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The Second Term of the Obama Administration

In his inaugural address on January 21st, President Obama surprised many people – including me – by the intensity and the length of his comments on global climate change.  Since then, there has been a great deal of discussion in the press and in the blogosphere about what climate policy initiatives will be forthcoming from the administration in its second term.

Given all the excitement, let’s first take a look at the transcript of what the President actually said on this topic:

            We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations. Some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science, but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires, and crippling drought, and more powerful storms.  The path towards sustainable energy sources will be long and sometimes difficult. But American cannot resist this transition.  We must lead it.  We cannot cede to other nations the technology that will power new jobs and new industries.  We must claim its promise. That’s how we will maintain our economic vitality and our national treasure, our forests and waterways, our crop lands and snow capped peaks.  That is how we will preserve our planet, commanded to our care by God.

Strong and plentiful words.  Although I was certainly surprised by the strength and length of what the President said in his address, I confess that it did not change my thinking about what we should expect from the second term.  Indeed, I will stand by an interview that was published by the Harvard Kennedy School on its website five days before the inauguration (plus something I wrote in a previous essay at this blog in December, 2012).  Here it is, with a bit of editing to clarify things, and some hyperlinks inserted to help readers.

The Second Term: Robert Stavins on Energy and Environmental Policy

January 16, 2013

By Doug Gavel, Harvard Kennedy School Communications

President Obama’s second term in office began on Inauguration Day, January 21st, and the list of policy challenges facing his administration is daunting. Aside from the difficult task of addressing the nation’s economic woes, the president and his administration will also deal with the increasing complexities of global climate change, a rapidly changing energy market, entitlement and tax reform, healthcare reform, and the repercussions from the still simmering “Arab Spring.” Throughout this month, we will solicit the viewpoints of a variety of HKS faculty members to provide a range of perspectives on the promise and pitfalls of The Second Term.

We spoke with Robert Stavins, Albert Pratt Professor of Business and Government, and Director of the Harvard Environmental Economics Program, about energy and environmental policy issues the president will face in the next four years.

Q: What are the top priorities for a second Obama administration in energy and environmental policy?

A: The Obama administration faces a number of impending challenges in the energy and environmental policy realm in its second term, which I would characterize – in very general terms – as finding balance among three competing factors: (1) demands from some constituencies for more aggressive environmental policies; (2) demands from other constituencies – principally in the Congress – for progress on so-called “energy security;” and (3) recognition that nothing meaningful is likely to happen if the country’s economic problems are not addressed.

Q: What will be the potential challenges/roadblocks in the way of implementing those top priorities?

A: The key challenge the administration faces in its second term as it attempts to achieve some balance among these three competing objectives is the reality of a very high degree of political polarization in the two houses of Congress.

The numbers are dramatic.  For example, when the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990 that established the landmark SO2 allowance trading system were being considered in the U.S. Congress, political support was not divided on partisan lines. Indeed, environmental and energy debates from the 1970s through much of the 1990s typically broke along geographic lines, rather than partisan lines, with key parameters being degree of urbanization and reliance on specific fuel types, such as coal versus natural gas. The Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990 passed the U.S. Senate by a vote of 89-11 with 87 percent of Republican members and 91 percent of Democrats voting yea, and the legislation passed the House of Representatives by a vote of 401-21 with 87 percent of Republicans and 96 percent of Democrats voting in support.

But, 20 years later when climate change legislation was receiving serious consideration in Washington, environmental politics had changed dramatically, with Congressional support for environmental legislation coming mainly to reflect partisan divisions. In 2009, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009 (H.R. 2454), often known as the Waxman-Markey bill, that included an economy-wide cap-and-trade system to cut carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. The Waxman-Markey bill passed by a narrow margin of 219-212, with support from 83 percent of Democrats, but only 4 percent of Republicans. (In July 2010, the U.S. Senate abandoned its attempt to pass companion legislation.) Political polarization in the Congress (and the country) has implications far beyond energy and environmental policy, but it is particularly striking in this realm.

Q: In the Obama administration’s second term, are there openings/possibilities for compromises in those areas?

A: It is conceivable – but in my view, unlikely – that there may be an opening for implicit (not explicit) “climate policy” through a carbon tax. At a minimum, we should ask whether the defeat of cap-and-trade in the U.S. Congress, the virtual unwillingness over the past 18 months of the Obama White House to utter the phrase “cap-and-trade” in public, and the defeat of Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney indicate that there is a new opening for serious consideration of a carbon-tax approach to meaningful CO2 emissions reductions in the United States.

