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.

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Canada’s Step Away From the Kyoto Protocol Can Be a Constructive Step Forward

Canada confirmed this week that it will not take on a target under an extension of the Kyoto Protocol following the completion of the first commitment period, 2008-2012.  Given that Canada is likely to miss by a wide margin its current target under the first commitment period, this decision may not be surprising, but it is nevertheless important.  More striking, it may actually turn out to be a positive and constructive step forward in the drive to address global climate change through meaningful international cooperation.  Why do I say that?

The Current Situation

The Kyoto Protocol, which essentially expires at the end of 2012, divides the world into two competing economic camps.  Emission reductions are required for only the small set of “Annex I countries” (essentially those nations that used to be thought of as comprising the industrialized world).  Such reductions will not reduce global emissions, and whatever is achieved would be at excessive cost, because of having left so many countries and so many low-cost emissions-reduction opportunities off the table.  Furthermore, that dichotomous distinction is by no means fair:  more than 50 non-Annex I countries now have higher per capita incomes than the poorest of the Annex I countries.  (I have written about this and other issues surrounding the Kyoto Protocol in the past:  Defining Success for Climate Negotiations in Cancun; Defining Success for Climate Negotiations in Copenhagen; Three Pillars of a New Climate Pact).

The United States did not ratify the Kyoto Protocol, and has made it clear that it will not take on a target under a second commitment period.  The U.S. position continues to be that a considerably broader agreement is necessary – one that includes commitments not only from the Annex I (industrialized) countries, but also from the key emerging economies, such as China, India, Brazil, Korea, Mexico, and South Africa.

For much the same reason, Russia and Japan announced last year that they would not take on post-2012 commitments under the Kyoto Protocol.  Further, it is unlikely that Australia will take on such a commitment under Kyoto, essentially leaving the European Union on its own.

On the other hand, the Kyoto Protocol is enthusiastically embraced by the non-Annex I countries (sometimes inaccurately characterized as the “developing countries”), because it holds out the promise of emissions reductions by the wealthiest nations without any responsibilities (costs) borne by others, including the emerging economies.

The Path from Copenhagen to Cancun to Durban

Year after year, the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change has failed to reach agreement on a second commitment period for the Kyoto Protocol.  Most recently, in December, 2010, the issue was punted from the annual conference held in Cancun, Mexico, to the next conference, scheduled for December, 2011, in Durban, South Africa.

Because Durban provides the last opportunity to set up post-2012 targets (with time remaining for national ratification actions), it has been anticipated that the negotiations in Durban will re-ignite the divisiveness and recriminations that highlighted the Copenhagen negotiations in 2009 – with verbal hostilities between Annex I countries and non-Annex I countries dominating the discussions at the expense of any other considerations or meaningful actions.

A Positive and Constructive Step Forward

 

The decision just announced at meetings in Bonn, Germany, by the Canadian delegation that Canada will not take on a target in a second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol can be a very constructive step forward.  This is because it greatly reduces the risk that this year’s annual meeting of the Conference of the Parties in Durban will be dominated by acrimonious debates about a second commitment period for the Kyoto Protocol.

On the contrary, this announcement should encourage the non-Annex I (“developing”) countries, which have been insisting on a second commitment period, to begin to accept the reality that with the United States, Japan, Russia, and now Canada on record as not endorsing a second commitment period for the Kyoto Protocol, it is infeasible for the European Union to go it alone.  (Indeed, one might suspect that Australia and most European nations are privately pleased by Canada’s announcement.)

The reality is that the world will be better off by focusing on sensible alternatives under the Long-Term Cooperative Action track of the UN negotiations and by “getting real” about post-Kyoto international climate policy architecture for the long term, such as by putting some additional meat on the Cancun Agreements and by considering any supplemental and sensible architectures the various parties wish to discuss.  (For previous posts on the Cancun Agreements, see:  Why Cancun Trumped Copenhagen; What Happened (and Why):  An Assessment of the Cancun Agreements; Defining Success for Climate Negotiations in Cancun.  For descriptions of a wide range of potential global climate policy architectures — ranging from top-down to bottom-up — see the diverse publications of the Harvard Project on Climate Agreements.)

Next Steps

At Cancun, it was encouraging to hear fewer people holding out for a commitment to another phase of the Kyoto Protocol, but it was politically impossible to spike the idea of extending the Kyoto agreement entirely.  Instead, it was punted to the next gathering in Durban.  Otherwise, the Cancun meeting could have collapsed amid acrimony and recriminations reminiscent of Copenhagen.

Usefully, the Cancun Agreements recognize directly and explicitly two key principles:  (1) all countries must recognize their historic emissions (read, the industrialized world); and (2) all countries are responsible for their future emissions (think of those with fast-growing emerging economies).  In important ways, this helps move beyond the old Kyoto divide.

The acceptance of the Cancun Agreements last December suggested that the international community may have begun to recognize that incremental steps in the right direction are better than acrimonious debates over unachievable targets.  Canada’s announcement should help advance that recognition, and can thereby lead to vastly more productive talks this year in Durban.

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Opportunities and Ironies: Climate Policy in Tokyo, Seoul, Brussels, and Washington

As I write this, I’m on board a flight from Seoul, South Korea, to San Francisco, California, on my way home to Boston, having spent the week of Harvard spring break meeting with senior government officials, academics, and leaders of civil society in Tokyo and Seoul on behalf of the Harvard Project on International Climate Agreements.  Reflecting on these meetings in Asia and recalling meetings I’ve previously had in Brussels and Washington, some important opportunities and ironies about national and international climate policy come to mind.

