What to Expect at COP-27 in Sharm El Sheikh

The negotiators gathering for the 27th Conference of the Parties (COP-27) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt will try to tackle a significant number of important issues, with questions relating to increased ambition and financial transfers among those at the top of the agenda.  This is the focus of my podcast conversation with Ray Kopp, Senior Fellow at Resources for the Future (RFF), in the newest episode of “Environmental Insights: Discussions on Policy and Practice from the Harvard Environmental Economics Program,” a podcast produced by the Harvard Environmental Economics Program.  You can listen to our full conversation here. 

Ray Kopp will be at COP-27 with the delegation of RFF.  I’ll be there, as well, leading our group from the Harvard Project on Climate Agreements.  At the end of this blog post, I provide a list of our activities at COP27.

Ray Kopp, who has been a leader in the design of domestic and international polices to combat climate change, explains in our conversation that the representatives gathering in Sharm El Sheikh will focus much of their attention on the implementation of the Paris Agreement, and therefore on the Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) – emissions reductions that individual countries have pledged under the Agreement. Under the provisions of the Paris Agreement, signatories are strongly encouraged to increase their levels of ambition and reduce emissions even further over time through the so-called “ratchet mechanism” that can bring the world closer to the goal of preventing temperature increases this century greater than 1.5 or 2 degrees Celsius, compared with pre-industrial temperatures.

In the podcast, Ray Kopp notes, “That mechanism will not be formally deployed until 2023. But I will say that there’s a synthesis report that has already come out from the UNFCCC Secretariat that gives us an idea of what those gaps look like with respect to hitting the targets, and they’re not encouraging.  We already know that there’s going to be a major gap. We’ve known that for quite some time. I haven’t seen a lot of countries step forward to increase their ambition in the recognition of that gap. So, the jury is out on how effective this mechanism is going to be.”

Another very important and contentious issue on the table at COP-27, Kopp explains, is that of monetary transfers from developed to developing countries to help them with their mitigation efforts and help pay for adaptation measures.  This is the well-known commitment from the developed countries to send $100 billion per year, starting in 2020, to the developing world.  That target level of annual finance has not yet been achieved.

“Right now, there is a bit of a lack of trust between the developing world and the developed world with respect to the deliverability of those funds going forward. And [for] developed countries, there is the problem that to be able to hit those particular targets you need a lot of private investment, not just government funds. And the private investment has been lacking considerably,” he remarks.

Debates around the so-called “loss-and-damage” issue will also play out in Sharm El Shiekh, Kopp notes, referring to the call by developing countries for the largest global emitters to pay for current and future climate change damages in the most vulnerable countries.

“This is … one of these issues that … becomes more salient and both sides become more vocal about it [at every COP], not surprisingly, because we are now seeing the impact of climate change, not only in the developing world, where it is severe and where people are at most risk, but here in the U.S. [as well],” Kopp argues. “There’s always going to be opportunities for the U.S. to provide aid to countries that are suffering these horrific damages associated with climate change. One of the issues is whether it is going to be taking the form of aid, which means it’s more of a voluntary contribution on the part of the U.S., or whether it’s compensation associated with some formal liability that the U.S. bears for these damages?”

Kopp says that negotiators could make headway on the ‘loss and damage’ issue if they take reasonable approaches.

“If both sides stick to their hard positions, where [in] the developed world it’s only about aid, and the developing world it’s about liability, and there’s no middle ground, then this will just be a confrontational experience.  Somewhere there’s got to be a middle ground … where we can think about insurance markets, [and] … other ways of financing the rebuilding after these particular [climate] episodes take place.”

When I ask Ray Kopp how he determines the success of failure of individual COPs, he responds by saying that each meeting is just one part of an ongoing process, and that in his opinion, the process is working.

“[Each COP] is an opportunity for the world to come together and talk about these things. The UNFCCC has put together an enormous amount of transparency in reporting. Sounds like things that are not all that exciting, but they’re fundamental to an understanding of where we are with respect to climate change and how to reduce emissions going forward,” he says.


