The Path Ahead for U.S. Climate Change Policy

It is clear that the Biden Administration is devoting substantial attention to addressing climate change, certainly in comparison with the previous Trump administration, but there is a long road ahead for the development of substantive domestic policies to reduce greenhouse gas (GHGs) emissions. That is one of the messages that emerges most clearly from the most recent webinar in our series, Conversations on Climate Change and Energy Policy, sponsored by the Harvard Project on Climate Agreements (HPCA).   A video recording (and transcript) of the entire webinar is available here.

As you know, in this webinar series we feature leading authorities on climate change policy, whether from academia, the private sector, NGOs, or government.  In this most recent Conversation, I was fortunate to engage with someone who has solid experience in at least three of these sectors – academia, government, and the NGO community.  I’m talking about Nathaniel (Nat) Keohane, my former student, co-author, and friend.

Nat Keohane is Senior Vice President for Climate at the Environmental Defense Fund.  In the Obama administration, from 2001 to 2012, he served as Special Assistant to the President for Energy and Environment, and before that, he was Chief Economist at EDF.  Going back a bit further, he was an Associate Professor at the Yale School of Management, and before that, he earned his PhD degree in Political Economy & Government at Harvard University, and his BA degree in History and Environmental Studies at Yale University.

Our wide-ranging conversation took place just one week after the Biden administration’s Earth Day Climate Summit (April 22-23), and so it was a very good time to talk about the newly-announced U.S. pledge – its Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) under the Paris Agreement – and about how the target in the NDC, a 50-52% percent reduction of U.S. greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions below the 2005 level by the year 2030, might be accomplished. 

More broadly, Nat Keohane shares his insights on both the science and the politics affecting climate policy, and his hopes for the upcoming UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) Conference of the Parties (COP-26), scheduled for November in Glasgow, Scotland.

“President Biden and his team hit the ground running immediately,” Keohane says, referring to the administration’s move to reenter the Paris Agreement on January 20th. “But there’s still a fair amount of skepticism in the rest of the world…and [there is] a need for the U.S. to demonstrate that it’s serious [about its commitment to climate policy].”

Keohane goes on to suggest that the ambitious new U.S. NDC will serve to incentivize other large emitters to increase the ambition of their pledges prior to the upcoming COP.  Both Canada and Japan have already done so, Keohane notes, and there are hopes that China, India, and Brazil may follow suit if US Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry is successful in his climate diplomacy efforts with foreign leaders.

Here at home, Nat acknowledges that the Biden Administration faces an uphill battle passing significant climate legislation, but he argues that it can take very meaningful steps forward by regulating methane gas emissions, increasing investment in green technologies, and eventually building public support for a national carbon price, which would both stabilize GHG emissions and raise revenues.

“If we are going to really address climate change and reduce CO2 emissions at the scale and scope and pace that we need to, both to solve the climate problem and to meet the President’s [GHG reduction] target … the best way to do it would include some sort of limit and price on carbon pollution across the economy.”

Keohane is very aware that the “the politics of a carbon price on Capitol Hill are challenging,” but he believes that a carbon-pricing approach could be sold to the American people as a way to raise significant revenues, as much as a quarter of a trillion dollars a year. “That’s a lot of money, and there aren’t a lot of other sources of revenue that come up with 250 billion dollars,” he says.

A carbon border adjustment – an import fee levied by countries with ambitious climate policies on goods manufactured in countries with no or less ambitious climate policies – is a controversial proposal that many countries and regions, including the European Union, are seriously considering (and in the case of the EU, moving to implement).  Keohane calls it a “blunt force instrument … used to ideally help create incentives for other countries to act and to increase their ambition … but I don’t think we should think of it as a fine-tuned way to establish a carbon price that fairly addresses the carbon content of imported goods.”

As nations around the world prepare for COP-26 (assuming it does take place), Keohane expresses his hope that the U.S. will continue to leverage bilateral negotiations to encourage other large countries, particularly China, to increase their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) before arriving in Glasgow.  But, interestingly, Keohane also argues that climate leaders need to rethink the role of the COP moving forward.

“I don’t know exactly what that looks like. Maybe it involves more engagement among countries with best-practice sharing. Maybe it involves bringing in civil society or businesses to talk about implementation, but we need to think creatively,” he remarks. “Rather than have the object of every COP be some negotiated text in a world in which we’ve got the text … what we need is implementation.”

All of this and much more can be seen and heard in our full Conversation here.  I hope you will check it out.