First of all, there surely is such an opening in the policy wonk world. Economists and others in academia, including important Republican economists such as Harvard’s Greg Mankiw and Columbia’s Glenn Hubbard, remain enthusiastic supporters of a national carbon tax. And a much-publicized meeting in July, 2012, at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C. brought together a broad spectrum of Washington groups – ranging from Public Citizen to the R Street Institute – to talk about alternative paths forward for national climate policy. Reportedly, much of the discussion focused on carbon taxes.

Clearly, this “opening” is being embraced with enthusiasm in the policy wonk world. But what about in the real political world? The good news is that a carbon tax is not “cap-and-trade.” That presumably helps with the political messaging! But if conservatives were able to tarnish cap-and-trade as “cap-and-tax,” it surely will be considerably easier to label a tax – as a tax! Also, note that President Obama’s silence extends beyond disdain for cap-and-trade per se. Rather, it covers all carbon-pricing regimes.

So as a possible new front in the climate policy wars, I remain very skeptical that an explicit carbon tax proposal will gain favor in Washington. Note that the only election outcome that could have lead to an aggressive and successful move to a meaningful nationwide carbon pricing regime would have been: the Democrats took back control of the House of Representatives, the Democrats achieved a 60+ vote margin in the Senate, and the President was reelected. Only the last of these happened. It’s not enough.

A more promising possibility – though still unlikely – is that if Republicans and Democrats join to cooperate with the Obama White House to work constructively to address the short-term and long-term budgetary deficits the U.S. government faces, and if as part of this they decide to include not only cuts in government expenditures, but also some significant “revenue enhancements” (the t-word is not allowed), and if (I know, this is getting to be a lot of “ifs”) it turns out to be easier politically to eschew increases in taxes on labor and investment and turn to taxes on consumption, then there could be a political opening for new energy taxes, even a carbon tax.

Such a carbon tax – if intended to help alleviate budget deficits – could not be the economist’s favorite, a revenue-neutral tax swap of cutting distortionary taxes in exchange for implementing a carbon tax. Rather, as a revenue-raising mechanism – like the Obama administration’s February 2009 budget for a 100%-auction of allowances in a cap-and-trade scheme – it would be a new tax, pure and simple. Those who recall the 1993 failure of the Clinton administration’s BTU-tax proposal – with a less polarized and more cooperative Congress than today’s – will not be optimistic.

Nor is it clear that a carbon tax would enjoy more support in budget talks than a value added tax (VAT) or a Federal sales tax. The key question is whether the phrases “climate policy” and “carbon tax” are likely to expand or narrow the coalition of support for an already tough budgetary reconciliation measure.  The key group to bring on board will presumably be conservative Republicans, and it is difficult to picture them being more willing to break their Grover Norquist pledges because it’s for a carbon tax.

What remains most likely to happen is what I’ve been saying for several years, namely that despite the apparent inaction by the Federal government, the official U.S. international commitment — a 17 percent reduction of CO2 emissions below 2005 levels by the year 2020 – is nevertheless likely to be achieved!  The reason is the combination of CO2 regulations which are now in place because of the Supreme Court decision [freeing the EPA to treat CO2 like other pollutants under the Clean Air Act], together with five other regulations or rules on SOX [sulfur compounds], NOX [nitrogen compounds], coal fly ash, particulates, and cooling water withdrawals. All of these will have profound effects on retirement of existing coal-fired electrical generation capacity, investment in new coal, and dispatch of such electricity.

Combined with that is Assembly Bill 32 (AB 32) in the state of California, which includes a CO2 cap-and-trade system that is more ambitious in percentage terms than Waxman-Markey was in the U.S. Congress, and which became binding on January 1, 2013.  Add to that the recent economic recession, which reduced emissions. And more important than any of those are the effects of developing new, unconventional sources of natural gas in the United States on the supply, price, and price trajectory of natural gas, and the consequent dramatic movement that has occurred from coal to natural gas for generating electricity.  In other words, there will be actions having significant implications for climate, but most will not be called “climate policy,” and all will be within the regulatory and executive order domain, not new legislation.

Q: Are there lessons that a second Obama administration can draw upon from the first administration, or from history, when constructing its energy & environmental policy over the next four years?

