Tag Archives: market failure

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.

What to Expect at COP-20 in Lima

On Monday, December 1st, the Twentieth Conference of the Parties (COP-20) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) commences in Lima, Peru. Over the next two weeks, delegations from 195 countries will discuss and debate the next major international climate agreement, which – under the auspices of the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action – is to be finalized and signed one year from now at COP-21 in Paris, France.

What to Expect in Lima

Because of the promise made in the Durban Platform to include all parties (countries) under a common legal framework, this is a significant departure from the past two decades of international climate policy, which – since the 1995 Berlin Mandate and the 1997 Kyoto Protocol – have featured coverage of only a small subset of countries, namely the so-called Annex I countries (more or less the industrialized nations, as of twenty years ago).

The expanded geographic scope of the incipient Paris agreement – combined with its emerging architecture in the form of a pragmatic hybrid of bottom-up nationally determined contributions (NDCs) plus top-down elements for monitoring, reporting, verification, and comparison of contributions – represents the greatest promise in many years of a future international climate agreement that is truly meaningful.

A Diplomatic Breakthrough:  The Key Role of the China-USA Announcement

If that confluence of policy developments offers the promise, then it is fair to say that the recent joint announcement of national targets by China and the United States (under the future Paris agreement) represents the beginning of the realization of that promise. From the 14% of global CO2 emissions covered by nations participating (a subset of the Annex I countries) in the Kyoto Protocol’s current commitment period, the future Paris agreement with the announced China and USA NDCs covers more than 40% of global CO2 emissions. With Europe, already on board, the total amounts to more than 50% of emissions.

It will not be long before the other industrialized countries announce their own contributions – some quite possibly in Lima over the next two weeks. More importantly, the pressure is now on the other large, emerging economies – India, Brazil, Korea, South Africa, Mexico, and Indonesia – to step up. Some (Brazil, Korea, Mexico?) may well announce their contributions in Lima, but all countries are due to announce their NDCs by the end of the first quarter of 2015.

The announced China-USA quantitative contributions are themselves significant. For China, capping its emissions by 2030 (at the latest) plus increasing its non-fossil energy generation to 20% by the same year will require very aggressive measures, according to a recent MIT analysis. For the USA, cutting its emissions by 26-28% below the 2005 level by 2025 means doubling the pace of cuts under the country’s previous international commitment.

Thus, the China-USA announcement begins the fulfillment of the promise of the Durban Platform. A sufficient foundation is being established for meaningful future steps, and thereby the likelihood of a successful outcome in Paris has been greatly increased.  The talks in Lima over the next two weeks will produce at least a rough draft of the the Paris agreement, which can then be elaborated and finalized over the coming year, and signed (with abundant photo opportunities for heads of state) in Paris in December, 2015.

Keeping Our Eyes on the Prize

There will be — indeed, already have been — pronouncements of failure of the Lima/Paris talks from some green groups, primarily because the talks will not lead to an immediate decrease in emissions and will not prevent atmospheric temperatures from rising by more than 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit), which has become an accepted, but essentially unachievable political goal. These well-intentioned advocates mistakenly focus on the short-term change in emissions among participating countries (for example, the much-heralded 5.2% cut by the Annex I countries in the Kyoto Protocol’s first commitment period), when it is the long-term change in global emissions that matters.

In other words, they ignore the geographic scope of participation, and do not recognize that — given the stock nature of the problem — what is most important is long-term action.  Each agreement is no more than one step to be followed by others.  And most important now for ultimate success later is a sound foundation, which is precisely what may finally be provided by the China-USA announced contributions under the Durban Platform structure of a hybrid international policy architecture.

All in all, this may turn out to be among the most important moments in two decades of international climate negotiations. And this means – at a minimum – that the next two weeks in Lima should be very interesting indeed.

Upcoming Events at COP-20 in Lima

As with previous Conferences of the Parties, we – the Harvard Environmental Economics Program and the Harvard Project on Climate Agreements (HPCA) – will be at the Lima talks for their second week, December 7-12. We will be participating in a number of events, and will be holding bilateral meetings with key national delegations.

In all cases, our contributions to the discussions will draw on our compendium of knowledge from our 70 research initiatives in Argentina, Australia, China, Europe, India, Japan, and the United States. Our purpose continues to be to help identify and advance scientifically sound, economically sensible, and politically pragmatic policy options for addressing global climate change.

For those of you who will be in Lima (as well as the rest of you), here is the schedule of COP-20 events that are co-sponsored by HPCA or in which I am participating as HPCA Director. It is going to be a very busy week, but I will try to blog – or at least tweet – about these events and other developments. After I return from Lima, I will follow up with an assessment.


Monday, December 8, 4:45 – 6:15 pm, Room: Machu Picchu

Sponsors: Harvard Project on Climate Agreements, Centre for European Economic Research (ZEW), and Enel Foundation

“Implications of the energy-efficiency gap for reducing greenhouse-gas emissions”

The discussion will be based on our Duke-Harvard research project (sponsored by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation) on the “energy-efficiency gap”—the apparent difference between predicted and measured rates of adoption of energy-efficiency technology. Panelists will explore the implications of this gap for climate-change mitigation.


Daniele Agostini, Head of Low Carbon Policies and Carbon Regulation, Enel Group

Andreas Löschel, Chair of Microeconomics, and Energy and Resource Economics, University of Münster, and Research Associate, ZEW

Richard Newell, Gendell Professor of Energy and Environmental Economics, Nicholas School of the Environment, Duke University, and Director, Duke University Energy Initiative

Robert Stavins, Director, Harvard Project on Climate Agreements and Albert Pratt Professor of Business and Government, Harvard Kennedy School

Jesus Tamayo Pacheco, President of the Supervisory Body for investment in energy and mines of Peru

See also background paperhttp://belfercenter.ksg.harvard.edu/publication/24749


Tuesday, December 9, 12:00 – 2:00 pm, China Pavilion

Sponsors: National Center for Climate Change Strategy and International Cooperation (NCSC), National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), People’s Republic of China

“International Cooperation: Towards the 2015 Agreement –A perspective from international think tanks”

This event aims at exchanging ideas from various international think tanks on the design of the 2015 Agreement with consideration of interaction and cooperation of parties on bilateral and multilateral basis, with a view to provide for inputs to the debates of the negotiation of the 2015 Agreement.


H.E. Minister Xie Zhenhua, Head of Chinese Delegation to COP-20 and Vice Chairman, NDRC

Li Junfeng, Director General, NCSC

Zou Ji, Deputy Director, NCSC

Robert Stavins, Director, Harvard Project on Climate Agreements

Du Xiangwan, Former Vice President, Chinese Academy of Engineering

Martin Kohl, President, South Center

Jennifer Morgan, Global Director of Climate Program, World Resources Institute

Teresa Ribera, President, Institute for Sustainable Development and International Relations


Tuesday, December 9, 4:30 – 6:10 pm, International Emissions Trading Association (IETA) Pavilion

“What Role will Markets Play in the 2015 Climate Agreement? How can the Agreement Facilitate Linkage of Carbon Pricing Policies?”


Dirk Forrister, President & CEO, IETA

Robert Stavins, Director, Harvard Project on Climate Agreements

David Hone, Chief Climate Change Adviser, Shell Research

Anna Lindstedt, Ambassador for Climate Change, Government of Sweden

Mary Nichols, Chair, California Air Resources Board

Amber Rudd, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change, Government of the United Kingdom

See also background paperhttp://belfercenter.ksg.harvard.edu/publication/24568


Thursday, December 11, 11:30 am – 1:00 pm, Room: Caral

Sponsors: International Emissions Trading Association, Arizona State University, Harvard Project on Climate Agreements

“Linkage among climate policies in the 2015 Paris agreement”

Panelists will discuss how the Paris agreement might facilitate or impede linkage among cap-and-trade, carbon tax, and non-market regulatory systems. Panelists will also address related issues involving market mechanisms in the new agreement.


Daniel Bodansky, Foundation Professor of Law, Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law, Arizona State University

Dirk Forrister, President & CEO, IETA

Robert Stavins, Director, Harvard Project on Climate Agreements

Alexia Kelley, Senior Climate Change Advisor, U.S. Department of State

Nathaniel Keohane, Vice President for International Climate, Environmental Defense Fund

Ulrika Raab, Senior Advisor Climate Change, Swedish Energy Agency

See also background paperhttp://belfercenter.ksg.harvard.edu/publication/24568


Will Europe Scrap its Renewables Target? That Would Be Good News for the Economy and for the Environment

The European Union is considering scrapping the use of binding renewable energy targets as part of its global climate change policy mix that will extend action from 2020 to 2030.  The Financial Times reported that this move – presumably due to concerns over high European energy costs during the ongoing economic turndown – will “please big utility companies but infuriate environmental groups.”  The International New York Times framed the story in similar ways.

The press coverage has missed the very important reality that this potential decision by the European Commission will be good news both for the economy and for the environment.  The fundamental reason is that in the presence of the European Union’s Emissions Trading Scheme (EU ETS) – its pioneering, regional cap-and-trade system that covers electricity generators and large-scale manufacturing – the “complementary” renewables mandate conflicts with, rather than complements other policies.  Without the renewables mandate, the cap being planned for the EU ETS will be achieved at lower cost and will foster greater incentives for climate-friendly technological change.

Some Background

In 2007, the European Union established three sets of targets and related policies:  (1) a 20% reduction in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions below 1990 by 2020, to be achieved by the cap-and-trade system; (2) a 20% target for 2020 for the share of Europe’s electricity consumption coming from renewable resources; and (3) a 20% improvement in energy efficiency by 2020.  These are the so-called “20-20-20 targets” for the year 2020.  A wonderful slogan, but a flawed policy, because of perverse interactions among the three elements.

Europe is well on its way to achieving the first goal, with emissions now reduced by about 18%, and it is now looking to establish targets for the subsequent decade.  At the same time, Europe is continuing to experience its greatest economic downturn since the Great Depression, while European electricity prices have risen by some 40% since 2005 (while the U.S. economy rebounds, with electricity prices actually having fallen – mainly because of low natural gas prices).  Therefore, there is great concern in European capitals and at EU headquarters in Brussels about high energy prices damaging the international competitiveness of European industry.

Plans for 2030

Although the planned, new emissions targets for 2030 may increase stringency from the currently mandated 20% cut by 2020 to perhaps a 35% or even 40% cut by 2030, it now appears that the European Commission may drop specific binding constraints on the share of electricity generated from renewables.  Why would this elimination of the renewables target be good news not only economically, but environmentally as well?

Perverse Policy Interactions

Under the umbrella of a binding cap-and-trade scheme, unless a complementary policy addresses some other market failure that is not addressed by the price signals of the cap-and-trade mechanism (such as the principal-agent problem thought to retard energy-efficiency adoption decisions in renter-occupied properties), these complementary policies that are under the cap will either be irrelevant or counter-productive.  Here is the basic logic.

  • Under the umbrella of the EU ETS, the cap will be achieved cost-effectively (at minimum aggregate cost) if the cap is binding, which it will be with the new 2030 targets.  (Cost effectiveness is achieved because the CO2 cap-and-trade mechanism – like a carbon tax – provides incentives for all sources to control at the same marginal abatement cost.)
  • A “complementary policy” under the cap, such as a renewables target, will either be irrelevant (if it is not binding) or, if it is binding, any additional emissions reductions achieved in the electricity sector under the complementary measure (the renewables program) will cause electricity generators to have additional allowances they do not need.  And they will not tear up those allowances, but will sell them to other sources, such as those in other sectors.  Hence, emissions in those other sectors will be greater than they otherwise would have been, completely neutralizing the emissions-reduction impact of the renewables policy.
  • So, in the presence of the over-arching EU ETS, the renewables target has no incremental impact on CO2 emissions.  On net, the emissions reduction due to the renewables policy is zero.  But the bad news does not stop there.
  • With more emissions reductions in the electricity sector and less in other sectors than under the cost-effective allocation of control achieved by the cap-and-trade system on its own, aggregate abatement costs are actually increased.  Marginal abatement costs are no longer equated, and the allocation of control responsibility is no longer cost-effective.  There is too much abatement in the electricity sector, and not enough in some other sector or sectors.  Costs are driven up.
  • Hence, nothing is being accomplished in terms of CO2 emissions with the renewables policy, and costs have been driven up!  Wait, there is more.
  • If some emissions reductions are being achieved by the binding renewables policy, then there is less demand overall for tradable allowances.  Since the supply of allowances has not changed, this means that allowance prices are inevitably suppressed; and low allowance prices mean less induced climate-friendly technological change over time.

The Path Ahead

That is the perverse trifecta of a complementary renewables policy under the umbrella of a cap-and-trade scheme, such as the EU ETS:  no additional emissions reductions are achieved; but costs are driven up; and technological change is retarded.

If the European Commission decides to eliminate its renewables targets as it proceeds with more stringent emissions targets for 2030 under the EU ETS, it will be good news both for the economy and the environment.

Climate Change, Public Policy, and the University

Over the past year or more, across the United States, there has been a groundswell of student activism pressing colleges and universities to divest their holdings in fossil fuel companies from their investment portfolios.  On October 3, 2013, after many months of assessment, discussion, and debate, the President of Harvard University, Drew Faust, issued a long, well-reasoned, and – in my view – ultimately sensible statement on “fossil fuel divestment,” in which she explained why she and the Corporation (Harvard’s governing board) do not believe that “university divestment from the fossil fuel industry is warranted or wise.”  I urge you to read her statement, and decide for yourself how compelling you find it, and whether and how it may apply to your institution, as well.

About 10 days later, two leaders of the student movement at Harvard responded to President Faust in The NationAndrew Revkin, writing at the New York Times Dot Earth blog, highlighted the fact that the students responded in part by saying, “We do not expect divestment to have a financial impact on fossil fuel companies …  Divestment is a moral and political strategy to expose the reckless business model of the fossil fuel industry that puts our world at risk.”

I agree with these students that fossil-fuel divestment by the University would not have financial impacts on the industry, and I also agree with their implication that it would be (potentially) of symbolic value only.  However, it is precisely because of this that I believe President Faust made the right decision.  Let me explain.

The Value of Symbolic Action

If divestment would at best be a symbolic action, without meritorious direct financial impacts, can it not nevertheless be important and of great value?  More broadly, can’t symbolic actions be valuable?

One major problem is that symbolic actions often substitute for truly effective actions by allowing us to fool ourselves into thinking we are doing something meaningful about a problem when we are not.

But even if there are such opportunity costs of symbolic actions, can they not still be merited as part of moral crusades (as the students would presumably argue)?  The answer is, in my view, yes.  The problem, however, is that climate change is fundamentally a scientific, economic, and political challenge.  Viewing it as a moral crusade, I fear, will only play into and exacerbate the terrible political polarization that is already paralyzing Washington, a topic about which I have written previously at this blog.

The Climate Impacts of Divestment

Divestment of fossil fuel stocks would hurt, not help efforts to address global climate change.  First, natural gas is the crucial transition fuel to address climate change.  A major reason for the drop in U.S. CO2 emissions is the increased use of natural gas to generate electricity, as documented in this recent report from the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

Second, even if divestment were to reduce the financial resources of coal, oil, and gas companies (which it would not do), this would only serve to reduce research and development at those same companies of carbon capture and storage (CCS) technologies, as well as other potential technological breakthroughs; and could reduce the development of some renewable sources of energy (which the fossil fuel companies are carrying out as part of their financially rational diversification strategies).

The University’s Comparative Advantage

Most important, as I have argued for years, Harvard’s real contributions to fight climate change and promote sound climate change policies will be through our products:  research, teaching, and outreach.  That is how this great university has made a difference on other societal challenges for decades and centuries, and it is how we will make a real difference on this one.


Three and a half years ago, I posted an essay at this blog about what I saw to be the proper role of individuals and institutions in addressing climate change.  Frequently I refer to my previous blog posts, but today I’m going a step further, and reproducing that one from March, 2010, because it applies so directly to the topic at hand (including its Epilogue at the very end):

What’s the Proper Role of Individuals and Institutions in Addressing Climate Change?

Posted on March 8, 2010 by Robert Stavins

This may seem like a trivial question with an obvious answer.  But what really is the proper role for individuals and institutions in addressing climate change?  An immediate and natural response may be that everyone should do their part.  Let’s see what that really means.

Decisions affecting carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, for example, are made primarily by companies and consumers.  This includes decisions by companies about how to produce electricity, as well as thousands of other goods and services; and decisions by consumers regarding what to buy, how to transport themselves, and how to keep their homes warm, cool, and light.

However, despite the fact that these decisions are made by firms and individuals, government action is clearly key, because climate change is an externality, and it is rarely, if ever, in the self-interest of firms or individuals to take unilateral actions.  That’s why the climate problem exists, in the first place.  Voluntary initiatives – no matter how well-intended – will not only be insufficient, but insignificant relative to the magnitude of the problem.

So, the question becomes how to shift decisions by firms and individuals in a climate-friendly direction, such as toward emissions reductions.  Whether conventional standards or market-based instruments are used, meaningful government regulation will be required.

But where does this leave the role and responsibility of individuals and institutions?  Let me use as an example my employer, a university.  A couple of years ago, I met with students advocating for a reduced “carbon foot-print” for the school.  Here is what I told them.

“I was asked by a major oil company to advise on the design of an internal, voluntary tradable permit systems for CO2 emissions.  My response to the company was ‘fine, but the emissions from your production processes — largely refineries — are trivial compared with the emissions from the use of your products (combustion of fossil fuels).  If you really want to do something meaningful about climate change, the focus should be on the use of your products, not your internal production process.’  (My response would have been different had they been a cement producer.)  The oil company proceeded with its internal measures, which – as I anticipated – had trivial, if any impacts on the environment (and they subsequently used the existence of their voluntary program as an argument against government attempts to put in place a meaningful climate policy).”

My view of a university’s responsibilities in the environmental realm is similar.  Our direct impact on the natural environment — such as in terms of CO2 emissions from our heating plants — is absolutely trivial compared with the impacts on the environment (including climate change) of our products:  knowledge produced through research, informed students produced through our teaching, and outreach to the policy world carried out by faculty.

So, I suggested to the students that if they were really concerned with how the university affects climate change, then their greatest attention should be given to priorities and performance in the realms of teaching, research, and outreach.

Of course, it is also true that work on the “greening of the university” can in some cases play a relevant role in research and teaching.  And, more broadly — and more importantly — the university’s actions in regard to its “carbon footprint” can have symbolic value.  And symbolic actions — even when they mean little in terms of real, direct impacts — can have effects in the larger political world.  This is particularly true in the case of a prominent university, such as my own.

But, overall, my institution’s greatest opportunity — indeed, its greatest responsibility — with regard to addressing global climate change is and will be through its research, teaching, and outreach to the policy community.

Why not focus equally on reducing the university’s carbon foot-print while also working to increase and improve relevant research, teaching, and outreach?  The answer brings up a phrase that will be familiar to readers of this blog – opportunity cost.  Faculty, staff, and students all have limited time; indeed, as in many other professional settings, time is the scarcest of scarce resources.  Giving more attention to one issue inevitably means – for some people – giving less time to another.

So my advice to the students was to advocate for more faculty appointments in the environmental realm and to press for more and better courses.  After all, it was student demand at my institution that resulted in the creation of the college’s highly successful concentration (major) in environmental science and public policy.

My bottom line?  Try to focus on actions that can make a real difference, as opposed to actions that may feel good or look good but have relatively little real-world impact, particularly when those feel-good/look-good actions have opportunity costs, that is, divert us from focusing on actions that would make a significant difference.  Climate change is a real and pressing problem.  Strong government actions will be required, as well as enlightened political leadership at the national and international levels.


Epilogue:  After I posted the above essay, I was reminded of an incident that took place many years ago (before I came to Harvard for graduate school, in fact) when I was working full-time for the Environmental Defense Fund in Berkeley, California, under the inspired leadership of the late (and truly great) Tom Graff, the long-time guru of progressive California water policy.  EDF was very engaged at the time in promoting better water policies in California, including the use of trading mechanisms and appropriate pricing schemes for scarce water supplies.  A prominent national newspaper which was not friendly to EDF’s work sent a reporter to EDF’s Berkeley office to profile the group’s efforts on water policy in the State.  A staff member found the reporter in the office bathroom examining whether EDF had voluntarily installed various kinds of water conservation devices in its plumbing.  Our reaction at the time was that whether or not EDF had voluntarily installed water conservation devices was simply and purely an (intentional) distraction from the important work the group was carrying out.   After several decades, my view of that incident has not changed.

Remembering Ronald Coase’s Contributions

On September 2nd, Ronald Coase, professor emeritus of economics at the University of Chicago Law School, Nobel laureate, and principal creator of the academic field of law and economics, passed away at the age of 102.  Numerous, lengthy obituaries have appeared in the national and international press.  And in an effective essay posted at the Energy Economics Exchange web site, Severin Borenstein, professor of economics at the University of California, Berkeley, wrote about the effect that Coase’s thinking had decades ago on his own intellectual development (while lamenting that the Wall Street Journal in its own tribute to Coase had twisted the implications of his work to fit the Journal’s view of the world).

The passing of Professor Coase brings to mind an essay I wrote for this blog in July of 2012, in which I recalled that a group of economists and legal scholars had gathered in December, 2010, at the University of Chicago to celebrate two notable events.  One was the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Ronald Coase’s “The Problem of Social Cost” (Coase 1960).  The other was Professor Coase’s 100th birthday.  The conference resulted in a special issue of The Journal of Law and Economics.

Robert Hahn (of the University of Oxford) and I were privileged to participate in the conference (a video of our presentation is available here).  We recognized that the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Coase’s landmark study provided an opportunity for us to examine one of that study’s key implications, which is of great importance not only for economics but for public policy as well, in particular, for environmental policy.

The Coase Theorem and the Independence Property

In our article, “The Effect of Allowance Allocations on Cap-and-Trade System Performance,” Hahn and I took as our starting point a well-known result from Coase’s work, namely, that bilateral negotiation between the generator and the recipient of an externality will lead to the same efficient outcome regardless of the initial assignment of property rights, in the absence of transaction costs, income effects, and third party impacts. This result, or a variation of it, has come to be known as the Coase Theorem.

We focused on an idea that is closely related to the Coase theorem, namely, that the market equilibrium in a cap-and-trade system will be cost-effective and independent of the initial allocation of tradable rights (typically referred to as permits or allowances). That is, the overall cost of achieving a given emission reduction will be minimized, and the final allocation of permits will be independent of the initial allocation, under certain conditions (conditional upon the permits being allocated freely, i.e., not auctioned). We called this the independence property. It is closely related to a core principle of general equilibrium theory (Arrow and Debreu 1954), namely, that when markets are complete, outcomes remain efficient even after lump-sum transfers among agents.

The Practical Political Importance of the Independence Property

We were interested in the independence property because of its great political importance.  The reason why this property is of such great relevance to the practical development of public policy is that it allows equity and efficiency concerns to be separated. In particular, a government can set an overall cap of pollutant emissions (a pollution reduction goal) and leave it up to a legislature to construct a constituency in support of the program by allocating shares of the allowances to various interests, such as sectors and geographic regions, without affecting either the environmental performance of the system or its aggregate social costs.  Indeed, this property is a key reason why cap-and-trade systems have been employed and have evolved as the preferred instrument in a variety of environmental policy settings.

In Theory, Does the Property Always Hold?

Because of the importance of this property, we examined the conditions under which it is more or less likely to hold — both in theory and in practice.  In short, we found that in theory, a number of factors can lead to the independence property being violated. These are particular types of transaction costs in cap-and-trade markets; significant market power in the allowance market; uncertainty regarding the future price of allowances; conditional allowance allocations, such as output-based updating-allocation mechanisms; non-cost-minimizing behavior by firms; and specific kinds of regulatory treatment of participants in a cap-and-trade market.

In Reality, Has the Property Held?

Of course, the fact that these factors can lead to the violation of the independence property does not mean that in practice they do so in quantitatively significant ways.  Therefore, Hahn and I also carried out an empirical assessment of the independence property in past and current cap-and-trade systems: lead trading; chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) under the Montreal Protocol; the sulfur dioxide (SO2) allowance trading program; the Regional Clean Air Incentives Market (RECLAIM) in Southern California; eastern nitrogen oxides (NOX) markets; the European Union Emission Trading Scheme (EU ETS); and Article 17 of the Kyoto Protocol.

I hope some of may find time to read our article, but a quick summary of our assessment is that we found modest support for the independence property in the seven cases we examined (but also recognized that it would surely be useful to have more empirical research in this realm).

Political Judgments

That the independence property appears to be broadly validated provides support for the efficacy of past political judgments regarding constituency building through legislatures’ allowance allocations in cap-and-trade systems. Governments have repeatedly set the overall emissions cap and then left it up to the political process to allocate the available number of allowances among sources to build support for an initiative without reducing the system’s environmental performance or driving up its cost.

This success with environmental cap-and-trade systems should be contrasted with many other public policy proposals for which the normal course of events is that the political bargaining that is necessary to develop support reduces the effectiveness of the policy or drives up its overall cost.  So, the independence property of well-designed and implemented cap-and-trade systems is hardly something to be taken for granted.  It is of real political importance and remarkable social value.  It is just one of many lasting contributions of Ronald Coase.

Economics and Politics in California: Cap-and-Trade Allowance Allocation and Trade Exposure

In my previous essay at this blog – The Importance of Getting it Right in California – I wrote about the precedents and lessons that  California’s Global Warming Solutions Act (AB 32) and its greenhouse gas (GHG) cap-and-trade system will have for other jurisdictions around the world, including other states, provinces, countries, and regions.  This is particularly important, given the failure of the U.S. Senate in 2009 to pass companion legislation to the Waxman-Markey bill, passed by the U.S. House of Representatives, highlighting the absence of a national, economy-wide carbon pricing policy.

In my previous essay, I focused on three pending design issues in the emerging rules for the AB-32 cap-and-trade system:  (1) the GHG allowance reserve; (2) the role of offsets; and (3) proposals for allowance holding limits.  I drew upon a presentation I made on “Offsets, Holding Limits, and Market Liquidity (and Other Factors Affecting Market Performance)” at the 2013 Summer Issues Seminar of the California Council for Environmental and Economic Balance.

At the same conference, I made another presentation, which was on “Allowance Value Distribution and Trade Exposure,” a topic that is of great importance both economically and politically, not only in the context of the design of California’s AB-32 cap-and-trade system, but for the design of any cap-and-trade instrument in any jurisdiction.  It is to that topic that I turn today.  (For a much more detailed discussion, please see a white paper I wrote with Dr. Todd Schatzki of Analysis Group, “Using the Value of Allowances from California’s GHG Cap-and-Trade System,” August, 2012).

