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.

Share

Good News from the Regulatory Front

As each day passes, the upcoming November 2012 general elections produce new stories about potential Republican candidates for President, as well as stories about President Obama’s anticipated re-election campaign.  At the same time, the 2012 elections are already affecting Congressional debates, where each side seems increasingly interested in taking symbolic actions and scoring political points that can play to its constituencies among the electorate, rather than working earnestly on the country’s business.

The new Tea Party Republicans in the House of Representatives decry the “fact” that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) continues to promulgate “job-killing regulations” for made-up non-problems.  And Democrats in the Congress – not to mention the Administration – are eager to talk about “win-win” policies that will produce “clean energy jobs” and protect Americans from the evils of imported oil and gas.

Neither side seems willing to admit that environmental regulations bring both good news – a cleaner environment – and bad news – costs of compliance that affect not only businesses but consumers as well.  Sometimes the cost-side of proposed regulations dominates.  Those regulatory moves are – from an economic perspective – fundamentally unwise, since they make society worse off.  In other cases, the benefits of a proposed regulation more than justify the costs that will be incurred.  Such regulations are – to use a word now favored by President Obama –  a wise investment.  They make society better off.  Failure to take action on such opportunities is imprudent, if not irresponsible.  Just such an opportunity now presents itself with EPA’s Clean Air Transport Rule.

In an op-ed that appeared on April 25, 2011, in The Huffington Post (click here for link to the original op-ed), Richard Schmalensee and I assess this opportunity.  Rather than summarize (or expand on) our op-ed, I simply re-produce it below as it was published by The Huffington Post, with some hyperlinks added for interested readers.

For anyone who is not familiar with my co-author, Richard Schmalensee, please note that he is the Howard W. Johnson Professor of Economics and Management at MIT, where he served as the Dean of the Sloan School of Management from 1998 to 2007.  Also, he served as a Member of the President’s Council of Economic Advisers in the George H. W. Bush administration from 1989 to 1991.  By the way, in previous blog posts, I’ve featured other op-eds that Dick and I have written in The Huffington Post (“Renewable Irony”) and The Boston Globe (“Beware of Scorched-Earth Strategies in Climate Debates”).

—————————————————————————————————————————————-

An Opportunity for Timely Action:  EPA’s Transport Rule Passes the Test

by Richard Schmalensee and Robert Stavins

The Huffington Post, April 25, 2011

At a time when EPA regulations are under harsh attack, one new environmental regulation – at least – stands out as an impressive winner for the country.  Studies of the soon-to-be-finalized Clean Air Transport Rule have consistently found that the benefits created by the rule would far outweigh its costs.  By reducing sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide emissions from power plants in 31 states in the East and Midwest, the Transport Rule will create substantial benefits through lower incidence of respiratory and heart disease, improved visibility, enhanced agricultural and forestry yields, improved ecosystem services, and other environmental amenities.  According to EPA, these benefits will be 25 to 130 times greater than the associated costs.  We document this in our new report, “A Guide to Economic and Policy Analysis of EPA’s Transport Rule,” which was commissioned by the Exelon Corporation.

Despite the benefits offered by the Transport Rule, some argue that it – and other EPA regulations – will stifle economic growth and threaten the reliability of our electric power system.  However, a careful look at the evidence reveals that the Transport Rule is unlikely to create such risks.  Analyses of the Transport Rule have found that it need not lead to significant plant retirements.   Robust regulatory and market mechanisms ensure that the nation can meet emission targets while reliably meeting customer demand.

While compliance with the Transport Rule would – in some cases – require installation of new pollution control equipment, the capital expenditures required would comprise a small fraction of aggregate capital spending by the power industry.  In fact, because of the Transport Rule’s unique legal circumstances, in which the Courts have mandated that EPA replace a stringent predecessor, utilities have already begun to make pollution control investments needed to comply with the Transport Rule.

The Rule’s timing can also contribute to lowering its cost and supporting other policy goals.  Installation of the pollution control technologies needed to comply with the Rule could increase short-term employment.  Although the longer term job impacts are less clear, these short-term employment effects would complement other policy initiatives aimed at supporting the nation’s economic recovery.

EPA analysis estimates modest impacts on regional electricity rates, but reductions in health care expenditures could partially or fully offset these effects.  Expanded supplies of low-cost natural gas can also help lower the Transport Rule’s cost by providing a less costly substitute for power generated from coal.

Most importantly, actions taken to reduce emissions would create substantial health benefits.  Tens of thousands of premature deaths would be eliminated annually, as would millions of non-fatal respiratory and cardiovascular illnesses.  A diverse set of studies find that these health improvements will create $20 to over $300 billion in benefits annually.  And, while the Transport Rule is designed to reduce the impact of upwind emissions on downwind states, upwind states would also receive substantial health benefits from the cleaner air brought about by the Rule.  These upwind states have much to gain, because states with the highest emissions from coal-fired power plants are also among those with the greatest premature mortality rates from these emissions.

