Trying to Remain Positive

With inauguration day in the United States just two weeks away, it is difficult to harbor optimism about what the Trump presidency will mean for this country and for the world in realms ranging from economic progress to national security to personal liberty (as I wrote in this space one month before the November election – This is Not a Time for Political Neutrality, October 9, 2016).  In the wake of the election, expectations are no better, including in the environmental realm (as I wrote shortly after the election – What Does the Trump Victory Mean for Climate Change Policy?, November 10, 2016).  And since then, the President-elect’s announced nominations for key positions in the administration have probably eliminated whatever optimism some progressives may have been harboring.

Remarkably, the least worrisome development in regard to anticipated climate change policy may be the nomination of Rex Tillerson to become U.S. Secretary of State.  Two months ago it would have been inconceivable to me that I would write this about the CEO of Exxon-Mobil taking over the State Department (and hence the international dimensions of U.S. climate change policy).  But, think about the other likely candidates.  And unlike many of the other top nominees, Mr. Tillerson is at least an adult, and – in the past (before the election) – he had led his company to reverse course and recognize the scientific reality of human-induced climate change (unlike the President-elect), support the use of a carbon tax when and if the U.S. puts in place a meaningful national climate policy, and characterize the Paris Climate Agreement as “an important step forward by world governments in addressing the serious risks of climate change.”

It’s fair to say that it is little more than damning with faint praise to characterize this pending appointment as “the least worrisome development in regard to climate change policy,” but the reality remains.  Everything is relative.  Of course, whether Mr. Tillerson will maintain and persevere with his previously stated views on climate change is open to question.  And if he does, can he succeed in influencing Oval Office policy when competing with Scott Pruitt, Trump’s pick to run EPA, not to mention Rick Perry, Trump’s bizarre choice to become Secretary of Energy?

In the face of all this (and much else), is it possible to offer any statement of optimism or at least hope?  The answer may be found in the reality that U.S. policy – in many issue areas – consists of much more than the policies of the Federal government.  In a variety of policy realms, the states play an exceptionally important role.  One might not normally think about this in the context of addressing a global commons problem, such as climate change, but these are not normal times.

And so I will try to rescue myself from my current mental state – at least temporarily – by focusing today on policy developments in the State of California.  To do this, I offer an op-ed I recently wrote with Professor Lawrence Goulder of Stanford University, which was published in the Sacramento Bee a week before the November election.  Good policy developments at the state level are, of course, even more important now than they were then.


Sacramento Bee

October 30, 2016

New emissions targets make cap and trade the best low-cost, market-based approach

By Lawrence H. Goulder and Robert N. Stavins

This is a critical time for California’s climate policies. Recently, Gov. Jerry Brown achieved his hope of extending California’s action beyond 2020, the termination date of Assembly Bill 32. Whereas AB 32 called for reducing the state’s greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020, the newly signed Senate Bill 32 and AB 197 mandate an additional 40 percent reduction by 2030.

Unless these ambitious goals are pursued with the most cost-effective policy instruments, the costs could be unacceptably high. The governor’s targets make it especially important to use a low-cost, market-based approach: cap and trade.

Unfortunately, rather than increasing cap and trade’s role, recent proposals emphasize the use of less efficient, conventional policies. The environmental justice lobby supports this change, contending that emissions trading hurts low-income and minority communities by causing pollution to increase.

In fact, abandoning cap and trade would harm these communities by raising costs to businesses and thereby prices to consumers. With cap and trade, the sources able to reduce emissions least expensively take on more of the pollution-reduction effort. This lowers costs and prices.

When the environmental justice community worries about cap and trade, their concern is not about the greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change: These gases spread evenly worldwide and have no discernible local impact. Rather, it’s about “co-pollutants,” such as nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide and particulates, which often are emitted alongside greenhouse gases.

By reducing California’s greenhouse gas footprint, cap and trade lowers concentrations of these co-pollutants. Still, it’s possible – in theory – for co-pollutant emissions to increase in particular localities. The best defense against this possibility is to tighten existing laws that limit local air pollution. This would prohibit any trades that would violate such limits.

The environmental justice lobby’s concerns about local air pollution are justified: A new report by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights acknowledges that low-income and minority communities face disproportionately high air pollution. The best response to this situation is to strengthen existing local pollution laws rather than abandon cap and trade.

Moreover, it is not clear that cap and trade shifts local air pollution toward low-income communities. One recent report from the University of Southern California identified emission increases and blamed them on cap and trade. But increased emissions have been due mainly to economic and population growth. And although emissions from some sources did increase, they decreased at 70 percent of facilities, according to mandatory reporting to the Air Resources Board.

