Studying the Real Impacts of Climate Change Policies

Over the past three years, in my podcast series, “Environmental Insights: Discussions on Policy and Practice from the Harvard Environmental Economics Program,” I’ve held conversations with many long-time leaders in the world of environmental economics and policy.  But that has meant, quite naturally, that I have most frequently engaged with people – like me – in the grey-haired set.  So, I was particularly pleased to welcome to my most recent podcast someone who is decidedly younger than most of the people I’ve previously interviewed, but who – I hasten to add – is nevertheless a highly accomplished scholar, a full professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and continues to carry out important research.  I’m referring to Meredith Fowlie, Professor of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Co-Director of the Energy Institute at Haas, at U.C. Berkeley.  In addition, Meredith is a Research Associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research.  The podcast is produced by the Harvard Environmental Economics Program.  You can listen to our complete conversation here.

Fowlie has worked extensively on the economics of energy markets and the environment, with investigations of the real-world applications of market-based environmental regulations, the economics of energy efficiency, the demand-side of energy markets, and energy use in emerging economies. Her work has appeared in the American Economic Review, the Journal of Political Economy, Quarterly Journal of Economics, the Review of Economics and Statistics, and other leading academic periodicals.

She received her B.Sc. degree in International Agriculture and Development from Cornell University in 1997, an M.Sc. in Environmental Economics from Cornell in 2000, and her PhD in Agricultural and Resource Economics from U.C. Berkeley in 2006.  Before joining the faculty at U.C. Berkeley, she was an Assistant Professor of Economics and Public Policy at the University of Michigan.

Meredith is well known for her research on how environmental regulations have worked in practice.  One prominent example is her 2018 QJE paper co-authored with Michael Greenstone and Catherine Wolfram (both previous podcast guests), “Do Energy Efficiency Investments Deliver?: Evidence from the Weatherization Assistance Program,” which examined the efficacy of the federal Weatherization Assistance Program, which works with local energy services providers installing energy efficiency measures.  The research was both important and controversial.

“What we found was that the energy savings were less than half of what engineering projections had anticipated. So, that was a disappointing finding. It just meant that we weren’t getting the savings that the models projected and that the program wasn’t delivering as hoped,” Fowlie remarks. The reason the paper was controversial, she notes, is that the findings did not align with what lawmakers had expected.

Fowlie celebrates the work of her research assistant on that project, Erica Myers, who demonstrated in subsequent research how some relatively simple weatherization program adjustments could have significant upsides.

“[In her research, Myers found] that if you incentivize the workers who are making these improvements on the home, such that their compensation depends partly on the performance, you can significantly increase the effectiveness of those investments. And she has also been able to identify those investments that perform the best in order to help target some of these weatherization investments,” Meredith notes.

As I noted above, the impacts of such government regulation have been the focus of much of Fowlie’s research. In the podcast, she emphasizes that market outcomes often deviate from what is anticipated, because of the unexpected impacts of economic incentives, something policymakers need to pay close attention to when seeking and designing policy solutions to climate change.

“When we think about the industries that are on the front lines of climate change – that’s electricity; it’s natural gas; it’s insurance – a lot of these sectors and firms are subject to [previous] economic regulation. Regulators determine what investments get made, how costs get recovered, what prices get set. And I’m increasingly seeing that less as a bug and more as a feature. We have these economic regulatory tools at our disposal, and if we start thinking about them like climate policy tools, we can actually get a fair bit of leverage out of those tools,” she says. “I’m thinking about how public utility commissions set electricity rates in particular, and thinking about how those regulatory decisions have pretty profound implications for how we mitigate climate change and who pays the price.”

I also asked Meredith Fowlie for her thoughts on the topics of “environmental justice” and “just transition.”

“I’ve been thinking about these elevated concerns in a number of respects. One is, who is paying for climate mitigation and adaptation? These are needed investments, but how we make these investments has some implications for who ends up paying, and sometimes that’s unintentional,” she notes. “Part of my research is thinking about how we’re paying for climate mitigation and adaptation, and who ends up paying the cost. A second concern is cap-and-trade programs and the environmental justice concerns about those programs, particularly in California, and program design changes we could consider making in light of those concerns.”

At the end of our conversation, when we turn to the current youth movements of climate activism, Meredith expresses her admiration for the ways in which they are focusing attention on important issues.