Why Does Anyone Care About the Allowance Value Distribution?

A cap-and-trade policy creates a valuable new commodity – emissions allowances.  In a well-functioning emissions trading market, the financial value of these allowances (per ton of emissions, for example) is approximately equivalent to their opportunity cost, which is the marginal cost of emissions reductions.  This is because of the existence of the overall cap, which – if binding – fosters scarcity of available allowances, and hence generates their economic value.

It should not be surprising, then, that the initial allocation of these allowances can have important consequences both for environmental and for economic outcomes.

Environmental Consequences of the Initial Allowance Allocation

No matter how many times I meet with policy makers around the world to talk about alternative policy instruments (for climate change and other environmental problems), I never cease to be struck by the confusion that abounds regarding the environmental (and the economic) consequences of the initial allocation of allowances in a cap-and-trade system.  As I have written many times in the past at this blog, the initial allocation does not directly affect environmental outcomes.  Regardless of the allocation method used, aggregate emissions are limited by the emissions cap.  This is true whether the allowances are sold (auctioned) or distributed without charge.  Furthermore, which firms or sources receive the initial allocation of allowances has no effect on either aggregate emissions or the ultimate distribution of emissions reductions among sources.

This independence of a cap-and-trade system’s performance from the initial allowance allocation was established as far back as 1972 by David Montgomery in a path-breaking article in the Journal of Economic Theory (based upon his 1971 Harvard economics Ph.D. dissertation). It has been validated with empirical evidence repeatedly over the years.  (More below about the initial allocation’s potential effects on economic performance.)

However, it is also true that the initial allocation method can indirectly affect emissions.  In particular, emissions leakage can arise if economic activity shifts to unregulated sources – this risk is greatest with auctions or free fixed allocations.  In contrast, an updating, output-based allocation (used in AB 32 for “industry assistance”) can reduce leakage risk by making the free allocation of allowances marginal, rather than infra-marginal (as is the case with a simple free allocation).

Economic Consequences of the Initial Allowance Allocation

A favorite topic of academic economists is that the allowance allocation method in a cap-and-trade system can affect the overall social cost of the policy if the allowances are auctioned (sold by government to compliance entities), and if the revenues are then used to reduce distortionary taxes (such as taxes on labor and investment), thereby eliminating some deadweight loss and cutting overall social cost.  I discuss this a bit more below, but for now let’s recognize that the combination of two California propositions and subsequent court rulings means that the State is not permitted to use the auction proceeds to cut taxes (rather, any auction proceeds must be used to achieve the purposes of AB 32, that is, reducing GHG emissions).

So, within the set of feasible options, the initial allowance allocation will not directly affect the cost-effectiveness of actions taken by emission sources to reduce emissions.  In other words, aggregate abatement costs will not be directly affected by the nature of the initial allocation.

I was careful to use the word, “directly,” because the initial allowance allocation can indirectly affect economic outcomes.  In particular, the use of updating, output-based allocations can:  (1) lower the costs seen by consumers, which can reduce incentives to conserve; (2) avoid reductions in economic activity within California, with associated distributional impacts; and (3) avoid potential shifts of production to less efficient, more distant producers.

Auction Revenue Use

Decisions about how auction revenues are used can have profound consequences for the potential benefits of auctioning.  There are three basic options.

First, as I emphasized above, in theory, reducing distortionary taxes provides the greatest net economic benefit (by reducing the social cost of the policy).  But California’s unique legal context takes this option off the table.

Second, funding programs to address other market failures that are not addressed by the price signals provided by the cap-and-trade system can be meritorious.   For example, information spillovers can be addressed through financing of research and development activities, and the principal-agent problems that infect energy-efficiency adoption decisions in rental properties can be addressed — to some degree — through zoning and other local policies.

The third and final option, however, is highly problematic, if not completely without merit, and yet, ironically, there are strong incentives in place for policy makers to go this third route.  This third option is to use auction revenues to fund programs to subsidize emission reductions.  There is a strong incentive to do this, because of California’s legal constraint to employ any auction revenues in pursuit of the objectives of the statute, that is, reducing GHG emissions.

What’s the problem?  The AB-32 cap-and-trade system will cover approximately 85% of the economy.  In other words, the vast majority of sources are under the cap.  As I have explained in detail in several previous essays at this blog, under the umbrella of a cap-and-trade mechanism, (successful) efforts to further reduce emissions of capped sources will have three consequences:  (1) allowance prices will be supressed (take a look at the hand-wringing in Europe over allowance prices in its CO2 Emissions Trading System); (2) aggregate compliance costs will be increased (cost-effectiveness is reduced because marginal abatement costs are no longer equated among all sources); and (3) nothing is accomplished for the environment, in the sense that there are no additional CO2 emissions reductions (rather, the CO2 emissions reductions are simply relocated among sources under the cap).

Economics, Policy, and Politics

As I concluded in my previous essay, the California Air Resources Board has done an impressive job in its initial design of the rules for its GHG cap-and-trade system.  Of course, there are flaws, and therefore there are areas for improvement. A major issue continues to be the mechanisms used for the initial allocation of allowances.  Because of the economics and politics of this issue, it will not go away.  But, going forward, it would be helpful if those debating this issue could demonstrate better understanding of the allowance allocation’s real – as opposed to fictitious – environmental and economic consequences.

The Importance of Getting it Right in California

Why should sub-national climate policies exist?  In the case  of California’s Global Warming Solutions Act (AB 32), the answer flows directly from the very nature of the problem — global climate change, the ultimate global commons problem.

The Standard Theory

Greenhouse gases (GHGs) uniformly mix in the atmosphere.  Therefore, any jurisdiction taking action — whether a nation, a state, or a city — will incur the costs of its actions, but the benefits of its actions (reduced risk of climate change damages) will be distributed globally.  Hence, for virtually any jurisdiction, the benefits it reaps from its climate‑policy actions will be less than the cost it incurs.  This is despite the fact that the global benefits of action may well be greater — possibly much greater — than global costs.

This presents a classic free-rider problem, in which it is in the interest of each jurisdiction to wait for others to take action, and benefit from their actions (that is, free-ride).  This is the fundamental reason why the highest levels of effective government should be involved, that is, sovereign states (nations).  And this is why international, if not global, cooperation is essential. [See the extensive work in this area of the Harvard Project on Climate Agreements.]

What’s Missing?

Despite this fundamental reality, there can still be a valuable role for sub-national climate policies, as I wrote about in an essay at this blog in 2010 (which drew, in part, on work I did with Professor Lawrence Goulder of Stanford University).  This is particularly true when appropriate national policies fail to materialize.  The failure of the U.S. Senate to pass companion legislation to the Waxman-Markey bill, passed by the U.S. House of Representatives in June, 2009, highlighted the absence of a national, economy-wide carbon pricing policy.

Recently, another argument has arisen for the importance of California’s climate policy, namely its potential precedent and lessons for other jurisdictions around the world, including other states, provinces, countries, and regions.

The Importance of Getting the Design Right

Getting the design right of AB 32’s cap-and-trade system is particularly important, because the performance of the system will receive great attention from other jurisdictions around the world considering their own climate policies (as I argued recently at the 2013 Summer Issues Seminar of the California Council for Environmental and Economic Balance).  In fact, from conversations I’ve had with government officials and others in many parts of the world, it’s clear that the performance of the AB 32 suite of policies, including its centerpiece – a GHG cap-and-trade system – is being very closely watched.  The outcome of California’s program will affect the likelihood of future commitments being made by other jurisdictions beyond California, as well as the ambition of those commitments.  And the system’s design and performance will have significant effects on design decisions in other states, provinces, countries, and regions.

Getting the Design Right

Current allowance prices, which are near the auction reserve (floor) price, should not diminish attention to getting the design details right.  Market conditions could change, leading to price increases, in which case the details of design will affect environmental performance and economic consequences.  Consideration of potential market rule changes to refine the program is prudent.  It would be a mistake to wait until it’s necessary to make ad hoc decisions in a time of crisis.  Three issues stand out (as I wrote recently in much more detail in a white paper with Dr. Todd Schatzki of Analysis Group, “Three Lingering Design Issues Affecting Market Performance in California’s GHG Cap-and-Trade Program”).

Issue 1:  The GHG Allowance Reserve

A recent, credible study by University of California economist, Severin Borenstein, and colleagues suggests that allowances prices in the AB 32 cap-and-trade system are likely to remain relatively low over the remainder of this decade, and that the probability is small of triggering and exhausting the system’s allowance reserve, which is intended to moderate prices.  Nevertheless, the possibility remains that as a result of unanticipated changes in the market (such as higher than anticipated economic growth in California, slower diffusion than anticipated of low-cost abatement technologies, etc.), the current reserve structure could lead to excessively high allowance prices if the reserve is exhausted.  Establishing a mechanism now to avoid this potential future outcome is important to avoid ad hoc policy responses that might be developed in a crisis atmosphere.

A variety of mechanisms could be made available for providing incremental allowances to the reserve.  For example, specific criteria could be established up front to grant the Governor discretion (allowed under AB 32) to relax compliance obligations.  Or provision could be made to replenish the reserve with allowances from other cap-and-trade systems or from the post-2020 AB 32 system.  Another possibility (recommended by Dallas Burtraw of Resources for the Future) would be overlapping compliance periods, which in effect provide for limiting borrowing, as well as banking, thereby providing an additional cushion on price changes.

Of course, the most effective device would be a simple safety valve (or price collar), whereby the government would offer to sell an unlimited number of allowances at a given price, thereby capping allowance prices and abatement costs.  However, my understanding is that the authorities at the California Air Resources Board (ARB) believe that this would not be allowed under AB 32, since a safety valve could result in the statute’s specific emissions targets not being met.

Issue 2:  Offsets

Offsets (emission reduction credits) from outside the AB 32 cap-and-trade system made available to entities with AB 32 compliance responsibilities can effectively limit allowance prices (and abatement costs).  What are needed now are administrative procedures that are efficient (low transaction costs) and ensure the environmental integrity of offsets.  This is fundamentally a question of balance.  Too much attention to efficient procedures of providing a large number of offsets risks flooding the market with meaningless offsets that lack additionality.  And a singular focus on environmental integrity will result in virtually no offsets being made available.

Up until now, relatively few offsets have been certified under existing ARB procedures.  It would be helpful to identify an appropriate potential supply of offset types.  Currently eligible offset types appear to be insufficient to take advantage of full offset flexibility.  It’s also important to establish appropriate liability rules for offset integrity.  A “seller-liability-first/buyer-liability-second” approach may offer efficiencies over the current buyer-liability approach.

Issue 3:  Allowance Holding Limits

Limits on purchases and holdings of allowances, intended to discourage market manipulation, could put in place a “cure” that is significantly more harmful than the “illness” it’s intended to address.  Rules for allowance holding and transacting are needed that carefully balance multiple considerations:  potential market manipulation; maintenance of adequate market liquidity; cost-effective program compliance (for example, to avoid constraining allowance banking); and effective risk management.

To that end, potential improvements would include establishing greater flexibility for legitimate banking, hedging, and risk-management purposes.  Also helpful would be tailoring holding limits to recognize market-participant differences, taking account of the size of a firm’s compliance obligations and the purpose of its holdings.  Finally, more frequent auctions would be helpful, including near the end of compliance periods, when market manipulation is most likely.

The Path Ahead

The California Air Resources Board has done a remarkable job in its initial design of the rules for its path-breaking GHG cap-and-trade system.  That’s not to say that it is perfect, or that it could be perfect.  There will inevitably be unanticipated challenges that will arise, whether from complying firms, from the broader economy, from litigation, or from other legislation.  The goal at this stage should be to design a system that is reasonably robust to such unanticipated shocks.

On the Origins of Research

In response to my last essay at this web site, “On Becoming an Environmental Economist,” several readers suggested that someday I should write about the origins of my various research initiatives over the past 25 years.  Today, I’m doing that sooner than anyone might have expected!

This is feasible because — also quite recently — I was asked by my colleague, Hannah Riley Bowles, the instructor in the Harvard Kennedy School’s Doctoral Research Seminar, to make a presentation to the first-year students in the Ph.D. program in public policy on how research programs develop.  To prepare for this, I reflected on my research projects over the past 25 years since receiving my PhD in economics at Harvard and joining the Kennedy School faculty, and as I began to write some notes for my presentation, a flow chart of research origins, subjects, and products started to emerge.  You can view my PowerPoint presentation (you need to use Slide Show mode to see the animation) here.

In this essay, I describe the elements of that flow chart of research sources, topics, and selected publications (and provide some screen shots of the PowerPoint deck).

As will probably be apparent, I found the process of preparing for Professor Bowles’s seminar valuable, because it forced me – for the first time in 25 years – to step back and reflect systematically on the origins of my research projects and the connections among them.  So, I recommend this process to other researchers, as I think you may find it rewarding.  And, for would-be researchers, that is, PhD students, I hope the results below will be informative.

An Ex Post Exploration of How Research Programs Develop

In carrying out this ex post exploration of how research programs may develop, I identified eleven types of sources of research ideas and projects.  In approximate chronological order (but not necessarily in order of importance), these are:

      • Dissertation
      • Involvement with the Policy World
      • Picking Up on Someone Else’s Work
      • Conferences
      • Funders
      • Student Interest
      • Responding to Others’ Work
      • Teaching
      • Consulting
      • Class Assignment
      • Invitation

I begin with how my dissertation research subsequently led to several avenues of further research and writing.

Dissertation — Analyzing Land Use

My 1988 Ph.D. thesis examined econometrically the factors that had led to the dramatic depletion of forested wetlands in the southern United States over the previous five decades.  Before commenting on how my dissertation stimulated my subsequent research, I should acknowledge that my dissertation topic itself grew of out of some consulting work I was doing at the time for the Environmental Defense Fund, in particular an analysis for James T. B. Tripp of how U.S. Army Corps of Engineers flood control projects were providing economic incentives for landowners to convert their forested wetlands to agricultural croplands.

My dissertation led directly to a pair of journal articles published in 1990 in the American Economic Review (with Adam Jaffe) and the Journal of Environmental Economics and Management.  But more striking – given the theme of this essay – is that several years later I realized that the general econometric approach and simulation model could be applied to a very different question, namely, analyzing the anticipated costs of biological carbon sequestration as a means of reducing net concentrations of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere, linked with global climate change.  That recognition led to another article in the American Economic Review (1999), and then to a series of other, related projects on carbon sequestration (with Richard Newell 2000, and with Ruben Lubowski and Andrew Plantinga 2006, both in the Journal of Environmental Economics and Management), as well as a broader research initiative on factors affecting land-use decisions (with Plantinga and Lubowski in the Journal of Urban Economics in 2002 and Land Economics in 2008).  More recent work with Andrew Plantinga and Robin Cross (that does not appear in the schematic below) has involved an econometric analysis of the concept and reality of “terroir” associated with the production of premium wines (American Economic Review 2011, Journal of Wine Economics 2011).

A Less Direct Legacy of Dissertation:  Economics of Technological Change

A fundamental aspect of the econometric modeling involved in some of the land-use models above, including my dissertation research, was the estimation of the parameters of an empirical distribution of some heterogeneous attribute of land parcels, such as potential crop revenue (due to varying land quality, for example).  As costs of production fall, for example, that distribution would be swept, with various parcels going into production at various points in time.  Adam Jaffe and I hoped that this same sort of model could be applied to the process of technological diffusion, that is, the process of gradual adoption of some new technology over time.

As it turned out, however, the model was less useful than we first thought it would be for analyzing the factors affecting technology diffusion, and so we abandoned it for that purpose.  But this led us to explore other conceptual and empirical approaches to assessing the factors that lead to the diffusion of environmental technologies.  We developed a new framework for comparing empirically the effects of alternative environmental policy instruments on the diffusion of new technology, including Pigouvian taxes, technology adoption subsidies, and technology standards, with an empirical application to the diffusion of thermal insulation in new home construction, comparing the effects of energy prices, insulation cost, and building codes (Journal of Environmental Economics and Management 1995).  Related work with Nolan Miller and Lori (Snyder) Bennear followed in 2003 (American Economic Review).

Given our interest in the diffusion (adoption) of energy-efficiency technologies, it was natural to think about exploring the factors that affect the innovation (commercialization) of such technologies.  A very different model was developed — with Richard Newell taking the lead as part of his Harvard dissertation research — and an empirical application was made to analyzing the innovation of specific household energy-consuming durable goods (such as water heaters and air conditioners).  This work appeared in the Quarterly Journal of Economics in 1999.

More broadly, our interest in the innovation and diffusion energy efficiency technologies led us to explore in a series of articles the so-called “energy paradox” of apparently slow diffusion of technologies that appear to pay for themselves, as well as other issues related to energy-efficiency technological change (Energy Journal 1994, Resource and Energy Economics 1994, Energy Policy 1994, Elsevier Handbook of Economics 2003, Ecological Economics 2005, Energy Economics 2006, and many others).  And, recently, with a resurgence of interest in the energy paradox in the context of global climate change, Richard Newell and I have launched a new research initiative, with support from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

Because I’ve sought to describe the origins of my research somewhat chronologically, I began with my dissertation research.  The fact that several strands of research — some directly related and some indirectly related to my dissertation — subsequently emerged will surely not surprise academic readers of this essay.  However, a considerably greater influence (indeed, the most important influence) on my research portfolio has come from my involvement — not with fellow scholars — but with practitioners in the world of public policy.  That may come as a surprise to some readers, and it is to this illustration of the two-way street between research and practice to which I now turn.

Involvement with the Policy World

A phone call I received in the late spring of 1988 — a week before my Harvard graduation — from Senator Timothy Wirth (D-Colorado), and a meeting shortly thereafter in Washington with Senator Wirth and his long-time friend and colleague, Senator John Heinz (R-Pennsylvania) led to an agreement that I would direct for them a study intended to inform the Presidential debates on environmental policy in that election year — Project 88:  Harnessing Market Forces to Protect the Environment (and a follow-up study in 1991, Project 88 — Round II, Incentives for Action: Designing Market-Based Environmental Strategies).

Many pages could be written — and, indeed, many have been written — about the influence that Project 88, sponsored by Senators Wirth and Heinz, subsequently had on policy developments at the federal level in Washington (including the path-breaking SO2 allowance trading program in the 1990 Clean Air Act amendments), within many states, and internationally in locations ranging from the European Union to China.  But my purpose in this essay is to examine the origins of my research portfolio, and so I will turn instead to reflect on the ways my experience with Project 88 (and related policy engagements with the White House, the Congress, and others) stimulated new paths of my scholarly research.

One path of research activity soon focused on normative analysis of alternative policy instruments, including work on:  transaction costs in cap-and-trade markets (Journal of Environmental Economics and Management 1995), the effects of correlated uncertainty on the choice between price and quantity instruments (Journal of Environmental Economics and Management 1996), vintage-differentiated regulations (Stanford Environmental Law Journal 2006), and policy instruments in second-best settings (with Lori Bennear, Environmental and Resource Economics 2007).  [The work on correlated uncertainty also illustrates an example of another source of research ideas, namely picking up on research by someone else, because this work was directly inspired by a footnote in Professor Martin Weitzman‘s classic work on “Prices vs. Quantities” (Review of Economic Studies 1974).]

Another area of work on normative analysis of policy instruments focused broadly on market-based instruments (with Robert Hahn, American Economic Review 1992; with Richard Newell, Journal of Regulatory Economics 2003; and the Elsevier Handbook of Environmental Economics 2003).  Other work focused more specifically on cap-and-trade systems (Journal of Economic Perspectives 1998; with Robert Hahn, Journal of Law and Economics 2011; and with Richard Schmalensee, Journal of Economic Perspectives 2013).

A conceptually distinct path of research that also found its origins in my work on Project 88 has involved examinations of the positive political economy of environmental policy (with Robert Hahn, Ecology Law Quarterly 1991; with Nathaniel Keohane and Richard Revesz, Harvard Environmental Law Review 1998; with Robert Hahn and Sheila Olmstead, Harvard Environmental Law Review 2003).

Even this extensive set of research projects and publications that derive from my work on Project 88 — depicted in the figure above — understates the influence that my work on Project 88 with Senators Wirth and Heinz has had on my scholarly research over the years.  This is because much of my work on global climate change policy, for example, has in fact focused on the potential use of market-based instruments in that realm, but for purposes of this essay, I associate that later work on climate policy with two other origins, namely, conferences and funders.

Conferences and Funders

Gradually over the 25 years since receipt of my PhD, my research has evolved from diverse work across environmental and natural resources economics, to more and more focus each year on various aspects of global climate change and related public policies.

“Climate skeptics” and other opponents of action to address climate change have sometimes accused the research community of focusing on climate change because “that is where the money is.”  Although there are sound reasons for focusing on climate change other than the availability of funds (such as the importance of the problem, and the methodological challenges it poses), there is some partial truth to the accusation.  Indeed, numerous national governments and major philanthropic foundations have made it their goal to stimulate research (and action) on climate change.

One part of my work in this realm has been research on national and sub-national climate policy instruments, often focused on the design of market-based instruments, including but not limited to cap-and-trade mechanisms (Brookings Institution 2007; Harvard Environmental Law Review 2008; Oxford Review of Economic Policy 2008; and my work on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Second, 1995, and Third, 2001, and Fifth Assessment Reports.

An invitation from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation to propose and eventually direct an international research and outreach project on international climate policy architecture led to much (but not all) of my work on international climate policy cooperation (with Joseph Aldy and Scott Barrett, Climate Policy 2003; with Scott Barrett, International Environmental Agreements 2003: with Sheila Olmstead, American Economic Review 2006; three books with Joseph Aldy published by Cambridge University Press 2007, 2009, 2010; an article with Judson Jaffe and Matthew Ranson, Ecology Law Quarterly 2010; and ongoing work on the IPCC Fifth Assessment Report 2010-2014; and much more).

Student Interest

Many professors who are reading this essay will not be the least bit surprised to learn that another origin of research ideas has been interest expressed by graduate students.  Three important examples stand out in my case.

One I have already written about above.  When Richard Newell (my very first PhD student) came to Harvard for graduate school in 1993, he brought with him an abiding interest in the relationship between science, technology, and policy.  At the time, Adam Jaffe and I were continuing our work on the diffusion of energy-efficiency technologies, and then the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) solicited proposals for research that could improve the modeling of technological change in integrated assessment models of climate change (so this covers two other origins — involvement with the policy world, and potential funding).  All of this came together in a joint research initiative, funded by DOE, which supported Newell’s dissertation research on factors affecting the pace and direction of energy-efficiency technology innovation.  This led to a subsequent publication with Jaffe and Newell (Quarterly Journal of Economics 1999), as well as series of other collaborations with Newell, which are on-going to this day.

In 1999, Sheila (Cavanagh) Olmstead came to the Harvard PhD program in public policy with a strong background and keen interests in water resources and water policy.  I brought on board Michael Hanemann, then a professor at the University of California at Berkeley, as a collaborator, and together we applied (successfully) to the National Science Foundation for a grant that supported Sheila’s dissertation research on econometrically estimating demand for municipal water in the presence of block-rate pricing schedules.  Not only did that lead directly to some published work (with Olmstead and Hanemann, Journal of Environmental Economics and Management 2007), but led indirectly to other research on water pricing(with Olmstead, Water Resources Research 2009).

The work on carbon sequestration and land use described above with Ruben Lubowski and Andrew Plantinga (Journal of Environmental Economics and Management 2006; Journal of Urban Economics 2002; Land Economics 2008) also deserves mention in this part of the essay, because it all grew out of Ruben Lubowski‘s PhD dissertation research at Harvard.

Responding to Others’ Work

I mentioned above an example of picking up on someone else’s work (in a positive sense), namely a footnote in Marty Weitzman’s classic 1974 article on “Prices vs Quantities” in which he noted that he was assuming statistical independence between marginal benefits and marginal costs, which stimulated me to relax that assumption and pursue the analysis (which led to my article on the effects of correlated uncertainty in 1996 in the Journal of Environmental Economics and Management).

By contrast, sometimes researchers can be stimulated to do work in order to question others’ previous work (and related conventional wisdom).  This was the case with my collaborative work examining the topic of “corporate social responsibility,” an area of scholarship that some colleagues and I believed was populated by research and writing that generated more heat than light.  A conference we organized at Harvard led to a subsequent book that examined Environmental Protection and the Social Responsibility of Firms:  Perspectives from Law, Economics, and Business (with Harvard Law School professor, Bruce Hay, and Harvard Business School professor, Richard Vietor, 2005).  Later, I took the next step with a follow-up article with Vietor and his Harvard Business School colleague, Forest Reinhardt (Review of Environmental Economics and Policy 2008), and another with Reinhardt (Oxford Review of Economic Policy 2010).


Classroom teaching can itself provide inspiration for research.  In 2002, I was teaching a small “reading and research course” for PhD students interested in environmental economics, and lamented one day that the increasingly popular concept of “sustainability” seemed to lack a clear definition or interpretation that made sense in economic terms.  I offered a possible economic interpretation in class, and within a week, two students — Gernot Wagner and Alexander Wagner (unrelated) — had written out a mathematically formalized version of my interpretation.  We collaborated on writing a brief article that provided background as well as further exploration (Economic Letters 2003).


It may (or may not) come as a surprise that consulting (work I do outside of my Harvard responsibilities, sometimes for compensation, sometimes not) can also lead to interesting research ideas.  In my case, this has led to my thinking more carefully — with collaborators — about the analytical methods that surround net present value analysis (also called, benefit-cost analysis).

This has led to a series of papers on various dimensions of net present value analysis in the environmental realm, including such topics as:  the meaning, limits, and value of the Kaldor-Hicks criterion (with Kenneth Arrow and others, Science 1996); the role of discounting (with Lawrence Goulder, Nature 2002); new benefit-estimation methods (with Paul Portney, Journal of Risk and Uncertainty 1994; and with Lori Bennear and Alexander Wagner, Journal of Regulatory Economics 2005); and the use of Monte Carlo analysis to incorporate uncertainty in regulatory impact analysis (with Judson Jaffe, Regulation and Governance 2007).

Also, as I mentioned at the outset, my 1988 dissertation topic had grown out of some consulting work I was doing at the time for the Environmental Defense Fund.

Class Assignments

Many of my PhD students over the years have written term papers for courses that led to manuscript that were eventually published in academic journals.  But in my own case, because my PhD training in economics at Harvard did not include any courses in environmental economics (none existed at the time, as you may have noted in my previous essay, “On Becoming an Environmental Economist”), the only example I can provide of this origin of research is in a different area, namely economic history.  This is an area in which I took two wonderful courses from Professor Jeffrey Williamson (about which I wrote in my previous post).  An econometric analysis I carried out for one of those courses — “A Model of English Demographic Change: 1573-1873” was subsequently published (Explorations in Economic History 1988).

