Cap-and-Trade, Carbon Taxes, and My Neighbor’s Lovely Lawn

The recent demise of serious political consideration of an economy-wide U.S. CO2 cap-and-trade system and the even more recent resurgence in interest among policy wonks in a U.S. carbon tax should prompt reflection on where we’ve been, where we are, and where we may be going.


Almost fifteen years ago, in an article that appeared in 1998 in the Journal of Economic Perspectives, “What Can We Learn from the Grand Policy Experiment?  Lessons from SO2 Allowance Trading,” I examined the implications of what was then the very new emissions trading program set up by the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990 to cut acid rain by half over the succeeding decade.  In that article, I attempted to offer some guidance regarding the conditions under which cap-and-trade (then known as “tradable permits”) was likely to work well, or not so well.  Here’s a brief summary of what I wrote at the time:

(1)  SO2 trading was a case where the cost of abating pollution differed widely among sources, and where a market-based system was therefore likely to have greater gains, relative to conventional, command-and-control regulations (Newell and Stavins 2003). It was clear early on that SO2 abatement cost heterogeneity was great, because of differences in ages of plants and their proximity to sources of low-sulfur coal. But where abatement costs are more uniform across sources, the political costs of enacting an allowance trading approach are less likely to be justifiable.

(2)  The greater the degree to which pollutants mix in the receiving airshed or watershed, the more attractive a cap-and-trade (or emission tax) system will be, relative to a conventional uniform standard. This is because taxes or cap-and-trade can – in principle – lead to localized “hot spots” with relatively high levels of ambient pollution. Some states (in particular, New York) tried unsuccessfully to erect barriers to trades they thought might increase deposition within their borders.  This is a significant distributional issue.  It can also be an efficiency issue if damages are nonlinearly related to pollutant concentrations.

(3)  The efficiency of a cap-and-trade system will depend on the pattern of costs and benefits. If uncertainty about marginal abatement costs is significant, and if marginal abatement costs are quite flat and marginal benefits of abatement fall relatively quickly, then a quantity instrument, such as cap-and-trade, will be more efficient than a price instrument, such as an emission tax (Weitzman 1974).  With a stock pollutant (such as CO2), this argument favors a price instrument (Newell and Pizer 2003).  However, when there is also uncertainty about marginal benefits, and marginal benefits are positively correlated with marginal costs (which, it turns out, is a relatively common occurrence for a variety of pollution problems), then there is an additional argument in favor of the relative efficiency of quantity instruments (Stavins 1996).

(4)  Cap-and-trade will work best when transaction costs are low (Stavins 1995), and the S02 experiment showed that if properly designed, private markets will tend to render transaction costs minimal.

5)  Considerations of political feasibility point to the wisdom of proposing trading instruments when they can be used to facilitate emissions reductions, as was done with SO2 allowances and lead rights trading, less so for the purpose of reallocating existing emissions abatement responsibility (Revesz and Stavins 2007).

(6)  National policy instruments that appear impeccable from the vantage point of Cambridge, Massachusetts, Berkeley, California, or Madison, Wisconsin, but consistently prove infeasible in Washington, D.C., can hardly be considered “optimal.”

Implications for CO2 Policy

In the same article, I noted that many of these issues could be illuminated by considering a concrete example:  the “current interest” in applying cap-and-trade to the task of cutting CO2 emissions to reduce the risk of global climate change.  Some of the points I made in this regard in my 1998 article were:

(a)  The number of sources of CO2 emissions are vastly greater than in the case of SO2 emissions as a precursor of acid rain, where the focus could be placed on a few hundred electric utility plants.  Feasibility considerations alone argue for market-based instruments (cap-and-trade or taxes) to achieve meaningful reductions of CO2 emissions.

(b)  The diversity of sources of CO2 in a modern economy and the consequent heterogeneity of emission reduction costs bolster the case for using cost-effective market-based instruments.