Along with these health benefits, the largest shares of short-term improvements in employment and regional economies are likely to accrue to the regions that are most dependent on coal-fired power, as they invest in new pollution control equipment.  Thus, while designed to help regions downwind of coal-fired power plants, the Transport Rule also offers substantial benefits to upwind states.

As the U.S. economy emerges from its worst recession since the Great Depression of the 1930s and faces an increasingly competitive global marketplace, regulation such as the Transport Rule that creates positive net benefits and allows industry flexibility in creating public goods can complement strategies intended to foster economic growth.  Such regulations are best identified by careful analyses to ensure that benefits truly exceed costs and avoid unfair impacts on particular groups or sectors.  The Transport Rule has undergone a series of such thorough assessments, and the results consistently indicate that it would create benefits that far exceed its costs.  Failure to take timely action on this opportunity would seem to be imprudent, if not irresponsible.

————————————————————————————————–

*Richard Schmalensee is the Howard W. Johnson Professor of Economics and Management at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a research associate of the National Bureau of Economic Research, and a fellow of the Econometric Society and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.  He served as a member of the Council of Economic Advisers with primary responsibility for environmental and energy policy from 1989 through 1991.  Robert N. Stavins is the Albert Pratt Professor of Business and Government at the Harvard Kennedy School, a university fellow of Resources for the Future, a research associate of the National Bureau of Economic Research, and a fellow of the Association of Environmental and Resource Economists.  He served as chairman of the EPA’s Environmental Economics Advisory Committee from 1997 through 2002.  Their report, “A Guide to Economic and Policy Analysis of EPA’s Transport Rule,” which was commissioned by the Exelon Corporation, can be downloaded at: http://www.analysisgroup.com/uploadedFiles/Publishing/Articles/2011_StavinsSchmalansee_TransportRuleReport.pdf

Share

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

The latest rage in Washington policy discussions these days (that’s relevant to climate change) is renewed interest in renewable electricity standards, this time in the form of so-called “clean energy standards.”  I’ve written about this policy approach recently at this blog (Renewable Energy Standards: Less Effective, More Costly, but Politically Preferred to Cap-and-Trade?, January 11, 2011), and will do so again in the near future, but for today I want to turn to an important issue – for the long term – on the related topic of the international dimensions of climate change policy.

The Current State of Affairs

Despite the death in the U.S. Senate last year of serious consideration of an economy-wide cap-and-trade system for carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions – and the apparent political hiatus of such consideration at least until after the November 2012 elections – a major cap-and-trade system for greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions is in place in the European Union; similar systems are in place or under development in New Zealand, California, and several Canadian provinces; systems are being considered at the national level in Australia, Canada, and Japan; and a global emission reduction credit scheme – the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) – has an enthusiastic and important constituency of supporters in the form of the world’s developing countries.

So, despite the fact that there has been an undeniable loss of momentum due to recent political developments in Australia, Japan, and the United States, it remains true that cap-and-trade is still the most likely domestic policy approach for CO2 emissions reductions throughout the industrialized world, given the rather unattractive set of available alternative approaches.  This makes it important to think about the possibility of linking these national and regional cap-and-trade systems in the future.  Such linking occurs when the government that maintains one system allows regulated entities to use allowances or credits from other systems to meet compliance obligations.

Thinking About Linkage

In 2007, with support from the International Emissions Trading Association (IETA) and the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), Judson Jaffe and I analyzed the opportunities and challenges presented by linking tradable permit systems.  Jaffe was then at Analysis Group in Boston, and is now at the U.S. Department of the Treasury.  We presented our findings at the thirteenth Conference of the Parties of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change in Bali, Indonesia, in December, 2007.  In 2010, Matthew Ranson (a Ph.D. student in Public Policy at Harvard), Jaffe, and I expanded on these ideas in an article that was published in Ecology Law Quarterly, “Linking Tradable Permit Systems:  A Key Element of Emerging International Climate Policy.” In today’s blog post, I summarize the highlights of this complex, yet important topic.

First, for anyone new to this territory, let me review the basic facts.  Tradable permit systems fall into two categories:  cap-and-trade and emission reduction credits.  Under cap-and-trade (CAT), the total emissions of regulated sources are capped and the sources are required to hold allowances equal to their emissions.  Under a credit system, entities that voluntarily undertake emission reduction projects are awarded credits that can be sold to participants in cap-and-trade systems.