Invitations (and other origins)

There’s a clear positive correlation between the onset of grey hair and the frequency of invitations to write articles (or books) for publication.  These have included:  an article with Don Fullerton on how economists view the environment in Nature (1998); an article on common property resources in the American Economic Review (2011); my ongoing column, “An Economic Perspective” in The Environmental Forum (2006-present); my blog, “An Economic View of the Environment,” which was launched in 2009; two books of my collected works, 1988-1999 and 2000-2011 (Edward Elgar 2001, 2013); and three editions of a book of selected readings in environmental economics (W. W. Norton 2000, 2005, 2012).

Results of an Ex Post Exploration of Research Origins

Putting all of that together in a single flow chart results in the figure below, which is much clearer in a PDF version.  You can also view the entire PowerPoint presentation (you need to use Slide Show mode to see the animation) here.

As I said at the outset, I found the process of preparing this slide deck for Professor Bowles’s seminar valuable, because it enabled me to step back and reflect systematically on the origins of my research initiatives over the years and the relationships among them.  I recommend this process to other academics, because I believe it can be rewarding.  And, for academics in-the-making, that is, PhD students, I hope this essay may be informative.

On Becoming an Environmental Economist

My essay this month represents a departure from my standard blog posts about a contemporary environmental policy issue.  Rather, it is of a more personal nature, and stems from the fact that the second volume of my collected papers has just been published by Edward Elgar, Economics of Climate Change and Environmental Policy:  Selected Papers of Robert N. Stavins, 2000-2011 (2013), a successor to the first volume, published in 2000, Environmental Economics and Public Policy:  Selected Papers of Robert N. Stavins, 1988-1999.

When the publisher invited me to collect my papers in these edited volumes, it was suggested that I write a personal introduction in which I might reflect on the professional path that led to my research and writing.  I did this, and the introductory chapter of the second volume contains my latest reflections on that path.  This essay essentially consists of an abbreviated version.  My hope is that some readers will find it of interest, particularly students and others who aspire to work in this exciting and growing field.

A Professional Path

Over the past two decades, environmental and resource economics has evolved from what was once a relatively obscure application of welfare economics to a prominent field of economics in its own right.  The number of articles on the natural environment appearing in mainstream economics periodicals has continued to increase, as has the number of economics journals dedicated exclusively to environmental and resource topics.  Likewise, the influence of environmental economics on public policy has increased significantly, particularly as greater use has been made of market-based instruments for environmental protection.

In retrospect, my own professional path may now appear somewhat direct, if not altogether linear, but it hardly seemed so as I traveled along it.  The path I describe below took me back and forth across the United States and to several continents, and it took me from physics to philosophy, to agricultural extension, to international development studies, to agricultural economics, and eventually to environmental economics.  It culminated in my receipt in 1988 of a Ph.D. degree in economics at Harvard University, where I have since been a faculty member at the John F. Kennedy School of Government.  During this time, much has changed in the profession.

Early Days at Harvard

The early ascendency of the field of environmental economics, during the period from 1970 to 1990, was centered within departments of agricultural and resource economics, mainly at U.S. universities, and at Resources for the Future (RFF), the Washington research institution.  Within most economics departments, however, environmental studies remained a relatively minor area of applied welfare economics.  So, when I enrolled in the Ph.D. program in Harvard’s Department of Economics in 1983, and when I received my degree five years later, no field of study was offered in the field of environmental or resource economics.

Fortunately, Harvard permitted its graduate students to develop an optional, self-designed field as one of two “special fields” on which they were to be examined orally before proceeding to dissertation research.  Without an active environmental economist in the Department of Economics (Robert Dorfman had retired, and Martin Weitzman had yet to move to Harvard from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology), I developed an outline and reading list of the field through correspondence with leading scholars from other institutions, most prominently Kerry Smith, then at North Carolina State University.  My proposal to prepare for and be examined in the special field of environmental and resource economics (along with econometrics) was approved by the Department’s director of graduate study, Dale Jorgenson.  So began my entry into the scholarly literature.

A Nurturing Environment at Cornell

But my interest in environmental economics pre-dated by a considerable number of years my matriculation at Harvard.  Like many others before and since, I came to the field because of a personal interest in the natural environment (the origin of which I describe below).  This personal interest evolved into a professional one while I was studying for an M.S. degree in agricultural economics at Cornell University in the late 1970’s, where my thesis advisor and mentor was Kenneth Robinson.  I had originally gone to Cornell to study for a professional degree in international development, but found agricultural economics more appealing, largely because of the opportunity to examine social questions with quantitative methods within a disciplinary framework.

The faculty at Cornell and the care given to graduate students (including masters students like me) were both outstanding.  Ken Robinson, my first mentor within the economics profession, became my ongoing role model for intellectual integrity.  It was a very sad day in 2010 when Professor Robinson passed away.

A course in linear algebra, brilliantly taught by S. R. Searle, inspired me to pursue quantitative methods of analysis, and I was fortunate to then have the opportunity to study econometrics with Tim Mount.  One summer I had the great privilege of learning comparative economic systems in a small workshop setting from George Staller of the Cornell Department of Economics.   Working with Bud Stanton, I had my first experience teaching at the university level, and with Olan Forker, I had my first try at serious writing.  All of this led to research and writing of an M.S. thesis, “Forecasting the Size Distribution of Farms:  A Methodological Analysis of the Dairy Industry in New York State.”  The methodology in question was a variable Markov transition probability matrix, the cells of which were estimated econometrically in a multinomial logit framework.  Much to my surprise, this work subsequently received the Outstanding Master’s Thesis Award in the national competition of the American Agricultural Economics Association.

A Defining Move from Ithaca to Berkeley

Armed with my M.S. degree, I moved from Cornell to Berkeley, California, where I eventually met up with Phillip LeVeen, who had until shortly before that time been a faculty member in the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics at the University of California, Berkeley.  Phil was another superb mentor, and from him I learned the power of using simple models — by which I mean a set of supply and demand curves hastily drawn on a piece of scrap paper — to develop insights into real-world policy problems.  He introduced me to a topic that was to occupy me for the next few years — California’s perpetual concerns with water allocation.  I remember many afternoons spent working with Phil at his dining room table on questions of water supply and demand.

This work with Phil LeVeen led to a consultancy and then a staff position with the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), the national advocacy group consisting of lawyers, natural scientists, and — then almost unique among environmental advocacy organizations — economists.  At EDF, I was able to experience for the first time the use of economic analysis in pursuit of better environmental policy.  With W. R. Zach Willey, EDF’s senior economist in California, as a role model, and Thomas Graff, EDF’s senior attorney, as my mentor, I thrived in EDF’s collegial atmosphere, while thoroughly enjoying life in Berkeley’s “gourmet ghetto,” as my neighborhood was called.  Sadly, Tom Graff — without whose mentorship I would not be where I am today — passed away in 2009 after a heroic battle with cancer.

Although I found the work at EDF exceptionally rewarding, I worried that I would eventually be constrained — either within the organization or outside it — by my limited education.  So, like many others in similar situations, I considered a law degree as the next logical step.  In fact, I came very close to enrolling at Stanford Law School, but instead, in 1983, I accepted an offer of admission to the Department of Economics at Harvard, moved back east to Cambridge, Massachusetts, and began what has turned out to be a long-term relationship with the University.

Origins of Interest in Environmental Economics

But where did my interest in the natural environment begin?  Not at Cornell; it was present long before those days.  But it had not yet arisen when I was studying earlier at Northwestern University, from which I received a B.A. degree in philosophy, having departed from my first scholarly interest, astronomy and astrophysics.

Rather, the origins of my affinity for the natural environment and my interest in resource issues are to be found in the four years I spent in a small, remote village in Sierra Leone, West Africa, as a Peace Corps Volunteer, working in agricultural extension (in particular, paddy rice development).  It was there that I was first exposed both to the qualities of a pristine natural environment and the trade-offs associated with economic development.

So, I had begun in astrophysics, moved to philosophy (both at Northwestern), then to agricultural extension in a developing country (Sierra Leone), then to international development studies and subsequently to agricultural economics (both at Cornell), then to environmental economics and policy (EDF), and eventually to graduate study in economics at Harvard.

From Berkeley to Cambridge

My dissertation research at Harvard was directed by a committee of three faculty members:  Joseph Kalt, Zvi Griliches, and Adam Jaffe.  Joseph Kalt was the first faculty member at the Department of Economics to validate my interest in environmental and resource issues, and he was unfailingly generous to me and many other graduate students in making his office (and computer, then a rather scarce resource) available at all hours.  Now a colleague at the Kennedy School, Joe provided examples never to be forgotten — that economics could be a meaningful and enjoyable pursuit, and that excellence in teaching was a laudable goal.

Zvi Griliches was not only my advisor and mentor, but my spiritual father as well.  Generations of Harvard graduate students would offer similar testimony.  My own father had died only a year before I entered Harvard, and Zvi soon filled for me many paternal needs.  It is now more than a decade since Zvi himself passed away.  I felt as if I had lost my father a second time.

If Zvi Griliches provided caring and inspiration, Adam Jaffe provided invaluable day-to-day guidance.  It was Adam who convinced me not to go on the job market in my fourth year with what would have been a mediocre dissertation, but to put in another year and do it right.  That turned out to be some of the best professional advice I have ever received.  Our intensive faculty-student relationship from dissertation days subsequently evolved into a very productive professional (and personal) one that continues to this day.  The name of Adam Jaffe appears frequently in my curriculum vitae as a co-author; he has been and continues to be much more than that.

Although they were not members of my thesis committee, I should acknowledge two other faculty members at the Harvard Department of Economics who played important roles in my education.  I was fortunate to take two courses in economic history (a department requirement) from Jeffrey Williamson, who had recently arrived from the University of Wisconsin.  Williamson’s class sessions were as close as anything I have witnessed to being an economic research laboratory.  In class after class, we would carefully dissect one or more articles — examining hypothesis, theoretical model, data, estimation method, results, and conclusions.  If there was any place where I actually learned how to carry out economic research, it was in those classes.

The other name that is important to highlight is that of Lawrence Goulder, then a faculty member at Harvard, and now a professor at Stanford.  I say this not simply because he was willing to be my examiner in my chosen field of environmental and resource economics, nor because he subsequently became such a close friend.  Rather, what is striking about my professional relationship with Larry is the degree to which he has been an unnamed collaborator on so many projects of mine.  Although he and I have co-authored no more than a few articles, his name probably appears more frequently than anyone else’s in the acknowledgments of papers I have written.  There is no one whose overall judgement in matters of economics I trust more, and no one who has been more helpful.

First Steps for a Newly-Minted Ph.D. Recipient

When I began graduate school at Harvard in 1983, it was my intention to return to EDF as soon as I received my degree.  But by my third year in the program, I had decided to pursue an academic career, although one that was heavily flavored with involvement in the real world of public policy.  Within the context of this professional objective, it was not a difficult decision to accept the offer I received in February, 1988, to become an Assistant Professor at the Kennedy School.  Although some of the other offers I received at that time were also very attractive, the choice for me was obvious, and I have never regretted it — not for a moment.

I remain at the Kennedy School today, where I was promoted to Associate Professor in 1992 (an untenured rank at Harvard), and to a tenured position as Professor of Public Policy in 1997.   In 1998, I accepted an appointment as the Albert Pratt Professor of Business and Government.

Twenty-Five Years on the Harvard Faculty

Two years later, I launched the Harvard Environmental Economics Program, which today brings together — from across the University — thirty Faculty Fellows and twenty-five Pre-Doctoral Fellows, who are graduate students studying for the Ph.D. degree in economics, political economy and government, public policy, or health policy.  The Program, which I continue to direct, forms links among faculty and graduate students engaged in research, teaching, and outreach in environmental, natural resource, and energy economics and related public policy, by sponsoring research projects, convening workshops, and supporting graduate (and undergraduate) education.

A key reason why the Program — and its various projects, including the Harvard Project on Climate Agreements — have been so successful is the superb administrative leadership and staff support  it enjoys.  Everyone who has been involved in virtually any way has come away impressed by our Executive Director, Robert Stowe, and Program Manager, Jason Chapman.

At the Kennedy School, I have had an excellent mentor, William Hogan, and a superb advisor and friend, Richard Zeckhauser.  Over the years, five successive deans have provided leadership, guidance, and support (including abundant time for my research and writing) — Graham Allison, Robert Putnam, Albert Carnesale, Joseph Nye, and David Ellwood.  At Harvard more broadly, I have benefitted from regular interactions with Daniel Schrag, director of the Harvard University Center for the Environment, and Martin Weitzman of the Department of Economics.  For two decades, Marty and I have co-directed a bi-weekly Seminar in Environmental Economics and Policy, which has provided me with frequent opportunities to learn both from seminar speakers and from Marty’s questions and comments.  I will refrain from naming the many others at Harvard and elsewhere from whom I continue to learn — including my many co-authors — only because the list of such valued colleagues and friends is so long.  Included have been a most remarkable set of Ph.D. students, many of whom have gone on to productive — indeed illustrious — careers.

Along the way, I have had my share of administrative responsibilities at Harvard, including serving as Director of Graduate Studies for the Doctoral Program in Public Policy and the Doctoral Program in Political Economy and Government, and Co-Chair of the Harvard Business School-Harvard Kennedy School Joint Degree Programs.  Outside of Harvard, I have had the privilege of being a University Fellow of Resources for the Future, a Research Associate of the National Bureau of Economic Research, and the founding Editor and now Co-Editor of the Review of Environmental Economics and Policy, as well as a member of the Board of Directors of Resources for the Future, the Scientific Advisory Board of the Fondazione Eni Enrico Mattei, and numerous editorial boards. I must also note that I serve as an editor of the Journal of Wine Economics.  In 2009, I was elected a Fellow of the Association of Environmental and Resource Economists.

Working with the “Real World”

What originally attracted me to the Kennedy School was the possibility of combining an academic career with extensive involvement in the development of public policy.  I have not been disappointed.  Indeed, a theme that emerges from my collected papers is the interplay between scholarly economic research and implementation in real-world political contexts.  This is a two-way street.   In some cases, my policy involvement has come from expertise I developed through research, following a path well worn by academics.  But, in many other cases, my participation in policy matters has stimulated for me entirely new lines of inquiry.

What I have characterized as involvement in policy matters is described at the Kennedy School as faculty outreach, recognized to be of great institutional and social value, along with the two other components of our three-legged professional stool — research and teaching.  Because they relate to a number of the papers collected in this volume, I should note that my outreach efforts fall into five broad categories:  advisory work with members of Congress and the White House (for example, Project 88, a bipartisan effort co-chaired by former Senator Timothy Wirth and the late Senator John Heinz, to develop innovative approaches to environmental and resource problems); service on federal government panels (for example, my role as Chairman of the Environmental Economics Advisory Committee of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Science Advisory Board); on-going consulting — often on an informal basis — with environmental NGOs (most frequently, the Environmental Defense Fund) and private firms; advisory work with state governments; and professional interventions in the international sphere, such as service as a Lead Author for the Second and the Third Assessment Reports and a Coordinating Lead Author for the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, professional roles with the World Bank and other international organizations, and advisory work with foreign governments.

Finally, because my two books of collected papers focus on my articles, not my books, I should note that over the years I have been privileged to be co-editor with Joseph Aldy of Post-Kyoto International Climate Policy:  Implementing Architectures for Agreement (Cambridge University Press, 2010), Post-Kyoto International Climate Policy:  Summary for Policymakers (Cambridge University Press, 2009), and Architectures for Agreement: Addressing Global Climate Change in the Post-Kyoto World (Cambridge University Press, 2007); editor of three editions of Economics of the Environment (W. W. Norton, 2000, 2005, 2012); co-editor with Bruce Hay and Richard Vietor of Environmental Protection and the Social Responsibility of Firms:  Perspectives from Law, Economics, and Business (Resources for the Future, 2005); editor of The Political Economy of Environmental Regulation (Edward Elgar, 2004), co-editor with Paul Portney of Public Policies for Environmental Protection (Resources for the Future, 2000); and author of Environmental Economics and Public Policy: Selected Papers of Robert N. Stavins, 1988-1999 (Edward Elgar, 2000).

The New Volume

That last book is the predecessor of the new volume.  Whereas the first volume (Stavins 2000) included selected papers from the period 1988 through 1999, the second volume covers the period from 2000 through 2011.  To prepare this new book, I selected 26 articles from the (many more) published papers I wrote  — frequently with co-authors — over the past decade.  Making this selection was not an easy task, but it was a rewarding one, because choosing the papers and organizing them has forced me to step back and reflect on the set of research endeavors in which I have been engaged over this decade, and thus to think more clearly about current and possible future directions.

The book is divided into seven parts.  The papers in Part I provide an overview of environmental and resource economics, treating broadly several key topics, including economic views of:  the problem of the commons (Stavins, American Economic Review, 2011); the history of U.S. environmental regulation (Hahn, Olmstead, and Stavins, Harvard Environmental Law Review, 2003); and corporate social responsibility (Reinhardt, Stavins, and Vietor, Review of Environmental Economics and Policy, 2008).

The articles in Part II deal with methods of environmental policy analysis, focusing, respectively, on:  interpreting sustainability in economic terms (Stavins, Wagner, and Wagner, Economic Letters, 2003); the use of discounting in net present value analysis (Goulder and Stavins, Nature, 2002); the development of a new revealed-preference method for inferring environmental benefits (Bennear, Stavins, and Wagner, Journal of Regulatory Economics, 2005); and the value of formal assessment of uncertainty (that is, Monte Carlo analysis) in regulatory impact analysis (Jaffe and Stavins, Regulation and Governance, 2007).

Part III turns to economic analysis of alternative environmental policy instruments, with examinations of: vintage-differentiated environmental regulation (Stavins, Stanford Environmental Law Journal, 2006); cost heterogeneity and the potential savings from employing market-based environmental policies (Newell and Stavins, Journal of Regulatory Economics, 2003); the effects of allowance allocations on the performance of cap-and-trade systems (Hahn and Stavins, Journal of Law and Economics, 2011); and second-best theory and the use of multiple policy instruments (Bennear and Stavins, Environmental and Resource Economics, 2007).

Part IV focuses on a topic that also received considerable treatment in the predecessor to this volume, namely the economics of technological change.  Here the articles include: a survey of the literature on environmental policy and technological change (Jaffe, Newell, and Stavins, Environmental and Resource Economics, 2002); an analysis of the interaction of environmental and technological market failures (Jaffe, Newell, and Stavins, Ecological Economics, 2005); an empirical assessment of the effect of environmental regulation on technology diffusion in the case of chlorine manufacturing (Miller, Snyder, and Stavins, American Economic Review Papers and Proceedings, 2003); and the effects of economic and policy incentives on carbon mitigation technologies (Jaffe, Newell, and Stavins, Energy Economics, 2006).

Part V consists of three articles in the area of natural resource economics dealing with land and water resources:  an analysis of the factors driving land-use change in the United States (Lubowski, Plantinga, and Stavins, Land Economics, 2008); an econometric examination of the significance of terroir, the notion that wine quality is primarily determined by location (Cross, Plantinga, and Stavins, American Economic Review Papers and Proceedings, 2011); and an assessment of urban water demand under alternative pricing structures (Olmstead, Hanemann, and Stavins, Journal of Environmental Economics and Management, 2007).

Part VI consists of four articles on domestic (national and sub-national) climate change policy, beginning with a description and assessment of a comprehensive U.S. cap-and-trade system for carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions (Stavins, Oxford Review of Economic Policy, 2008), and followed by:  an examination of the interactions of national and sub-national climate policies (Goulder and Stavins, American Economic Review Papers and Proceedings, 2011); an econometric study of the carbon-sequestration supply function (Lubowski, Plantinga, and Stavins, Journal of Environmental Economics and Management, 2006); and an assessment of the factors that affect the costs of biological carbon sequestration (Newell and Stavins, Journal of Environmental Economics and Management, 2000).

Finally, Part VII focuses on the international dimensions of climate change policy, and consists of four articles:  a comparison of alternative global climate change policy architectures (Aldy, Barrett, and Stavins, Climate Policy, 2003); an assessment of the Kyoto Protocol (Stavins, Milken Institute Review, 2005); an examination of a promising post-Kyoto international climate regime (Olmstead and Stavins, American Economic Review Papers and Proceedings, 2006); and a detailed examination of a key element of emerging international climate policy architecture, namely the linkage of regional, national, and sub-national tradable permit systems (Ranson, Jaffe, and Stavins, Ecology Law Quarterly, 2010).

Reflections on Common Themes

Selecting the essays for this second volume of my papers permitted me to take note of some common themes that emerge from this decade of research and writing.  First, there is the value — or at least, the potential value — of economic analysis of environmental policy.  The cause of virtually all environmental problems in a market economy is economic behavior (that is, imperfect markets affected by externalities), and so economics offers a powerful lens through which to view environmental problems, and therefore a potentially effective set of analytical tools for designing and evaluating environmental policies.

A second message, connected with the first, is the specific value of benefit-cost analysis for helping to promote efficient policies.  Economic efficiency ought to be one of the key criteria for evaluating proposed and existing environmental policies.  Despite its limitations, benefit-cost analysis can be useful for consistently assimilating the disparate information that is pertinent to sound decision making.  If properly done, it can be of considerable help to public officials when they seek to establish or assess environmental goals.

Third, the means governments use to achieve environmental objectives matter greatly, because different policy instruments have very different implications along a number of dimensions, including abatement costs in both the short and the long term.  Market-based instruments are particularly attractive in this regard.

Fourth, an economic perspective is also of considerable value when reflecting on the use of natural resources, whether land, water, fisheries, or forests.  Excessive rates of depletion of these resources are frequently due to the nature of the respective property-rights regimes, in particular, common property and open-access.  Economic instruments — such as ITQ systems in the case of fisheries — can and have been employed to bring harvesting rates down to socially efficient levels.

Fifth and finally, policies for addressing global climate change — linked with emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases — can benefit greatly from the application of economic thinking.  On the one hand, the long time-horizon of climate change, the profound uncertainty in links between emissions and actual damages, and the possibility of catastrophic climate change present significant challenges to conventional economic analysis.  But, at the same time, the ubiquity of energy generation and use in modern economies means that only market-based policies — essentially carbon pricing regimes — are feasible instruments for achieving truly meaningful emissions reductions.  Hence, despite the challenges, an economic perspective on this grandest of environmental threats is essential.

Final Words

On a personal level, the professional path I have taken offers some confirmation that research can influence public policy, and it also illustrates that involvement in public policy can stimulate new research.  The quest — both professional and personal — that took me from Evanston, Illinois, to Sierra Leone, West Africa, to Ithaca, New York, to Berkeley, California, and finally to Cambridge, Massachusetts suggests some consistency of purpose and even function.  I continue to find myself doing similar things, but in different contexts.  It is fair to say that my professional life has taken me along a path that has brought me home.  The words of T. S. Eliot (1943) ring true:

                                        We shall not cease from exploration
                                        And the end of all our exploring
                                        Will be to arrive where we started
                                        And know the place for the first time.

Selecting the papers for this volume forces me to reflect on the past and think more clearly about the future.  The twenty-six articles that comprise this book and the twenty-two essays that comprised the predecessor volume are the product of twenty-three wonderful years on the faculty of the Harvard Kennedy School.  During this time, I have continued to learn about environmental economics and related public policy from colleagues, collaborators, students, friends, and inhabitants of the ”real world” of public policy, individuals from government, private industry, advocacy groups, and the press.  I hope that my learning will continue.

Reflections from Cambridge on the Climate Talks in Doha

Ever since I returned – some two weeks ago – from Doha, Qatar, the site of the Eighteenth Conference of the Parties (COP-18) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), I have planned to offer some commentary on this year’s annual climate negotiations, including the principal outcome, namely, the “Doha Gateway.” I decided to wait, mainly in order to put some geographic and temporal distance between the conference and my thoughts, so that I could reflect on “the forest,” rather than enumerating “the trees.”

Then, a few days ago, a reporter from the Harvard Gazette, Alvin Powell, came to my office to discuss this very subject. Having covered this and related topics for a number of years, he has considerable background on both the science and the policy. And he had done his homework to prepare for the interview. When I read the published result just now in the Harvard Gazette, I realized that this is – in fact – the reflection I had wanted to write for readers of this blog. So I’m offering it here.

The interview started with a quick history of climate negotiations, a brief description of my own role at COP-18 in Doha, and then an assessment of the conference’s outcome. From there, the conversation became more freewheeling, with Mr. Powell asking me about the status of U.S. climate policy, as well as the potential role and responsibility of a major research university such as ours. At the end of the interview, we returned to reflections on the slow pace of international climate negotiations.

You can read the original version in the Harvard Gazette here, but I also offer the published version below without any editing (but with the addition of some hyperlinks for interested readers).

Harvard Gazette

Climate change on world stage

Q&A with Robert Stavins on prospects for adopting a plan to confront it

By Alvin Powell

Harvard Staff Writer

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

International climate talks wrapped up last week in Qatar. Harvard Professor Robert Stavins attended and characterized the gathering as a qualified success, representing another step in a long process of reaching a workable international agreement.

Gazette staff writer Al Powell talked with Stavins about the work of international delegates and the prospects for a meaningful agreement going forward.

GAZETTE: Can you explain the purpose of these talks?

STAVINS: In 1992, at a United Nations conference in Rio de Janeiro, a major outcome was the adoption of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. Among other things, that convention provided for annual conferences at which representatives of countries would get together to discuss and negotiate how to address the threat of climate change. These annual negotiations go by the name of a “Conference of the Parties,” commonly abbreviated as a “COP.” COP-1 took place in Berlin in 1995, and COP-18 just took place in Doha, Qatar, in December 2012.

GAZETTE: What is your role at these conferences?

STAVINS: My role is typically on behalf of the Harvard Project on Climate Agreements. Our purpose is to help the various national negotiating teams identify modes of international cooperation that will address climate change in ways that are scientifically sound, economically rational, and politically pragmatic.

We hold events to which everyone is invited, two events this time. One of the mandates that came out of the Durban conference in December 2012 was for the delegates to think about new ways they can make use of the market to address the threat of climate change. We put together a panel of people to talk about potential “new market mechanisms.” We had a room with a capacity of several hundred, and every seat was taken. People were standing in the aisles, sitting on the floors, and spilling out into the hallway waiting to get in. In other words, interest in our intellectual contributions was at a high level. Importantly, the session was jointly sponsored with the Enel Foundation and the International Emissions Trading Association, which is a trade association of companies interested in emissions trading and related mechanisms.

