Prospects for Climate Policy under the Incoming Biden Administration

It is now more than two weeks since the November 3rd U.S. election, and 12 days since the Biden-Harris ticket was declared the victor in the electoral college by all of the major news media, but President Trump still refuses to concede, citing (totally discredited) claims that the election was stolen from him by widespread voting fraud.  While litigation continues, as well as the war of words, in my most recent podcast, recorded yesterday and released today, we examine the implications of the Presidential and the Congressional elections for climate change policy – both domestic and international.

            Usually in my podcast – “Environmental Insights: Discussions on Policy and Practice from the Harvard Environmental Economics Program – I talk with well-informed people from academia, government, industry, or NGOs.  But, as I wrote in my blog last week, I worry that advocates and other well-informed people may engage in wishful thinking when making predictions about the next administration’s future climate policy initiatives.  It is better for this purpose that I engage with people who are knowledgeable and make it their business to examine such questions objectively – I’m talking about practicing journalists, and not ones from the opinion pages, but rather reporters.

            I was therefore delighted to welcome someone whom I greatly respect and with whom I have had the pleasure of working – from my perch in academia – for many years, Coral Davenport, who covers energy and environmental policy for The New York Times from the newspaper’s Washington bureau. You can hear our complete conversation here.

Coral Davenport joined the New York Times in 2013, having first covered environment for Congressional Quarterly, then Politico, and then the National Journal, which is where she was when she and I first spoke.  I should note that she began her ascendency in the profession of journalism at the Daily Hampshire Gazette in Hampshire County, Massachusetts, fresh out of Smith College.

Our conversation in the podcast is wide-ranging and nearly comprehensive on the prognosis for climate change policy during the next two to four years, including:  how the climate issue may have affected the election outcome; the international dimensions of climate change policy, including the Paris Agreement; the outlook for major climate legislation in the Congress; other, non-climate legislation that can have significant impacts on greenhouse gas emissions, such as economic stimulus packages and infrastructure bills; and regulatory approaches to climate change, including executive orders (Oval Office directives) and rulemaking, as well as the court challenges they may face.  That is a great deal of territory, but all of it is covered!

At the outset of our conversation, Coral Davenport credits President-elect Biden with tapping into voter sentiment on climate change, and using it to his advantage during the campaign.

“This is the first presidential election with climate change emerging as a top-tier issue, and a lot of that was because Biden as a candidate chose to do that. He chose to bring it up in a way that no other candidate ever has,” she says. “It’s clear that the political calculus had changed on that [issue] and campaign advisers saw it as something that would at least not drive away voters, and could attract and excite other voters.”

Despite the Biden victory, Coral expresses skepticism that the new administration will muster the support that it needs, both from the left and the right, to pass meaningful energy and climate legislation in the near-term.  She notes, however, that the president is expected to re-commit the United States to the Paris Agreement immediately, which will be one step toward reestablishing U.S. credibility on the issue.

“The U.S. has a long way to go to build back its credibility on the world stage on climate, and I think that the Biden Administration will be received with open arms in the international climate community,” she says. “The Biden Administration, I know from interviewing people on the transition [team] and during the campaign, anticipates from day one starting to move forward aggressively with executive authority to put back in place at least some of the big climate regulations that the Trump Administration rolled back.”  

For example, she cites the incoming administration’s likely move to reinstate aggressive vehicle fuel economy standards, which were scaled back by the Trump Administration.

“Trump didn’t eliminate it, but he rolled it so far back that essentially he basically canceled it out.  We do expect to see a Biden Administration come in and reinstate it very quickly, probably with some new stronger terms. That one is actually pretty straightforward. The federal government has imposed fuel economy standards for decades. And I don’t think it’s ever been questioned that it has the legal authority to do that.”

Coral also expresses some cautious optimism that Congress might agree on a Clean Energy Standard, which would mandate a percentage of zero-carbon sources in the U.S. electricity grid, and for the possibility of green energy components to be folded into a COVID-19 economic relief package and an infrastructure funding bill.

All of this and much more is found in the latest episode of “Environmental Insights: Discussions on Policy and Practice from the Harvard Environmental Economics Program.”  I hope you will listen to this latest discussion here.  You can find a complete transcript of our conversation at the website of the Harvard Environmental Economics Program.

My conversation with Coral Davenport is the 17th episode in the Environmental Insights series, with future episodes scheduled to drop each month.  Previous episodes have featured conversations with:

“Environmental Insights” is hosted on SoundCloud, and is also available on iTunes, Pocket Casts, Spotify, and Stitcher.


