest jurisdictional level — that is, international cooperation among national governments — if it is to be adequately addressed.  Participation by national governments is key, and sub-national governments can also play important roles. Provinces and municipalities around the world have undertaken initiatives — sometimes working together across national boundaries — to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. These include jurisdictions in the largest-emitting countries — China, the United States, and India — as well as in the European Union.

The Workshop and its Analyses

Participants in the Beijing workshop examined how Chinese provinces and municipalities work with the central government to implement policy — and discussed challenges to such cooperation. They focused to a considerable degree on the implementation of China’s national carbon-pricing system, including approaches to integrating the seven pilot sub-national market-based systems into the new national scheme, scheduled to launch in 2020 (see “What Should We Make of China’s Announcement of a National CO2 Trading System?,” January 7, 2018).  Participants also addressed sub-national dimensions of other policy approaches to reducing greenhouse-gas emissions in China.

As we have done with previous HPCA research and policy workshops, participants in the Beijing event are now writing briefs on topics related to their respective presentations.  We will edit and compile these short papers in a volume to be released later this year.  In the meantime, you can view the PowerPoint presentations from the Beijing workshop:

  • China’s National Emissions Trading Program (Zhang Xiliang)
  • Ten Drivers Behind Climate Policy Making in China (Qi Ye)
  • Creating Sub-National Climate Institutions in China (Michael Davidson)
  • Multi-Dimension Post-Assessment of China’s ETS Pilots (Qi Shaozhou)
  • Political Economy Framework for Climate Change Policy in China (Christine Wong)
  • Canadian Climate Change Policy (Katie Sullivan)
  • Sub-National Carbon-Pricing Policy in the USA (Robert Stavins)
  • Integration of China’s National ETS with Provincial/Municipal Pilots (Valerie Karplus)
  • Introduction of Beijing ETS (Mei Dewen)
  • Sub-National Implementation Pathways for the National Pricing System (Goerild Heggelund)
  • Assessing Regional Implementation Pathways of National ETS In China (Wu Libo)

The Larger Context

The Beijing workshop was part of a larger initiative of the Harvard Project on Climate Agreements, supported by the Harvard Global Institute, examining and comparing sub-national climate-change policies in China and India. We will conduct a similar workshop in New Delhi next year.

The Harvard Project has previously conducted three workshops addressing climate-change policy in — or related to — China:

  • “Bilateral Cooperation between China and the United States: Facilitating Progress on Climate-Change Policy,” June 2015.  This was hosted by China’s National Center for Climate Change Strategy and International Cooperation (NCSC).  You can read more about this workshop here, and read the full workshop report here.
  • “The Design, Implementation, and Operation of China’s National Emissions Trading System,” December 2016.  Our host was NCSC.  The participants explored technical issues related to the design of China’s emerging national system, including allowance allocation, point of regulation, and price management.
  • “Cooperation in East Asia to Address Climate Change,” September 2017.  This was hosted by the Harvard Center Shanghai, and supported by the Harvard Global Institute. You can read more about the workshop here, and read the complete volume of briefs based on the workshop here.
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Placing U.S. Government Views on Climate Change into Historical Context

In this year of 2018, the Europe Union, China, India, Brazil, Korea, Canada, and other countries are negotiating the details for implementation of the Paris Agreement, and are developing domestic policies to achieve their respective Nationally Determined Contributions under the Agreement.  At the same time, the United States – under the leadership of President Donald Trump – has announced its intention to withdraw from the Paris Agreement as soon as permitted (November, 2020), and has taken significant steps to immediately roll back domestic climate change policies put in place by the Obama administration.  This may be a good time to place this quite deviant U.S. government behavior into historical context.

Where to Begin?

This blog is dedicated to an economic view of the environment, and my essays here typically feature analyses of existing or proposed policies, with a look to the future, particularly in the realm of global climate change.  Today, however, I take a look back, with an examination of the early history of deliberations in the U.S. government about climate change.