The second event was co-sponsored with the government of the State of Qatar, and looked forward, post-Doha, to the potential paths ahead, with particular focus on the problems of arid countries, a chronic issue for the Middle East. The panel included Fahad Bin Mohammed Al-Attiya, chairman of the Qatar National Food Security Programme, who is one of the key thinkers and leaders on these issues.

In addition, we carry out bilateral meetings with negotiating teams and also do press meetings. Typically, we hold a couple dozen such meetings.

GAZETTE: How do you feel the conference went?

STAVINS: My view is that these international negotiations need to be viewed not as a sprint, in which you win or lose, but as a very long distance relay race, and the Qataris succeeded in handing off the baton.

The Qataris invited us to Doha last summer to help them begin to think about what success at the December conference would look like and how they could achieve it. There were three aspects to what we identified in advance as success, and they achieved all three, though maybe not to the degree or in the way that every country in the world would have preferred.

GAZETTE: What were those three?

STAVINS: First, they successfully brought to a close negotiations on a second commitment of the Kyoto Protocol, that is, extending the protocol beyond its first commitment period, which expires at the end of 2012. The second commitment period is now set. It will run to 2020. Second, they also brought to a successful close negotiations in what was called the Long Term Cooperative Action track, which included a set of issues that were put on the table at COP-13 in Bali in December 2007. Third, they began to make some progress on the one remaining negotiating track, which is the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action. They initiated discussions about establishing, by 2015, a comprehensive new international agreement, for implementation by 2020, that will include all key countries in the world, including the major emerging economies of China, India, Brazil, Korea, South Africa, and Mexico. That itself is a departure from the Kyoto Protocol, which is focused exclusively on a subset of countries of what used to be characterized as the industrialized world.

The negotiators from around the world did not make as much progress on the Durban platform as I would have hoped. But at a very minimum they did no harm, and that’s very important. That is, they did not introduce any problematic text into the negotiations that will later cause problems. In general, my view of these annual Conferences of the Parties is similar to the physician’s Hippocratic Oath: Do no harm, and keep things moving ahead.

GAZETTE: In looking at news coverage, I read about two emotions, anger and despair, felt by some after the conference. Are those warranted?

STAVINS: AOSIS [Alliance of Small Island States] nations are the most extreme in their point of view, for very good reasons, and they were surely disappointed by the outcomes. They’ve been very vocal, again for good reason. But the major emitters, the only ones that can do anything about the problem — the United States, China, the other large economies of the world, among them — there was recognition that in the real world, this is what success looks like.

I think of this as if we’re back at Bretton Woods in 1944, when Europe was in shambles. An agreement was reached at Bretton Woods, but it took 50 years to establish the World Trade Organization, and to continue the process of putting the global financial house in order. The problem of global climate change is actually more difficult politically than the economic problems that the world faced after World War II. We have this terrible situation where those who can reduce their emissions now are not the ones who will be damaged by climate change. You’re asking current voters to foot the bill, while it’s the future generation that will benefit from reduced damage. Furthermore, any country taking action will foot the bill for its costs, but the benefits of those actions — reduced climate change — will be spread globally. Hence, for any individual country the direct benefits of action will inevitably be less than the direct costs of action, despite the fact that global benefits may be considerably greater than global costs. That’s the global commons problem, and it creates an incentive for each country to free ride on the actions of others. So politically, it’s an exceptionally challenging problem.

GAZETTE: What about the gap between the emissions cuts that were promised and that have been achieved?

STAVINS: What became clear to me at the conference is that there is increasing acceptance of three facts from a broad set of delegations. One was that the frequently discussed target of limiting concentrations to 450 parts per million [of CO2 in the atmosphere], which is equated to approximately 2 degrees centigrade maximum warming, is simply not achievable.

Number two, there’s increasing recognition that a bottom-up international policy architecture is probably the future path forward, not a top-down approach. By top down, I mean a highly centralized approach like the Kyoto Protocol, with targets and timetables, as opposed to a bottom-up, pledge-and-review approach in which each country essentially says, “Look, this is what I can do,” and they put all of those into the hopper.

The third thing I observed was that there was greatly increased acceptance of the reality that market–based approaches to emissions reduction are absolutely essential. One heard this in the past from economists and from certain countries, but now it is unanimous, except for the small set of Marxist economies that essentially object to the world economic order.

GAZETTE: Where does the U.S. stand on that issue?

STAVINS: The U.S. has been at the forefront of that approach back to the Clinton administration. What’s interesting is that the official U.S. commitment under this pledge-and-review approach, a 17 percent reduction below 2005 emissions by the year 2020, is very likely to be achieved.

The reason is the combination of CO2 regulations which are now in place because of the Supreme Court decision [freeing the EPA to treat CO2 like other pollutants under the Clean Air Act], together with five other regulations or rules on SOX [sulfur compounds], NOX [nitrogen compounds], coal fly ash, particulates, and cooling water withdrawals. All of those will have profound effects on retirement of existing coal-fired electrical generation capacity, investment in new coal, and dispatch of such electricity. Combined with that is California, which Jan. 1, 2013, is putting in place a CO2 cap-and-trade system that is more ambitious in percentage terms than Waxman-Markey was in the U.S. Congress. Add to that the recent economic recession, which reduced emissions. And more important than any of those is what new, unconventional sources of natural gas in the United States have done to the price and price trajectory of natural gas, and the dramatic movement from coal to natural gas for generating electricity.

GAZETTE: Are there things that places like Harvard can do?

STAVINS: My view is that the best thing that Harvard can do is to carry out first-rate research, combined with the best possible teaching, and effective outreach to the public sector and the private sector. That’s our comparative advantage. In other words, our greatest impacts on the environment, including with regard to global climate change, will be through our products (research findings, smart and capable alumni, and direct impact on the policy world and private industry), not our processes. The emissions reductions that Harvard will achieve as a result of changing our carbon footprint, for example, whether it’s through increased energy efficiency of some buildings or some other means, are absolutely trivial compared with our impacts on the world [through teaching, research, and outreach]. And all of us — students, faculty, and administrators — have only so much time available. A very important concept in economics is “opportunity cost,” and there’s an important opportunity cost of a faculty member’s time, for example. If they’re working on one thing, they can’t be working on something else.

GAZETTE: Isn’t there kind of a living-laboratory aspect to what we’re doing?

STAVINS: I agree with that. So the one caveat — which I always mention — to what I said would be if direct actions by the University to limit emissions or energy demand were part and parcel of a research initiative or part and parcel of teaching, then those would be part of our core functions.

GAZETTE: Does that extend to the conversation on divestment?

STAVINS: I guess the way in which it links to that issue is whether or not symbolic actions are of value, but again you have to weigh symbolic actions against truly meaningful actions.

GAZETTE: What’s the most important thing for a member of the public to know about the climate talks and about climate change generally?

STAVINS: I think the most important thing to understand is that this is a long-term problem. Economically, a cost-effective approach is going to be very gradual reductions in emissions, not sudden changes. We’re not confiscating everyone’s automobiles tomorrow, but putting in place incentives or regulations so that next time they buy an automobile they move in the right direction, one that is less carbon intensive.

A massive amount of technology change is going to be required. That’s long term, and the creation of durable international institutions is going to be necessary, and that’s long term. That’s why that cliché we always hear from ballplayers each spring when they’ve lost their first 10 games — that it’s a marathon, not a sprint — applies even more to global climate change policy.

People should get neither excited nor depressed, in my view, over one single negotiation. It’s an ongoing process that’s going to be with us for a long time.

GAZETTE: Are you confident that ultimately what needs to happen will happen?

STAVINS: I’m not sure that it will happen through a centralized, top-down, international agreement. Nor am I even certain that the core of the action will be through international negotiations. Remember, 20 countries and regions account for about 90 percent of emissions. So there are alternative venues where meaningful action can happen without requiring agreement from 195 countries! One way or another, — through national action, bilateral action, multilateral action — things will be addressed. That doesn’t mean they will be addressed without the world first experiencing significant climate change damages.

Can Market Forces Really be Employed to Address Climate Change?

Debate continues in the United States, Europe, and throughout the world about whether the forces of the marketplace can be harnessed in the interest of environmental protection, in particular, to address the threat of global climate change.  In an essay that appears in the Spring 2012 issue of Daedalus, the journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, my colleague, Joseph Aldy, and I take on this question.  In the article – “Using the Market to Address Climate Change:  Insights from Theory & Experience” – we investigate the technical, economic, and political feasibility of market-based climate policies, and examine alternative designs of carbon taxes, cap-and-trade, and clean energy standards.

The Premise

Virtually all aspects of economic activity – individual consumption, business investment, and government spending – affect greenhouse gas emissions and, therefore, the global climate. In essence, an effective climate change policy must change the nature of decisions regarding these activities in order to promote more efficient generation and use of energy, lower carbon-intensity of energy, and a more carbon-lean economy.

Basically, there are three possible ways to accomplish this: (1) mandate that businesses and individuals change their behavior; (2) subsidize business and individual investment; or (3) price the greenhouse gas externality proportional to the harms that these emissions cause.

Harnessing Market Forces by Pricing Externalities

The pricing of externalities can promote cost-effective abatement, deliver efficient innovation incentives, avoid picking technology winners, and ameliorate, not exacerbate, government fiscal conditions.

By pricing carbon emissions (or, equivalently, the carbon content of the three fossil fuels – coal, petroleum, and natural gas), the government provides incentives for firms and individuals to identify and exploit the lowest-cost ways to reduce emissions and to invest in the development of new technologies, processes, and ideas that can mitigate future emissions. A fairly wide variety of policy approaches fall within the concept of externality pricing in the climate-policy context, including carbon taxes, cap-and-trade, and clean energy standards.

What About Conventional Regulatory Approaches?

In contrast, conventional approaches to environmental protection typically employ uniform mandates to protect environmental quality. Although uniform technology and performance standards have been effective in achieving some established environmental goals and standards, they tend to lead to non-cost-effective outcomes in which some firms use unduly expensive means to control pollution.

In addition, conventional technology or performance standards do not provide dynamic incentives for the development, adoption, and diffusion of environmentally and economically superior control technologies. Once a firm satisfies a performance standard, it has little incentive to develop or adopt cleaner technology. Indeed, regulated firms may fear that if they adopt a superior technology, the government will tighten the standard.

Given the ubiquitous nature of greenhouse gas emissions from diverse sources, it is virtually inconceivable that a standards-based approach could form the centerpiece of a truly meaningful climate policy. The substantially higher cost of a standards-based policy may undermine support for such an approach, and securing political support may require weakening standards and lowering environmental benefits.

How About Technology Subsidies?

Government support for lower-emitting technologies often takes the form of investment or performance subsidies. Providing subsidies for targeting climate-friendly technologies entails revenues raised by taxing other economic activities. Given the tight fiscal environment throughout the developed world, it is difficult to justify increasing (or even continuing) the subsidies that would be necessary to change significantly the emissions intensity of economic activity.

Furthermore, by lowering the cost of energy, climate-oriented technology subsidies can actually lead to excessive levels of energy supply and consumption. Thus, subsidies can undermine incentives for efficiency and conservation, and impose higher costs per ton abated than cost-effective policy alternatives.

In practice, subsidies are typically designed to be technology specific. By designating technology winners, such approaches yield special-interest constituencies focused on maintaining subsidies beyond what would be socially desirable. They also provide little incentive for the development of novel, game-changing technologies.

That said, there is still a role for direct technology policies in combination with externality pricing, as I have argued in a previous essay at this blog.  This is because in addition to the environmental market failure (appropriately addressed by externality pricing) there exists another market failure in the climate change context, namely, the public-good nature of information produced by research and development.  I addressed this in my essay, “Both Are Necessary, But Neither is Sufficient: Carbon-Pricing and Technology R&D Initiatives in a Meaningful National Climate Policy.”

Back to Markets, and Some Real-World Experience

Empirical analysis drawing on actual experience has demonstrated the power of markets to drive profound changes in the investment and use of emission-intensive technologies.

The run-up in gasoline prices in 2008 increased consumer demand for more fuel-efficient new cars and trucks, while also reducing vehicle miles traveled by the existing fleet. Likewise, electricity generators responded to the dramatic decline in natural gas prices in 2009 and 2010 by dispatching more electricity from gas plants, resulting in lower CO2 emissions.

Longer-term evaluations of the impacts of energy prices on markets have found that higher prices have induced more innovation – measured by frequency and importance of patents – and increased the commercial availability of more energy-efficient products, especially among energy-intensive goods such as air conditioners and water heaters.

Experience with Externality Pricing

Real-world experience with policies that price externalities has illustrated the effectiveness of market-based instruments. Congestion charges in London, Singapore, and Stockholm have reduced traffic congestion in busy urban centers, lowered air pollution, and delivered net social benefits.  Likewise, the British Columbia carbon tax has reduced carbon dioxide emissions since 2008.

More prominently, the U.S. sulfur dioxide (SO2) cap-and-trade program has cut SO2 emissions from U.S. power plants by more than 50 percent since 1990, resulting 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 Emissions 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.

And the 1980s phasedown of lead in gasoline, which reduced the lead content per gallon of fuel, served as an early, effective example of a tradable performance standard.

These positive experiences have provided ample reason to consider market-based instruments – carbon taxes, cap-and-trade, and clean energy standards – as potential approaches to mitigating greenhouse gas emissions.

The Rubber Hits the Road

The U.S. political response to possible market-based approaches to climate policy has been and will continue to be largely a function of issues and structural 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 the country, it is not surprising that proposals for such policies bring forth significant opposition, particularly during difficult economic times.

In addition, U.S. 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 Congress for environmental (and energy) action: namely, the middle, including both moderate Republicans and moderate Democrats. Whereas congressional debates about environmental and energy policy have long featured regional politics, they are now largely partisan. In this political maelstrom, the failure of cap-and-trade climate policy in the Senate in 2010 was collateral damage in a much larger political war.

Better economic times may reduce the pace – if not the direction – of political polarization. And the ongoing challenge of large federal budgetary deficits may at some point 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; primary among these might be energy taxes, which, depending on their design, can function as significant climate policy instruments.

Many environmental advocates would respond that a mobilizing event will surely precipitate U.S. climate policy action.  But the nature of the climate change problem itself helps explain much of the relative apathy among the U.S. public and suggests that any such mobilizing events may come “too late.”

Nearly all our major environmental laws have been passed in the wake of highly publicized environmental events or “disasters,” including the spontaneous combustion of the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1969, and the discovery of toxic substances at Love Canal in Niagara Falls, New York, in the mid-1970s. But note that the day after the Cuyahoga River caught on fire, no article in The Cleveland Plain Dealer commented that the cause was uncertain, that rivers periodically catch on fire from natural causes. On the contrary, it was immediately apparent that the cause was waste dumped into the river by adjacent industries. A direct consequence of the observed “disaster” was, of course, the Clean Water Act of 1972.

But climate change is distinctly different. Unlike the environmental threats addressed successfully in past U.S. legislation, climate change is essentially unobservable to the general population. We observe the weather, not the climate. Until there is an obvious and sudden event – such as a loss of part of the Antarctic ice sheet leading to a dramatic sea-level rise – it is unlikely that public opinion in the United States will provide the bottom-up demand for action that inspired previous congressional action on the environment over the past forty years.

A Half-Full Glass of Water?

Despite this rather bleak assessment of the politics of climate change policy in the United States, it is really much too soon to speculate on what the future will hold for the use of market-based policy instruments, whether for climate change or other environmental problems.

On the one hand, it is conceivable that two decades (1988–2008) of high receptivity in U.S. politics 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.

On the other hand, it is also possible that the recent tarnishing of cap-and-trade in national 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. Perhaps the ongoing interest in these policy mechanisms in California (Assembly Bill 32), the Northeast (Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative), Europe, and other countries will eventually provide a bridge to a changed political climate in Washington.

Reflections on Twenty Years of Policy Innovation

In 2009, the U.S. Congress considered but ultimately failed to enact legislation aimed at limiting U.S. greenhouse-gas (GHG) emissions.  The bill under consideration at that time, the American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009, was the last in a series considered over several years.  Sponsored by Representatives Henry Waxman (D-California) and Edward Markey (D-Massachusetts), the bill passed the U.S. House of Representatives but failed to win sufficient support in the Senate.  No legislation was enacted, and by 2010, both Congress and the White House had abandoned efforts to pass federal climate legislation.

Over months of contentious debate, while the Waxman-Markey bill and subsequent Senate action were being considered, millions of Americans were introduced for the first time to the phrase “cap and trade,” a regulatory approach that first came to prominence in the 1990s as the centerpiece of a national program to address the threat of acid rain by limiting emissions of sulfur dioxide (SO2), primarily from electric power plants.

The 1990 SO2 cap-and-trade program was conceived by the administration of President George H. W. Bush and was widely viewed as a success.  Yet cap and trade became a lightning rod for congressional opposition to climate legislation from 2009 through 2010.

Some of that hostility reflected skepticism about whether climate change was real and, if it was, whether humans played a key role in causing it. A larger group of opponents in Congress worried about the proper role of government and the costs of combating climate change, particularly given the lack of commitments for action by the large emerging economies of China, India, Brazil, Korea, South Africa, and Mexico.  The congressional debate touched only lightly on the relative merits of various policy options to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. Thus, cap and trade may not have been defeated on its merits (or demerits), but rather as collateral damage in the larger climate policy wars.

Congress (to the extent it did assess policy alternatives to cap and trade), as well as the broader community of analysts and observers in the late 2000s, raised a number of substantive questions about the merits of this policy instrument as a means for responding to a major environmental policy challenge of the sort posed by climate change:

  • How do the costs of a market-based approach, such as cap-and-trade, compare with traditional regulatory policies to reduce pollution?
  • Can market-based policies—and the markets they create—be trusted to reduce emissions? That is, are they environmentally effective?
  • What are the distributional impacts of market-based environmental policies; who are the winners and losers?
  • How well does a cap-and-trade system stimulate technological innovation, as compared with an environmental policy that sets performance standards, specifies technologies for reducing pollution, or both?

In May 2011, the Harvard Environmental Economics Program hosted a two-day research workshop and policy roundtable in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to reflect on these and other questions in light of twenty years of experience implementing the SO2 cap-and-trade program, established under Title IV of the Clean Air Act Amendments (CAAA) of 1990. Also known as the Acid Rain Program and the SO2 allowance-trading system, Title IV represented the first large-scale application of cap and trade to control pollution—in the United States or any other country.  (Of course, the largest emissions trading program in the world is now the European Union Emissions Trading System (EU ETS), a greenhouse-gas, cap-and-trade system that was implemented in 2005 and whose design was influenced by the U.S. SO2 program.)

A “policy brief” synthesizing the main conclusions and insights that emerged from the May 2011 Harvard workshop and roundtable has just been released, The SO2 Allowance Trading System and the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990:  Reflections on Twenty Years of Policy Innovation.  The workshop and roundtable – sponsored by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation – featured a dream team of economists and legal experts who had conducted extensive research on the SO2 allowance-trading system, as well as leaders of non-governmental organizations and former government officials who had guided the formulation and passage of the CAAA.

The new policy brief examines the design, enactment, implementation, and performance of the SO2 allowance trading system, with an eye toward identifying lessons learned for future efforts to apply cap and trade to other environmental challenges, including global climate change.  The first section provides background on the acid rain program and summarizes data and analysis on its benefits. Subsequent sections examine key questions regarding cost, environmental effectiveness, market performance, distributional implications, and effects on technology innovation.  The report also examines the political context of the formulation, enactment, and implementation of the SO2 allowance-trading system.  Finally, the conclusions feature some reflection on implications for climate change policy.

The participants in the research workshop were:  Joseph Aldy, Assistant Professor of Public Policy, Harvard Kennedy School; Dallas Burtraw, Darius Gaskins Senior Fellow, Resources for the Future; Denny Ellerman, Part-time Professor, European University Institute, Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies; Michael Greenstone, 3M Professor of Environmental Economics, Massachusetts Institute of Technology; Lawrence H. Goulder, Shuzo Nishihara Professor of Environmental and Resource Economics, Stanford University; Robert Hahn, Director of Economics, Smith School, University of Oxford; Paul L. Joskow, President, Alfred P. Sloan Foundation; Erin T. Mansur, Associate Professor of Economics, Dartmouth College; Albert McGartland, Director, National Center for Environmental Economics, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency; Brian J. McLean, Former Director, Office of Atmospheric Programs, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency; W. David Montgomery, Senior Vice President, NERA Economic Consulting; Erich J. Muehlegger, Associate Professor of Public Policy, Harvard Kennedy School; Karen L. Palmer, Senior Fellow, Resources for the Future; John Parsons, Executive Director, Center for Energy and Environmental Policy Research, MIT Sloan School of Management; Forest L. Reinhardt, John D. Black Professor of Business Administration, Harvard Business School; Richard L. Schmalensee, Howard W. Johnson Professor of Economics and Management, MIT Sloan School of Management; Daniel Schrag, Sturgis Hooper Professor of Geology, Harvard University; Robert N. Stavins, Albert Pratt Professor of Business and Government, Harvard Kennedy School; Thomas Tietenberg, Mitchell Family Professor of Economics, Emeritus, Colby College; and Jonathan B. Wiener, William R. and Thomas L. Perkins Professor of Law, Duke University Law School.

The participants in the policy and politics roundtable were:  Robert Grady, General Partner, Cheyenne Capital Fund (1989–1991: Associate Director, Office of Management and Budget for Natural Resources, Energy & Science; 1991–1993 Executive Associate Director, OMB, and Deputy Assistant to the President); C. Boyden Gray, Principal, Boyden Gray & Associates (1989–1993: White House Counsel); Fred Krupp, President (1984–present), Environmental Defense Fund; Mary D. Nichols, Chairman, California Air Resources Board (1993–1997: Assistant Administrator for Air and Radiation, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency); Roger Porter, IBM Professor of Business and Government, Harvard Kennedy School (1989–1993: Assistant to the President for Economic and Domestic Policy); Richard L. Schmalensee, Howard W. Johnson Professor of Economics and Management, MIT Sloan School of Management (1989–1991: Member, President’s Council of Economic Advisers); and Philip Sharp, President, Resources for the Future (1975–1995: Member, U.S. House of Representatives, Indiana, and Chairman, Energy and Power Subcommittee, House Committee on Natural Resources).

I want to acknowledge the contributions of all of these participants in the research workshop and policy roundtable, as well as the comments and edits some provided on earlier drafts of the policy brief.  Their expertise and experience made this project possible. And, of course, I’m very grateful to the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation for having provided generous support for the workshop and for the preparation of the study.  I hope you find it of interest and value.

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)?

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.

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

Reflecting on a Century of Progress and Problems

As the first decade of the twenty-first century comes to a close, the problem of the commons is more important to our lives – and more central to economics – than a century ago when the first issue of the American Economic Review appeared, with an examination by Professor Katharine Coman of Wellesley College of “Some Unsettled Problems of Irrigation” (1911).  Since that time, 100 years of remarkable economic progress have accompanied 100 years of increasingly challenging problems.

As the U.S. and other economies have grown, the carrying-capacity of the planet – in regard to natural resources and environmental quality – has become a greater concern, particularly for common-property and open-access resources.  In an article that appears in the 100th anniversary issue of the American Economic Review (AER) “The Problem of the Commons:  Still Unsettled After 100 Years” – I focus on some important, unsettled problems of the commons.

100 Years of Economic Progress and More Challenging Environmental Problems

Within the realm of natural resources, there are special challenges associated with renewable resources, which are frequently characterized by open-access.  An important example is the degradation of open-access fisheries.  Critical commons problems are also associated with environmental quality, including the ultimate commons problem of the twenty-first century – global climate change.

Small communities frequently provide modes of oversight and methods for policing their citizens, a topic about which Professor Elinor Ostrom of Indiana University has written extensively.  But as the scale of society has grown, commons problems have spread across communities and even  across nations.  In some of these cases, no over-arching authority can offer complete control, rendering commons problems more severe.

Although the type of water allocation problems of concern to Coman have frequently been addressed by common-property regimes of collective management, less easily governed problems of open-access are associated with growing concerns about air and water quality, hazardous waste, species extinction, maintenance of stratospheric ozone, and – most recently – the stability of the global climate in the face of the steady accumulation of greenhouse gases.

Whereas common property resources are held as private property by some group, open-access resources are non-excludable.  My article in the AER focuses exclusively on the latter, and thereby reflects on some important, unsettled problems of the commons.  It identifies both the contributions made by economic analysis and the challenges facing public policy.

The article begins with natural resources, highlighting the difference between most non-renewable natural resources, pure private goods that are both excludable and rival in consumption, and renewable natural resources, many of which are non-excludable.

Some of these are rival in consumption but characterized by open-access.  An example is the degradation of ocean fisheries. An economic perspective on these resources helps identify the problems they present for management, and provides guidance for sensible solutions.

The article then turns to a major set of commons problems that were not addressed until the last three decades of the twentieth century – environmental quality.  Although frequently characterized as textbook examples of externalities, these problems can also be viewed as a particular category of commons problems:  pure public goods, that are both non-excludable and non-rival in consumption.

A key contribution of economics has been the development of market-based approaches to environmental protection, including emission taxes and tradable rights.  These have potential to address the ultimate commons problem of the twenty-first century, global climate change.

Themes That Emerge

First, economic theory – by focusing on market failures linked with incomplete systems of property rights – has made major contributions to our understanding of commons problems and the development of prudent public policies.

Second, as our understanding of the commons has become more complex, the design of economic policy instruments has become more sophisticated, enabling policy makers to address problems that are characterized by uncertainty, spatial and temporal heterogeneity, and long duration.

Third, government policies that have not accounted for economic responses have been excessively costly, often ineffective, and sometimes counter-productive.

Fourth, commons problems have not diminished.  While some have been addressed successfully, others have emerged that are more important and more difficult.

Fifth, environmental economics is well positioned to offer better understanding and better policies to address these ongoing challenges.


Although I hope you will read the full article – which is very accessible — I will summarize its conclusions here.

Problems of the commons are both more widespread and more important today than when Coman wrote about unsettled problems in the first issue of the American Economic Review 100 years ago.  A century of economic growth and globalization have brought unparalleled improvements in societal well-being, but also unprecedented challenges to the carrying-capacity of the planet.  What would have been in 1911 inconceivable increases in income and population have come about and have greatly heightened pressures on the commons, particularly where there has been open access to it.

The stocks of a variety of renewable natural resources – including water, forests, fisheries, and numerous other species of plant and animal – have been depleted below socially efficient levels, principally because of poorly-defined property-right regimes.  Likewise, the same market failures of open-access – whether characterized as externalities, following A. C. Pigou (1920), or public goods, following Ronald Coase (1960) – have led to the degradation of air and water quality, inappropriate disposal of hazardous waste, depletion of stratospheric ozone, and the atmospheric accumulation of greenhouse gases linked with global climate change.

