Tag Archives: RGGI

Low Prices a Problem? Making Sense of Misleading Talk about Cap-and-Trade in Europe and the USA

Some press accounts and various advocates have labeled the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) as near “the brink of failure” because of the recent trend of very low auction prices.  Likewise, commentators have recently characterized the European Union Emission Trading Scheme (EU ETS) as possibly “sinking into oblivion” because of low allowance prices.  Since when are low prices (which in this case reflect low marginal abatement costs) considered to be a problem?  To understand what’s going on, we need to remind ourselves of the purpose (and promise) of a cap-and-trade regime, and then look at what’s been happening in the respective markets.

The Purpose and Promise of Cap-and-Trade

A cap-and-trade system– if well designed, implemented, and enforced – will limit total emissions of the regulated pollutant to the desired level (the cap), and will do this (if the cap is binding) in a cost-effective manner, by leading regulated sources to each make reductions until they are all experiencing the same marginal abatement cost (the allowance price).  Thus, the sources that initially face the highest abatement costs, reduce less, and those sources that face the lowest abatement costs, reduce more, achieving system-wide minimum costs, that is, cost effectiveness.  So, the purpose and promise, in a nutshell, is to achieve the targeted level of aggregate pollution control, and – if the cap is binding – do this at the lowest possible cost.

RGGI Allowance Prices

The Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) – a downstream cap-and-trade system for CO2 emissions from the power sector in 10 northeast states (Connecticut, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, and Vermont, with New Jersey now in the process of withdrawing from the coalition), was launched with relatively unambitious targets, principally in order to keep prices down to prevent severe leakage of electricity demand and hence leakage of CO2 emissions from the RGGI region to states and provinces outside of the region (mainly from New York to Pennsylvania).

Emissions are capped from 2012 to 2014, and then, starting in 2015, the cap decreases 2.5% per year until it is down by 10% in 2019.  This would represent a level of emissions 13% below the 1990 level of emissions.  It was originally thought that this would be some 35% below the Business-as-Usual (BAU) level in 2019.  Sounds good.  What happened is not that the system performed other than designed, but that “business was not as usual.”  That is, what happened is that unregulated power-sector (BAU) emissions in the northeast fell significantly.  (See the graph below of the RGGI cap and historical emissions.)

For source, please click here.

So, Why Did Emissions Fall in the RGGI States?

This happened for three reasons.  First, because of increasing supplies in the United States of low-cost, unconventional sources of natural gas, prices for this fuel have fallen dramatically since 2008. (See the graph below of natural gas and coal prices.)  That has meant greater dispatch of electricity from gas-fueled power plants (relative to coal-fired plants), more investment in new gas-fired generating plants, less investment in coal-fired generating capacity, and retirement of existing coal-fired capacity, all of which has contributed to lower CO2 emissions.

For source, please click here.

Second, the worst economic recession since the Great Depression hit the United States in 2008, causing dramatic reductions in electricity demand in the industrial and commercial sectors, reducing emissions.  (See the graph below of quarterly percentage change in U.S. GDP, 2007-2009.)

For source, please click here.

Third and finally, moderate northeast temperatures have kept down CO2 emissions linked with both heating and cooling.

Low Emissions, Low Allowance Demand, Low Allowance Prices

So, for the three reasons above, BAU CO2 emissions from the power sector in the RGGI states are dramatically below what was originally (and quite reasonably) anticipated.  The supply of RGGI CO2 allowances made available at auction is – by law – unchanged, but demand for these allowances has fallen dramatically, hence the fall in RGGI allowance prices.  (See the graph below of RGGI allowance prices, 2008-2010.)

For source, please click here.

Given that emissions are below the RGGI cap and – due to expectations regarding future natural gas prices – are likely to remain below the cap, there is no scarcity of allowances.  Shouldn’t the price fall to zero?  In theory, yes, except that the system has an auction reservation price of $1.86 per ton built in, thereby creating a price floor of precisely this amount.

Is RGGI a Failure?

So, the cap put in place by the RGGI system is being achieved, but it is not binding.  RGGI may not be particularly relevant, but it is not thereby a flawed system; surely it is not a failure.  Rather, a great environmental success has been achieved by the “fortunate coincidence” of low natural gas prices, economic recession, and mild weather.  This is hardly something to be lamented.

True enough, the RGGI system does have flaws (such as its narrow scope limited to electricity generation, and its lack of a simple safety valve, as I have written about in the past).  But the low allowance prices are evidence of a success outside of the RGGI market, not evidence of failure within the RGGI market.

If the RGGI states have the desire and the political will to tighten the cap in the future, then the system can again become binding, environmentally relevant, and cost-effective.  That’s an ongoing political debate.

To be fair, I should note that the same outcome I have described here can be spun – perhaps for political purposes – quite differently.  Recently, a self-described “free-market energy blog” commentator claimed – not without some justification – that RGGI is irrelevant or worse:  “Bottom line, the program has raised electricity prices, created a slush fund for each of the member states, and has had virtually no impact on emissions or on global climate change.”