(c)  As the ultimate global-commons problem, CO2 is a truly uniformly-mixed pollutant.  With no concern for hot spots, market-based instruments present none of the problems that can arise in the case of localized environmental threats.

(d)  Any pollution-control program must face the possibility of emissions leakage from regulated to unregulated sources. This would be a severe problem for an international CO2 program, where emissions would tend to increase in nonparticipant countries. Furthermore, it raises concerns for the emission-reduction-credit (not cap-and-trade) system in the Kyoto Protocol known as the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM).  Such an offset system can lower aggregate costs by substituting low-cost for high-cost control, but may also have the unintended effect of increasing aggregate emissions beyond what they would otherwise have been, because there is an incentive for adverse selection: sources in developing countries that would reduce their emissions, opt in, and receive credit for actions they would have taken anyway.

(e)  Although any trading program could potentially serve as a model for the case of global climate change, I argued that the trading system that accomplished the U.S. phaseout of leaded gasoline in the 1980s merited particular attention. The currency of that system was not lead oxide emissions from motor vehicles, but the lead content of gasoline. So too, in the case of global climate, great savings in monitoring and enforcement costs could be had by adopting input trading linked with the carbon content of fossil fuels. This is reasonable in the climate case, since – unlike in the SO2 case – CO2 emissions are roughly proportional to the carbon content of fossil fuels and scrubbing alternatives are largely unavailable, at least at present.

(f)   Natural sequestration of CO2 from the atmosphere by expanding forested areas is available (even in the United States) at reasonable cost (Stavins 1999).  Hence, it could be valuable to combine any carbon trading (or carbon tax) program with a carbon sequestration program, although this will raise significant challenges in regard to monitoring and enforcement.

(g)  In regard to carbon permit allocation mechanisms, auctions would have the advantage that revenues could be used to finance reductions in distortionary taxes.  Free allocation could increase regulatory costs enough that the sign of the efficiency impact could conceivably be reversed from positive to negative net benefits (Parry, Williams, and Goulder 1999).  On the other hand, free allocation of carbon permits would meet with much less political resistance.

The Necessity of Market-Based Instruments:  Cap-and-Trade or Carbon Taxes

I concluded that developing a cap-and-trade system for climate change would bring forth an entirely new set of economic, political, and institutional challenges.  At the same time, I recognized that the diversity of sources of CO2 emissions and the magnitude of likely abatement costs made it equally clear that only a market-based instrument – some form of carbon rights trading or (probably revenue-neutral) carbon taxes – would be capable of achieving the domestic targets that might eventually be forthcoming.

In other words, my conclusion in 1998 strongly favored a market-based carbon policy, but was somewhat neutral between carbon taxes and cap-and-trade.  Indeed, at that time and for the subsequent eight years or so, I remained agnostic regarding what I viewed as the trade-offs between cap-and-trade and carbon taxes.  What happened to change that?  Three words:  The Hamilton Project.

The Making of an Advocate

For those of you who don’t know, the Hamilton Project is an initiative based at the Brookings Institution that – according to its web site – “offers a strategic vision and produces innovative policy proposals on how to create a growing economy that benefits more Americans.”

In 2007, the Project’s leadership asked me to write a paper proposing a U.S. CO2 cap-and-trade system.  I responded that I would prefer to write a paper proposing the use of a market-based CO2 policy, describing the two alternatives of cap-and-trade and carbon taxes.  I explained that I was by no means opposed to the notion of a carbon tax, having written about such approaches for more than twenty years.  Indeed, I noted, both cap-and-trade and carbon taxes would be good approaches to the problem; they have many similarities, some tradeoffs, and a few key differences.

The Hamilton Project leaders said no, they wanted me to make the best case I could for cap-and-trade, not a balanced investigation of the two policy instruments.  Someone else would be commissioned to write a proposal for a carbon tax.  (That turned out to be Professor Gilbert Metcalf of Tufts University – now on leave at the U.S. Department of the Treasury – who did a splendid job!)  Thus, I was made into an advocate for cap-and-trade.  It’s as simple as that.