Over this same century, economics – as a discipline – has gradually come to focus more and more attention on these commons problems, first with regard to natural resources, and more recently with regard to environmental quality.  Economic research within academia and think tanks has improved our understanding of the causes and consequences of excessive resource depletion and inefficient environmental degradation, and thereby has helped identify sensible policy solutions.

Conventional regulatory policies, which have not accounted for economic responses, have been excessively costly, ineffective, or even counter-productive.  The problems behind what Garrett Hardin (1968) characterized as the “tragedy of the commons” might better be described as the “failure of commons regulation.”  As our understanding of the commons has become more complex, the design of economic policy instruments has become more sophisticated.

Problems of the commons have not diminished, and the lag between understanding and action can be long.  While some commons problems have been addressed successfully, others continue to emerge.  Some – such as the threat of global climate change – are both more important and more difficult than problems of the past.

Fortunately, economics is well positioned to offer better understanding and better policies to address these ongoing challenges.  As the first decade of the twenty-first century comes to a close, natural resource and environmental economics has emerged as a productive field of our discipline and one that shows even greater promise for the future.

Defining Success for Climate Negotiations in Cancun

International climate negotiations will continue in Cancun, Mexico, during the first two weeks of December, 2010.  These will be the Sixteenth Conference of the Parties (COP-16) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).  The key challenge is to continue the process of constructing a sound foundation for meaningful, long-term global action, not necessarily some notion of immediate, highly-visible triumph.  Some of the gloom-and-doom predictions we’ve been hearing about these upcoming negotiations are therefore misguided, because they are based upon unreasonable – and fundamentally inappropriate – expectations (despite the fact that expectations have been lowered dramatically since COP-15 in Copenhagen last year).

Keeping Our Eyes on the Prize

Why do I say that the best goal for the Cancun climate talks is to make real progress on a sound foundation for meaningful, long-term global action, not some notion of immediate triumph?  This is because of some basic scientific and economic realities.

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, they may well proceed much as international trade talks have done, that is, with progress over many years, building the institutions (the GATT, the WTO), but moving forward in fits and starts, at times seeming to move backward, but making meaningful progress in the long term.

So, the bottom-line is that a sensible goal for the international negotiations in Cancun is progress on a sound foundation for meaningful long-term action, not some notion of immediate “success.”

Don’t Sacrifice Valuable Long-Term Achievements for Minor Short-Term Gains

It might be relatively easy, but actually quite unfortunate, for countries to achieve what some people might define as “success” in Cancun:  a signed international agreement, followed by glowing press releases.  I say it would be unfortunate, because such an agreement could only be the Kyoto Protocol on steroids: more stringent targets for the original list of industrialized countries (Annex I) and no meaningful commitments by the key rapidly-growing emerging economies, such as China, India, Brazil, Korea, Mexico, and South Africa.

Such an agreement could — in principle — be signed, but it would not reduce global emissions, and it would not be ratified by the U.S. Senate (just like Kyoto).  Hence, there would be no real progress on climate change.

What Would Constitute Real Progress in Cancun?

If it’s not reasonable to expect that a comprehensive post-Kyoto policy architecture will be identified and enacted in Cancun, what would constitute real progress?

1.  Embracing Parallel Processes

A significant step forward would be for the UNFCCC to 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.

By the way, the MEF includes Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, the European Union, France, Germany, India, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, Korea, Mexico, Russia, South Africa, the United Kingdom, and the United States. The membership of the G20 is the same as the membership of the MEF, plus Argentina, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey.

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 this year) has displayed a considerably more positive and pragmatic attitude toward these parallel processes.

2.  Consolidating Negotiations 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 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.

One way this could happen would be for the LCA negotiations to take as their point of departure the existing Copenhagen Accord, which itself 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 now 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 those rapidly-growing emerging economies).

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.  Various policy architectures could subsequently build on these dual principles and make them operational, beginning to bridge the massive political divide which 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.  Productive Steps in Narrow, Focused Agreements, such as REDD+

A third area of success at the Cancun 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.

4.  Maintaining Sensible Expectations and Developing Effective Plans

Finally, it is important to go into the Cancun meetings with sensible expectations and thereby effective plans.  Again, negotiations in this domain are an ongoing process, not a single task with a clear end-point.  The most sensible goal for Cancun is progress on a sound foundation for meaningful long-term action, not some notion of immediate triumph.  The key question is not what Cancun 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.

Further Reading

A number of previous essays I have written and posted at this blog will be of interest to those who wishe to follow developments at the Sixteenth Conference of the Parties of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change in Cancun.  Here are links, in chronological order:

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

Both Are Necessary, But Neither is Sufficient: Carbon-Pricing and Technology R&D Initiatives in a Meaningful National Climate Policy

For many years, there has been a great deal of discussion about carbon-pricing – whether carbon taxes or cap-and-trade – as an essential part of a meaningful national climate policy.  It has long been recognized that although carbon-pricing will be necessary, it will not be sufficient. Economists and other policy analysts have noted that policies intended to foster climate-friendly technology research and development (R&D) will also be necessary, but likewise will not be sufficient on their own.

Some recent studies and press accounts, which I reference below, have identified these two approaches to addressing CO2 emissions as substitutes, rather than complements.  That is fundamentally inconsistent with decades of research, and so my purpose in this essay is to set the record straight.

Carbon Pricing:  Necessary But Not Sufficient

First of all, why is there so much talk among policy analysts and policy makers – not simply among academics – about carbon‑pricing as the core of a meaningful strategy to reduce CO2 emissions?  Why, in fact, is this approach so overwhelmingly favored by the analytical community?  The answer is simple and surprisingly pragmatic.

First, there is no other feasible approach that can provide meaningful emissions reductions, such as the 80 percent reduction in national CO2 emissions by 2050 that was part of the legislation passed by the U.S. House of Representatives and proposed in the Senate and part of the Obama administration’s conditional pledge under the Copenhagen Accord.  Because of the ubiquity and diversity of energy use in a modern economy, conventional regulatory approaches –standards of various kinds – simply cannot do the job.  Only carbon pricing – either in the form of carbon taxes or cap-and-trade – can significantly tilt in a climate-friendly direction the millions of decentralized decisions that are made in our economy every day.

Second, carbon-pricing is the least costly approach in the short term, because abatement costs are exceptionally heterogeneous across sources.  Only carbon-pricing provides strong incentives that push all sources to control at the same marginal abatement cost, thereby achieving a given aggregate target at the lowest possible cost.

Third, it is the least costly approach in the long term, because it provides incentives for carbon-friendly technological change, which brings down costs over time.

For these reasons, carbon-pricing is a necessary component of a truly meaningful national climate policy.  [I’ve written about this in many previous blog posts, including on June 23, 2010, “The Real Options for U.S. Climate Policy.”]  However, although it is a necessary policy component, carbon-pricing is not sufficient on its own. This is because there are other market failures that dilute the impacts of price signals on decision makers.

Technology R&D Policies:  Also Necessary, Also Not Sufficient

The most important of these “other market failures” is the public good nature of information.  Companies carrying out research and development (R&D) incur the full costs of their efforts, but they do not capture the full benefits.  This is because even with a perfectly-enforced system of intellectual property rights (such as patents), there are tremendous spillover benefits to other firms.  Decades of economic research – much of it by my former colleague and co-author, Professor Adam Jaffe, now Dean of Arts and Sciences at Brandeis University – has analyzed with empirical (econometric) analysis the remarkable degree to which inventions and innovations by one firm provide valuable information that leads to new inventions and innovations by other firms.

So, firms pay the costs of their R&D, but do not reap all the benefits.  The existence of this positive externality of firms’ R&D – or put differently, the public-good nature of the information generated by R&D – means that the private sector will carry out less than the “efficient” amount of R&D of new climate-friendly technologies in response to given carbon prices.  Hence, other public policies are needed to address this “R&D market failure.”

New path-breaking technologies will be needed to address climate change, and public support for private-sector or public-sector R&D will be crucial to meet this need.  But, at the same time, to address the climate-change market failure itself (that is, the externality associated with greenhouse gas emissions), carbon pricing will be necessary, for all of the reasons I gave above.  This is an application of an important and fundamental principle in economics:  two market failures require the use of two policy instruments.

Empirical analyses have repeatedly verified this crucial point – that combining carbon-pricing with R&D support is more cost-effective than adopting either approach alone.  Included in this set of studies are the following:  Carolyn Fischer (Resources for the Future) and Richard Newell (U.S. Energy Information Administration, on leave from Duke University), “Environmental and Technology Policies for Climate Mitigation”; Stephen Schneider (late of Stanford University) and Lawrence Goulder (Stanford University), “Achieving Low-Cost Emissions Targets”; and Daren Acemoglu (MIT), Philippe Aghion, Leonardo Bursztyn, and David Hemous (Harvard University), “The Environment and Directed Technical Change.”

Complements, Not Substitutes

An interesting, recent column, “Next Step on Policy for Climate,” by David Leonhardt in the New York Times (October 13, 2010, p. B1) might give some people the mistaken impression that technology policies are an adequate, even sensible substitute for carbon-pricing.  That was not the intended message of the column.  In fact, Leonhardt – perhaps the leading economic journalist writing today in the United States ­– indicates clearly in his column that he is skeptical of the notion of thinking of technology subsidies as an adequate substitute for carbon-pricing (in particular, cap-and-trade).  And in a follow-up post at the New York Times’ Economix, he makes clear that “these two policies are not mutually exclusive.”

Nevertheless, Leonhardt’s original column (which included a very nice profile of my colleague, Professor Michael Greenstone of MIT) focused attention on a recent report –  a report that could give the false impression that technology policies would be a sensible substitute for serious carbon-pricing.  The report in question – “Post-Partisan Power” – received significant coverage, primarily because of its sponsorship:  a combination of a prominent Republican-oriented Washington think tank, the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), and an equally prominent Democratic-oriented Washington think tank, the Brooking Institution (and a third partner, the Breakthrough Institute, a California-based environmental think tank).

The report may well garner some bi-partisan political support, because it promises a free lunch of painless, win-win solutions, a promise that will resonate with many elected officials.  Indeed, the report’s sub-title is “how a limited and direct approach to energy innovation can deliver clean, cheap energy, economic productivity, and national prosperity.”  What’s not to like? And the authors are presumably smart and politically shrewd.  I know that’s the case with the AEI author, Steven Hayward, who I debated last year in the pages of the Wall Street Journal.

To its credit, the report lays out a menu of policies intended to stimulate carbon-friendly technological change, ranging from $500 million of Federal government funding of K-12 curriculum development and teacher training to $25 billion annually of direct Federal funding of energy innovation.

For the reasons I explained above (the “R&D market failure” and the “carbon emissions externality”), both direct technology R&D policies and serious carbon-pricing are necessary, but neither is sufficient on its own.  Unfortunately, this new report ­­– and some of the press coverage surrounding it – makes the claim that such direct government funding of technology innovation is a sufficient and sensible substitute for meaningful carbon-pricing.  That claim is both unfortunate and wrong, as it is supported neither by sound reasoning nor empirical research, as I have described above.

Again, many of the individual technology policy recommendations offered by the AEI-Brookings-BI report are worthy of serious consideration (as a complement, not a substitute for an economy-wide carbon-pricing policy).  But the specifics – indeed, much of the meat – are missing.  “Reform the nation’s morass of energy subsidies” – yes, but exactly which subsidies (all of which have important political constituencies behind them) will be eliminated?  “Recognize the potential for nuclear power” – yes, and both the House and Senate carbon-pricing schemes would have provided tremendous incentives for nuclear power investment.

Overall, there should be concern about how all of this will be funded.  Where will the $25 billion per year come from?  The report appropriately states that this should not come from general revenues, and thus add to the Federal debt.  “Phasing out current subsidies for wind, solar, ethanol, and fossil fuels” could be meritorious on its own, but how much does this generate, and does it even pass a political laugh-test?  Interestingly, beyond this, despite considerable rhetoric about moving beyond debates about carbon-pricing, the report recommends that in order to avoid adding to the Federal debt, it would be necessary to impose new taxes, including increased royalties for oil and gas extraction, a tax on imported oil, a tax on electricity sales, and a “very small carbon price” (presumably from a modest carbon tax or unambitious cap-and-trade system).

The actual numbers would be helpful, and the political feasibility remains a serious question.  The political challenges that emerged in the effort to pass cap-and-trade climate legislation will not magically disappear if there’s an attempt to induce Congress to approve $25 billion in funding.  As Tom Friedman noted on October 12th in the New York Times, Congress has not come close to fully funding the outstanding requests for about $4 billion for ARPA-E (energy) research.

More broadly, despite the attraction of the AEI-Brookings-BI proposal as a potential complement to carbon-pricing (and I am serious that the proposal is of value in that context), one has to be very careful about comparing proposed new policies in idealized form (for example, precisely the right subsidies eliminated and precisely the right new subsidies introduced) with real policies with all their warts (for example, the cap-and-trade bill that was passed by the House last year).  Making such comparisons can lead to flawed analysis and misleading results.

This is not a new issue.  Robert Hahn and I wrote about this generic problem nearly 20 years ago in an article (“Economic Incentives for Environmental Protection:  Integrating Theory and Practice”) which appeared the American Economic Review Papers and Proceedings (May 1992).  At the time, our concern was that this mistake was being made not by the opponents but by the supporters of cap-and-trade and other (then essentially untested) market-based instruments.  We worried that “many analysts use highly stylized benchmarks for comparison that ignore likely political realities,” and suggested that an appropriate “comparison would be between actual command-and-control policies and either actual trading [cap-and-trade] programs … or a reasonably constrained theoretical … program.”

Likewise today, when carrying out comparisons of policy alternatives, it is fine to compare two theoretical, idealized alternatives, or to compare two real-world policies, but it is problematic and usually misleading to compare a theoretical, idealized policy of one type with a real-world example of another type of policy.

The Bottom Line

Carbon-pricing – whether carbon taxes or cap-and-trade – will be an essential part of any truly meaningful national climate policy.  Likewise, to address the “R&D market failure,” direct technology innovation policies will also be required.  Both are necessary.  Neither is sufficient.  These are complements, not substitutes.


Postscript: Four years ago, the U.S. Congressional Budget Office (CBO) — widely recognized for its non-partisan, first-rate research — produced a study on the same topic as the AEI-Brookings-BI report, but did so with rigor and without ideology.  The CBO report — Evaluating the Role of Prices and R&D in Reducing Carbon Dioxide Emissions (September 2006) — was prepared by Dr. Terry Dinan, a long-time, respected CBO economist, and was peer reviewed by an impressive set of academic and other experts.  Sadly, the CBO paper received little press coverage, despite its high quality and its relevance.  For anyone interested in the topic of this post, particularly those who disagree with my theme, I hope you will read the CBO report.

Also, a reader of this blog post sent me a paper by David Hart and Kadri Kallas (from MIT’s Energy Innovation working paper series) that examines “Alignment and Misalignment of Technology Push and Regulatory Pull.” It’s worth reading in the context of combining carbon pricing and technology R&D policies.

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

Why should anyone be interested in the national context of a state policy?  In the case of California’s Global Warming Solutions Act (AB 32), the answer flows directly from the very nature of the problem — global climate change, the ultimate global commons problem.  Greenhouse gases (GHGs) uniformly mix in the atmosphere.  Therefore, any jurisdiction taking action — whether a nation, a state, or a city — will incur the costs of its actions, but the benefits of its actions (reduced risk of climate change damages) will be distributed globally.  Hence, for virtually any jurisdiction, the benefits it reaps from its climate‑policy actions will be less than the cost it incurs.  This is despite the fact that the global benefits of action may well be greater — possibly much greater — than global costs.

This presents a classic free-rider problem, in which it is in the interest of each jurisdiction to wait for others to take action, and benefit from their actions (that is, free-ride).  This is the fundamental reason why the highest levels of effective government should be involved, that is, sovereign states (nations).  And this is why international, if not global, cooperation is essential. [See the extensive work in this area of the Harvard Project on International Climate Agreements.]

Despite this fundamental reality, there can still be a valuable role for sub-national climate policies.  Indeed, my purpose in this essay is to explore the potential for such state and regional policies — both in the presence of Federal climate policy and in the absence of such policy.  I begin by describing the national climate policy context, and then turn to sub-national policies, such as California’s AB 32 and the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) in the northeast.  My focus is on how these sub-national policies will interact with a Federal climate policy.  It turns out that some of the interactions will be problematic, others will be benign, and still others could be positive.  I also examine the role that could be played by sub-national policies in the absence of a meaningful Federal policy, with the conclusion that — like it or not — we may find that Sacramento comes to take the place of Washington as the center of national climate policy.

The (Long-Term) National Context:  Carbon-Pricing

I need not tell readers of this blog that virtually all economists and most other policy analysts favor a national carbon‑pricing policy (whether carbon tax or cap-and-trade) as the core of any meaningful climate policy action in the United States.  Why is this approach so overwhelmingly favored by the analytical community?

First, no other feasible approach can provide truly meaningful emissions reductions (such as an 80% cut in national CO2 emissions by mid-century).  Second, it is the least costly approach in the short term, because abatement costs are exceptionally heterogeneous across sources.  Only carbon-pricing provides strong incentives that push all sources to control at the same marginal abatement cost, thereby achieving a given aggregate target at the lowest possible cost.  Third, it is the least costly approach in the long term, because it provides incentives for carbon-friendly technological change, which brings down costs over time.  Fourth, although carbon pricing is not sufficient on its own (because of other market failures that reduce the impact of price signals — more about this below), it is a necessary component of a sensible climate policy, because of factors 1 through 3, above.  [I’ve written about carbon-pricing in many previous blog posts, including on June 23, 2010, “The Real Options for U.S. Climate Policy.”]

But carbon-pricing is a hot-button political issue.  This is primarily because it makes the costs of the policy transparent, unlike conventional policy instruments, such as performance and technology standards, which tend to hide costs.  Carbon-pricing is easily associated with the dreaded T-word.  Indeed, in Washington, cap-and-trade has been successfully demonized as “cap-and-tax.” As a result, the political reality now appears to be that a national, economy-wide carbon-pricing policy is unlikely to be enacted before 2013.  Does this mean that there will be no Federal climate policy in the meantime?  No, not at all.

The (Short-Term) National Context:  Federal Regulations on the Way or Already in Place

Regulations of various kinds may soon be forthcoming — and in some cases, will definitely be forthcoming — as a result of the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Massachusetts v. EPA and the Obama administration’s subsequent “endangerment finding” that emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases endanger public health and welfare.  This triggered mobile source standards earlier this year, the promulgation of which identified carbon dioxide as a pollutant under the Clean Air Act, thereby initiating a process of using the Clean Air Act for stationary sources as well.

Those new standards are scheduled to begin on January 2, 2011, with or without the so‑called “tailoring rule” that would exempt smaller sources.  Among the possible types of regulation that could be forthcoming for stationary sources under the Clean Air Act are:  new source performance standards; performance standards for existing sources (Section 111(d)); and New Source Review with Best Available Control Technology standards under Section 165.

The merits that have been suggested of such regulatory action are that it would be effective in some sectors, and that the threat of such regulation will spur Congress to take action with a more sensible approach, namely, an economy-wide cap‑and‑trade system.  However, regulatory action on carbon dioxide under the Clean Air Act will accomplish relatively little and do so at relatively high cost, compared with carbon pricing.  Also, it is not clear that this threat will force the hand of Congress; it clearly has not yet done so.  Indeed, it is reasonable to ask whether this is a credible threat, or will instead turn out to be counter‑productive (when stories about the implementation of inflexible, high‑cost regulatory approaches lend ammunition to the staunchest opponents of climate policy).

It’s also possible that air pollution policies for non‑greenhouse gas pollutants, the emissions of some of which are highly correlated with CO2 emissions, may play an important role.  For example, three‑pollutant legislation focused on SOx, NOx, and mercury could have profound impacts on the construction and operation of coal‑fired electricity plants, without any direct CO2 requirements.  Without any new legislation, a set of rules which could have significant impacts on coal-fired power plants are now making their way through the regulatory process — including regulations affecting ambient ozone, SO2/NO2, particulates, ash, hazardous air pollutants (mercury), and effluent water.

There is also the possibility of new energy policies (not targeted exclusively at climate change) having significant impacts on CO2 emissions.  The possible components of such an approach that would be relevant in the context of climate change include:  a national renewable electricity standard; Federal financing for clean energy projects: energy efficiency measures (building, appliance, and industrial efficiency standards; home retrofit subsidies; and smart grid standards, subsidies, and dynamic pricing policies); and new Federal electricity‑transmission siting authority.

Even without action by the Congress or by the Administration, legal action on climate policy is likely to take place within the judicial realm.  Public nuisance litigation will no doubt continue, with a diverse set of lawsuits being filed across the country in pursuit of injunctive relief and/or damages.  Due to recent court decisions, the pace, the promise, and the problems of this approach remain uncertain.

Beyond the well‑defined area of public nuisance litigation, other interventions which are intended to block permits for new fossil energy investments, including both power plants and transmission lines will continue.  Some of these interventions will be of the conventional NIMBY character, but others will no doubt be more strategic.

But with political stalemate in Washington on carbon-pricing or national climate policy, attention is inevitably turning to regional, state, and even local policies intended to address climate change.

Sub-National Climate Policies

The Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) in the Northeast has created a cap‑and‑trade system among electricity generators.  More striking, California’s Global Warming Solutions Act (Assembly Bill 32, or AB 32) will likely lead to the creation of a very ambitious set of climate initiatives, including a statewide cap‑and‑trade system (unless it’s stopped by ballot initiative — Proposition 23 — or a new Governor, depending on the outcome of the November 2010 elections).  The California system is likely to be linked with systems in other states and Canadian provinces under the Western Climate Initiative.  Currently, more than half of the 50 states are contemplating, developing, or implementing climate policies.

In the presence of a Federal policy, will such state efforts achieve their objectives?  Will the efforts be cost-effective?  The answer is that the interactions of state policies with Federal policy can be problematic, benign, or positive, depending upon their relative scope and stringency, and depending upon the specific policy instruments used.  This is the topic of a paper which Professor Lawrence Goulder (Stanford University) and I have written, “Interactions Between State and Federal Climate Change Policies” (National Bureau of Economic Research Working Paper 16123, June 2010).

Problematic Interactions

Let’s start with the case of a Federal policy which limits emission quantities (as with cap-and-trade) or uses nationwide averaging of performance (as with some proposals for a national renewable portfolio standard).  In this case, emission reductions accomplished by a “green state” with a more stringent policy than the Federal policy — for example, AB 32 combined with Waxman-Markey/H.R. 2454 — will reduce pressure on other states, thereby freeing, indeed encouraging (through lower allowance prices) emission increases in the other states.  The result would be 100% leakage, no gain in environmental protection from the green state’s added activity, and a national loss of cost-effectiveness.

Potential examples of this — depending upon the details of the regulations — include: first, AB 32 cap-and-trade combined with Federal cap-and-trade (H.R. 2454) or combined with some U.S. Clean Air Act performance standards; second, state limits on GHGs/mile combined with Federal CAFE standards; and third, state renewable fuels standards combined with a Federal RFS, or state renewable portfolio standards combined with a Federal RPS.  A partial solution would be for these Federal programs to allow states to opt out of the Federal policy if they had an equally or more stringent state policy.  Such a partial solution would not, however, be cost-effective.

Benign Interactions

One example of benign interactions of state and Federal climate policy is the case of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) in the northeast.  In this case, the state policies are less stringent than an assumed Federal policy (such as H.R. 2454).  The result is that the state policies become non-binding and hence largely irrelevant.

A second example — that warms the hearts of economists, but appears to be politically irrelevant for the time being — is the case of a Federal policy that sets price, not quantity, i.e., a carbon tax, or a binding safety-valve or price collar in a cap-and-trade system.  In this case, more stringent actions in green states do not lead to offsetting emissions in other states induced by a changing carbon price.  It should be noted, however, that there will be different marginal abatement costs across states, and so aggregate reductions would not be achieved cost-effectively.

Positive Interactions

Three scenarios suggest the possibility of positive interactions of state and Federal climate policies.  First, states can — in principle — address market failures not addressed by a Federal carbon-pricing policy.  A prime example is the principal‑agent problem of insufficient energy‑efficiency investments in renter‑occupied properties, even in the face of high energy prices.  This is a problem that is best addressed at the state or even local level, such as through building codes and zoning.

Second, state and regional authorities frequently argue that states can serve as valuable “laboratories” for policy design, and thereby provide useful information for the development of Federal policy.  However, it is reasonable to ask whether state authorities will allow their “laboratory” to be closed after the experiment has been completed, the information delivered, and a Federal policy put in place.  Pronouncements from some state leaders should cause concern in this regard.

Third, states can create pressure for more stringent Federal policies.  A timely example is provided by California’s Pavley I motor-vehicle fuel-efficiency standards and the subsequent change in Federal CAFE requirements.  There is historical validation of this effect, with California repeatedly having increased the stringency of its local air pollution standards, followed by parallel Federal action under the Clean Air Act.  This linkage is desirable if the previous Federal policy is insufficiently stringent, but whether that is the case is an empirical question.

Thus, in the presence of Federal climate policy, interactions with sub-national policies can be problematic, benign, or positive, depending upon the relative scope and stringency of the sub-national and national policies, as well as the particular policy instruments employed at both levels. [For a more rigorous derivation of the findings above, as well as an examination of a larger set of examples, please see my paper with Stanford Professor Lawrence Goulder, referenced above.]

But comprehensive Federal carbon-pricing policy appears to be delayed until 2013, at the earliest.  And it is possible that pending Federal regulatory action under the Clean Air Act will be curtailed or significantly delayed either by the new Congress or by litigation.  Therefore, it is important to consider the role of state and regional climate policies in the absence of Federal action.

Sub-National Climate Policies in the Absence of Federal Action

In brief, in the absence of meaningful Federal action, sub‑national climate policies could well become the core of national action.  Problems will no doubt arise, including legal obstacles such as possible Federal preemption or litigation associated with the so‑called Dormant Commerce Clause.

Also, even a large portfolio of state and regional policies will not be comprehensive of the entire nation, that is, not truly national in scope (for a quick approximation of likely coverage, check out a recent map of blue states and red states).

And even if the state and regional policies were nationally comprehensive, there would be different policies of different stringency in different parts of the country, and so carbon shadow‑prices would by no means be equivalent, meaning that the overall policy objectives would be achieved at excessive social cost.