A: It will take a great deal of dedicated effort and profound luck to find political openings that can bridge the wide partisan divide that exists on climate change policy and other environmental issues. Think about the following. Nearly all our major environmental laws were passed in the wake of highly publicized environmental events or “disasters,” including the spontaneous combustion of the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1969, and the discovery of toxic substances at Love Canal in Niagara Falls, New York, in the mid-1970s. But note that the day after the Cuyahoga River caught on fire, no article in The Cleveland Plain Dealer commented that the cause was uncertain, that rivers periodically catch on fire from natural causes. On the contrary, it was immediately apparent that the cause was waste dumped into the river by adjacent industries. A direct consequence of the observed “disaster” was, of course, the Clean Water Act of 1972.

But climate change is distinctly different. Unlike the environmental threats addressed successfully in past U.S. legislation, climate change is essentially unobservable to the general population. We observe the weather, not the climate.  Notwithstanding last year’s experience with Super Storm Sandy, it remains true that until there is an obvious, sudden, and perhaps cataclysmic event – such as a loss of part of the Antarctic ice sheet leading to a dramatic sea-level rise – it is unlikely that public opinion in the United States will provide the tremendous bottom-up demand that inspired previous congressional action on the environment over the past forty years.

That need not mean that there can be no truly meaningful, economy-wide climate policy (such as carbon-pricing) until disaster has struck.  But it does mean that bottom-up popular demand may not come in time, and that instead what will be required is inspired leadership at the highest level that can somehow bridge the debilitating partisan political divide.

Postscript:  Please note that the Kennedy School series on the second term of the Obama administration also includes an interview with my colleague, Professor Joseph Aldy, offering his own views on potential environmental policy developments in the next four years.

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.

Cap-and-Trade versus the Alternatives for U.S. Climate Policy

Let’s credit Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) for raising questions in the National Journal about the viability of cap-and-trade versus other approaches for the United States to employ in addressing CO2 and other greenhouse gas emissions linked with global climate change.

Senator Murkowski says that only one approach – cap-and-trade – has received significant attention in the Congress.  Let’s put aside for the moment the fact that most of the 1,428 pages of H.R. 2454 – the American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009 (otherwise known as the Waxman-Markey bill) – are not about cap-and-trade at all, but about a host of other regulatory approaches (several of which are highly problematic, as I’ve discussed in a previous post).  We can also put aside the fact that both conventional regulatory approaches and carbon taxes have been discussed repeatedly in numerous House and Senate committees over the past decade, and received detailed attention from a succession of U.S. administrations.

So, let’s not quibble about the Senator’s claim that cap-and-trade is the only approach that has received serious attention.  Instead, let’s address the key substantive questions which Senator Murkowski raises, because they are important questions:  Is cap-and-trade the most effective way of addressing climate change?  And are there other approaches capable of achieving the same results at lower cost?  From my perspective, as a card-carrying environmental economist, these are indeed the key questions.

While political leaders in the European Union, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, and the United States (Congress) move toward cap-and-trade systems as their preferred approach for achieving meaningful reductions in emissions of CO2 and other greenhouse gases, many people – including some of my fellow economists — have been critical of the cap-and-trade approach in the climate context and have endorsed the use of carbon taxes.  The Senator is correct that we should reflect on the merits of that alternative approach.

But, first, what about conventional regulatory approaches, that is, performance standards and technology standards?

Conventional Regulatory Standards

In short, experience has shown that such standards cannot ensure achievement of emissions targets, create problematic unintended consequences, and are very costly for what they achieve.

Why can conventional standard not ensure achievement of reasonable emissions targets?  First, standards typically focus on new emissions sources, and do not address emissions from existing sources.  Think about greenhouse gas standards for new cars and new power plants, for example.  Second, standards cannot possibly address all types of new sources, given the ubiquity of energy generation and use (and hence CO2 emissions) in a modern economy.  Third, emissions depend upon many factors that cannot be addressed by standards, such as:  emissions from existing sources and unregulated new sources; how quickly the existing capital stock is replaced; the growth in the number of new emissions sources; and how intensively emissions-generating plants and equipment are utilized.

Next, what about those unintended consequences?  First, by reducing operating costs, energy-efficiency standards – for example — can cause more intensive use of regulated equipment (for example, air conditioners are run more often), leading to offsetting increases in emissions — the “rebound effect.”  Second, firms and households may delay replacing existing equipment if standards make new equipment more costly.  This is the well-known problem with vintage-differentiated regulations or “New Source Review.”  Third, standards may encourage counterproductive, unintended shifts among regulated activities (for example, from purchasing cars to purchasing SUVs under the CAFE program).  All of these unintended consequences result from the problematic incentives that standards can create, compared with the efficient incentives created by a cap-and-trade system (or a carbon-tax, for that matter).