Phrased differently, due to exogenous circumstances (I’ve described above), the RGGI program is non-binding, and so has no direct effect on emissions, but its relatively low auction reservation price does lead to very small impacts on electricity prices, and produces revenues for participating states, revenues which those states would surely claim are of value for state-level energy-efficiency and other programs that indirectly do affect CO2 emissions.  So, the real bottom line is that low RGGI allowance prices are not a consequence of poor system design or a fatal flaw of cap-and-trade systems in general, but rather a consequence of what are in reality some exogenous coincidences that have turned out to be good news for the environment.

Now, let’s turn to the European Union Emissions Trading Scheme (EU ETS).

EU ETS Allowance Prices

Unlike RGGI, the EU ETS has not been irrelevant.  It has successfully capped European CO2 emissions, achieved significant emissions reductions, and it has done so — more or less — cost-effectively.  (More about this hedging on cost-effectiveness below).  Not surprisingly, like RGGI, the EU ETS has some design flaws (principally, its limited scope – electricity generation and large-scale manufacturing – and lack of a safety-valve), but as with RGGI, its low allowance prices should not be taken as bad news, but to some degree as good news, and certainly not as a sign of failure of the EU ETS.

Hand-wringing in Europe over Low Allowance Prices

There has been much hand-wringing in Europe over the “failure of the system” because of low allowance prices.  Indeed, Danish Energy Minister Martin Lidegaard said earlier this month that low carbon prices threaten the EU ETS.

Of course, he’s correct that EU ETS allowance prices are “low.”  They are down from their historic average of about $20 per ton of CO2 to about $9 per ton currently (having reached an all-time low of $7.88 in early April).  Here’s a graph of EU ETS allowance prices (EUAs) over the crucial period of change, January 2007 to January 2009.

For source, please click here.

At this point in this essay, I probably don’t need to say that this pattern is partly explained by the global recession, which has hit Europe particularly hard (and now threatens a double-dip recession in a number of European nations).  Lower European – and global – demand has meant decreased economic activity in Europe, hence lower energy demand, lower CO2 emissions, and therefore lower demand and lower prices for EU ETS allowances.

Even if we assume a growth rate of European CO2 emissions 1 percent less than the growth rate of GDP (represented by the dotted “counterfactual” BAU line in the graph below, which estimates what emissions would have been from 2005 to 2010 without the introduction of the EU’s Emissions Trading System), the evidence makes clear that the EU ETS has succeeded in reducing emissions significantly below what would be expected from the recession alone.

For source, please click here.

This is where an important caveat needs to be introduced.  Also feeding into this allowance price depression has been a set of national and regional energy policies, such as those promoting use of renewables, which have served to reduce emissions, demand for allowances, and hence allowance prices (while rendering the overall CO2 program less cost-effective by ensuring that marginal abatement costs remain heterogeneous).  So, to the degree that the low allowance prices are due to so-called complimentary policies, the low prices are bad news about public policy (in cost-effectiveness terms), not good news.  But this refers to misguided complimentary policies (which fail to bring about any incremental emissions reductions — under the cap-and-trade umbrella — and drive up aggregate cost), not to any design flaw in the EU ETS itself.

Multiple Goals Typically Require Multiple Policy Instruments

No doubt, Minister Lidegaard is aware of the allowance price impacts of the recession, and I hope he’s aware of the allowance price consequences of these other energy and environmental policies.  The problem arises, however, because he sees the fundamental purpose of the EU ETS as somewhat broader than what I described at the beginning of this essay (namely, achieving emissions consistent with some cap, and doing so cost-effectively – if the cap is binding).  For him – and many other European observers – “the purpose of the ETS was to cap CO2 emissions in the E.U. and ensure clear economic incentives for investment in renewables.”  So, the hand-wringing is not about a failure to achieve emissions reductions cost-effectively, but to have prices high enough to achieve other goals – in this case, greater use of renewable sources of energy.  For others, the “other goals” have involved allowance prices high enough to bring about some targeted amount of technology innovation.

As I have written at this blog in the past, having multiple policy goals typically necessitates multiple policy instruments.  For example, if the goal is a combination of reducing emissions cost-effectively and having prices maintained at some minimum (whether to bring about greater use of renewable energy sources or to inspire more technology innovation), then two policy instruments are needed to do the job:  a cap-and-trade system for the first goal in combination with a carbon tax in the form of a price floor (as in RGGI) for the second goal.

Don’t Throw Out the Baby with the Bath Water

In other words, the EU ETS has not failed, but the design was inadequate (that is, incomplete) for what politicians now seem to want.  If the Europeans want a price floor in their system (or better yet, a price collar, which would combine a price floor with a safety valve, i.e., price ceiling), then this is certainly feasible technically and economically.  Likewise, if the EU member states have the desire and the political will to tighten the cap in the future, there are a variety of ways in which they can accomplish this, rendering the program more stringent and increasing allowances prices.  But, in any event, the European Commission’s Energy division, Environment division, and Climate division should sort out the real effects of the “complimentary policies” that have contaminated the EU ETS, and which fail to bring about additional emissions reductions but drive up costs.  Whether any of this is feasible politically is a question that my European colleagues and friends can best address.

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.

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.