Is there a solution (if only a partial one)?  Yes.  If the primary policy instrument employed in the state and regional policies is cap-and-trade, then the respective carbon markets can be linked.  Such linkage occurs through bilateral recognition of allowances, which results in reduced costs, reduced price volatility, reduced leakage, and reduced market power.  Good news all around.

Such bottom‑up linkage of state and regional cap‑and‑trade systems could be an important part or perhaps even the core of future of U.S. climate policy, at least until there is meaningful action at the Federal level.  In the meantime, it is at least conceivable — and perhaps likely — that linkage of state‑level cap‑and‑trade systems will become the (interim) de facto national climate policy architecture.

In this way, Sacramento would take the place of Washington as the center of national climate policy deliberations and action.  No doubt, this possibility will please some, and frighten others.


P.S.  For those of you interested in the topic of this blog post, you may also find of particular interest a conference organized by the University of California, taking place in Sacramento on October 4th, “California’s Climate Change Policy:  The Economic and Environmental Impacts of AB 32.”  You can learn more about it by clicking on this link.

In Defense of Markets

Cap-and-trade has been demonized by conservatives as part of an effective strategy to stop climate legislation from moving forward in the U.S. Congress.  As I wrote in my previous blog post (“Beware of Scorched-Earth Strategies in Climate Debates,” July 27, 2010), this unfortunate tarnishing of market-based instruments for environmental protection will come back to haunt conservatives and liberals alike when it becomes politically difficult to use the power of the marketplace to reduce business costs in the pursuit of a wide variety of environmental objectives.

Cap-and-trade has been vilified as a national energy tax, an elaborate Ponzi scheme, and a giveaway to corporate polluters.  The fact that none of these attacks are factually correct has not seemed to reduce their political effectiveness.  This is one element of the poisonous atmosphere which has come to dominate so much of national political discourse, at least in this election year.

When Senate leaders decided they could not assemble the sixty votes necessary to cut-off debate on meaningful climate legislation, they pulled nationwide, economy-wide cap-and-trade off the table, quite possibly until after a new Congress is seated in January of 2013.  But when serious attention is again given to meaningful national climate policy, as it surely will be, consideration will inevitably include carbon-pricing, whether in the form of carbon taxes or cap-and-trade, because these approaches have tremendous advantages over the alternatives (“The Real Options for U.S. Climate Policy,” June 23rd, 2010).

Therefore, it is important to set the record straight, and respond to at least some of the attacks that have been made on cap-and-trade specifically and carbon-pricing broadly.  That is the fundamental purpose of an Issue Brief Dr. Janet Peace and I have written.  Our report, “In Brief:  Meaningful and Cost Effective Climate Policy:  The Case for Cap and Trade,” was published by the Pew Center on Global Climate Change in June, 2010.  In today’s blog post, I will highlight just a few of our findings.

Questions and Concerns

While the justification for putting a price on carbon emissions seems straightforward to most policy analysts, some of the public and even some policy makers have questioned whether creating a market for greenhouse gas (GHG) reductions would be a cure worse than the disease itself:

  • Why employ market-based approaches to GHG emission reductions, when markets are subject to manipulation?
  • Would a market-based approach to reducing greenhouse gas emissions be a corporate handout?
  • Can markets be trusted to reduce emissions?
  • Will a market-based approach, such as cap-and-trade, be too costly?
  • Are other approaches likely to be more effective and less complicated?

In our Pew Center report, Janet Peace and I respond to all of these questions, but in today’s blog post I will highlight our response just to the first question.  For the full and complete story, I urge readers to see the original report, which can be downloaded freely from the Pew Center’s web site.

Why create a market for GHG emissions, when markets – in general – are subject to manipulation and have failed terribly?

With the U.S. economy experiencing its worst recession since the Great Depression, amidst corporate scandals, pyramid schemes, and a series of government bailouts, some members of the public as well as elected officials have come to question the ability of markets to perform their basic functions.  Despite the past successes of market mechanisms to address environmental problems such as acid rain, leaded gasoline, and stratospheric ozone depletion, this growing distrust of markets has led some to question whether market-based approaches are appropriate instruments to help tackle the exceptionally challenging problem of global climate change.

The storyline goes roughly like this:  establishing a “carbon market” for greenhouse gas emissions opens the door for financial intermediaries – banks and brokers – to be involved.  Since we know that they cannot be trusted, and only care about making profits (and not about reducing emissions), how could any approach that involves them be part of an effective solution?

In reality, of course, our recent economic turmoil does not mean that “markets” in any general sense do not work; only that markets require appropriate oversight.  Our economy fundamentally is a market-based system, but oversight – including, where appropriate, effective rules and regulations – can be essential to ensure transparency and prevent manipulation.

With appropriate rules and oversight, markets have been shown to work exceptionally well to address environmental problems.  They provide key flexibility to regulated entities to adopt least-cost approaches to emission reductions, while providing powerful incentives for technological innovation and diffusion, which serve to reduce costs over time.  Real world experiences with using market-based instruments for environmental protection include CFC trading under the Montreal Protocol (to protect the ozone layer); SO2 allowance trading under the U.S. Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990 (to curb acid rain); NOx trading (to control regional smog in the eastern U.S.); and eliminating lead from gasoline in the 1980s.

Studies that have evaluated the performance of these market-based approaches to environmental protection have found that they have achieved their environmental objectives and have done so at lower cost than conventional, command-and-control approaches.  Estimates of cost savings range from 7 percent to 96 percent, with more than half of studies showing that market-based programs cut the cost of regulation by well over 50% compared with command-and-control options.  For example, the SO2 allowance trading program resulted in 33 percent cost savings — on the order of $1 billion annually, while reducing power-sector emissions from 15.7 million tons in 1990 to 7.6 million tons million tons in 2008.  The phase-down of leaded gasoline in the 1980s, which employed trading of environmental credits, was also successful in meeting its environmental targets, while yielding cost savings of about $250 million per year.

The evidence is incontrovertible – market-based approach to environmental protection can work, effectively achieving environmental targets and keeping costs to a minimum.  These approaches are not deregulation, but reformed and improved regulation.  And like all markets, these environmental markets need rules and oversight.

A Real and Pressing Problem

The fundamental reason why we face the threat of global climate change is that there is no price or cost for emitting greenhouse gases.  In the absence of a price, the damages associated with a changing climate are not considered by companies or individuals when they make their energy choices.  A cap-and-trade policy creates this price by establishing a limit on the amount of greenhouse gas emissions and allowing firms covered by the program the flexibility to trade allowances.  The environmental integrity of the program is ensured by the “cap” on emissions, and the costs of the program are kept as low as possible through the creation of a market (where firms can buy and sell allowances).

Concern about financial markets and fraudulent investment scams has created an atmosphere of distrust regarding the functioning and effectiveness of markets.  By extension, questions have been raised about the wisdom of creating a market with a cap-and-trade program for controlling greenhouse gases.  In truth, appropriate oversight and regulation of carbon markets will be required.  The problem has been the abuse of markets, not something fundamental about markets themselves.

Climate change is a real and pressing problem.  Strong government actions are required, as well as enlightened political leadership at the national and international levels. Creation of a market for greenhouse gas emissions can work, but is contingent on government action to establish this policy.  When the Congress decides to return to this issue ­– as it inevitably will – cap-and-trade policy specifically and carbon-pricing generally must be considered seriously and debated honestly, otherwise it will be fundamentally impossible to provide the right incentives to put the United States on a climate-friendly path of robust and sustainable economic growth.


P.S.  For those of you interested in the important climate policy developments that are occurring in the state of California, you may find of interest a conference organized by the University of California, taking place in Sacramento on October 4th, “California’s Climate Change Policy:  The Economic and Environmental Impacts of AB 32.”  You can learn more about it by clicking on this link.

The Real Options for U.S. Climate Policy

The time has not yet come to throw in the towel regarding the possible enactment in 2010 of meaningful economy-wide climate change policy (such as that found in the Waxman-Markey legislation passed by the U.S. House of Representatives in June, 2009, or the more recent Kerry-Lieberman proposal in the Senate).  Meaningful action of some kind is still possible, or at least conceivable.  But with debates regarding national climate change policy becoming more acrimonious in Washington as midterm elections approach, it is important to ask, what are the real options for climate policy in the United States – not only in 2010, but in 2011 and beyond.  That’s the purpose of this essay.

Federal Policy Options

Let’s begin my considering Federal policy options under two distinct categories:  pricing instruments and other approaches.  Carbon-pricing instruments could take the form of caps on the quantity of emissions (cap-and-trade, cap-and-dividend, or baseline-and-credit), or approaches that directly put carbon prices in place (carbon taxes or subsidies).  Beyond pricing instruments, the other approaches include regulation under the Clean Air Act, energy policies not targeted exclusively at climate change, public nuisance litigation, and NIMBY and other public interventions to block permits for new fossil-fuel related investments.  I will discuss each of these in turn.

Quantity-Based Carbon Pricing

I’ve frequently written about cap-and-trade in the past (See, for example:  Here We Go Again: A Closer Look at the Kerry-Lieberman Cap-and-Trade Proposal; Eyes on the Prize:  Federal Climate Policy Should Preempt State and Regional Initiatives; Any Hope for Meaningful U.S. Climate Policy? You be the Judge; Confusion in the Senate Regarding Allowance Allocation?; Cap-and-Trade versus the Alternatives for U.S. Climate Policy; Can Countries Cut Carbon Emissions Without Hurting Economic Growth?; Cap-and-Trade: A Fly in the Ointment? Not Really; National Climate Change Policy: A Quick Look Back at Waxman-Markey and the Road Ahead; Worried About International Competitiveness? Another Look at the Waxman-Markey Cap-and-Trade Proposal; The Wonderful Politics of Cap-and-Trade: A Closer Look at Waxman-Markey; The Making of a Conventional Wisdom), and so I will be very brief on this instrument in this essay.

A Quick Reminder about Cap-and-Trade

In brief, there are four principal merits of the cap-and-trade approach to achieving significant reductions of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions.  First, this approach achieves overall targets at minimum aggregate cost, that is, it is cost-effective, both in the short term by allocating responsibility among sources, and in the long term, by providing price signals that will drive technological innovation and diffusion of carbon-friendly technologies.  Second, the allowance allocation under a cap-and-trade system can be used to build a constituency of political support across sectors and geographic areas without driving up the cost of the program or reducing its environmental performance.  Third, we have significant experience in the United States with the use of this approach, including during the 1980s to phase out leaded gasoline from the marketplace, and since the 1990s to cut acid rain by 50 percent.  Fourth, and of great importance, a domestic cap-and-trade system can be linked directly and cost-effectively with cap-and-trade systems and emission-reduction-credit systems in other parts of the world to keep costs down domestically.

Three principal concerns have been voiced about cap-and-trade systems in U.S. debates.  First, while a cap-and-trade system constrains the quantity of emissions, the costs of control are left uncertain (although such cost uncertainty can be limited — if not eliminated — through the use of safety valves, price collars, or related mechanisms).  Second, in the wake of concerns regarding the roll that financial markets played in the global recession, there have been many fears about the possibilities of market manipulation in a cap-and-trade system.  A third concern – in a political context – is that this cost-effective approach to environmental protection, pioneered by the Republican administration of President George H. W. Bush, has – ironically — been demonized by conservatives in current debates.

That said, a variety of pending design issues will need to be addressed in the development of any cap-and-trade system, including:  ambition, scope (suddenly important because of a renewed focus in Washington on the possibility of a utility-only cap), point of regulation in the economy, allowance allocation, the role of offsets, cost-containment mechanisms, international competition protection, and regulatory oversight.  (I’ve written about all of these design issues in previous essays at this blog and elsewhere.)

A Design-Change for Cap-and-Trade?

Does the current political climate call for a design change — or at least a name change — for cap-and-trade?   Both stepwise and sectoral approaches are being considered.  A stepwise approach of beginning with one or a few sectors of the economy and subsequently expanding gradually to an economy-wide program was embodied in both the Waxman-Markey legislation and in the Kerry-Lieberman proposal.  Under a sectoral approach, cap-and-trade would be used for some sectors, but other approaches would be used for other parts of the economy.  To some degree, the Kerry-Lieberman proposal embodies this approach.  The current focus in Washington is on the possibility of using cap-and-trade for the electricity sector only.

Although the politics may argue for a stepwise or sectoral approach, it should be recognized that neither is likely to be cost-effective, because it is highly unlikely that marginal abatement costs will be equated across all sectors of the economy without the use of a single (implicit) price on carbon.

So the potential approach now receiving much attention in Washington of employing a cap-and-trade system in the electricity sector only would — in all likelihood — achieve less in terms of overall emissions reductions, and would not be cost-effective (due to the exclusion of other sectors).  However, it is at least conceivable that will prove to be the best among politically-feasible paths to a better future policy.  That is, of course, a political — not an economic — question.

A Populist Approach?

Populism has emerged as a major theme in recent electoral politics in the United States, both from the left and from the right.  What might be characterized as a populist approach would be a cap-and-trade system with 100% of the allowances auctioned and the auction revenue returned directly “to the people.”  Although this is a standard variant of cap-and-trade design, contemporary politics — with its demonization of the phrase “cap-and-trade” — might well argue for a name change:  how about “cap-and-dividend?”

This approach is embodied in the CLEAR Act of Senators Maria Cantwell (D-Washington) and Susan Collins (R-Maine).  The merits of this approach include its simplicity, appearance of fairness, and related appeal to the populist mood.  Concerns, however, include the proposal’s relatively modest environmental achievements (according to an analysis by the World Resources Institute), its overall cost due to restrictions on trading, and its apparent political infeasibility, given its lack of visible support in the Congress.

Other Trading Mechanisms

In addition to cap-and-trade, the other major type of tradable permit system is an emission-reduction-credit system, or baseline-and-credit system.  Because such approaches lack caps, they raise some well-known concerns, in particular the necessity of comparing actual emissions with what emissions would have been in the absence of the policy.  In such a system, the latter is fundamentally unobserved and unobservable.  This is the problem of “additionality,” which comes up in spades in the case of the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), but also in the context of most other offset programs.

A related trading mechanism is found in the Clean Energy Standards approach, embodied in Senator Richard Lugar’s (R-Indiana) legislative proposal.  This mechanism is similar to a Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS), but allows for a broader set of qualified sources;  not only renewables, but also nuclear power, fossil fuel power with carbon capture and storage (CCS), and – in principle — efficient natural gas.  If the clean energy credits are denominated in units of carbon free megawatt hours and are tradable, then the merits of this approach include the flexibility that is provided through trading.  The concerns include the lack of an emissions cap, and the difficulty of expanding this approach to other sectors or linking it with a cap-and-trade system.  However, if the clean energy credits are denominated in emissions per megawatt hour, then the program can more easily be converted to or linked with a cap-and-trade system.

Direct Carbon Pricing

A carbon tax system would be similar in design to an upstream cap-and-trade approach.  There is some real interest in this approach, mainly from academics, and there is also what I would characterize as “strategic interest,” principally from those who recognize that once the focus is on carbon taxes rather than other instruments, political debates will inevitably result in less ambitious targets or, in fact, no policy at all.

Carbon Taxes in Brief

Having said this, the merits of a carbon tax approach compared with cap-and-trade include the fact that cost uncertainty is eliminated with the tax approach (although, of course, there is quantity uncertainty, that is, no emissions cap).  And, I mentioned earlier, the cost uncertainty inherent in a cap-and-trade system can be reduced, if not eliminated, with cost-containment mechanisms such as a price collar.

Another merit of the carbon tax approach is that it would generate substantial revenues (as would a cap-and-trade system in which the allowances are auctioned).  These revenues can be used – in principle – for a variety of worthwhile public purposes, including reducing distortionary taxes, which would serve to lower the overall social cost of the policy.  Third, the tax approach is (at least perceived to be) much simpler than the allowance market that would be generated by a cap-and-trade scheme.

Major concerns regarding carbon taxes are fourfold.  First, despite their social cost-effectiveness, pollution taxes can be more costly to the regulated sector than even a non-cost-effective command-and-control instrument.  Second, unlike cap-and-trade, the tax approach lacks a benign mechanism for building political constituency, and is likely to lead to requests for tax exemptions, and hence a less ambitious policy and possibly a more costly one.  Third, although it is not impossible to link such as system internationally (for purposes of cost containment), it is more challenging to do so than with the quantity based cap-and-trade alternative.  A fourth and final concern is the apparent political infeasibility of this approach, at least currently in the United States.

In this regard, it is important to note that what has frequently been interpreted as hostility to cap-and-trade in the U.S. Senate is actually – on closer inspection — broader hostility to the very notion of carbon pricing (or any climate change policy).  Surely, the political reception to a carbon tax would be even less enthusiastic than the reception that has greeted recent cap-and-trade proposals.

Subsidies:  The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

If it’s so politically difficult to tax “bad behavior,” how about subsidizing “good behavior?”  The mirror image of a tax is indeed a subsidy, and two potential price-based approaches to achieving greenhouse gas emission reductions are the use of climate-friendly subsidies and the elimination of problematic subsidies that exacerbate the climate problem.

In thinking about climate-friendly subsidies, we should first keep in mind that the Obama economic stimulus package enacted by the Congress includes significant subsidies (and tax credits) for renewables and efficiency upgrades — to the tune of about $80 billion.  A major problem has been that the administration (in particular, the Department of Energy) has been finding it difficult to spend the money fast enough.  Also, some would consider subsidies for biofuels, such as ethanol, as falling within this category of climate-friendly subsidies, but clearly that is a matter of considerable controversy.

Principal among the problematic subsidies – and hence major candidates for reduction or elimination – are subsidies for the development and use of fossil fuels.  According to the Environmental Law Institute, U.S. fossil-fuel subsidies and tax breaks currently amount to $8-$10 billon per year.  At the global level, the International Energy Agency has estimated that such fossil-fuel subsidies now amount to $550 billion annually!  President Obama proposed at the G20 meeting in Pittsburgh in November, 2009, that such subsidies be phased out around the world, and there seemed at the time to be broad-based support for this proposal.  However, it should not be surprising that less than a year later, it now appears that the commitment may be watered down somewhat at the G20 meeting in Toronto this June.

The merit of trying to use climate-friendly subsidies is based on the fact that subsidies affect relative prices, much like taxes do, but are much more politically attractive, since politicians prefer to give out benefits rather than costs to their constituents.  And eliminating problematic subsidies can be economically efficient.

But a major concern of using climate-friendly subsidies is that the funds go not only to marginal units that otherwise would not be taking specific actions, but also to infra-marginal units that are pleased to accept the funds, but whose behavior is unaffected by them.  This means that this approach is relatively costly to the government (and to society at large) for what is accomplished.  And a concern of removing fossil fuel subsidies – particularly in the current political climate of worries about oil imports – is that this can work against so-called “energy security” (some have therefore suggested the addition of an “oil import fee”).

Climate Change Regulation under the Clean Air Act

Regulations of various kinds may soon be forthcoming – and in some cases, will definitely be forthcoming – as a result of the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Massachusetts v. EPA and the Obama administration’s subsequent “endangerment finding” that emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases endanger public health and welfare.  This triggered mobile source standards earlier this year, the promulgation of which identified carbon dioxide as a pollutant under the Clean Air Act, thereby initiating a process of using the Clean Air Act for stationary sources as well.

Those new standards are scheduled to begin on January 1, 2011, with or without the so-called “tailoring rule” that would exempt smaller sources.  Among the possible types of regulation that could be forthcoming for stationary sources under the Clean Air Act include:  new source performance standards; performance standards for existing sources (Section 111(d)); and New Source Review with Best Available Control Technology standards under Section 165.

The merits that have been suggested of such regulatory action are that it would be effective in some sectors, and that the threat of such regulation will spur Congress to take action with a more sensible approach, namely, an economy wide cap-and-trade system.

However, regulatory action on carbon dioxide under the Clean Air Act will accomplish relatively little and do so at relatively high cost, compared with carbon pricing.  Also, it is not clear that this threat will force the hand of Congress.  Indeed it is reasonable to ask whether this is a credible threat, or will instead turn out to be counter-productive (when stories about the implementation of inflexible, high-cost regulatory approaches lend ammunition to the staunchest opponents of climate policy).

Furthermore, there is the question of possible preemption.  Although Senator Lisa Murkowski’s (R-Alaska) resolution was defeated in the Senate, Senator Jay Rockefeller’s (D-West Virginia) proposal of a two-year delay of Clean Air Act regulatory action is still pending; and depending upon the outcome of the November elections, there may be a series of further Congressional actions to tie the hands of EPA in this regard.

Regulation of Conventional Pollutants under the Clean Air Act

It’s also possible that air pollution policies for non-greenhouse gas pollutants, the emissions of some of which are highly correlated with CO2 emissions, may play an important role.  For example, the three-pollutant legislation co-sponsored by Senator Thomas Carper (D-Delaware) and Senator Lamar Alexander (R-Tennessee), focused on SOx, NOx, and mercury, could have profound impacts on the construction and operation of coal-fired electricity plants, without any direct CO2 requirements.  Beyond this, there are also possibilities of policies for the non-CO2 greenhouse gases.

Important, Unanswered Questions

An important pending question regarding EPA’s use of the Clean Air Act is whether EPA may legally create CO2 cap-and-trade or offset markets under existing Clean Air Act authority.  The answer appears to be “probably yes.”  There is positive precedent from EPA’s emissions trading program of the 1970s, and it’s a leaded gasoline phase-down of the 1980s, although recent court decisions regarding the Bush administration’s Clean Air Interstate Rule may cause concern in this regard.

The more important question, however, may turn out to be whether EPA can politically create significant CO2 markets in the face of Congressional opposition.  The answer to this is considerably less clear.

Energy Policies Not Targeted Exclusively at Climate Change

The “positive politics” generated by the Gulf oil spill, combined with the “negative politics” of addressing climate change explicitly, may well increase the likelihood of so-called “energy-only” legislation being enacted this year.  Senator Jeff Bingaman’s (D-New Mexico) bill from the Environment and Natural Resources Committee and perhaps Senator Richard Lugar’s bill will feature centrally in any bipartisan initiative.

The possible components of such an approach which would be relevant in the context of climate change include:  a national renewable electricity standard; Federal financing for clean energy projects: energy efficiency measures (building, appliance, and industrial efficiency standards; home retrofit subsidies; and smart grid standards, subsidies, and dynamic pricing policies); and new Federal electricity-transmission siting authority.

Other Legal Mechanisms

Even without action by the Congress or by the Administration, legal action on climate policy is likely to take place within the judicial realmPublic nuisance litigation will no doubt continue, with a diverse set of lawsuits being filed across the country in pursuit of injunctive relief and/or damages.  Due to recent court decisions, the pace, the promise, and the problems of this approach remain uncertain.

Beyond the well-defined area of public nuisance litigation, other interventions which are intended to block permits for new fossil energy investments, including both power plants and transmission lines will continue.  Some of these interventions will be of the conventional NIMBY character, but others will no doubt be more strategic.

Does the Road to National Climate Policy Need to Go through Washington?

With political stalemate in Washington, attention may increasingly turn to regional, state, and even local policies intended to address climate change.  The Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) in the Northeast has created a cap-and-trade system among electricity generators.  More striking, California’s Global Warming Solutions Act (Assembly Bill 32, or AB 32) will likely lead to the creation of a very ambitious set of climate initiatives, including a statewide cap-and-trade system (unless it’s stopped by ballot initiative or a new Governor, depending on the outcome of the November 2010 elections).  The California system is likely to be linked with systems in other states and Canadian provinces under the Western Climate Initiative.

These sub-national policies will interact in a variety of ways – some good, some bad — with Federal policy when and if Federal policy is enacted.  As Professor Lawrence Goulder (Stanford University) and I have written in a new paper for the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), some of these interactions could be problematic, such as the interaction between a Federal cap-and-trade system and a more ambitious cap-and-trade system in California under AB 32, while other interactions would be benign, such as RGGI becoming somewhat irrelevant in the face of a Federal cap-and-trade system that was both more stringent and broader in scope.

An important question is whether there can be sensible sub-national policies even in the presence of an economy-wide Federal carbon-pricing regime?  The answer is surely yes, partly because other market failures will continue to exist that are not addressed by carbon pricing.  A prime example is the principal-agent problem of insufficient energy-efficiency investments in renter-occupied properties, even in the face of high energy prices.  This is a problem that is best addressed at the state or even local level, such as through building codes and zoning.

In the meantime, in the absence of meaningful Federal action, sub-national climate policies could well become the core of national action.  Problems will no doubt arise, including legal obstacles such as possible Federal preemption or litigation associated with the so-called Dormant Commerce Clause.  Also, even a large portfolio of state and regional policies will not be comprehensive of the entire nation, that is, not truly national in scope.  And even if they are nationally comprehensive, with different policies of different stringency in different parts of the country, carbon shadow-prices will by no means be equivalent, and so overall policy objectives will be achieved at excessive social cost.

Is there a solution, if only a partial one?  Yes, state and regional carbon markets can be linked.  Such linkage occurs as a result of bilateral recognition of allowances, which results in reduced costs, price volatility, leakage, and market power.  Such bottom-up linkage of state and regional cap-and-trade systems may be an important part or perhaps the core of future of U.S. climate policy, at least until there is meaningful action at the Federal level.  In the meantime, it is at least conceivable that linkage of state-level cap-and-trade systems across the United States will become the de facto post-2012 national climate policy architecture.

The Path Ahead

Conventional politics clearly disfavors market-based (pricing) environmental policy approaches that render costs obvious or at least somewhat transparent, despite the fact that the costs of these same policies are actually less than those of alternative approaches.  Instead, conventional politics favors approaches to environmental protection that render costs less obvious (or better yet invisible), such as renewable portfolio standards, and — for that matter — all sorts of command-and-control performance and technology standards.

But carbon pricing will be necessary to address the diverse economy-wide sources of CO2 emissions effectively and at sensible cost, whether the carbon pricing comes about through an economy-wide Federal cap-and-trade system or through a Federal carbon tax.  It is inconceivable that truly meaningful reductions in CO2 emissions could be achieved through purely regulatory approaches, and it remains true that whatever would be achieved, would be accomplished at excessively high cost.

So, although it is true – as I have sought to explain in this essay – that there are a diverse set of options for future climate policy in the United States, the best available alternative to an economy-wide cap-and-trade system enacted in 2010 may be an economy-wide cap-and-trade system enacted in 2011.  But ultimately, the question of what is the best alternative this year to an economy-wide cap-and-trade system is a political, not an economic question.