Fifty Years of Policy Evolution under the Clean Air Act

Fifty years ago, in 1970, the first Earth Day was celebrated, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was established, and the U.S. Clean Air Act was passed.  Much has transpired with air pollution policy in the United States since that time.  Given the current state of Federal clean air policy in this country, it may be helpful to reflect on these fifty years of policy evolution, which is what Richard Schmalensee (of the MIT Sloan School of Management) and I do in a new article that appears in the Journal of Economic Perspectives (Volume 33, Issue 4, Fall 2019), “Policy Evolution under the Clean Air Act.”  I hope this brief essay will stimulate you to download and read the full article.

Setting the Stage

In the article, Professor Schmalensee and I review and assess the evolution of air pollution control policy under the Clean Air Act with particular attention to the types of policy instruments used.  After outlining key provisions of the 1970 act and its main changes over time, we trace and assess the historical evolution of the policy instruments used by EPA in its clean air regulations.  This evolution was sometimes driven by the emergence of new air quality problems, sometimes by innovation and experimentation within EPA, and sometimes by changes in the Clean Air Act itself.

It is striking that until about 2000, EPA made increasing use of market-based instruments, enabled by major amendments to the Act in 1977 and 1990, which passed with overwhelming bipartisan support. In recent years, however, environmental policy has become a partisan battleground in the United States, and until now, it has not been possible to provide an effective response to climate change or to address other new and evolving air quality problems.

Policy Instruments Used under the Clean Air Act

Three major types of policy instruments have been employed under the authority of the Clean Air Act:  technology standards, which specify the equipment or process to be used for compliance; performance standards, which specify the maximum quantity of emissions or maximum atmospheric concentrations that are allowed; and emissions trading systems, either in the form of emissions-reduction credit (offset) systems or cap-and-trade. In addition, taxes have sometimes been employed, although their use under the Clean Air Act has been peripheral.

The Evolution of Air Quality Policy Instruments

Under the 1970 Clean Air Act, all federal air pollution regulation involved either technology standards or performance standards.  At that time, some environmental advocates argued that facilitating greater flexibility through tradable emission rights would inappropriately legitimize environmental degradation, while others questioned the very feasibility of such an approach.  But over time, as the Clean Air Act was amended and as its interpretation by EPA evolved, air pollution regulation evolved from sole reliance on conventional, command-and-control regulations to greater use of emissions trading.

In the article, we examine EPA’s early experiments with emissions trading in the 1970s, and then turn to the leaded gasoline phasedown in the 1980s, implemented via a tradable performance standard by the Reagan administration.  We also take a look at the U.S. approach to complying with the Montreal Protocol for stratospheric ozone protection, which involved both an excise tax and a trading system.

Next up in our review and assessment is the path-breaking sulfur dioxide allowance trading program, under the Clean Air Act amendments of 1990.  We also examine several regional programs that were executed under the authority of the Clean Air Act, including the Regional Clean Air Incentives Market (RECLAIM) in southern California, NOx trading in the eastern United States, and the NOx budget trading program.

To bring this up to date, Dick Schmalensee and I also examine climate change policies, including those of the Obama administration, as well as those of the current, Trump administration.


We conclude that the supporters of the 1970 Clean Air Act, who no doubt hoped that it would produce major environmental benefits, would be pleased that despite the fact that real U.S. GDP more than tripled between 1970 and 2017, aggregate emissions of the six criteria pollutants declined by 73 percent.

On the other hand, the original supporters of the 1970 Clean Air Act might be quite surprised by some aspects of the evolution of clean air regulation under the Act.  For example, it is difficult to imagine that any of the supporters of the 24-page 1970 Act would have predicted how complex air pollution regulation would become over the subsequent half century. And we suspect that the evolution toward more intensive use of market-based environmental policy would also have been a surprise to those involved in passage of the 1970 Clean Air Act.

However, those involved in the bipartisan passage of the 1970 Clean Air Act would likely be disappointed that environmental policy has become a partisan battleground. It has become impossible to amend the Clean Air Act or to pass other legislation to address climate change in a serious and economically sensible manner.

The Path Ahead

In the final part of the article, we note that an implication of these five decades of experience may be that policies to address climate change and other new environmental problems should be designed in ways that make them more acceptable in the real world of politics. This could mean, for example, giving greater attention to suboptimal, second-best designs of carbon-pricing regimes, such as by earmarking revenues from taxes or allowance auctions to finance additional climate mitigation, rather than optimizing the system via cuts in distortionary taxes, or using such revenues for fairness purposes, such as with lump-sum rebates or rebates targeted to low income and other particularly burdened constituencies.