Giving It My Best Shot

I argued in my Hamilton Project paper (which you can read here) that despite the tradeoffs between the two principal market-based instruments that could target CO2 emissions, the best (and most likely) approach for the short to medium term in the United States was a cap-and-trade system, based on three criteria:  environmental effectiveness, cost effectiveness, and distributional equity.  Although my position was not simple capitulation to politics, I argued that sound assessments of environmental effectiveness, cost effectiveness, and distributional equity should be made in a real-world political context.

I said that the key merits of the cap-and-trade approach were, first, the program could provide cost-effectiveness, while achieving meaningful reductions in greenhouse gas emissions levels.  Second, it offered an easy means of compensating for the inevitably unequal burdens imposed by a climate policy.  Third, it provided a straightforward means to link with other countries’ climate policies.  Fourth, it avoided the political aversion in the United States to taxes.  Fifth, it was unlikely to be degraded – in terms of its environmental performance and cost effectiveness – by political forces. And sixth, this approach had a history of successful adoption and implementation in this country over the past two decades.

I recognized that there were some real differences between taxes and cap-and-trade that needed to be recognized.  First, environmental effectiveness:  a tax does not guarantee achievement of an emissions target, but it does provide greater certainty regarding costs.  This is a fundamental tradeoff.  Taxes provide automatic temporal flexibility, which needs to be built into a cap-and-trade system through provision for banking, borrowing, and possibly cost-containment mechanisms.  On the other hand, political economy forces strongly point to less severe targets if carbon taxes are used, rather than cap-and-trade – this is not a tradeoff, and is why virtually no environmental NGOs have favored the carbon-tax approach.

In principle, both carbon taxes and cap-and-trade can achieve cost-effective reductions, and – depending upon design — the distributional consequences of the two approaches can be the same.  But the key difference is that political pressures on a carbon tax system will most likely lead to exemptions of sectors and firms, which reduces environmental effectiveness and drives up costs, as some low-cost emission reduction opportunities are left off the table.  But political pressures on a cap-and-trade system lead to different allocations of the free allowances, which affect distribution, but not environmental effectiveness, and not cost-effectiveness.

I concluded that proponents of carbon taxes worried about the propensity of political processes under a cap-and-trade system to compensate sectors through free allowance allocations, but a carbon tax would be sensitive to the same political pressures, and should be expected to succumb in ways that are ultimately more harmful:  reducing environmental achievement and driving up costs.

Of course, such positive political economy arguments look much less compelling in the wake of the defeat of cap-and-trade legislation in the U.S. Congress and its successful demonization by conservatives as “cap-and-tax.”

A Political Opening for Carbon Taxes?

Does the defeat of cap-and-trade in the U.S. Congress, the obvious unwillingness of the Obama White House to utter the phrase in public, and the outspoken opposition to cap-and-trade by 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?

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 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 Romney’s stated opposition and Obama’s silence extend beyond disdain for cap-and-trade per se.  Rather, they cover 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, no matter what the outcome of the election.  Note that the only election outcome that could lead to an aggressive and successful move to a meaningful nationwide carbon pricing regime would be:  the Democrats take back control of the House of Representatives, and the Democrats achieve a 60+ vote margin in the Senate, and the President is reelected.  A quick check at Five Thirty Eight (Nate Silver’s superb election forecast website at the New York Times) and other polling web sites makes it abundantly clear that the probability of such Democratic control of the White House and Congress is so small that it’s hardly worth discussing.

What About Fiscal Policy Reform?

A more promising possibility – though still unlikely – is that if Republicans and Democrats join to cooperate with either a Romney or Obama White House to work together constructively to address not only the short-term fiscal cliff at the end of this calendar year, but also the longer-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 “if’s”) it turns out to be easier politically to eschew increases in taxes on labor and investment and therefore turn to taxes on consumption, then there could be a political opening for new energy taxes, in particular, (drum roll ….) 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 – are not 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” or “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 Tea Party Republicans, and it is difficult to picture them being more willing to break their Grover Norquist pledges because it’s for a carbon tax.