Eyes on the Prize: Federal Climate Policy Should Preempt State and Regional Initiatives

In just a few days, Senators John Kerry, Lindsey Graham, and Joe Lieberman will release their much-anticipated proposal for comprehensive climate and energy legislation – the best remaining shot at forging a bipartisan consensus on this issue in 2010.  Their proposal has many strengths, but there’s an issue brewing that could undermine its effectiveness and drive up its costs.  I wrote about this in a Boston Globe op-ed on Earth Day, April 22nd (the original version of which can be downloaded here).

Government officials from California, New England, New York, and other northeastern states are vociferously lobbying in Washington to retain their existing state and regional systems for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, even after a new federal system comes into force. That would be a mistake – and a potentially expensive one for residents of those states, who could wind up subsidizing the rest of the country.  The Senate should do as the House did in its climate legislation:  preempt state and regional climate policies.  There’s no risk, because if Federal legislation is not enacted, preemption will not take effect.

The regional systems – including the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) in the Northeast and Assembly Bill 32 in California – seek to limit carbon dioxide emissions from power plants and other sources, mainly by making emissions more costly for firms and individuals.  These systems were explicitly developed because the federal government was not moving fast enough.

But times have changed.  Like the House climate legislation passed last June, the new Senate bill will feature at its heart an economy-wide carbon-pricing scheme to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, including a cap-and-trade system (under a different name) for the electricity and industrial sectors.  (In a departure from the House version, it may have a carbon fee for transportation fuels.)

Though the Congress has a history of allowing states to act more aggressively on environmental protection, this tradition makes no sense when it comes to climate change policy.  For other, localized environmental problems, California or Massachusetts may wish to incur the costs of achieving cleaner air or water within their borders than required by a national threshold.  But with climate change, it is impossible for regions, states, or localities to achieve greater protection for their jurisdictions through more ambitious actions.

This is because of the nature of the climate change problem. Greenhouse gases, including carbon dioxide, uniformly mix in the atmosphere – a unit of carbon dioxide emitted in California contributes just as much to the problem as carbon dioxide emitted in Tennessee.  The overall magnitude of damages – and their location – are completely unaffected by the location of emissions.  This means that for any individual jurisdiction, the benefits of action will inevitably be less than the costs. (This is the same reason why U.S. federal action on climate change should occur at the same time as other countries take actions to reduce their emissions).

If federal climate policy comes into force, the more stringent California policy will accomplish no additional reductions in greenhouse gases, but simply increase the state’s costs and subsidize other parts of the country. This is because under a nationwide cap-and-trade system, any additional emission reductions achieved in California will be offset by fewer reductions in other states.

A national cap-and-trade system – which is needed to address emissions meaningfully and cost-effectively – will undo the effects of a more stringent cap within any state or group of states.  RGGI, which covers only electricity generation and which will be less stringent than the Federal policy, will be irrelevant once the federal system comes into force.

In principle, a new federal policy could allow states to opt out if they implement a program at least as stringent.  But why should states want to opt out?  High-cost states will be better off joining the national system to lower their costs. And states that can reduce emissions more cheaply will be net sellers of Federal allowances.

Is there any possible role for state and local policies?  Yes.  Price signals provided by a national cap-and-trade system are necessary to meaningfully address climate change at sensible cost, but such price signals are not sufficient.  Other market failures call for supplementary policies.  Take, for example, the principal-agent problem through which despite higher energy prices, both landlords and tenants lack incentives to make economically-efficient energy-conservation investments, such as installing thermal insulation.  This problem can be handled by state and local authorities through regionally-differentiated building codes and zoning.

But for the core of climate policy – which is carbon pricing – the simplest, cleanest, and best way to avoid unnecessary costs and unnecessary actions is for existing state systems to become part of the federal system.  Political leaders from across the country – including the Northeast and California – would do well to follow the progressive lead of Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick and Secretary of Energy and Environmental Affairs Ian Bowles, who have played key roles in the design and implementation of RGGI, and yet have also publicly supported its preemption by a meaningful national program.

California’s leaders and those in the Northeast may take great pride in their state and regional climate policies, but if they accomplish their frequently-stated goal – helping to bring about the enactment of a meaningful national climate policy – they will better serve their states and the country by declaring victory and getting out of the way.

Any Hope for Meaningful U.S. Climate Policy? You be the Judge.

The current conventional wisdom ­– broadly echoed by the news media and the blogosphere – is that comprehensive, economy-wide CO2 cap-and-trade legislation is dead in the current U.S. Congress, and perhaps for the next several years.

Watch out for conventional wisdoms!  They inevitably appear to be the collective judgment of numerous well-informed observers and sources, but frequently they are little more than the massive repetition of a few sample points of opinion across the echo-chamber of the professional news media and the blogosphere.

Keep in mind that the conventional wisdom as recently as June of 2009 had it that – with the Waxman-Markey bill having been passed triumphantly by the House of RepresentativesSenate action would follow; the only question raised by many commentators was whether the final legislation could be sent to the President for his signature by the time of the Copenhagen climate talks in December.  My, how the conventional wisdom has changed!

But over the past nine months, the politics have not fundamentally changed.  In June of 2009, passage of meaningful climate legislation in the Senate was already unlikely, because of the terrible economic recession in which the country found itself, and – of even greater political salience ­– lingering high rates of unemployment.  And with the lack of Republican support for the stimulus bill, the relatively small (partisan) margin by which the House passed Waxman-Markey, the then-upcoming challenges of health care and financial regulatory reform dominating the legislative calendar, and concerns voiced about climate legislation by moderate Senate Democrats, success in the Senate was always a long-shot.

What is the Likely Legislative Outcome?

In addition to ongoing consideration of an economy-wide cap-and-trade system, another possibility now receiving attention is a utility-only cap-and-trade system, which some members of the Congress inexplicably find more attractive than an economy-wide approach.  The result of such a system would be much less accomplished (forget about the President’s “conditional commitment” under the Copenhagen Accord), and at much greater cost.  This would be equivalent to taking the Northeast’s Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) as a model for national action.  Not a good idea.

Even more likely is that the Congress would develop a so-called energy-only bill, which would – to a large degree – consist of killing the one part of Waxman-Markey worth saving (the comprehensive CO2 cap-and-trade system), and moving forward with the worst parts of that legislation – the smorgasbord of regulatory initiatives.  As I’ve written previously, those additional elements of the legislation are highly problematic.  When implemented under the cap-and-trade umbrella, many of those conventional standards and subsidies would have no net greenhouse-gas-reducing benefits, would limit flexibility, and would thereby have the unintended consequence of driving up compliance costs. That’s the soft under‑belly of the House legislation.

Without the cap-and-trade umbrella, that same set of standards and subsidies will accomplish very little, and do so at exceedingly high cost.  Take just one example that seems to be popular among politicians – “renewable portfolio standards” (RPS), requirements that all states or all electricity utilities derive some fixed share of their power, say 20%, from renewable sources.  Note, for example, that such an approach does not distinguish between coal and natural gas, despite the dramatically different impacts these fuels have on CO2 emissions (and a host of other environmental outcomes).  Furthermore, although an RPS may displace some new coal-fired generation with other types of generation, there is little, if any, effect on the operation of existing coal-fired power plants.

If those other, regulatory parts of the climate legislation are so ineffective and so costly, why are they so popular with politicians?  The reason is simple.  The costs are hidden.  The government simply mandates that electric utilities or manufacturers take particular actions, employing the best technology available.  Where’s the cost?  Unlike a cap-and-trade system, there’s no analysis and debate about the cost of allowances (and the marginal abatement costs they represent); and unlike a carbon tax, there’s no analysis and no focus on the dollar amount of the tax and the aggregate cost.  That is the unfortunate but fundamental political economy behind much of U.S. environmental policy since the first Earth Day in 1970.

What about Court-Ordered Regulation?

Whether “best-available-control technology standards” are crafted by the Congress or put in place by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) under the court-ordered mandate stemming from the Supreme Court decision in Massachusetts v. EPA and the Obama administration’s subsequent “endangerment finding,” such an approach will be relatively ineffective and terribly costly for what is accomplished.  The EPA route would essentially apply the mechanisms of the Clean Air Act, intended for localized, “criteria air pollutants,” to CO2, resulting in ineffective and costly regulations.

The White House (and most member of Congress) recognize that this is an inappropriate way to address climate change, but they seem determined to go forward, claiming that this threat will force the hand of Congress to do something more sensible instead.  Unfortunately, this is akin to my telling you that if you don’t do what I want, I will shoot myself in the foot – not a very credible or intelligent threat.  What I am referring to is that costly Clean Air Act regulation of CO2 will play into the hands of right-wing opponents of climate action, creating a poster-child of excessive regulatory intervention that will bring about a backlash against sensible climate policies.  EPA claims that there will be no such excessive regulatory actions, because it will exempt small sources through a so-called “tailoring rule.”  But legal scholars have noted that the tailoring rule stands on questionable legal grounds and could be invalidated by the courts.  In this regard, note that the first lawsuits to stop EPA from exempting small sources are coming from groups on the right, not the left.

Perhaps Senator Murkowski’s proposed joint resolution (H.J. Res. 66), introduced on January 21, 2010, disapproving (stopping) EPA’s regulatory action under the endangerment finding could save the Administration.  The conventional wisdom is that Senator Murkowski’s resolution has no political future, but with a bi-partisan list of 40 co-sponsors, that’s a total of 41 votes (more than the current total of 40 “Yes” and “Probably Yes” votes in the Senate for serious climate legislation, according to Environment and Energy Daily).  And remember that the disapproval resolution requires only 51, not 60 votes in the Senate, under the rules of the enabling statute, the Congressional Review Act of 1996 (signed by President Clinton, and part of the Republican “Contract with America”).  Of course, House action, not to mention signature by President Obama, would also be required for the resolution to take effect.  But a positive vote in the Senate will send a strong political message.

So Is There No Hope for Good Climate Policy?

Here is where it gets interesting, because as much as the current political environment in Washington may seem increasingly unreceptive to an economy-wide cap-and-trade system or some other meaningful and sensible climate policy, there is one promising approach that could actually benefit from the national political climate.

In these pages, I have expressed support for cap-and-trade mechanisms to address climate change, including the system embodied in the Waxman-Markey legislation that emerged from the House in June of last year.  Although that approach is scientifically sound, economically sensible, and may still turn out to be politically acceptable, there’s a modified version of cap-and-trade that could be much more attractive in this era of rampant expressions of populism, coming both from the right (“no new taxes”) and the left (“bash the corporations”).  Neither of those views, of course, is consistent with sound economic thinking on the environment, but it’s nevertheless possible to recognize their national appeal and build upon them.

This could be done with a simple upstream cap-and-trade system in which all of the needed allowances are sold (auctioned) – not given freely – to fossil-fuel producers and importers, and a very large share – say 75% – of the revenue is rebated directly to American households through monthly checks in a progressive scheme through which all individuals receive identical payments.

Such an approach could appeal to the populist sentiments that are increasingly dominating political discourse and judgments in this mid-term election year.  Such a system – which would have direct and visible positive financial consequences (i.e., rebate checks larger than energy price increases) for 80% of American households – might not only not be difficult for politicians to support, but it might actually be difficult for politicians to oppose!

Importantly, even though this is a specific type of cap-and-trade design (which has been known, studied, and proposed for decades), for better political optics, it should be called something else.  How about “cap-and-dividend?”

A CLEAR Answer?

What I’ve described bears a close resemblance to the “Carbon Limits and Energy for America’s Renewal (CLEAR) Act,” sponsored by Senators Maria Cantwell (D-Washington) and Susan Collins (R-Maine).  So, the politics of their proposal looks appealing, and the substance of it looks promising – a simple upstream cap-and-trade system (called something else), with 100% of the allowances auctioned (with a “price collar” on allowance prices to reduce cost uncertainty), 75% of the revenue refunded to all legal U.S. residents, each month, on an equal per capita basis as non-taxable income, the other 25% of the revenue dedicated to specified purposes, including “transition assistance,” and some built-in measures of protection for particularly energy-intensive, trade-sensitive sectors (not unlike Waxman-Markey).

That’s the good news.  The bad news, however, is that the proposal needs to be changed before it can promise to be not only politically attractive, but economically and environmentally sensible.  In particular, as it is currently structured, only producers and importers of fossil fuels can buy the carbon allowances.  In an up-stream system – an approach I have endorsed for years – it is producers and importers that are subject to compliance, that is, must eventually hold the allowances.  That’s fine.  But there is no sound reason to exclude other entities from participating in the auction markets; and doing so will greatly reduce market liquidity.

Furthermore, the Senators’ proposal says that holders of carbon allowances are actually prohibited from creating, selling, purchasing, or trading carbon derivatives, thereby tremendously reducing the efficiency of the market and needlessly driving up costs.  While no doubt borne out of a well-intentioned desire to protect consumers (remembering the recent impacts of mortgage-backed securities on financial markets), the Senators’ approach is akin to responding to a tragic airplane crash by concluding that the best way to protect consumers from air disasters in the future is simply to ban flying.

Less important structurally, but most important environmentally, an analysis by the World Resources Institute (which I have not validated) indicates that the caps – as currently set – would not bring about emissions reductions by 2020 that would even come close to the President’s announced goal of 17% reductions (equivalent to the Waxman-Markey targets), as submitted by the United States under the Copenhagen Accord.

But these and other problems with the CLEAR proposal can – in principle – be addressed while maintaining its basic structure and political attraction.

An Economic Perspective

It is interesting to note that many – perhaps most – economists have long favored the variant of cap-and-trade whereby allowances are auctioned and the auction revenue is used to cut distortionary taxes (on capital and/or labor), thereby reducing the net social cost of the policy.  Cap-and-Dividend moves in another direction.  This system (which was introduced several years ago in the “Sky Trust” proposal) has some merits compared with the economist’s favorite approach of tax cuts, namely that the Cap-and-Dividend scheme addresses some of the distributional issues that would be raised by using the auction revenue to fund tax cuts (which could favor higher income households).  On the other hand, it eliminates the efficiency (cost-effectiveness) gains associated with the tax-cut approach.  In fact, Stanford’s Larry Goulder has estimated that the tax-and-dividend approach would cost 40% more than an approach of combining an auction of allowances with ideal income tax rate cuts.  (By “ideal,” I mean focusing on tax cuts that would lead to the lowest net cost.)

In general, there are sound reasons to seek to compensate consumers for the energy price increases that will be brought about by a cap-and-trade system, or any meaningful climate change policy. But it is important not to insulate consumers from those price increases, as diluting the price signal reduces the effectiveness and drives up the cost of the overall policy.  Thus, “compensation” as in Cap-and-Dividend is fine, but “insulation” is not.

The most politically salient question with the Waxman-Markey approach of freely allocating a significant portion of the allowances to the private sector is how to distribute (that is, who gets) those allowances which are freely allocated.  In this regard, contrary to much of the hand-wringing in the press, the deal-making that took place in the House and may still take place in the Senate for shares of free allowances is an example of the useful and important mechanism through which a cap-and-trade system provides the means for a political constituency of support and action to be assembled without reducing the policy’s effectiveness or driving up its cost.

The ultimate political question seems to be whether there is greater (geographic and sectoral) political support for the Waxman-Markey (H.R. 2454) approach of substantial free allocations and targeted use of auction revenue, or if there is greater (populist) political support for the full auction combined with lump-sum rebate which characterizes the “cap-and-dividend” approach.  Alas, the textbook economics preference — full auction combined with cuts of distortionary taxes — appears to be a political, if not academic, orphan.

Unintended Consequences of Government Policies: The Depletion of America’s Wetlands

Private land-use decisions can be affected dramatically by public investments in highways, waterways, flood control, or other infrastructure.  The large movement of jobs from central cities to suburbs in the postwar United States and the ongoing destruction of Amazon rain forests have occurred with major public investment in supporting infrastructure.  As these examples suggest, private land-use decisions can generate major environmental and social externalities – or, in common language, unintended consequences.

In an analysis that appeared in 1990 in the American Economic Review, Adam Jaffe of Brandeis University and I demonstrated that the depletion of forested wetlands in the Mississippi Valley – an important environmental problem and a North American precursor to the loss of South American rain forests – was exacerbated by Federal water-project investments, despite explicit Federal policy to protect wetlands.

Wetland Losses

Forested wetlands are among the world’s most productive ecosystems, providing improved water quality, erosion control, floodwater storage, timber, wildlife habitat, and recreational opportunities.  Their depletion globally is a serious problem; and preservation and protection of wetlands have been major Federal environmental policy goals for forty years.

From the 1950s through the mid-1970s, over one-half million acres of U.S. wetlands were lost each year.  This rate slowed greatly in subsequent years, averaging approximately 60 thousand acres lost per year in the lower 48 states from 1986 through 1997.  And by 2006, the Bush administration’s Secretary of the Interior, Gale Norton, was able to announce a net gain in wetland acreage in the United Sates, due to restoration and creation activities surpassing wetland losses.

What Caused the Observed Losses?

What were the causes of the huge annual losses of wetlands in the earlier years?  That question and our analysis are as germane today as in 1990, because of lessons that have emerged about the unintended consequences of public investments.

The largest remaining wetland habitat in the continental United States is the bottomland hardwood forest of the Lower Mississippi Alluvial Plain.  Originally covering 26 million acres in seven states, this resource was reduced to about 12 million acres by 1937.  By 1990, another 7 million acres had been cleared, primarily for conversion to cropland.

The owner of a wetland parcel faces an economic decision involving revenues from the parcel in its natural state (primarily from timber), costs of conversion (the cost of clearing the land minus the resulting forestry windfall), and expected revenues from agriculture.  Agricultural revenues depend on prices, yields, and, significantly, the drainage and flooding frequency of the land.  Needless to say, landowners typically do not consider the positive environmental externalities generated by wetlands; thus conversion may occur more often than is socially optimal.

Such externalities are the motivation for Federal policy aimed at protecting wetlands, as embodied in the Clean Water Act.  Nevertheless, the Federal government engaged in major public investment activities, in the form of U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and U.S. Soil Conservation Service flood-control and drainage projects, which appeared to make agriculture more attractive and thereby encourage wetland depletion.  The significance of this effect had long been disputed by the agencies which construct and maintain these projects; they attributed the extensive conversion exclusively to rising agricultural prices.

In an econometric (statistical) analysis of data from Arkansas, Mississippi, and Louisiana, from 1935 to 1984, Jaffe and I sought to sort out the effects of Federal projects and other economic forces.  We discovered that these public investments were a very substantial factor causing conversion of wetlands to agriculture, with between 30 and 50 percent of the total wetland depletion over those five decades due to the Federal projects.

More broadly, four conclusions emerged from our analysis.  First, landowners had responded to economic incentives in their land-use decisions.  Second, construction of Federal flood-control and drainage projects caused a higher rate of conversion of forested wetlands to croplands than would have occurred in the absence of projects, leading to the depletion of an additional 1.25 million acres of wetlands.  Third, Federal projects had this impact because they made agriculture feasible on land where it had previously been infeasible, and because, on average, they improved the quality of feasible land.  Fourth, adjustment of land use to economic conditions was gradual.

Government Working at Cross-Purposes

The analysis highlighted a striking inconsistency in the Federal government’s approach to wetlands.  In articulated policies, laws, and regulations, the government recognized the positive externalities associated with some wetlands, with the George H.W. Bush administration first enunciating a “no net loss of wetlands” policy.  But public investments in wetlands – in the form of flood-control and drainage projects – had created major incentives to convert these areas to alternative uses.  The government had been working at cross-purposes.

The conclusion that major public infrastructure investments affect private land-use decisions (thereby often generating negative externalities) may not be a surprise to some readers, but it was the 1990 analysis described here that first provided rigorous evidence which contrasted sharply with the accepted wisdom among policy makers.

The Ongoing Importance of Induced Land-Use Changes

As wetlands, tropical rain forests, barrier islands, and other sensitive environmental areas become more scarce, their marginal social value rises.  In general, if induced land-use changes are not considered, the country will engage in more public investment programs whose net social benefits are negative.

Chaos and Uncertainty in Copenhagen?

Earlier today, I was asked by the Financial Times, “who is responsible for the chaos and uncertainty” at COP-15 in Copenhagen?  I’m not sure those are the words I would have chosen to characterize the situation at the climate negotiations in the Danish capital, but here is my response for the FT’s Energy-Source Climate Experts panel — with some elaboration.

There are two aspects to what has been characterized as the “chaotic and uncertain” nature of the COP-15 conference at the Bella Center in Copenhagen.  One is the substantive process and eventual outcome, which remains uncertain as of this hour, and the other is the shocking logistical failure.

An Uncertain Outcome for the Negotiations

It should not be surprising that the outcome remains in doubt, because of some basic economic realities.  First of all, keep in mind that climate change is the ultimate global commons problem, because greenhouse gases uniformly mix in the atmosphere.  Therefore, each country incurs the costs of its emission-reduction actions, but the benefits of its actions are spread worldwide.  Hence, for any individual nation, the benefits it receives from its actions are inevitably less than the costs it incurs, despite the fact that globally the total benefits of appropriate coordinated international action would exceed the total costs (and for many countries the national benefits of coordinated international action would exceed their national costs of action).

This creates a classic free-rider problem, and is the reason why international cooperation – whether through an agreement under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change or through some other multilateral or bilateral arrangements – is necessary.

Second, addressing global climate change will be costly and it raises profound distributional implications for the countries of the world.  In particular, addressing climate change at minimum cost (i.e., cost-effectively) requires that all countries take responsibility for their emissions going forward, and indeed necessitates that all countries control at the same marginal abatement cost.

On the other hand, addressing climate change in an equitable fashion clearly requires taking account of the dramatically different economic circumstances of the countries of the world, and may also involve looking backwards at historic responsibility for the anthropogenic greenhouse gases which have already accumulated in the atmosphere.   These are profound issues of distributional equity.

This classic trade-off between cost-effectiveness (or efficiency), on the one hand, and distributional equity, on the other hand, raises significant obstacles to reaching an agreement.

So, I place the fault for the substantive uncertainty in the negotiations neither on the industrialized countries (including the United States, for insisting that China and other key emerging economies participate in meaningful and transparent ways), nor on the developing countries (for insisting that the industrialized world pay much of the bill).

The key question going forward is whether negotiators in Copenhagen today and tonight, or in Bonn several months from now, or in Mexico City a year from now, can identify a policy architecture that is both reasonably cost-effective and sufficiently equitable, and thereby can assemble support from the key countries of the world, and thus do something truly meaningful about the long-term path of global greenhouse gas emissions.  There are promising paths forward, and – if you’ll forgive me – I will remind readers that many have been identified by the Harvard Project on International Climate Agreements.

Rather than pointing fingers at who is to blame for the current uncertainty at this hour, I can attribute credit to a number of countries and institutions for having brought the negotiations to the point where it appears at least possible that a successful outcome will be achieved in Copenhagen or subsequently.

First of all, tremendous credit must be given to the national leaders and the negotiating teams of the seventeen major economies of the world who together represent about 90% of global emissions, because these countries have worked hard to produce what each considers a sensible outcome over the months and years leading up to COP-15.

This includes not only the European Union, Australia, Japan, New Zealand, and Canada, but also the United States, which at least since January of this year has been an enthusiastic and intelligent participant in this international process.  It also includes many of the key emerging economies of the world – China , India, Brazil, Mexico, Korea, South Africa, and Indonesia, among them – as well as a considerable number of poor, developing countries, which likewise take the problem seriously and have been trying to find an acceptable path forward.

Finally, credit should be given to the Danish government and its leadership, the Secretariat of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who have worked tirelessly for months, indeed years, to prepare for the substance of these negotiations at COP-15 in Copenhagen.

That’s the “good news,” but now I should turn to the other aspect of the “uncertainty and chaos” in Copenhagen.

Chaos at COP-15’s Bella Center

As I noted at the outset, there are two aspects of the “chaos” in Copenhagen, and for the second aspect it is (sadly) possible to identify the apparently responsible parties.  I am referring to the fact that the organizers – the Secretariat of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the hosts, the Danish government – apparently approved a list of some 40,000 observers from 900 official, accredited organizations around the world, knowing that the Bella Center could accommodate at most 15,000 persons at any one time.  The result is that thousands of people – including not only NGO representatives, but also government negotiators – stood in line outside of the Bella Center in the bitter cold on Monday and Tuesday of this week waiting 8-10 hours to get inside to receive their credentials.  Thousands of others never got inside to receive their credentials, despite having waited up to 8 hours, standing in the cold.  These are not exaggerations.  It is remarkable and very fortunate if no one died in the process.

Then, on Wednesday through Friday, the Bella Center was essentially closed to all representatives of civil society, despite the fact that side-events had been organized by them months in advance with the approval of the COP-15 organizers.

The result is that thousands of people, who had been informed by the COP-15 organizers many months ago that they were approved to attend, had flown to Copenhagen from all over the world, incurred those costs plus the costs of their accommodations, yet never were able to get inside the Bella Center to carry out any of the work they had planned, and flew back home having wasted their time and resources (and having contributed to the COP-15 carbon footprint in non-trivial ways).

Now, I have never been an enthusiast of what some people have described as the annual “circus” of the COPs, a circus – if it is that — which is largely due to the fact that the actual government negotiators are vastly outnumbered by the civil society representatives (“official observers” in the UNFCCC language) and the press.  However, if the participation of civil society representatives is going  to be encouraged (as required under the original UNFCCC agreement), and if the attendance of those representatives is going to be approved in advance, then surely they should not be denied admission when they arrive, nor forced to stand in line outside in the cold for 8 hours waiting to be admitted.

No doubt, both the UNFCCC and the Danish government will point fingers at the other, but ultimately the responsibility must be shared.  In seventeen years of these annual conferences, going back to the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, there has never been such a disastrous logistical failure.  It could have been anticipated.  And it should have been prevented.

A Final Word

Of course, as of this hour, I — along with millions of others — hope that the negotiators in Copenhagen will achieve agreement on some truly meaningful steps forward in this important process.

Is Benefit-Cost Analysis Helpful for Environmental Regulation?

With the locus of action on Federal climate policy moving this week from the House of Representatives to the Senate, this is a convenient moment to step back from the political fray and reflect on some fundamental questions about U.S. environmental policy.

One such question is whether economic analysis – in particular, the comparison of the benefits and costs of proposed policies – plays a truly useful role in Washington, or is it little more than a distraction of attention from more important perspectives on public policy, or – worst of all – is it counter-productive, even antithetical, to the development, assessment, and implementation of sound policy in the environmental, resource, and energy realms.   With an exceptionally talented group of thinkers – including scientists, lawyers, and economists – now in key environmental and energy policy positions at the White House, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Energy, and the Department of the Treasury, this question about the usefulness of benefit-cost analysis is of particular importance.