Of course, the history of climate change science goes back at least to Svante Arrhenius, the Nobel Prize-winning Swedish physicist and chemist, who in 1896 calculated how increased concentrations of atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) would increase the Earth’s temperature through the greenhouse effect, a finding that was picked up many years later by Guy Stewart Callendar, Charles David Keeling, Roger Revelle, and others.  But my focus is not on the history of the science, but on a very specific dimension of the policy history, namely the history of discussions within the U.S. government regarding climate change and potential policy responses.

Some might think that the starting point would be the 1988 Congressional hearings – led by U.S. Senators Timothy Wirth and Albert Gore – which the New York Times covered in a long article.  That was during the last year of the Reagan administration, but the story really begins more than two decades earlier – in 1965.

Before going further, I want to give credit to two people who have written about this – David Hone, Chief Climate Change Advisor for Shell, and Jairam Ramesh, formerly chief negotiator for India at the conferences of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

President Lyndon Johnson’s Science Advisory Committee, 1965

More than fifty years ago, on November 5, 1965, President Lyndon Johnson released a report authored by the Environmental Pollution Panel of the President’s Science Advisory Committee, pictured here.

 

Remarkably, the report included a 23-page discussion of the climatic effects of increased concentrations of atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2), due to the combustion of fossil fuels, and – interestingly enough – concluded with a proposal for research on a specific approach to responding, namely with what is now called “geoengineering.”  Below is the table of contents of that section of the report – on “Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide,” and you can read that section of the report here.

In his introduction to the report, President Johnson emphasized that “we will need increased basic research in a variety of specific areas,” and then went on to state:  “We must give highest priority of all to increasing the numbers and quality of the scientists and engineers working on problems related to the control and management of pollution.”  What a contrast with the anti-science approach of the current resident of the White House!

A Striking Nixon White House Memorandum – 1969

Daniel Patrick Moynihan – surely one of the leading public intellectuals of the twentieth century – was a Harvard professor (1966-1969, 1971-1973 ), advisor to President Richard Nixon (1969-1970), U.S. Ambassador to India (1973-1975), U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations (1975-1976), and U.S. Senator (1977-2001).  On September 17th, 1969, while he was working in the White House, Moynihan sent a memorandum to John Ehrlichman, then a key Presidential assistant (who subsequently served 18 months in federal prison for his role in the Watergate conspiracy).  The original memorandum is in the Nixon Library, but you can also read it immediately below.  It is well worth reading!

Historical Context and the Path Ahead

From the perspective of 2018, as we enter the second year of the Trump administration, it may – or may not – be comforting to recognize that scientific and even policy attention by the White House to climate change goes back more than five decades, to the administration of Lyndon Johnson.  Since then, there have surely been ups and downs – through the administrations of Presidents Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush (I), Clinton, Bush (II), and Obama, but the current administration is an outlier in its utter disdain for sound science and related hostility to sensible public policy (in this and other domains).

The list of Presidential administrations above should remind us that whether a single four-year term or the maximum eight years, administrations are relatively short-lived when judged in historical context.  And they tend to swing back and forth between the two political parties.

All of which reminds me of a true story.  In November, 2016, just days after the U.S. Presidential election, I was in Marrakech, Morocco, for the annual U.N. climate negotiations.  I was speaking on a panel assembled by the government of China in their Pavilion.  Those who preceded me voiced their dismay about the election and their very low expectations for the climate change policy that would likely be forthcoming from Donald Trump and his administration-to-be.

Our moderator from the Chinese government then introduced me to speak, and as I listened with headphones to the simultaneous translation, I heard him say, “And now Harvard’s Professor Stavins will bring us some good news from the United States.”  I was dumbfounded.  What could I possibly say?  I walked to the lectern, sipped some water, took a deep breath, and said to the audience, “When you get to be my age, you recognize that four years is not a long time!”

That will have to suffice as an “optimistic” conclusion to today’s essay.

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