Even if the much-ballyhooed political opening for carbon taxes is largely illusory, the opening for policy wonks is real.  And here is where action is happening, and should continue to happen.  At some point the politics will change, and it’s important to be ready.  This is why economic research on carbon taxes is very much needed, particularly in the context of broader fiscal challenges, and it is why I’m pleased to see it happening at Resources for the Future, Harvard University, and elsewhere.

Bottom Line

I would personally be delighted if a carbon tax were politically feasible in the United States, or were to become politically feasible in the future.  But I’m forced to conclude that much of the current enthusiasm about carbon taxes in the academic and broader policy-wonk community in the wake of the defeat of cap-and-trade is – for the time being, at least – largely a manifestation of the grass looking greener across the street.


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)?


Can the Durban Climate Negotiations Succeed?

Two weeks of international climate negotiations begin today in Durban, South Africa.  These are the Seventeenth Conference of the Parties (COP-17) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).  The key challenge at this point is to maintain the process of building a sound foundation for meaningful, long-term global action, not necessarily some notion of immediate, highly-visible triumph. In other words, the answer to the question of whether the Durban climate negotiations can succeed depends — not surprisingly — on how one defines “success.”

Let’s Place the Climate Negotiations in Perspective

Why do I say (repeatedly, year after year) that the best goal for the climate talks is to make progress on a sound foundation for meaningful, long-term global action, not some notion of immediate triumph?  The reason is that the often-stated cliche about the American baseball season — that it’s a marathon, not a sprint — applies even more so to international climate change policy.  Why?

First, the focus of scientists (and policy makers) should be on stabilizing concentrations at acceptable levels by 2050 and beyond, because it is the accumulated stock of greenhouse gas emissions — not the flow of emissions in any year — that are linked with climate consequences.

Second, the cost-effective path for stabilizing concentrations involves a gradual ramp-up in target severity, to avoid rendering large parts of the capital stock prematurely obsolete.

Third, massive technological change is the key to the needed transition from reliance on carbon-intensive fossil fuels to more climate-friendly energy sources.  Long-term price signals (most likely from government policies) will be needed to inspire such technological change.

Fourth and finally, the creation of long-lasting international institutions is central to addressing this global challenge.

For all of these reasons, international climate negotiations will be an ongoing process, not a single task with a clear end-point.  Indeed, we should not be surprised that they proceed much as international trade talks do, that is, with progress only over the long term, building institutions (the GATT, the WTO), yet moving forward in fits and starts, at times seeming to move backward, but with progress in the long term.

So, the bottom-line is that a sensible goal for the international negotiations in Durban is progress on a sound foundation for meaningful long-term action, not some notion of immediate “success.”  This does not mean that there should be anything other than a sense of urgency associated with the work at hand, because it is important.  But it does mean that we should keep our eyes on the prize.

How Can the Durban Negotiators Keep their Eyes on the Prize?

The keys to success — real, as opposed to symbolic success — in Durban depend upon four imperatives.

1.  Embrace Parallel Processes

The UNFCCC process must embrace the parallel processes that are carrying out multilateral discussions (and in some cases, negotiations) on climate change policy:  the Major Economies Forum or MEF (a multilateral venue for discussions – but not negotiations – outside of the UNFCCC, initiated under a different name by the George W. Bush administration in the United States, and continued under a new name by the Obama administration, for the purpose of bringing together the most important emitting countries for candid and constructive discussion and debate); the G20 (periodic meetings of the finance ministers – and sometimes heads of government – of the twenty largest economies in the world); and various other multilateral and bilateral organizations and discussions.

The previous leadership of the UNFCCC seemed to view the MEF, the G20, and most other non-UNFCCC forums as competition – indeed, as a threat.  Fortunately, the UNFCCC’s new leadership under Executive Secretary Christiana Figueres (appointed by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in May of 2010) has displayed a considerably more positive and pragmatic attitude toward these parallel processes.  That’s a positive sign.