If you favor a regulatory approach, then you may welcome what’s coming from EPA as a result of the Supreme Court ruling of a few years ago combined with the Administration’s endangerment finding.  For my part, I don’t welcome it; I worry about it, because the set of regulatory approaches that could be forthcoming will accomplish relatively little, do so at an unnecessarily high cost, and hence play into the hands of opponents of progressive climate policy.  (More about that in some other, future post.)

Putting a Price on Carbon

To virtually all participants in the policy world, it has become increasingly clear that the only approach that can do the job and do it cost-effectively is one which involves at its core putting a price on carbon.  That leaves cap-and-trade and carbon taxes.  Let me take these in turn.


Let’s step back from the debate regarding the details of the Waxman-Markey House bill or the new Senate proposal by Senators Boxer and Kerry, and think about the essence of the cap-and-trade approach.  (For some of those details, however, please see my previous posts, where I have commented on various aspects of Waxman-Markey and described a proposal I developed for The Hamilton Project of an up-stream, economy-wide CO2 cap-and-trade system to cost-effectively achieve meaningful greenhouse gas emissions reductions.)

Here are the basics.  First, aggregate emissions from regulated sources are capped, and the cap is enforced through a requirement for affected firms to hold emissions allowances.  Importantly, allowance trading minimizes costs of meeting the cap.  It does this because allowances migrate to the highest-valued uses, covering emissions that are the most costly to reduce.  So, the emission reductions undertaken are those that are least costly to achieve.  In essence, the uniform market price of allowances creates incentives for all covered sources to reduce all emissions, and do so cost-effectively.

A cap-and-trade system can be more environmentally-effective and more cost-effective than standards.  First, in terms of environmental-effectiveness, a cap-and-trade system can ensure achievement of emissions targets.  Cap-and-trade allows policymakers to set specific overall emissions targets.  And a well-enforced system guarantees achievement of those targets, because emissions will not exceed available allowances.  An economy-wide, upstream cap-and-trade system on the carbon content of fossil fuels can cover all fossil-fuel-related CO2 emissions without needing to regulate each emissions source individually.

In terms of cost-effectiveness, a well-designed cap-and-trade system minimizes emission reduction costs.  Unlike NOx, SO2, and other pollutants, GHG emission reductions have the same effect no matter how, where, or when they are achieved.  This makes the climate change problem unique in the degree to which compliance flexibility can be used to lower costs without compromising environmental integrity.  Hence, a cap-and-trade system can minimize costs while still meeting environmental objectives by offering three forms of flexibility: what flexibility; where flexibility; and when flexibility.

In regard to “what flexibility,” many types of actions offer low-cost emission reductions, and a cap-and-trade system allows emission reductions through whatever measures are least costly.  By contrast, standards can target only certain identified emission reduction measures, leaving other cost-effective opportunities untapped.  Furthermore, predictions of what measures are cost-effective may be wrong.

In regard to “where flexibility,” the costs of emission reductions vary widely across industries, across facilities, and even across users of the same equipment.  A cap-and-trade system exploits this variation in costs by achieving reductions wherever they are least costly.  By contrast, standards would only be cost-effective if they accounted for all of the variation in costs across sectors, technologies, and regulated entities — but it is completely infeasible for standards to do this.  Emission reduction costs across sectors and technologies change over time, making the flexibility offered by a cap-and-trade system even more valuable.  Also, lower-cost opportunities to reduce emissions may exist in other countries.  Importantly, a cap-and-trade system creates a common currency (emissions allowances) that makes it possible to link with other systems.

A cap-and-trade system also minimizes costs through “when flexibility.”  Costs can be reduced through flexibility in the timing of emission reductions by avoiding:  premature retirement of capital stock or lock-in of existing technologies; and unnecessarily costly reductions in one year due to unusual circumstances when less-costly offsetting reductions can be achieved in other years.  A cap-and-trade can incorporate “when flexibility”
without compromising cumulative emissions targets through: allowance banking and borrowing; and multi-year compliance periods.

Beyond such “static cost-effectiveness,” cap-and-trade creates incentives for technology innovation, and thereby lowers long-run costs.  By rewarding any means of reducing emissions, a cap-and-trade system provides broad incentives for any innovations that lower the cost of achieving emissions targets.  Although standards may encourage development of lower cost means of meeting the standards’ specific requirements, they do not encourage efforts to exceed those standards.