“There’s a sense of urgency among the students I teach that I think is important and I want to encourage.  I have learned a lot talking to them about their concerns and their impatience and their frustration. And I hope they’ve also learned from me about some of my concerns with how they want to move forward and what approaches they want to take,” she stated. “There’s certainly a youthful energy in terms of the level of commitment they’re bringing, but I think it’s going to change the trajectory of many, many youth who are going to have a really profound impact on how we tackle the [climate change] problem in future generations.”

For this and much, much more, I encourage you to listen to this 49th episode of the Environmental Insights series, with future episodes scheduled to drop each month.  You can find a transcript of our conversation at the website of the Harvard Environmental Economics Program.  Previous episodes have featured conversations with:

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


Leading Academic Economist Offers Optimism about Climate Change Policy

Over the past three years, I’ve had the pleasure of engaging in podcast conversations with some truly outstanding scholars who have carried out important research in the realm of environment, energy, and resource economics, and recently was no exception, when my guest was Michael Greenstone, the Milton Friedman Distinguished Service Professor of Economics at the University of Chicago.  You can listen to our conversation in the latest episode of my podcast, “Environmental Insights: Discussions on Policy and Practice from the Harvard Environmental Economics Program.”  Our full conversation is here.

In our conversation, Michael Greenstone talks about his graduate work in economics at Princeton, the path that took him to faculty positions at the University of Chicago, MIT, and then back to Chicago, as well as his time in government during the Obama administration at the Council of Economic Advisers.  In the process, Michael identifies both some high points and low points of his time in government, as well as some of the changes he has seen over the past twenty years in environmental economics scholarship.

When Michael reflects on his time serving as chief economist at the White House Council of Economic Advisers, he describes his work on regulatory policy, in particular trying to find a way to estimate in economic terms the benefits of reducing CO2 emissions.

“So, I had this idea, why shouldn’t the government have a coherent and uniform social cost of carbon? And I suggested it to [then Administrator of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs] Cass Sunstein at lunch one day, and we decided to set off on this journey to set a social cost of carbon for the U.S. government,” he remarks. “And we co-ran an inter-agency process and one thing led to another, and there was a U.S. government social cost of carbon at the end.”

Related to this, in recent years Michael helped launch and now co-leads the Climate Impact Lab at the University of Chicago, which is building a comprehensive body of research quantifying the impacts of climate change.

Interestingly, when I ask him to comment on the explosion of youth climate activism in recent years, although Michael voices some disappointment with young activists who have tried to turn climate change into a moral issue rather than an environmental, technological, and economic one, he notes that the energy and passion that young people have brought to the climate debate has been very effective in making others pay attention to it.

“These youth movements have been incredibly successful, in my view, in raising political consciousness in ways … that cold blooded cost benefit analysis somehow [doesn’t] seem to hit the mark. And I give them a lot of credit for that,” he says. “A second reaction is, I do not think that the right way to confront climate change is by treating it as a moral issue, or as an issue that is beyond economics. I think it’s a really interesting economic question that has all kinds of subtleties, but I do not think that the tools of cost benefit analysis and or economic analysis are inappropriate for climate change.”

Having worked extensively and intensively on climate change in both the scholarly and policy worlds, he voices considerable optimism about where we are now, and what the future is likely to bring.  He points to two trends he feels are most critical for building momentum in climate change policy debates. The first, he says, is that opportunities to leverage technology to reduce CO2 emissions are becoming more realistic as the costs of alternative energy sources continue to fall compared with the costs of fossil fuel sources of energy. The second, he says, is that people are beginning to experience in real time the impacts of climate change.

“I do think a real game changer has been that we can see the fingerprints of climate change now, in ways that we couldn’t 10 or 15 years ago,” he says. “I think the two things that we can see – the fingerprints and that it’s not as economically challenging a bar to jump over – have come together in a reinforcing way, and helped with the youth activism [by underscoring the fact that] we don’t have only infeasible responses.”

For this and much more, I hope you will listen to this 40th episode of the Environmental Insights series, with future episodes scheduled to drop each month.  You can find a transcript of our conversation at the website of the Harvard Environmental Economics Program.  Previous episodes have featured conversations with:

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


Separating Signal from Noise at COP26

                As a follow-up to my recent (admittedly long and nearly comprehensive) essay at this blog about what happened (and didn’t happen) at COP26 in Glasgow, I’m offering today a much briefer Q&A which was conducted by the Harvard Gazette and appeared just yesterday.  It hits the top highlights and gets into a few other issues – such as the role of youth activism – more than I did in my blog post.  Perhaps you’ll find it of interest.