2.  Consolidate Negotiation Tracks

There are now three major, parallel processes operative:  first, the UNFCCC’s KP track (negotiating national targets for a possible second commitment period – post-2012 – for the Kyoto Protocol); second, the LCA track (the UNFCCC’s negotiation track for Long-term Cooperative Action, that is, a future international agreement of undefined nature); and third, the Cancun Agreements from COP-16 a year ago (based upon the Copenhagen Accord, negotiated and noted at COP-15 in Copenhagen, Denmark, in December, 2009).  Consolidating these three tracks into two tracks (or better yet, one track) would be another significant step forward.

The primary way for this to happen would be for the LCA negotiations to focus on the ongoing work of putting more meat on the bones of the Cancun Agreements, which — along with the Copenhagen Accord — marked an important step forward by blurring for the first time (although not eliminating) the unproductive and utterly obsolete distinction in the Kyoto Protocol between Annex I and non-Annex I countries.  (Note that more than 50 non-Annex I countries have greater per capita income than the poorest of the Annex I countries.)

In particular, the UNFCCC principle of  “common but differentiated responsibilities” could be made meaningful through the dual principles that:  all countries recognize their historic emissions (read, the industrialized world); and all countries are responsible for their future emissions (think of the rapidly-growing, large, emerging economies of China, India, Brazil, Korea, Mexico, and South Africa).

As I’ve said before, this would represent a great leap beyond what has become the “QWERTY keyboard” (that is, unproductive path dependence) of international climate policy:  the distinction in the Kyoto Protocol between the small set of Annex I countries with quantitative targets, and the majority of countries in the world with no responsibilities.  A variety of policy architectures — including but not limited to the Cancun Agreements — could build on these dual principles and make them operational, beginning to bridge the massive political divide that exists between the industrialized and the developing world.

At the Harvard Project on Climate Agreements — a multi-national initiative with some 35 research projects in Australia, China, Europe, India, Japan, and the United States — we have developed a variety of architectural proposals that could make these dual principles operational.  (See, for example:  “Global Climate Policy Architecture and Political Feasibility: Specific Formulas and Emission Targets to Attain 460 PPM CO2 Concentrations” by Valentina Bosetti and Jeffrey Frankel; and “Three Key Elements of Post-2012 International Climate Policy Architecture” by Sheila M. Olmstead and Robert N. Stavins.)

3.  Make Progress on Narrow, Focused Agreements

A third area of success at the Durban negotiations could be realized by some productive steps with specific, narrow agreements, such as on REDD+ (Reduced Deforestation and Forest Degradation, plus enhancement of forest carbon stocks).  Other areas where talks are moving forward, although somewhat more slowly, are finance and technology, particularly in the context of adding meat to the bones of the Cancun Agreements.

4.  Maintain Sensible Expectations

Finally, it is important to go into these annual negotiations with sensible expectations and thereby effective plans.  As I said at the outset, negotiations in this domain are an ongoing process, not a single task with a clear end-point.  The most sensible goal for Durban is progress on a sound foundation for meaningful long-term action, not some notion of immediate triumph.  The key question is not what Durban accomplishes in the short-term, but whether it helps put the world in a better position five, ten, and twenty years from now in regard to an effective long-term path of action to address the threat of global climate change.

Wait, What About the Kyoto Protocol?

Those who follow these international negotiations closely — including my colleagues on the ground in Durban — are no doubt wondering why I haven’t said something about the 900-pound gorilla in the closet:  the fact that the Kyoto Protocol’s first (and so far only) commitment period runs from 2008 through 2012, and so a decision needs to be reached on a possible second (post-2012) commitment period for the Protocol.