Economists might also be more effective by sometimes working to catch up with the political world by examining better design of second-best non-pricing climate policy instruments, such as clean energy standards, subsidies for green technologies, and other approaches. At some point the politics may change, of course, which is why ongoing economic research on climate policy instruments of all kinds is important.


California’s Crude Oil Production and its Climate Change Policies

California is among the most aggressive jurisdictions in the world in its pursuit of public policies to reduce its emissions of greenhouse gases (GHGs), linked with climate change. At a time when the Trump administration in Washington is working to reverse the Obama administration’s climate policy achievements, California and other sub-national entities are taking the lead in the development and implementation of meaningful domestic policies to mitigate the impact of human activity on the climate.

At the same time, California is a producer of crude oil.  Is this inconsistent, or even counter-productive?  In a recent report, advocates have criticized Governor Jerry Brown, and proposed a ban on crude oil production within the State, in furtherance of California’s climate policies.  The thinking goes, crude oil production leads to environmental impacts, so how can it be allowed?

The logic is flawed, and the prohibition – if adopted – would impose tremendous costs on the State with little or no environmental benefit.  As California has developed its climate policies, the need to balance the benefits of these policies with their economic and human consequences has always been a challenging issue.  Achieving aggressive climate goals will not be cheap, so designing sensible, effective policies is critical.  Simply adopting any and all restrictions that might achieve some emission reductions would unnecessarily raise the human cost of limiting GHG emissions.  This is no doubt obvious to some readers of this blog, but for others, let me explain.

At its heart, the climate problem arises because of CO2 emissions associated with the use of energy and related services.  We heat our homes in the winter and cool them in the summer using electricity and natural gas.  We use gasoline to get to work and take vacations.  As each country or state – including California – tries to reduce its GHG emissions, the policies and regulations adopted to achieve this end nearly always target the activities that lead to GHG emissions – the generation of electricity, the use of transportation, and the heating of living spaces.

The proposed ban on crude oil extraction would flip this on its head, focusing instead on the supply of a fossil fuel.  But the simple reality is that the sources of fossil fuel supply are so ubiquitous that crude oil from other regions of the world will replace supplies from California, if California chose not to supply its own on-going needs.  Oil and gas used to heat homes and to power vehicles comes not only from California, but from most every region of the globe.  Many of these regions have expanding supplies of crude oil due to technological improvements, including the Bakken shale of North Dakota, and vast supplies available with relatively little effort, such as in the Middle East.

Advocates claim that reduction of California crude oil production would reduce global consumption of crude – a claim of questionable validity.  But that is not even the right question.  There are many things that can be done to reduce GHG emissions, and a sensible, affordable, and sustainable policy will be one that achieves reductions at the lowest cost.  Even if restricting California’s oil production might reduce global crude consumption, California would certainly bear all of the economic consequences of this policy, as the state would then rely solely on crude oil imports.

In fact, a restriction on California’s crude production is unlikely to reduce GHG emissions within California. The State’s total GHG emissions are limited by the cap of California’s GHG cap-and-trade system.  The most a restriction on California’s crude production can do is to increase costs, while achieving little or no incremental improvement in GHG emissions.

Moreover, supply-side restrictions can limit technological progress that can have very positive economic and environmental consequences.  The same advocates oppose shale “fracking,” but the innovative combination of hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling has led both to tremendous economic benefits by expanding supplies of low-cost domestic energy and reducing energy imports, and to environmental benefits by allowing lower-carbon natural gas to displace higher-carbon coal in the generation of electricity across the United States.

By focusing on policies aimed at achieving the appropriate policy goal of reducing GHG emissions – rather than trying to choose winners and losers among technologies and energy sources used to achieve those goals – California can achieve its climate policy goals in ways that are environmentally effective, economically sensible, and ultimately sustainable.  In my view, Governor Brown merits compliments rather than criticism for California’s progressive environmental and energy policies.


In the past, I have periodically advised the Western States Petroleum Association (WSPA), although on a very different issue, namely the design of California’s CO2 cap-and-trade system.  That was about two years ago, and neither WSPA nor any of its member companies are aware of my writing this essay.  As always in this blog, I am expressing my personal views, and not speaking on behalf of any of the institutions, organizations, or firms with which I am or have been associated.