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.

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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.

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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.

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