Yes, in addition to the LCA (Cancun) track, the Kyoto Protocol (KP) track of negotiations remains.  A decision regarding a possible extension (and presumably an enhancement) of the Kyoto Protocol’s emission-reduction targets for the industrialized (Annex I) countries has been punted annually to the next set of negotiations — from Bali in 2007, to Poznan in 2008, to Copenhagen in 2009, to Cancun in 2010, and now to Durban in 2011.  It can’t be delayed any longer, because the necessary process of ratification by individual nations would itself take at least a year to complete.

Keeping the Kyoto Protocol going (and with more stringent targets for the Annex I countries) is very important to the non-Annex I countries, sometimes referred to — inaccurately — as the developing countries.  I don’t blame them.  An approach that provides benefits (reduced climate damages, as well as financial transfers) for the non-Annex I countries without their incurring any costs is surely an attractive route for those nations.

Is a Second Commitment Period for the Kyoto Protocol Feasible?

Putting aside the possible merits of a second commitment period for the Kyoto Protocol, we can ask simply whether it’s in the cards:  is it feasible?

Japan, Russia, and Canada have formally announced that they will not take up targets in a second commitment period.  Australia, despite its recent domestic climate policy action, seems unlikely to make a significant commitment.  Is Europe (plus New Zealand) on its own credible or feasible?  Maybe yes, maybe no.

The “yes” part of the answer comes from the fact that Europe has already committed itself to serious emissions reductions through the year 2020 under the European Union Emission Trading Scheme (EU ETS).  This will go forward — barring a change of heart by the EU — with or without a second commitment period for the Kyoto Protocol.  That said, Europe’s compliance costs under the EU ETS will be much less than otherwise if offsets continue to be made available from non-Annex I countries under the Kyoto Protocol’s Clean Development Mechanism (CDM).  This might suggest that the EU has a significant motivation to keep the Kyoto Protocol going.

But international law scholars — such as Professor Daniel Bodansky of Arizona State University‘s Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law — maintain that the Kyoto Protocol (and its CDM) continues as an institution of law whether or not a second commitment period is put in place.  Hence, it’s conceivable that the EU could have its cake and eat it too:  an ongoing Kyoto Protocol without a second commitment period.  And the political pressure on Brussels from the EU’s member states — and from European businesses — might make it difficult for the EU to sign up for a new series of commitments given the obvious absence in such an arrangement of the United States, Russia, Japan, Canada, and — of course — China and the other emerging economies.

A Forecast

This highly contentious issue of a possible second commitment period for the Kyoto Protocol may come to dominate the talks in Durban.  This would be unfortunate, because it would simultaneously reduce the likelihood of the negotiators making progress on a sound foundation for meaningful, long-term global action.  It would probably also have the effect of producing some drama in the form of highly-charged debates, and possible threats by some delegations to walk out of the negotiations.  For this reason, despite the weather, Durban may come to resemble Copenhagen more than Cancun.


Further Reading

The Harvard Project on Climate Agreements has pulled together an archive of relevant publications, which we call “The Durban Branch” of our climate library.  We hope it will be helpful for those gathered in Durban or watching from afar.

Also, a number of previous essays I have written and posted at this blog will be of interest to those who wish to follow developments at the Seventeenth Conference of the Parties of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change in Durban.  Here are links, in reverse chronological order:

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

A Wave of the Future: International Linkage of National Climate Change Policies

Why Cancun Trumped Copenhagen

What Happened (and Why): An Assessment of the Cancun Agreements

Defining Success for Climate Negotiations in Cancun

Three Pillars of a New Climate Pact

Can Countries Cut Carbon Emissions Without Hurting Economic Growth?

Approaching Copenhagen with a Portfolio of Domestic Commitments

Defining Success for Climate Negotiations in Copenhagen

Only Private Sector Can Meet Finance Demands of Developing Countries

Chaos and Uncertainty in Copenhagen?

What Hath Copenhagen Wrought? A Preliminary Assessment of the Copenhagen Accord

Another Copenhagen Outcome: Serious Questions About the Best Institutional Path Forward

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