The key question, however, is not how emission levels changed, but rather how cap and trade contributed to the change. Without cap and trade, it is likely that any increases in emissions would have been even greater.

Beyond the environmental impacts, it’s important to consider economic impacts on these communities. Reducing greenhouse gas emissions tends to raise costs of energy and transportation. Because low-income households devote greater shares of their income to energy and transportation than high-income households, virtually any climate policy places greater burdens on those households. Cap and trade minimizes these costs.

Further, cap and trade offers the government a powerful tool for compensating low-income communities for such economic burdens. Most emission allowances are auctioned and pursuant to SB 535, 25 percent of the proceeds go to projects that provide benefits to disadvantaged communities. This has already amounted to over $158 million.

Cap and trade serves the goal of environmental justice better than the alternatives, and it deserves a central place in the arsenal of weapons California uses to address climate change. Rather than step away from this progressive policy, the state should increase its reliance on this progressive, market-based approach.

Lawrence H. Goulder is a professor in environmental and resource economics at Stanford University and former chair of the AB 32 Economic and Allocation Advisory Committee to the California Air Resources Board. Contact him at

Robert N. Stavins is a professor of business and government at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, and contributed to assessment reports to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Contact him at

Paris Agreement — A Good Foundation for Meaningful Progress

The Paris Agreement, a truly landmark climate accord, which was gaveled through today, December 12, 2015, at 7:26 pm (Paris time) at the Twenty-First Conference of the Parties (COP-21), checks all the boxes in my five-point scorecard for a potentially effective Paris Agreement, described in my November 17th blog essay, Paris Can Be a Key Step.  The Agreement provides a broad foundation for meaningful progress on climate change, and represents a dramatic departure from the Kyoto Protocol and the past 20 years of climate negotiations.

Essential Background

Anyone who has read this blog over the past several years, or – even more so — my academic writing over the past twenty years on international climate change policy architecture, knows that I have viewed the dichotomous distinction between Annex I and non-Annex I countries as the major stumbling block to progress. That distinction was first introduced in the climate negotiations at COP-1 in Berlin in 1995. That was, in my view, an unfortunate and narrow interpretation of the sound equity principle in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC, 1992) – “common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities.” It was codified two years later in the Kyoto Protocol.

The Kyoto Protocol, which has been the primary international agreement to reduce the greenhouse-gas emissions that cause global climate change, included mandatory emissions-reduction obligations only for developed countries. Developing countries had no emissions-reduction commitments. The dichotomous distinction between the developed and developing countries in the Kyoto Protocol has made progress on climate change impossible, because growth in emissions since the Protocol came into force in 2005 is entirely in the large developing countries—China, India, Brazil, Korea, South Africa, Mexico, and Indonesia. The big break came at the annual UNFCCC negotiating session in Durban, South Africa in 2011, where a decision was adopted by member countries to “develop [by December 2015, in Paris] a protocol, another legal instrument or an agreed outcome with legal force under the Convention applicable to all Parties.” This “Durban Platform for Enhanced Action” broke with the Kyoto Protocol and signaled a new opening for innovative thinking (which we, at the Harvard Project on Climate Agreements, took to heart).

The Paris Agreement is a Departure from the Past

Today, in Paris, representatives of 195 countries adopted a new hybrid international climate policy architecture that includes: bottom-up elements in the form of “Intended Nationally Determined Contributions” (INDCs), which are national targets and actions that arise from national policies; and top-down elements for oversight, guidance, and coordination. Now, all countries will be involved in taking actions to reduce emissions.

Remarkably, 186 of the 195 members of the UNFCCC submitted INDCs by the end of the Paris talks, representing some 96% of global emissions. Contrast that with the Kyoto Protocol, which now covers countries (Europe and New Zealand) accounting for no more than 14% of global emissions (and 0% of global emissions growth).

This broad scope of participation under the new Paris Agreement is a necessary condition for meaningful action, but, of course, it is not a sufficient condition. Also required is adequate ambition of the individual contributions. But this is only the first step with this new approach. The INDCs will be assessed and revised every five years, with their collective ambition ratcheted up over time. That said, even this initial set of contributions could cut anticipated temperature increases this century to about 3.5 degrees Centigrade, more than the frequently-discussed aspirational goal of limiting temperature increases to 2 degrees C (or the new aspirational target from Paris of 1.5 degrees C), but much less than the 5-6 degrees C increase that would be expected without this action. (An amendment to the Montreal Protocol to address hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) is likely to shave an addition 0.5 C of warming.)