Previous episodes in this series – Conversations on Climate Change and Energy Policy – have featured Meghan O’Sullivan’s thoughts on Geopolitics and Upheaval in Oil Markets, Jake Werksman’s assessment of the European Union’s Green New Deal, Rachel Kyte’s examination of “Using the Pandemic Recovery to Spur the Clean Transition,” Joseph Stiglitz’s reflections on “Carbon Pricing, the COVID-19 Pandemic, and Green Economic Recovery,” Joe Aldy describing “Lessons from Experience for Greening an Economic Stimulus,” Jason Bordoff commenting on “Prospects for Energy and Climate Change Policy under the New U.S. Administration,” and Ottmar Edenhofer talking about “The Future of European Climate Change Policy.”

Watch for an announcement about our next webinar. You will be able to register in advance for the event on the website of the Harvard Project on Climate Agreements.  

Share

History May Convey Some Hope for Biden’s Climate Agenda

Before launching into unbridled enthusiasm about the implications for environmental policies of the change from Trump to Biden, it can be helpful to place this change into some historical context.  Someone who is exceptionally well qualified to do this is my guest in the latest episode of my podcast, released today – Daniel Esty, who held a variety of senior roles in the George H.W. Bush (Bush 41) administration, and has been a close observer – and sometime consultant – on environmental policies of the four subsequent Presidential administrations.  You can hear our complete conversation in the Podcast here.

In these podcasts – “Environmental Insights: Discussions on Policy and Practice from the Harvard Environmental Economics Program – I talk with well-informed people from academia, government, industry, and NGOs.  Dan Esty certainly belongs in this group, as he has occupied positions in two of these sectors, and has worked with all four!  Currently, he is the Hillhouse Professor at Yale University, with primary appointments at the Environment School and the Law School.  I’m pleased to say that he and I are both proud, long-time members of the Board of Directors of Resources for the Future, the Washington-based think tank.  Dan is the co-author with Todd Cort of a new book, Values at Work: Sustainable Investing and ESG Reporting.

Early in our conversation, Dan Esty reflects on his time in government, and recalls the high degree of bipartisanship that characterized voting in the U.S. Congress 30 years ago on the path-breaking Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990, when 96% of Democrats and 87% of Republicans in the House of Representatives voted in support (in the Senate, 91% of Ds and 87% of Rs voted in the affirmative).  This stands in sharp contrast with voting in 2009 on the Waxman-Markey climate legislation, which had support from 83% of Democrats and 4% of Republicans!

In regard to the recent presidential transition, Dan comments that he was disturbed by the ease with which the Trump Administration rolled back environmental policies, but is heartened by the change of leadership in Washington and the course that the new administration is charting.

“I’m excited about having a commitment across the administration to good science, good data, and good analysis. And, frankly, the elevation of the White House Science Advisor to Cabinet-level status is a signal of that, and an important one, that…science is back, and we’re going to build on the best evidence we can establish, and drive policy from there,” he says.

Esty commends President Biden for many of his high-level appointments, including John Kerry as climate envoy, Gina McCarthy as domestic climate change czar, Jennifer Granholm as Secretary of Energy, Pete Buttigieg as Secretary of Transportation, and Michael Regan as Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency. Kerry in particular, Esty notes, can play a critical role in helping rally international support for climate policy as the U.N. Conference of the Parties prepares to hold its next annual meeting, this November in Glasgow, Scotland.

“There’ll be a big push as we approach that November gathering in Scotland to really have countries demonstrate renewed commitment and increased ambition to speed up the pace at which de-carbonization takes place,” Esty says. “We’re not going to renegotiate the Paris agreement, but I think John Kerry is the one who could say, the U.S. is back in this agreement, serious of purpose in terms of its own strategy for emissions reduction, and he will be able to tell that story with conviction to the leaders across the world.”

Dan is cautiously hopeful that the new administration will deploy a bipartisan approach to domestic climate policy as it lays the foundation for the transition to a clean energy economy in the United States.

“There is a hope, but I know that it’s a tough moment, that we might get back to a time, perhaps not this year or next, but at some point soon, when more of the agenda does move on a bipartisan basis.  I think we’re going to need to see a new tool box, a new set of approaches to the strategy of moving to clean energy, and I’m excited about that because I think it offers the promise, not the certainty, but the possibility of bringing together a broader coalition across party lines.”

Dan’s hope is commendable, and given the current state of political polarization in the U.S. Congress, he recognizes that it will require some truly inspired and highly creative proposals from the new administration to bridge the divide that exists.

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 Professor Esty is the 20th 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.

Share

The Future of European Climate Change Policy

In my previous blog post, on January 14th, I offered my personal views regarding “International Climate Change Policy & Action in the Biden Administration.”  Today, I’m pleased to turn to a parallel assessment of future European climate change policy by Ottmar Edenhofer, a greatly-accomplished German economist, admired by academics, as well as leaders in government, industry, and non-governmental organizations.