The Merits of Linking

By broadening markets for allowances and credits, linking increases the liquidity and improves the functioning of markets.  Linking can reduce the costs of the linked systems by making it possible to shift emission reductions across systems.  Just as allowance trading within a system allows higher-cost emission reductions to be replaced by lower-cost reductions, trading across systems allows higher-cost reductions in one system to be replaced by lower-cost reductions in another system.

Other Implications

Along with the cost savings it can offer, linking has other implications that warrant serious consideration.  Under some circumstances, linked systems collectively will not achieve the same level of emission reductions as they would absent linking.  This can result either from a link’s impact on emissions under the linked systems, or from its impact on emissions leakage from those systems.  Linking also has distributional impacts across and within systems.  And linking can reduce the control that a country has over the impacts of its tradable permit system.  In particular, when a domestic CAT system is linked with another CAT system, decisions by the government overseeing the other system can influence the domestic system’s allowance price, distributional impacts, and emissions.

By the way, linkage can also occur among a heterogeneous set of domestic policy instruments, including carbon taxes and various types of regulation, although the linking is more challenging under such circumstances.  On this, see “Linking Policies When Tastes Differ: Global Climate Policy in a Heterogeneous World,” a discussion paper by Gilbert Metcalf, Department of Economics, Tufts University,  and David Weisbach, University of Chicago Law School, for the Harvard Project on Climate Agreements.

Concerns About Linking

Importantly, trading brought about by unrestricted links between CAT systems will lead to the automatic propagation of certain design elements, including:  offset provisions and linkages with other systems; banking and borrowing of allowances across time; and safety-valve provisions.  If these provisions, sometimes characterized as cost-containment measures, are present in one of the linked systems, they will automatically be made available to participants in the other system.

In the near-term, some links will be more attractive and easier to establish than others.  Given the design-element propagation implications of two-way links between cap-and-trade systems, to facilitate such links it may be necessary to harmonize some design elements.  And in some cases, it may be necessary to establish broader international agreements governing aspects of the design of linked cap-and-trade systems beyond mutual recognition of allowances.

An Emerging De Facto International Climate Policy Architecture?

Whereas some two-way links between cap-and-trade systems may thus take more time to establish, in the near-term one-way links between cap-and-trade and credit systems likely will be more attractive and easier to establish.  A one-way link with a credit system may offer a cap-and-trade system greater cost savings than a two-way link with another cap-and-trade system.  Also, such one-way links can only reduce allowance prices in the cap-and-trade system, giving a government greater control over its system than if it established a two-way link with another cap-and-trade system.  The additionality problem is an important concern associated with such links, but it can be managed – to some degree – through the criteria established for awarding or recognizing credits.

Most important, if emerging cap-and-trade systems link with a common credit system, such as the CDM, this will create indirect links among the cap-and-trade systems.  Through the indirect links that they create, such one-way linkages can achieve much of the near-term cost savings and risk diversification that direct two-way links among cap-and-trade systems would achieve.  And they can do this without requiring the same foundation that likely would be needed to establish direct two-way links, such as harmonization of cost-containment measures.  Such linkage may well emerge as part of the de facto post-Kyoto international climate policy architecture, and is fully consistent with the bottom-up, decentralized approach of the Cancun Agreements.

——————————————————————————————————–

For much more detailed discussions, here are some publications available on the web that describe various aspects of linkage:

Jaffe, Judson, Matthew Ranson, and Robert Stavins.  “Linking Tradable Permit Systems:  A Key Element of Emerging International Climate Policy Architecture.” Ecology Law Quarterly 36(2010):789-808.

Jaffe, Judson, and Robert Stavins.  “Linkage of Tradable Permit Systems in International Climate Policy Architecture.” The Harvard Project on International Climate Agreements, Discussion Paper 08-07, Cambridge, Massachusetts, September, 2008.

Jaffe, Judson, and Robert Stavins. Linking a U.S. Cap-and-Trade System for Greenhouse Gas Emissions: Opportunities, Implications, and Challenges. Washington, D.C.: AEI-Brookings Joint Center for Regulatory Studies, January 2008.

Jaffe, Judson, and Robert Stavins.  Linking Tradable Permit Systems for Greenhouse Gas Emissions: Opportunities, Implications, and Challenges. Prepared for the International Emissions Trading Association, Geneva, Switzerland. November, 2007.

Also, this issue of linkage among tradable permit systems has come up previously in a number of my essays at this blog:

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

The Real Options for U.S. Climate Policy

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

Only Private Sector Can Meet Finance Demands of Developing Countries

Approaching Copenhagen with a Portfolio of Domestic Commitments

Worried About International Competitiveness? Another Look at the Waxman-Markey Cap-and-Trade Proposal

Share