Kris Snibbe/Harvard Staff Photographer

BY Alvin Powell, Harvard Staff Writer

November 17, 2021

At times it was hard to separate the signal from the noise at the United Nations’ Conference of the Parties on climate change, which ended Friday. The meeting, called COP26, featured new global agreements and protests demanding more action, major announcements from the U.S., China, and others, and denouncements from disappointed activists like Greta Thunberg. For an assessment of what was done, and left undone, the Gazette spoke with Rob Stavins, the Harvard Kennedy School’s A.J. Meyer Professor of Energy and Economic Development and head of the Harvard Project on Climate Agreements, who attended his first COP in 2007 in Bali. The interview was edited for clarity and length.

Q&A with Rob Stavins

GAZETTE: John Kerry declared COP26 a success before it was even halfway done. And Greta Thunberg did the opposite, declaring it a failure. Do you agree with one or the other? Or is that the wrong way to look at this?

STAVINS: Looking at it as success or failure is both simplistic and obscures much of the purpose and function of these annual negotiations. This is a marathon, not a sprint. To continue that metaphor: It’s a relay race and the fundamental thing about an individual Conference of the Parties in any given year is that you don’t drop the baton when you pass it off to the next one. And this was a reasonable pass off to the next Conference of the Parties [to be held in Egypt next November].

If we look at it in terms of the ultimate measure for manywe could add up the Nationally Determined Contributions to global emissions reductions in comparison with the Paris Climate Agreement’s 2 degrees centigrade target or its aspirational target of 1.5 degrees C. Before Paris, we were on a trajectory for 3.7 degrees centigrade of warming this century. With the Paris Agreement’s original round of NDCs, we were on a trajectory of 2.7 degrees centigrade — this is all according to Carbon Tracker, which is an accepted institution that people use for this purpose. Then, with the updated NDCs at Glasgow, we could get to 2.4 degrees centigrade. And then, if you add in all of the statements from countries about net zero emissions by the year 2050, as well as private industry statements, we could be at about 1.8 degrees centigrade.

Greta Thunberg looks at that and says it’s all “blah, blah, blah” to her. When others look at it, they say, “Well, we’re certainly moving in the right direction.” My view is that we will have to see how it plays out [in terms of actual emissions reductions, rather than simply targets and aspirations].

GAZETTE: We heard about several different agreements at the COP: the methane agreement, an agreement on deforestation, and the agreement on carbon tariffs between the U.S. and EU. How significant were those agreements?

STAVINS: Some of them are potentially very important. Certainly, the methane agreement is, with 100-plus countries looking at a 30 percent reduction this decade. But remember there are no teeth for enforcement in these side agreementsand they don’t hold the same status as the Paris Agreement.

GAZETTE: Methane is a much stronger greenhouse gas than even carbon dioxide. Do we have a good grasp on how big a part of the overall problem methane is?

STAVINS: If you look over a very short-time horizon, methane is extremely important because its radiative forcing is much, much greater than carbon dioxide while it’s in the atmosphere. But its lag time in the atmosphere is drastically less than carbon dioxide. The way these are usually compared is to look at something like a 100-year time horizon, and then methane, although it’s important, isn’t like carbon dioxide, which is responsible for the lion’s share of the action anthropogenically.

GAZETTE: How about the carbon tariffs agreement between the U.S. and EU, which would level the playing field between nations whose production costs are higher because of steps to address climate change and those that aren’t taking similar action? Is that potentially beneficial to the U.S. steel and other industries in trade with the EU, or is it strictly a climate-related step?

STAVINS: It’s something that could greatly help with climate change because it could lead to a bottom-up coalition of like-minded countries, starting with the European Union and the United States, but with others possibly joining. Politically, it can have legs because the current wave of economic populism in the United States — a little less so in Europe — is highly correlated with a desire for China-bashing. So that approach could find favor in Congress.

GAZETTE: There was talk about the need to get rid of coal, but the final agreement’s language was watered down, for both that and fossil fuel subsidies. What happened?

STAVINS: There were NGOs and delegations that wanted to have language on phasing out coal, and some would surely have wanted it by a specific year. What came out was phasing down — not out — unabated coal, and what that refers to is carbon capture and storage. Symbolically, it’s very important to many people to have statements about coal, but ultimately the Paris Agreement is about reducing emissions, and individual countries will do it however they can.

GAZETTE: Why are they picking on coal? I know coal is the most polluting of the fossil fuels, but in order to reach the goals that we’re talking about, they all need to be addressed, don’t they?