The problem has not been solved, and it will not be for years to come, but the new approach brought about by the Paris Agreement can be a key step toward reducing the threat of global climate change.

The new climate agreement, despite being path-breaking and the result of what Coral Davenport writing in The New York Times rightly called “an extraordinary effort at international diplomacy,” is only a foundation for moving forward, but it is a sufficiently broad and sensible foundation to make increased ambition over time feasible for the first time.  Whether the Agreement is truly successful, whether this foundation for progress is effectively exploited over the years ahead by the Parties to the Agreement, is something we will know only ten, twenty, or more years from now.

What is key in the Agreement is the following: the centrality of the INDC structure (through which 186 countries representing 96% of global emissions have made submissions); the most balanced transparency requirements ever promulgated; provision for heterogeneous linkage, including international carbon markets (through “internationally transferred mitigation outcomes” – ITMOs); explicit clarification in a decision that agreement on “loss and damage” does not provide a basis for liability of compensation; and 5-year periods for stocktaking and improvement of the INDCs.

The Key Elements of the Paris Agreement

Here are some of the highlights of what stands out to me in the Paris Agreement.

Article 2 of the Agreement reaffirms the goal of limiting the global average temperature increase above the pre-industrial level to 2 degrees C, and adds 1.5 degrees C as something even more aspirational.  In my opinion, these aspirational goals – which come not from science (although endorsed by most scientists) nor economics, and may not even be feasible – are much less important than the critical components of the agreement:  the scope of participation through the INDC structure, and the mechanisms for implementation (see below).

Article 3 makes it clear that the INDC structure is central and universal for all parties, although Article 4 blurs this a bit with references to the circumstances of developing country Parties. But throughout the Agreement, it is abundantly clear that the firewall from the 1995 Berlin Mandate has finally been breached. In addition, five-year periods for the submission of revised INDCs (and global stocktaking of the impact of the Paris Agreement) are included in Article 14.  The first stocktaking review will be in 2018, with the start date for new INDCs set for 2020.

Article 4 importantly describes transparency requirements (domestic monitoring, reporting, and verification).  This is crucial, and represents a striking compromise between the U.S. and Europe, on the one hand, and China and India, on the other hand. All countries must eventually face the same monitoring and reporting requirements, regardless of their status as developed or developing.

Article 6 provides for international policy linkage, and is thereby exceptionally important for the successful exploitation of the foundation provided by the Paris Agreement.  The necessary language for heterogeneous international policy linkage (not only international carbon markets, but international linkage of other national policy instruments) is included. I have written about this key issue many times over the past ten years. It can bring down compliance costs greatly, and thereby facilitate greater ambition over time. (See our paper on this from the Harvard Project on Climate Agreements:  “Facilitating Linkage of Heterogeneous Regional, National, and Sub-National Climate Policies Through a Future International Agreement” By Daniel Bodansky, Seth Hoedl, Gilbert E. Metcalf and Robert N. Stavins, November 2014.)  The Paris Agreement accomplishes this through provision for “internationally transferred mitigation outcomes.” With this provision, we have a new climate policy acronym – ITMOs – about which I suspect I will be writing in the future.

There is considerable discussion of “finance” in Article 9, but the numbers do not appear in the Agreement, only in the accompanying Decision, where item 54 states that by 2025, the Parties will revisit the total quantity of funding, using the current $100 billion target as a “floor.”

Finally, the Agreement’s Article 8 on Loss and Damage was necessary from the point of view of the most vulnerable countries, but the most contentious issue is settled in Decision 52, where the Parties agree that this “does not involve or provide a basis for any liability of compensation.”  That decision was absolutely essential from the perspective of the largest emitters.

Anticipated Impacts of the Paris Agreement

Before I turn to my assessment of the Agreement, I should comment briefly on a topic that seems to be of considerable interest to many people (based on the questions I received from the press during my 10 days in Paris), namely what effect will the Agreement have on business, what signals will it send to the private sector?

My answer is that impacts on businesses will come largely not directly from the Paris Agreement, but from the policy actions that the various Parties undertake domestically in their respective jurisdictions to comply with the Paris Agreement.  I am again referring to the 186 countries which submitted Intended Nationally Determined Contributions – INDCs – under the Agreement.

So, in the case of the United States, for example, those policies that will enable the country to achieve its submitted INDC are: the Clean Power Plan (which will accelerate the shift in many states from coal to natural gas for electricity generation, as well as provide incentives in some states for renewable electricity generation); CAFE (motor vehicle fuel efficiency) standards increasing over time (as already enacted by Congress); appliance efficiency standards moving up over time (as also already enacted by Congress); California’s very aggressive climate policy (AB-32); and the northeast states’ Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative.