As I noted at the outset of this blog post, I will be in Sharm El Sheikh, leading our group from the Harvard Project on Climate Agreements.  Here’s some information below – in chronological order – about our five events hosted by the Harvard Project on Climate Agreements or in which my Harvard colleague, Daniel Jacob, or I are speaking.

1.  Discussion of the China National Climate Change Assessment Report

            Wednesday, November 16, 2022, 9:00 – 10:30 am

            China Pavilion, Area E

            Hosted by the Ministry of Science and Technology and the Institute of Energy, Environment, and Economy at Tsinghua University.

            Robert Stavins is a panelist.

2.  Frontiers in Carbon Pricing

            Wednesday, November 16, 2022, 12:00 – 1:30 pm

            Pavilion of the International Emissions Trading Association (IETA)

            Hosted by the Harvard Project on Climate Agreements

            Panel:  Daniele Agostini, Head of Energy and Climate Policies, Enel Group

                        Lisa DeMarco, Senior Partner and CEO, Resilient LLP

                        Andrei Marcu, Founder and Executive Director, European Roundtable on Climate Change and Sustainable Transition (ERCST)

                        Robert Stavins (moderator)

3.  The 8th Global Climate Change Think Tank Forum

            Wednesday, November16, 2022, 4:00 – 6:45 pm

            China Pavilion, Area E

            Hosted by the China National Center for Climate Change Strategy and International Cooperation

            Robert Stavins presents on “Carbon-Pricing Policy: Carbon Taxes vs. Cap-and Trade”

4.  Using Satellite Observations of Atmospheric Methane to Advance Global Climate Change Policy
            Thursday, November 17, 2022, 11:30 am – 1:00 pm, Side Event Room: Thutmose

            Hosted by the Harvard Project on Climate Agreements and the Enel Foundation

            Panel:  Daniele Agostini, Head of Energy and Climate Policies, Enel Group

                        Brendan Devlin, Adviser for Strategy and Foresight, DG Energy, European Commission

                        Lena Höglund-Isaksson, Senior Research Scholar, International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA)

                        Daniel Jacob, Vasco McCoy Family Professor of Atmospheric Chemistry and Environmental Engineering, Harvard University

                        Claudia Octaviano, General Coordinator for Climate Change and Low Carbon Development, National Institute for Ecology and Climate Change, Mexico

                        Robert Stavins (moderator)

5.  Measuring up to the Methane Challenge

            Thursday, November 17, 2022, 3:00 – 4:30 pm, Pavilion of the International Emissions Trading Association (IETA)

            Hosted by IPIECA

            Daniel Jacob is a panelist.

We hope to see many of you at one or more of these events, other meetings, in the hallways, or elsewhere at COP27 in Sharm El Sheikh!


Again, I encourage you to listen to the 41st 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.


The Promise and Problems of Pricing Carbon

Friday, October 21st was a significant day for climate change policy worldwide and for the use of market-based approaches to environmental protection, but it went largely unnoticed across the country and around the world, outside, that is, of the State of California.  On that day, the California Air Resources Board voted unanimously to adopt formally the nation’s most comprehensive cap-and-trade system, intended to provide financial incentives to firms to reduce the state’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, notably carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, to their 1990 level by the year 2020, as part of the implementation of California’s Assembly Bill 32, the Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006.  Compliance will begin in 2013, eventually covering 85% of the state’s emissions.

This policy for the world’s eighth-largest economy is more ambitious than the much heralded (and much derided) Federal policy proposal – H.R. 2454, the Waxman-Markey bill – that was passed by the U.S. House of Representatives in June of 2009, and then died in the U.S. Senate the following year.  With a likely multi-year hiatus on significant climate policy action in Washington now in place, California’s system – which will probably link with similar cap-and-trade systems being developed in Ontario, Quebec, and possibly British Columbia – will itself become the focal point of what may evolve to be the “North American Climate Initiative.”