Several cap-and-trade systems have been successful at achieving environmental goals and cost savings:  the phase-out of leaded gasoline in the 1980s; the phase-out of ozone depleting substances; and the Clean Air Act amendments of 1990 SO2 allowance trading program to cut acid rain by 50%.  Perceived shortcomings in other cap-and-trade systems reflect design choices, not problems with the policy instrument itself.  This applies both to California’s RECLAIM program, and the pilot phase of the EU Emissions Trading Scheme (which is operating successfully in its real, Kyoto phase).

In summary, compared with conventional standards, a cap-and-trade system can be more environmentally-effective and more cost-effective.  As with any policy instrument, however, careful design is important.

Taxing Carbon

As I mentioned, it is clear that the only approach that can do the job and do it cost-effectively is one that involves putting a price on carbon.  So, what about the other carbon-pricing approach — a carbon tax?

I am by no means opposed to the notion of a carbon tax, having written about such approaches for more than twenty years.  Indeed, both cap-and-trade and carbon taxes are good approaches to the problem; they have many similarities, some tradeoffs, and a few key differences.   I am opposed, however, to the confused and misleading straw-man arguments that have sometimes been used against cap-and-trade by carbon-tax proponents.

While there are tradeoffs between these two principal market-based instruments targeting CO2 emissions — a cap-and-trade system and a carbon tax – the best (and most likely) approach for the short to medium term in the United States is a cap-and-trade system.  I say this based on three criteria:  environmental effectiveness, cost effectiveness, and distributional equity.  So, my position is not capitulation to politics.  On the other hand, sound assessments of environmental effectiveness, cost effectiveness, and distributional equity should surely be made in the real-world political context.

The key merits of the cap-and-trade approach I have described above are, first, the program can provide cost-effectiveness, while achieving meaningful reductions in greenhouse gas emissions levels.  Second, it offers an easy means of compensating for the inevitably unequal burdens imposed by a climate policy.  Third, it provides a straightforward means to harmonize with other countries’ climate policies.  Fourth, it avoids the current political aversion in the United States to taxes.  Fifth, it is unlikely to be degraded – in terms of its environmental performance and cost effectiveness – by political forces. And sixth, this approach has a history of successful adoption and implementation in this country over the past two decades.

Having said this, there are some real differences between taxes and cap-and-trade that need to be recognized.  First, environmental effectiveness:  a tax does not guarantee achievement of an emissions target, but it does provides greater certainty regarding costs.  This is a fundamental tradeoff.  Taxes provide automatic temporal flexibility, which needs to be built into a cap-and-trade system through provision for banking, borrowing, and possibly a cost-containment mechanism.  On the other hand, political economy forces strongly point to less severe targets if carbon taxes are used, rather than cap-and-trade – this is not a tradeoff, and this is why environmental NGOs are opposed to the carbon-tax approach.

In principle, both carbon taxes and cap-and-trade can achieve cost-effective reductions, and – depending upon design — the distributional consequences of the two approaches can be the same.  But the key difference is that political pressures on a carbon tax system will most likely lead to exemptions of sectors and firms, which reduces environmental effectiveness and drives up costs, as some low-cost emission reduction opportunities are left off the table.  But political pressures on a cap-and-trade system lead to different allocations of allowances, which affect distribution, but not environmental effectives, and not cost-effectiveness.

Proponents of carbon taxes worry about the propensity of political processes under a cap-and-trade system to compensate sectors through free allowance allocations, but a carbon tax is sensitive to the same political pressures, and may be expected to succumb in ways that are ultimately more harmful:  reducing environmental achievement and driving up costs.

The Bottom Line

The Hamilton Project staff concluded in an overview paper (which I highly recommend) that a well-designed carbon tax and a well-designed cap-and-trade system would have similar economic effects.  Hence, they said, the two primary questions to use in deciding between them should be:  which is more politically feasible; and which is more likely to be well-designed?

The answer to the first question is obvious; and I have argued here that given real-world political forces, the answer to the second question also favors cap-and-trade.  In other words, it is important to identify and design policy that will be “optimal in Washington,” not just from the perspective of Cambridge, New Haven, or Berkeley.

In “policy heaven,” the optimal instrument to address climate-change emissions may well be a carbon tax (largely because of its simplicity), but in the real world in which policy is developed and implemented, cap-and-trade is the best approach if one is serious about addressing the threat of climate change with meaningful, effective, and cost-effective policies.