These various policies are credible, and they will send price signals that affect business decisions (but not across the board nor with ideal efficiency, as would a national carbon tax or a national carbon cap-and-trade system). In terms of impacts on specific companies, impacts will continue to vary greatly. But a useful generalization is that a major effect of most climate policies is to raise energy costs, which tends to be good news for producers of energy-consuming durable goods (for example, the Boeing Company) and bad news for consumers of those same energy-consuming durable goods (for example, United Airlines).

An Assessment with my Paris Scorecard

Lastly, here is my November 17th scorecard and my assessment of the five key elements I said would constitute a successful 21st Conference of the Parties:

  1. Include approximately 90% of global emissions in the set of INDCs that are submitted and part of the Paris Agreement (compared with 14% in the current commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol). This was obviously achieved, with total coverage reaching 96% of global emissions.
  1. Establish credible reporting and transparency requirements. This was achieved, through long negotiations between China and India, on the one hand, and Europe and the United States, on the other.
  1. Move forward with finance for climate adaptation (and mitigation) B the famous $100 billion commitment. This was achieved.
  1. Agree to return to negotiations periodically, such as every 5 years, to revisit the ambition and structure of the INDCs. This was achieved.
  1. Put aside unproductive disagreements, such as on so-called “loss and damage,” which appears to rich countries like unlimited liability for bad weather events in developing countries, and the insistence by some parties that the INDCs themselves be binding under international law. This would have required Senate ratification of the Agreement in the United States, which would have meant that the United States would not be a party to the Agreement. There was success on both of these.

Final Words

So, my fundamental assessment of the Paris climate talks is that they were a great success. Unfortunately, as I have said before, some advocates and some members of the press will likely characterize the outcome as a “failure,” because the 2 degree C target has not been achieved immediately.

Let me conclude where I started. The Paris Agreement provides an important new foundation for meaningful progress on climate change, and represents a dramatic departure from the past 20 years of international climate negotiations.  Of course, the problem has not been solved, and it will not be for many years to come. But the new approach brought about by the Paris Agreement can be a key step toward reducing the threat of global climate change. In truth, only time will tell.


As many of you know, over a period of ten days, we (the Harvard Project on Climate Agreements) were hard at work at COP-21 in Paris. I made a dozen presentations and we held bilateral meetings on a daily basis with national negotiating teams and and others. You will find videos, photos, and numerous stories about our activities in Paris at our Tumblr page. Thanks are due to the entire team who were with me in Paris – Robert Stowe, executive director, Jason Chapman, program manager, and Doug Gavel, director of media relations — as well as Bryan Galcik, communications coordinator, back in Cambridge.

The Papal Encyclical and Climate Change Policy

On June 18, 2015, Coral Davenport, writing in the New York Times, was the first in the press to note that the encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si’, released by Pope Francis that same day, with tremendous praise from diverse quarters, “is as much an indictment of the global economic order as it is an argument for the world to confront climate change.”

The New York Times and a Couple of Asia Trips

The Times article included the following: “…environmental economists criticized the encyclical’s condemnation of carbon trading, seeing it as part of a radical critique of market economies. ‘I respect what the pope says about the need for action, but this is out of step with the thinking and the work of informed policy analysts around the world, who recognize that we can do more, faster, and better with the use of market-based policy instruments — carbon taxes and/or cap-and-trade systems,’ Robert N. Stavins, the director of the environmental economics program at Harvard, said in an email. The approach by the pope, an Argentine who is the first pontiff from the developing world, is similar to that of a ‘small set of socialist Latin American countries that are opposed to the world economic order, fearful of free markets, and have been utterly dismissive and uncooperative in the international climate negotiations, Dr. Stavins said.”

Those are accurate quotes from an email I sent to Coral Davenport in response to her inquiry the same day. The reason why I sent an email, rather than calling was that I was, at that moment, approximately 37,000 feet over the Pacific Ocean, flying from Seoul (where I had spoken at the third annual Future Energy Forum) to San Francisco, on my way home to Boston.

The following week, I was flying back to Asia (this time to Beijing for a workshop jointly sponsored by the Harvard Project on Climate Agreements and China’s National Development and Reform Commission – a topic for a future blog post, but not for today). As I sat in the departure lounge at Chicago’s O’Hare International, I began to see on my iPhone a small flood of hostile commentary from the blogosphere, indicating that I had unfairly “attacked the Pope.”

