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.