STAVINS: That’s correct, and carbon capture and storage is conceptually part of the ultimate story, both for coal and natural gas, at least as a transition fuel. A general principle in the economics of environment is that performance standards are better than technology standards, because performance standards leave open which technologies are used and which technologies are used will depend upon national circumstance. Of course, carbon-pricing approaches — carbon taxes or cap-and-trade — are potentially even more cost-effective, but the politics are very difficult in the United States.

GAZETTE: How did the negotiations go on Article 6, which provides guidelines on how emissions reduction programs between countries interact? I know that was something you were particularly interested in.

STAVINS: That was the one part of the action in Glasgow that really was negotiations about implementation of the Paris Agreement, because that was the one part of the Rulebook, which hadn’t been completed. It worked out. Some might describe it as a half-full glass of water. I’ll go for three-quarters full.

There are two important parts of Article 6. One is Article 6.4, which is essentially a continuation of the Clean Development Mechanism — an offset system from the days of the Kyoto Protocol. The other is Article 6.2, which is what I was working on, and it is the crucial accounting mechanism for linkages between different countries around the world and their systems to limit emissions. They can establish linkages, and then firms within those countries can carry out trading. This can lower compliance costs tremendously, and thereby facilitate significantly greater ambition. There were two problematic approaches that were being pushed by some countries, and they wound up in 6.4, but not in 6.2. So, I was relieved and pleased with that.

GAZETTE: There was also the question of the $100 billion for developing nations to adapt to the effects of climate change, plus the loss and damage issue. How did they wind up?

STAVINS: On finance, a commitment was made at the Copenhagen COP of $100 billion per year for developing nations, mainly for adaptation, and the payments were supposed to begin in 2020, but there has been a shortfall. By some measures the commitments — not the payments — are up to perhaps $80 billion per year. Obviously, the developing countries want to get that increased. So, there’s language in the decision out of this Conference of the Parties, which is called the Glasgow Climate Pact, that was voted out at the very end and that urges, but does not require, the developed countries to double their commitment.

The loss and damage issue is quite separate, and debates and discussions on that have been going on for a decade. This is about damages that will take place despite adaptation measures. It’s straightforward to think about adaptation actions and their cost, but the cost of damage is much more difficult to measure because damages are due to things like hurricanes and flooding, which are a result of specific weather events, and it’s just not possible to tie every weather event to climate change. There were hurricanes and typhoons long before we had climate change.

So, the concern of the countries that have contributed most to the accumulated stock of greenhouse gases — the United States, the European Union, and China — is that a loss and damage measure would be a prescription for unlimited legal liability for bad weather. On the other hand, if you’re from one of the most vulnerable countries in the world — in particular the small island states — where climate change is not just going to increase costs of adaptation, but is existential, then it’s absolutely essential to have this. So, the most vulnerable countries — and developing countries more broadly — wanted something to be in the Glasgow Climate Pact. In the end, it was blocked by the United States and other countries on the final day of the talks. Instead, they set up a dialog to continue to do research on this and consider it at future conferences of the parties.

GAZETTE: How did U.S. credibility fare? I know that was one of the big issues with the change in administration.

STAVINS: U.S. credibility, from what I could sense, was more or less maintained. It surprised me that there wasn’t more discussion about it, because people are aware of the political problems the Biden administration has domestically in terms of achieving its targets. I think a lot of delegations were thrilled to have the Biden administration in place because they can actually talk with them, as opposed to the Trump administration, with whom they couldn’t even speak. There was also a joint press conference by Senator Kerry and Xie Zhenhua, China’s climate envoy. People felt very good that China and the U.S. would work together again, although it’s far from being a return to the co-leadership that the U.S. and China had during the Obama years.

GAZETTE: Looking more broadly, is there a threshold that to your mind will be a tipping point toward success? I’m thinking of the apparent increased engagement of the business community recently.

STAVINS: I think there are two important elements, and one is indeed the increased attention and activity of the business community. But the other is the presence of young people. It is absolutely clear that young people feel more strongly, by and large, about climate change and actions to address climate change than do older generations. This was clear with the demonstrations in London and in Glasgow and is true around the world. It’s true if you look at people who are of school age in the United States compared with people who were of school age a decade or two earlier. What we don’t know yet, however, is whether this is a cohort effect or an age effect. If it’s an age effect, then, as these people get older and get into positions of authority, their views may mellow. But if it’s a cohort effect, then these young people as they mature are going to change the world. And, if so, they will change the world not by demonstrating outside of the COP, but by being on the inside. Ten years or more from now, by being the delegates inside the COP, today’s youth will have a marvelous opportunity to change the world. Let’s hope they do so.