Professor Edenhofer’s presentation, “The European Green Deal – Reform or Regulatory Tsunami?” and our subsequent discussion is the most recent webinar in our series, Conversations on Climate Change and Energy Policy, sponsored by the Harvard Project on Climate Agreements (HPCA).  As you know, in this webinar series we feature leading authorities on climate change policy, whether from academia, the private sector, NGOs, or government.  A video recording (and transcript) of the entire webinar is available here.

Ottmar Edenhofer is Professor of Economics at the Technical University of Berlin, the Founding Director of the Mercator Research Institute on Global Commons and Climate Change, and Co-Director and Chief Economist of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research.  He has been a major contributor to scholarship on the economics of energy and climate change, and served as Co-Chair of Working Group III of Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, where I had the pleasure of working under his leadership.  He is a key advisor of the German Government, as well as the European Union.  He holds a Ph.D. in economics and a B.A. degree in philosophy (a pairing of degrees which –  I’m delighted to say – he and I share).

In his presentation and the discussion that follows, Ottmar Edenhofer offers a frank assessment of the European Green Deal’s potential to significantly address the impacts of global climate change. 

“It’s a very good time to talk about the European Green Deal because now the prospects that United States and Europe could work closer together on climate change or climate policy and energy policy are very good,” Ottmar notes, referring to the change in U.S. administrations and recent remarks by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen reaffirming the European Union’s (EU’s) intent to reduce its target for emission reductions from 40 percent to 55 percent by the year 2030 and to achieve net carbon neutrality by the year 2050.

Calling it a “huge task,” Edenhofer outlines the actions that would need to occur to achieve such ambitious goals, including enhanced efforts to decarbonize the power sector, accelerated electrification for end-users, increased investments in bio-energy and semi-synthetic fuels, and advancements in carbon dioxide removal technologies. Using the EU’s climate policy impact assessment as a framework, he walks us through three different policy scenarios, ranging from one that relies heavily on regulation to one structured primarily around carbon pricing.

Characterizing the heavily regulatory approach as a “high-risk scenario,” he instead promotes the idea of an “intermediate step” in a which a mix of policy measures and carbon pricing are deployed to move toward the goal of a 55-percent carbon emissions reduction, and toward a longer-term strategy of using carbon pricing alone as the primary driver in CO2 reduction efforts.

“The crucial question therefore is, how can we design this intermediate step, and this is really the most important debate around this reform proposal,” he says, noting that several issues would need to be addressed.  “The intermediate step has to address the distributional issues and guarantee the stability and manage the political economy challenge between the sectors.”

Professor Edenhofer suggests that the intermediate step that may gain the political support necessary to succeed would be one that would allow for two separate emissions trading systems – one for the energy and industry sector, and the other for transportation and buildings.

“Meanwhile we could define gateways between these two systems. “Creating such gateways might have a two-fold effect – the first one is that market participants already anticipate that there are gateways and they anticipate these enterprise expectations, and this could lead to a convergence of the different prices across the sectors. And secondly, this is a starting point to manage the division of labor among the sectors, and this could be a credible pathway toward a carbon-price scenario when we have one ETS with one credible CO2 price scenario.”

In his presentation, Edenhofer also acknowledges the role that fiscal federalism could play in affecting the future direction of climate policy in Europe. While arguing that carbon pricing could generate roughly 800 billion euros between now and 2050, he notes that the funding base would shrink over time as emissions decrease, and therefore would not serve as a stable revenue source.  He has answers for this challenge as well.

After his presentation, Professor Edenhofer responds to questions from the virtual audience of more than 200 people. One question focuses on the impact of the new Biden-Harris Administration in Washington on global efforts to address climate change.

“The good thing is they are back in the Paris Agreement.  The announcement alone that the U.S. is committed has already helped.”

All of this and much more can be seen and heard in the full webinar here.  I hope you will check it out.

Previous webinars in this series – Conversations on Climate Change and Energy Policy – have featured Meghan O’Sullivan’s thoughts on Geopolitics and Upheaval in Oil Markets, Jake Werksman’s assessment of the European Union’s Green New Deal, Rachel Kyte’s examination of “Using the Pandemic Recovery to Spur the Clean Transition,” Joseph Stiglitz’s reflections on “Carbon Pricing, the COVID-19 Pandemic, and Green Economic Recovery,” Joe Aldy describing “Lessons from Experience for Greening an Economic Stimulus,” and Jason Bordoff commenting on “Prospects for Energy and Climate Change Policy under the New U.S. Administration.”

The next bi-monthly HPCA Conversation on Climate Change and Energy Policy will take place in March.  You can register in advance for that event at the HPCA website.

Share