Opportunities

The 15th Conference of the Parties (COP-15) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which met in Copenhagen, Denmark, in December, 2009, produced two significant outcomes.  The key substantive outcome, of course, was the Copenhagen Accord, about which I’ve written in detail in a previous blog post.  The key institutional outcome was speculation that the UNFCCC may not be the best venue going forward for productive negotiations on climate change.   (This is also a topic about which I’ve recently written at this blog.)

These dual outcomes of the Copenhagen conference point to the special importance of two key nations in international climate policy developments this year.  I’m not referring to China and the United States (despite the fact that they are, of course, the world’s two leading emitters of carbon dioxide).  Rather, I am referring to Korea and Mexico.  Why?

First, these two nations are unique in being both long-time members (Korea since 1996, Mexico since 1994) of the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and members of the group of non-Annex I countries under the Kyoto Protocol, which have no direct commitments under that international agreement.  The OECD comes as close as anything to defining the set of industrialized nations of the developed world.  Thus, Korea and Mexico have their feet planted firmly both in the developed world and the developing world (a fact that is readily apparent on even brief visits to these nations).  This gives Korea and Mexico remarkable credibility with the two key blocks in international climate negotiations.  That, on its own, would be of considerable importance, but there is another reality that makes this of even greater significance (and opportunity) in this year of 2010.

Coming out of Copenhagen, many participants in the international climate negotiations (as well as informed observers), noted that the UNFCCC has real limitations as the sole venue for future climate negotiations:  too many countries – 192, excessively stringent requirements for agreement – unanimity, and a distinct tendency to polarize debates between developed and developing countries.  Two other, potentially supplementary venues stand out as promising:  the Major Economies Forum (MEF) and the G20.

The MEF, which has hosted productive discussions among 17 key countries and regions that together account for nearly 90 percent of global carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, may be somewhat limited by the fact that is was created by and is chaired by the United States, a nation with constrained credibility on climate issues among some countries, particularly in the developing world.  The G20, which brings together twenty of the world’s largest economies, focuses on economic as well as other global issues and consists of almost the same set of nations as the MEF, likewise accounting for about 90 percent of global emissions.  The G20 could thus be an exceptionally promising supplementary venue for meaningful and realistic climate discussions.  And in November of this year, the G20 will be hosted by Korea, when it convenes in Seoul.  This gives the Korean government a special role in setting the agenda for the discussions and presiding at the sessions.

The G20 meetings in Seoul will come just two weeks before the Sixteenth Conference of the Parties of the UNFCCC, which will take place in Cancún, Mexico.  Thus, the Mexican government is also in a key position this year, because it will hold the Presidency of COP-16.

Add to this the fact that both Korea and Mexico have been particularly creative in their domestic climate policy initiatives and international proposals over the past year.   Harvard Kennedy School Professor Jeffrey Frankel notes at his blog — Views on the Economy and the World — that Korea and Mexico were particularly ambitious with their submissions to the Copenhagen Accord, when comparing the submissions of all countries in terms of 2020 emissions targets relative to business-as-usual, controlling for per capita income.

Together, Korea and Mexico, share credibility in the developing and developed worlds, and likewise share unique international legitimacy as the hosts and presidents of the G20 and COP-16 in 2010.  This is why these two countries have a remarkable opportunity this year to provide leadership of the international community, and make real progress on negotiations to address the threat of global climate change.  Those are the opportunities.   Now, let me turn to the ironies that have come to the fore.

Ironies

More than a decade ago, it was the United States, as the leader of the so-called “Umbrella Group,” that successfully fought for the inclusion in the Kyoto Protocol – over the objections of the European Union – of three “flexibility mechanisms” to bring down the costs of meeting the Protocol’s objectives:  joint implementation (Article 4), a global emissions reduction credit system, the Clean Development Mechanism (the CDM, Article 12), and emissions trading among countries (Article 17).  Ironically, once the George W. Bush administration officially pulled the United States out of the Kyoto Protocol process, it was the European Union that implemented the world’s first CO2 emissions trading program, the European Union Emission Trading Scheme (EU ETS).

Beyond this, the United States was a pioneer with the use of national cap-and-trade systems, including lead trading in the 1980s and the SO2 allowance trading program beginning in 1995 under the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990.  In addition, despite its lack of ratification of the Kyoto Protocol, the U.S. government very early on began to give serious consideration to the development of an economy-wide cap-and-trade system for CO2 with the McCain-Lieberman legislation in the U.S. Senate (followed later by the Lieberman-Warner bill).  More recently, of course, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Waxman-Markey bill in June of 2009, including a significant economy-wide cap-and-trade system.

Over the past nine months, however, the very phrase, “cap-and-trade,” has evolved from being politically correct in Washington to nothing less than politically anathema.  (How and why this happened is a topic for a future essay at this blog.)  The great irony is that just when cap-and-trade has been under such vociferous attack in Washington, countries throughout the world are embracing this instrument, recognizing its great potential to address climate change cost-effectively and equitably.

In addition to the EU ETS, already in force, Australia is primed to put its cap-and-trade system in place, as is New Zealand.  And just a few days before I arrived in Tokyo, the Japanese cabinet announced that the government will move forward with a cap-and-trade system (in contrast with Japan’s previously proposed sectoral approach).  And, not to be outdone, Korea is considering the use of cap-and-trade as an element of its own domestic climate policy.

This irony is striking.  Of course, it could be reduced or eliminated if Senators Kerry, Graham, and Lieberman can use their much-anticipated new climate proposal to pull victory from the jaws of anticipated defeat.   Only time will tell.

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