For many years, there have been calls from some quarters for greater reliance on the use of economic analysis in the development and evaluation of environmental regulations.  As I have noted in previous posts on this blog, most economists would argue that economic efficiency — measured as the difference between benefits and costs — ought to be one of the key criteria for evaluating proposed regulations.  (See:  “The Myths of Market Prices and Efficiency,” March 3, 2009; “What Baseball Can Teach Policymakers,” April 20, 2009; “Does Economic Analysis Shortchange the Future?” April 27, 2009)  Because society has limited resources to spend on regulation, such analysis can help illuminate the trade-offs involved in making different kinds of social investments.  In this sense, it would seem irresponsible not to conduct such analyses, since they can inform decisions about how scarce resources can be put to the greatest social good.

In principle, benefit-cost analysis can also help answer questions of how much regulation is enough.  From an efficiency standpoint, the answer to this question is simple — regulate until the incremental benefits from regulation are just offset by the incremental costs.  In practice, however, the problem is much more difficult, in large part because of inherent problems in measuring marginal benefits and costs.  In addition, concerns about fairness and process may be very important economic and non-economic factors.  Regulatory policies inevitably involve winners and losers, even when aggregate benefits exceed aggregate costs.

Over the years, policy makers have sent mixed signals regarding the use of benefit-cost analysis in policy evaluation.  Congress has passed several statutes to protect health, safety, and the environment that effectively preclude the consideration of benefits and costs in the development of certain regulations, even though other statutes actually require the use of benefit-cost analysis.  At the same time, Presidents Carter, Reagan, Bush, Clinton, and Bush all put in place formal processes for reviewing economic implications of major environmental, health, and safety regulations. Apparently the Executive Branch, charged with designing and implementing regulations, has seen a greater need than the Congress to develop a yardstick against which regulatory proposals can be assessed.  Benefit-cost analysis has been the yardstick of choice

It was in this context that ten years ago a group of economists from across the political spectrum jointly authored an article in Science magazine, asking whether there is role for benefit-cost analysis in environmental, health, and safety regulation.  That diverse group consisted of Kenneth Arrow, Maureen Cropper, George Eads, Robert Hahn, Lester Lave, Roger Noll, Paul Portney, Milton Russell, Richard Schmalensee, Kerry Smith, and myself.  That article and its findings are particularly timely, with President Obama considering putting in place a new Executive Order on Regulatory Review.

In the article, we suggested that benefit-cost analysis has a potentially important role to play in helping inform regulatory decision making, though it should not be the sole basis for such decision making.  We offered eight principles.

First, benefit-cost analysis can be useful for comparing the favorable and unfavorable effects of policies, because it can help decision makers better understand the implications of decisions by identifying and, where appropriate, quantifying the favorable and unfavorable consequences of a proposed policy change.  But, in some cases, there is too much uncertainty to use benefit-cost analysis to conclude that the benefits of a decision will exceed or fall short of its costs.

Second, decision makers should not be precluded from considering the economic costs and benefits of different policies in the development of regulations.  Removing statutory prohibitions on the balancing of benefits and costs can help promote more efficient and effective regulation.

Third, benefit-cost analysis should be required for all major regulatory decisions. The scale of a benefit-cost analysis should depend on both the stakes involved and the likelihood that the resulting information will affect the ultimate decision.

Fourth, although agencies should be required to conduct benefit-cost analyses for major decisions, and to explain why they have selected actions for which reliable evidence indicates that expected benefits are significantly less than expected costs, those agencies should not be bound by strict benefit-cost tests.  Factors other than aggregate economic benefits and costs may be important.

Fifth, benefits and costs of proposed policies should be quantified wherever possible.  But not all impacts can be quantified, let alone monetized.  Therefore, care should be taken to assure that quantitative factors do not dominate important qualitative factors in decision making.  If an agency wishes to introduce a “margin of safety” into a decision, it should do so explicitly.

Sixth, the more external review that regulatory analyses receive, the better they are likely to be.  Retrospective assessments should be carried out periodically.

Seventh, a consistent set of economic assumptions should be used in calculating benefits and costs.  Key variables include the social discount rate, the value of reducing risks of premature death and accidents, and the values associated with other improvements in health.

Eighth, while benefit-cost analysis focuses primarily on the overall relationship between benefits and costs, a good analysis will also identify important distributional consequences for important subgroups of the population.

From these eight principles, we concluded that benefit-cost analysis can play an important role in legislative and regulatory policy debates on protecting and improving the natural environment, health, and safety.  Although formal benefit-cost analysis should not be viewed as either necessary or sufficient for designing sensible public policy, it can provide an exceptionally useful framework for consistently organizing disparate information, and in this way, it can greatly improve the process and hence the outcome of policy analysis.

If properly done, benefit-cost analysis can be of great help to agencies participating in the development of environmental regulations, and it can likewise be useful in evaluating agency decision making and in shaping new laws (which brings us full-circle to the climate legislation that will be developed in the U.S. Senate over the weeks and months ahead, and which I hope to discuss in future posts).

National Climate Change Policy: A Quick Look Back at Waxman-Markey and the Road Ahead

Like any legislation, the Waxman‑Markey bill has its share of flaws, but its cap-and-trade system has medium and long‑term targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions that are sensible, and the cap‑and‑trade system is — for the most part — well designed.  With some exceptions, the bill’s cap‑and‑trade system will achieve meaningful reductions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions at minimal cost to the economy.

There has been much lamenting about the corporate give-away in the bill, but this is unfounded, as I explained in detail in my May 27th post on The Wonderful Politics of Cap-and-Trade: A Closer Look at Waxman-Markey. Concerns have also been expressed — such as by a number of Republican members of Congress during last Friday’s floor debate in the House of Representatives — about negative impacts on the international competitiveness of U.S. firms.  The only real solution to the international competitiveness issue in the long term is to bring non‑participating countries within an international climate regime in meaningful ways. (On this, please see the work of the Harvard Project on International Climate Agreements.)  But that solution is fundamentally outside of the scope of the domestic policy action of any individual nation, including the United States.

In the meantime, the Waxman‑Markey approach of combining output‑based updating allocations in the short term for select sectors with the option in the long term of a Presidential determination (under stringent conditions) for import allowance requirements for specific countries and sectors was sensible and pragmatic (see my June 18th post on Worried About International Competitiveness? Another Look at the Waxman-Markey Cap-and-Trade Proposal).

That’s the good news.  But the bad news is that last-minute changes in the bill changed what was a Presidential option regarding long-term back-up border adjustments (tariffs) to a requirement that the President put such tariffs in place under specified conditions.  This moved the legislation considerably closer to risky protectionism, as President Obama rightly noted in comments to the press on Sunday.

Also, the compromise amendments with the House agriculture committee that provide for generous numbers of potential offsets from the agricultural sector (regulated not by EPA, but by USDA!) are troubling — not in terms of driving up compliance costs, but in terms of reducing the real environmental performance of the system.  This is because of the general problem of limited additionality of claimed reductions under offset (or emission-reduction-credit) systems, as opposed to cap-and-trade systems, plus the well-known difficulties of measuring non-point emissions, let alone emissions reductions, from agriculture.

These and other design issues will be important topics when the Senate takes up its own climate legislation, although the debate in that body on some of these issues will likely be quite different.  For example, there is likely to be more interest in the Senate in the use of a “price collar,” a mechanism to constrain both the maximum and the minimum market price of allowances over time.  This would be a move beyond the safety-valve mechanism that is provided in the House legislation.

When the action moves to the Senate, the greatest attention and the greatest skepticism should be directed not to the cap‑and‑trade mechanism, which is — for the most part — well designed in Waxman‑Markey, but rather to other elements of the legislation, some of which are highly problematic. While the titles of Waxman‑Markey that create the cap‑and‑trade system are ‑‑ on balance ‑‑ sensible, and will result in meaningful emissions reductions cost effectively, the other titles of the bill include a host of conventional standards and subsidies, many of which (under the cap‑and‑trade umbrella) will have minimal or no environmental benefits, but will limit flexibility and thereby have the unintended consequence of driving up compliance costs. That’s the soft under‑belly of this legislation that needs to be selectively, surgically repaired.

It is the fault of economists — myself included — that we have given so much attention to the cap-and-trade system that we have ignored these other important elements of the legislation, elements that unfortunately can degrade significantly the cost-effectiveness of the package while providing little if any incremental benefits to the environment.  Even the Congressional Budget Office, in its excellent economic analysis of HR 2454, focused exclusively on the bill’s cap-and-trade program.  Going forward, CBO, EPA, and independent analysts need to examine the bill’s other elements, and assess what those elements provide at what incremental cost.

A broader question — also raised by House Republicans in the floor debate — is whether the United States should be moving towards the enactment of a domestic climate policy before a sensible, post‑Kyoto international agreement has been negotiated and ratified. Such an international agreement should include not only the countries of the industrialized world, but also the key, rapidly‑growing economies of the developing world ‑‑ China, India, Brazil, Korea, Mexico, South Africa, and Indonesia ‑‑ which are and will increasingly be major contributors to emissions.

It’s natural for such a question to be raised about the very notion of the U.S. adopting a policy to help address what is fundamentally a global problem.  The environmental benefits of any single nation’s reductions in greenhouse gas emissions are spread worldwide, unlike the costs. This means that for any single country, the costs of action will inevitably exceed its direct benefits, despite the fact that the global costs of action will be less than global benefits.  This is the nature of a global commons problem, and this is the very reason why international cooperation is required.

The U.S. is now engaged in international negotiations, and the credibility of the U.S. as a participant, let alone as a leader, in shaping the international regime is dependent upon our demonstrated willingness to take actions at home.

Europe has put its climate policy in place, and Australia, New Zealand, and Japan are moving to have their policies in place within a year. If the United States is to play a leadership role in international negotiations for a sensible post‑Kyoto international climate regime, the country must begin to move towards an effective domestic policy ‑ with legislation that is timed and structured to coordinate with the emerging post‑Kyoto climate regime.

Without evidence of serious action by the U.S., there will be no meaningful international agreement, and certainly not one that includes the key, rapidly‑growing developing countries. U.S. policy developments can and should move in parallel with international negotiations.

So, the Waxman‑Markey bill has its share of flaws, but it represents a reasonable starting point for Senate deliberation on what can become a national climate policy that will place the United States where it ought to be -‑ in a position of international leadership to help develop a global climate agreement that is scientifically sound, economically rational, and politically acceptable to the key nations of the world.

Straight Talk about Corporate Social Responsibility

Critical thinking about “corporate social responsibility” (CSR) is needed, because there are few topics where discussions feature greater ratios of heat to light.  With this in mind, two of my Harvard colleagues – law professor Bruce Hay and business school professor Richard Vietor – and I co-edited a book, Environmental Protection and the Social Responsibility of Firms: Perspectives from Law, Economics, and Business.

At issue is the appropriate role of business with regard to environmental protection.  Everyone agrees that firms should obey the law. But beyond the law – beyond compliance with regulations – do firms have additional responsibilities to commit resources to environmental protection?  How should we think about the notion of firms sacrificing profits in the social interest?

Much of what has been written on this question has been both confused and confusing.  Advocates, as well as academics, have entangled what ought to be four distinct questions about corporate social responsibility:  may they, can they, should they, and do they.

First, may firms sacrifice profits in the social interest – given their fiduciary responsibilities to shareholders?  Does management have a fiduciary duty to maximize corporate profits in the interest of shareholders, or can it sacrifice profits by voluntarily exceeding the requirements of environmental law?  Einer Elhauge, a professor at Harvard Law School, challenges the conventional wisdom that managers have a simple legal duty to maximize corporate profits.  He argues that managers have freedom to diverge from the goal of profit maximization, partly because their legal duties to shareholders are governed by the “business judgment rule,” which gives them broad discretion to use corporate resources as they see fit.

If a company’s managers decide, for example, to use “green” inputs, devise cleaner production technologies, or dispose of their waste more safely, courts will not stop them from doing so, no matter how disgruntled shareholders may be at such acts of public charity.  The reason is that for all a judge knows, such measures – particularly when they are well publicized – will add to the firm’s bottom line in the long run by increasing public goodwill.  But this line of argument contradicts the very premise, since it is based upon the notion that the actions are not sacrificing profits, but contributing to them.

This leads directly to the second question.  Can firms sacrifice profits in the social interest on a sustainable basis, or will the forces of a competitive market render such efforts transient at best?  Paul Portney, Dean of the Eller College of Management at the University of Arizona, notes that for firms that enjoy monopoly positions or produce products for well-defined niche markets, such extra costs can well be passed on to customers.  But for the majority of firms in competitive industries – particularly firms that produce commodities – it is difficult or impossible to pass on such voluntarily incurred costs to customers.  Such firms have to absorb those extra costs in the form of reduced profits, reduced shareholder dividends, and/or reduced compensation, suggesting that, in the face of competition, such behavior is not sustainable.

This leads to the third question of CSR:  even if firms may carry out such profit-sacrificing activities, and can do so, should they – from society’s perspective?  Is this likely to lead to an efficient use of social resources?  To be more specific, under what conditions are firms’ CSR activities likely to be welfare-enhancing?  Portney finds that this is most likely to be the case if firms pursuing CSR strategies are doing so because it is good business – that is, profitable.  Once again, a positive response violates the premise of the question.  But for more costly CSR investments, concern exists about the opportunity costs that will be involved for firms. Further, in the case of companies that behave strategically with CSR to anticipate and shape future regulations, welfare may be reduced if the result is less stringent standards (that would have been justified).

Finally, do firms behave this way?  Do some firms reduce their earnings by voluntarily engaging in environmental stewardship?  Forest Reinhardt of the Harvard Business School addresses this question by surveying the performance of a broad cross-section of firms, and finds that only rarely does it pay to be green.  That said, situations do exist in which it does pay. Where one can increase customers’ willingness to pay, reduce one’s costs, manage future risk, or anticipate and defer costly governmental regulation, then it may pay to be green.  Overall, Reinhardt acknowledges the existence of these opportunities for some firms – examples such as Patagonia and DuPont stand out – but the empirical evidence does not support broad claims of pervasive opportunities.

So, where does this leave us?  May firms engage in CSR, beyond the law? An affirmative though conditional answer seems appropriate.  Can firms do so on a sustainable basis?  Outside of monopolies and limited niche markets, the answer is probably negative.  Should they carry out such beyond-compliance efforts, even when doing so is not profitable?  Here – if the alternative is sound and effective government policy – the answer may not be encouraging.  And the last question – do firms generally carry out such activities – seems to lead to a negative assessment, at least if we restrict our attention to real cases of “sacrificing profits in the social interest.”

But definitive answers to these questions await the results of rigorous, empirical research.  In the meantime, we ought to prevent muddled thinking by keeping separate these four questions of corporation social responsibility.

Using Markets to Make Fisheries Sustainable

Around the world, over-fishing is leading to severe depletion of valuable fisheries.  This is as true in U.S. coastal waters as it is in many other parts of the world.  In New England waters, for example, after two decades of ever more intensive fishing, the groundfish fishery has essentially collapsed.  But, we are not alone.  According to the United Nations Environment Program, fully 25 percent of fisheries worldwide are in jeopardy of collapse due to over-fishing.  Clearly, something needs to be done.  Yet, what has long been considered the obvious answer – restrictions on fishing – has been shown time and time again to be the wrong answer.  The right answer is enlightened use of markets.

The fundamental cause of the depletion of fish stocks is well known to economists:  virtually all ocean fisheries are “open-access,” that is, fishermen – small operations or large corporations – can fish all they want.  These individuals and companies are no more greedy than the rest of us, but because no one holds title to fish stocks in the open ocean, everyone races to catch as much as possible.  Each fisherman receives the full benefit of aggressive fishing (that is, a larger catch), but none pay the full cost (an imperiled fishery for everyone).  One fisherman’s choices have an effect on other fishermen (of this generation and the next), but in an open-access fishery – unlike a privately-held copper mine, for example – these impacts are not taken into account.  What is individually rational adds up to collective foolishness, as the shared resource is over-exploited.  This is the “tragedy of the commons.”  What to do?

Government intervention is, alas, required.  Fishermen don’t welcome such regulation in their economic sphere any more than anyone else does.  And they have a point.  Conventional regulatory approaches have driven up costs, but not solved the problem.  And we know why.  If the government limits the season, fishermen put out more boats.  If the government limits net size, fishermen use more labor or buy more costly sonar.  Economists call this over-capitalization.  Costs go up for fishermen (as resources are squandered), but pressure on fish stocks is not relieved.

The answer is to adopt in fisheries management the same type of innovative policy that has been used for decades in the realm of pollution  control – tradeable permits, called “Individual Transferable Quotas” ( ITQs) in the fisheries realm.  Sixteen countries – some with economies much more dependent than ours on fishing – have adopted such systems with great success.  New Zealand regulates virtually its entire commercial fishery this way.  It’s had the system in place since 1986, and it’s been a great success, putting a brake on over-fishing and restoring stocks to sustainable levels ­- while increasing fishermen’s profitability!

There are several ITQ systems already in operation in the United States, including for Alaska’s pacific halibut and Virginia’s striped-bass fisheries.  More important, the time is ripe for broader adoption of this innovative approach, because a short-sighted ban imposed by the U.S. Congress on the establishment of new ITQ systems has expired.

The first step in establishing an ITQ system is to establish the “total allowable catch.”  The next step – and a crucial one – is to allocate shares of that total limit to fishermen in individual quotas that are theirs and theirs alone (read:  well-defined property rights).  Setting the individual quotas will not be easy.  The guiding principle should be simple pragmatism – using the allocations to build political support for the system.  Making the quotas transferable eliminates the problem of overcapitalization and increases efficiency, because the least efficient fishing operations find it more profitable to sell their quotas than to exploit them through continued fishing.  If you can’t catch your whole share, you can sell part of your quota to someone else, instead of buying a bigger boat.

In addition, these systems improve safety by reducing incentives for fishermen to go out (or stay out) when weather conditions are dangerous.  And it was just such perverse incentives of conventional fisheries regulation that were blamed for the tragic loss of life when a fishing boat was lost in a storm off the New England coast just a few winters ago.

Further, because ITQ systems eliminate the motivation for government to limit the duration of the fishing season, supplies available to consumers improve in quality.  Prior to the establishment of an ITQ system for Alaskan halibut, for example, the government had reduced the fishing season to just two days, but subsequent to the introduction of the system, the season length grew to more than 200 days.

A decade ago, environmental advocates – led by the Environmental Defense Fund – played a central role in the adoption of the sulfur dioxide allowance trading program that’s cut acid rain by half and saved electricity generators and rate-payers nearly $1 billion annually, compared with conventional approaches.  The time has come for environmentalists to join forces with progressive voices in the fishing industry and in government to set up ITQ systems that can keep fishermen in business while moving fisheries onto sustainable paths.

A Tale of Two Taxes

Whether they are called “revenue enhancements” or “user charges,” fear of the political consequences of taxes restricts debate on energy and environmental policy options in Washington. In a March 7th post on “Green Jobs,” in which I argued that it is not always best to try to address two challenges with a single policy instrument, I also noted that in some cases such dual-purpose policy instruments can be a good idea, and I gave gasoline taxes as an example.

Although a serious recession is clearly not the time to expect political receptivity to such a proposal, the time will come — we all hope very soon — when the economy turns around, employment rises, and a sustained period of economic growth ensues. When that happens, serious consideration should be given to increases in the Federal tax on gasoline.

A gas tax increase — coupled with an offsetting reduction in other taxes, such as the Social Security tax on wages — could make most American households better off, while reducing oil imports, local pollution, urban congestion, road accidents, and global climate change. This revenue-neutral tax reform would exemplify the market-based approaches to environmental protection and resource management I examined in previous posts.

Such a change need not constitute a new tax, but a reform of existing ones. It is well known ­– both from economic theory and numerous empirical studies ­– that taxes tend to reduce the extent to which people undertake the taxed activity. In the United States, most tax revenues are raised by levies on labor and investment; the resulting reduction in these fundamentally desirable activities is viewed as an unfortunate but unavoidable side-effect of the need to raise revenue for government operations. Would it not make more sense to raise the revenue we need by taxing undesirable activities, instead of desirable ones?

Combustion of gasoline in motor vehicles produces local air pollution as well as carbon dioxide that contributes to global climate change, increases imports of oil, and exacerbates urban highway congestion. Can anyone really claim that — given a choice between discouraging work and discouraging gasoline consumption — it is better to discourage work?

According to the U.S. Department of Energy, a 50 cent gas tax increase could eventually reduce gasoline consumption by 10 to 15%, reduce oil imports by perhaps 500 thousand barrels per day, and generate about $40 billion per year in revenue.

Furthermore, this approach would be far more effective than on-going proposals to increase the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards, which affect only new vehicles and lead to serious safety problems by encouraging auto makers to produce lighter vehicles. Also, remember that a major effect of CAFE standards has been to accelerate the shift from cars to SUVs and light trucks (so that overall fuel efficiency of new vehicles sold is no better than it was a decade ago, despite the great strides that have taken place in fuel efficiency technologies). As my Harvard colleague Martin Feldstein pointed out in The Wall Street Journal in 2006, the conventional approach “does nothing to encourage individuals to drive less, to use their cars more efficiently, or to shift sooner to new and more fuel efficient [and cleaner] vehicles.” A more enlightened approach ­— a market-based approach — would reward consumers who economize on gasoline use. And that is what a revenue-neutral gas tax is all about.

The revenue from the gas tax could be transferred to the Social Security Trust Fund and credited to current workers. If $40 billion per year from new gas tax revenues were transferred to Social Security, the payroll tax — the employee contribution to Social Security — could be cut by perhaps a third: a worker with annual wages of $30,000 would take home an additional $750 per year! The extra income would more than offset the cost of the gas tax, unless the worker drove over 35,000 miles per year in a car getting 25 miles or less per gallon. Rebating the gas tax in this way addresses the greatest concern about higher gas taxes — that they can hit hardest those workers who drive to their jobs. Further, a tax of this magnitude could be phased in gradually, perhaps no more than 10 cents per year over 5 years, allowing individuals and firms to adjust their consuming and producing behavior.

Proposals for gasoline tax increases in recent sessions of Congress would have dedicated the revenue to public spending (for transportation and other programs). A key difference is that the proposal I have outlined here is for a revenue-neutral change in which the gas tax revenue would be returned to Americans through reduced payroll taxes. To adopt some of the language I developed in my previous posts, such a change can be both efficient and equitable, and — for those reasons — perhaps even politically feasible.

Of course, such a scheme is not a panacea for U.S. energy and environmental problems. But it would make a significant contribution if enacted. On the other hand, political fear of the T-word in Washington may mean that it is never discussed seriously in public, let alone adopted. Most fear of taxes is due to politicians’ anxieties about asking their constituents to pay more. But an increase in the Federal gas tax, rebated through reduced payroll taxes would not cost most Americans any more and would have significant long-term benefits for the country. Still, fear of the T-word looms large; maybe it should be called an “All-American Ecologically Sound, Fully Recyclable, Anti-Terror, Energy-Independence Assessment.”

The Myth of the Universal Market

Communication among economists, other social scientists, natural scientists, and lawyers is far from perfect. When the topic is the environment, discourse across disciplines is both important and difficult. Economists themselves have likely contributed to some misunderstandings about how they think about the environment, perhaps through enthusiasm for market solutions, perhaps by neglecting to make explicit all of the necessary qualifications, and perhaps simply by the use of technical jargon.

So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that there are several prevalent and very striking myths about how economists think about the environment. Because of this, my colleague Don Fullerton, a professor of economics at the University of Illinois, and I posed the following question in an article in Nature:  how do economists really think about the environment? In this and several succeeding postings, I’m going to answer this question, by examining — in turn — several of the most prevalent myths.

One myth is that economists believe that the market solves all problems. Indeed, the “first theorem of welfare economics” states that private markets are perfectly efficient on their own, with no interference from government, so long as certain conditions are met. This theorem, easily proven, is exceptionally powerful, because it means that no one needs to tell producers of goods and services what to sell to which consumers. Instead, self-interested producers and self-interested consumers meet in the market place, engage in trade, and thereby achieve the greatest good for the greatest number, as if “guided by an invisible hand,” as Adam Smith wrote in 1776 in The Wealth of Nations. This notion of maximum general welfare is what economists mean by the “efficiency” of competitive markets.

Economists in business schools may be particularly fond of identifying markets where the necessary conditions are met, where many buyers and many sellers operate with very good information and very low transactions costs to trade well-defined commodities with enforced rights of ownership. These economists regularly produce studies demonstrating the efficiency of such markets (although even in this sphere, problems can obviously arise).

For other economists, especially those in public policy schools, the whole point of the first welfare theorem is very different. By clarifying the conditions under which markets are efficient, the theorem also identifies the conditions under which they are not. Private markets are perfectly efficient only if there are no public goods, no externalities, no monopoly buyers or sellers, no increasing returns to scale, no information problems, no transactions costs, no taxes, no common property, and no other distortions that come between the costs paid by buyers and the benefits received by sellers.

Those conditions are obviously very restrictive, and they are usually not all satisfied simultaneously. When a market thus “fails,” this same theorem offers us guidance on how to “round up the usual suspects.” For any particular market, the interesting questions are whether the number of sellers is sufficiently small to warrant antitrust action, whether the returns to scale are great enough to justify tolerating a single producer in a regulated market, or whether the benefits from the good are “public” in a way that might justify outright government provision of it. A public good, like the light from a light house, is one that can benefit additional users at no cost to society, or that benefits those who “free ride” without paying for it.

Environmental economists, of course, are interested in pollution and other externalities, where some consequences of producing or consuming a good or service are external to the market, that is, not considered by producers or consumers. With a negative externality, such as environmental pollution, the total social cost of production may thus exceed the value to consumers. If the market is left to itself, too many pollution-generating products get produced. There’s too much pollution, and not enough clean air, for example, to provide maximum general welfare. In this case, laissez-faire markets — because of the market failure, the externalities — are not efficient.

Similarly, natural resource economists are particularly interested in common property, or open-access resources, where anyone can extract or harvest the resource freely. In this case, no one recognizes the full cost of using the resource; extractors consider only their own direct and immediate costs, not the costs to others of increased scarcity (called “user cost” or “scarcity rent” by economists). The result, of course, is that the resource is depleted too quickly. These markets are also inefficient.

So, the market by itself demonstrably does not solve all problems. Indeed, in the environmental domain, perfectly functioning markets are the exception, rather than the rule. Governments can try to correct these market failures, for example by restricting pollutant emissions or limiting access to open-access resources. Such government interventions will not necessarily make the world better off; that is, not all public policies will pass an efficiency test. But if undertaken wisely, government interventions can improve welfare, that is, lead to greater efficiency. I will turn to such interventions in a subsequent posting.