Well, writing an email rather than chatting on the phone with a reporter may eliminate some spontaneity, but it does have the advantage of preserving a record. So, I’m pleased to be able to share with readers today the views I offered on June 18th, long before the Pope’s recent visit to Cuba and the United States. My views have not changed.

Why Write About This Now?

That’s a reasonable question. In part, I’m inspired by a marvelous essay by Yale professor William Nordhaus, “The Pope & the Market,” which appears in the October 8, 2015 issue of The New York Review of Books. However, my thoughts are completely independent from his, and so he should not be indicted for anything I have to say. But I do heartily recommend his essay, and urge readers to take a look at his commentary (as well as mine).

With that preamble out of the way, here are the reactions of one environmental economist, yours truly, to Laudato Si’, nearly verbatim from my June 18th message from 37,000 feet over the Pacific Ocean, with some additional text and links for this blog essay.

An Environmental Economist Reflects on the Papal Encyclical

The Pope is to be commended for taking global climate change seriously, and for drawing more world attention to the issue. There is much about the encyclical that is commendable, but where it drifts into matters of public policy, I fear that it is – unfortunately – not helpful.

The long encyclical ignores the causes of global climate change: it is an externality, an unintended negative consequence of otherwise meritorious activity by producers producing the goods and services people want, and consumers using those goods and services. That’s why the problem exists in the first place. There may well be ethical dimensions of the problem, but it is much more than a simple consequence of some immoral actions by corrupt capitalists.

The document also ignores the global commons nature of the problem, which is why international cooperation is necessary. If the causes of the problem are not recognized, it is very difficult – or impossible – to come up with truly meaningful and feasible policy solutions.

So, yes, the problem is indeed caused by a failure of markets, as the Pope might say, or – in the language of economics – a “market failure”. But that is precisely why sound economic analysis of the problem is important and can be very helpful. Such analysis points the way to working through the market for solutions, rather than condemning global capitalism per se.

Should Carbon Markets be Condemned?

In surprisingly specific and unambiguous language, the encyclical rejects outright “carbon credits” as part of a solution to the problem. It says they “could give rise to a new form of speculation and would not help to reduce the overall emission of polluting gases”. The encyclical asserts that such an approach would help “support the super-consumption of certain countries and sectors”.

That misleading and fundamentally misguided rhetoric is straight out of the playbook of the ALBA countries, the small set of socialist Latin American countries that are opposed to the world economic order, fearful of free markets, and have been utterly dismissive and uncooperative in the international climate negotiations. Those countries have been strongly opposed to any market-based approaches to climate change, including carbon taxes, cap-and-trade, and offset systems, as well as any approaches that would allow – through appropriate linkage – the financing by one country of emissions reductions in another country (see my previous essay at this blog on A Key Element for the Forthcoming Paris Climate Agreement).

If the references to “carbon credits” were intended to refer only to offset systems (such as the Clean Development Mechanism) and not to cap-and-trade systems, then I would be much less concerned about the Pope’s complaints. However, the encyclical does not make the distinction. Indeed, I doubt that the authors of the encyclical recognize the difference, and unfortunately, readers of the encyclical will likewise lump together all carbon markets, which is what some policy makers also do, unfortunately.

Out of Step

I respect what the Pope says about the need for action, but his unfortunate attack on the use of the market to address climate change is out of step with the thinking and the work of informed policy analysts and policy makers around the world, who recognize that we can do more, faster, and better with the use of market-based policy instruments – carbon taxes and/or cap-and-trade systems. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has been outspoken in precisely this regard.

Furthermore, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change itself (Article 3.3) explicitly states that “policies and measures to deal with climate change should be cost-effective so as to ensure global benefits at the lowest possible cost” and thereby be more ambitious. That is why market-based climate policy instruments are an important option for many countries. Keeping costs down will help inspire greater action.

Concluding Thoughts

The Papacy is to be commended for having drawn attention to climate change as a major issue. But, sadly, the encyclical fails to recognize that because externalities (such as CO2 emissions) are a type of market failure and because the global commons nature of the problem and consequent free riding are also a profound market failure, it is for these reasons that working through the market is absolutely necessary – in order to address the climate problem in ways that are scientifically meaningful, economically sensible, and ultimately politically pragmatic.

By incorporating the anti-market rhetoric of the ALBA countries, the encyclical unfortunately goes beyond these errors of omission to incorporate significant errors of commission by emphasizing a perspective that is not progressive and enlightened, and would – I fear – ultimately work against meaningful climate policy at the international, regional, national, and sub-national levels.

That is why I said that although there is much about the encyclical that is commendable, where it drifts into matters of public policy it is – unfortunately – not helpful.