The Time is Ripe for Reflection

California’s formal adoption of its CO2 cap-and-trade system is an important milestone on the multinational path to carbon pricing policies, and signals that the time is ripe to reflect on the promise and problems of pricing carbon, which is the title of a new paper that Joe Aldy and I have written for a special issue of the Journal of Environment and Development edited by Thomas Sterner and Maria Damon on “Experience with Environmental Taxation” (“The Promise and Problems of Pricing Carbon:  Theory and Experience,” October 27, 2011).  [For anyone who is not familiar with my co-author, let me state for the record that Joseph Aldy is an Assistant Professor of Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School, having come to Cambridge, Massachusetts, from Washington, D.C., where he served, most recently, during 2009 and 2010, as Special Assistant to the President for Energy and Environment.  Before that, he was a Fellow at Resources for the Future, the Washington think tank.]

Why Price Carbon?

In a modern economy, nearly all aspects of economic activity affect greenhouse gas – in particular, CO2 – emissions.  Hence, for a climate change policy to be effective, it must affect decisions regarding these diverse activities.  This can be done in one of three ways:  mandating that businesses and individuals change their behavior; subsidizing businesses and individuals; or pricing the greenhouse gas externality.

As economists and virtually all other policy analysts now recognize, by internalizing the externalities associated with CO2 emissions, carbon pricing can promote cost-effective abatement, deliver powerful innovation incentives, and – for that matter – ameliorate rather than exacerbate government fiscal problems.  [See the concise and compelling argument made by Yale Professor William Nordhaus in his essay, “Energy:  Friend or Enemy?” in The New York Review of Books, October 27, 2011.]

By pricing CO2 emissions (or, more likely, by pricing the carbon content of the three fossil fuels – coal, petroleum, and natural gas), governments wisely defer to private firms and individuals to find and exploit the lowest cost ways to reduce emissions and invest in the development of new technologies, processes, and ideas that could further mitigate emissions.

Can Market-Based Instruments Really Work?

Market-based instruments have been used with considerable success in other environmental domains, as well as for pricing CO2 emissions.  The U.S. sulfur dioxide (SO2) cap-and-trade program cut U.S. power plant SO2 emissions more than 50 percent after 1990, and resulted in compliance costs one half of what they would have been under conventional regulatory mandates.

The success of the SO2 allowance trading program motivated the design and implementation of the European Union’s Emission Trading Scheme (EU ETS), the world’s largest cap-and-trade program, focused on cutting CO2 emissions from power plants and large manufacturing facilities throughout Europe.  The U.S. lead phase-down of gasoline in the 1980s, by reducing the lead content per gallon of fuel, served as an early, effective example of a tradable performance standard.  These and other positive experiences provide motivation for considering market-based instruments as potential approaches to mitigating GHG emissions.

What Policy Instruments Can be Used for Carbon Pricing?

In our paper, Joe Aldy and I critically examine the five generic policy instruments that could conceivably be employed by regional, national, or even sub-national governments for carbon pricing:  carbon taxes, cap-and-trade, emission reduction credits, clean energy standards, and fossil fuel subsidy reduction.  Having written about these approaches many times in previous essays at this blog, today I will simply direct the reader to those previous posts or, better yet, to the paper we’ve written for the Journal of Environment and Development.

Although it is natural to think and talk about carbon pricing using the future tense, a few carbon pricing regimes are already in place.

Regional, National, and Sub-National Experiences with Carbon Pricing

Explicit carbon pricing policy regimes currently in place include the European Union’s Emissions Trading Scheme (EU ETS); the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative in the northeast United States; New Zealand’s cap-and-trade system; the Kyoto Protocol’s Clean Development Mechanism; a number of northern European carbon tax policies; British Columbia’s carbon tax; and Alberta’s tradable carbon performance standard (similar to a clean energy standard).  We describe and assess all of these in our paper.

Also, the Japanese Voluntary Emissions Trading System has operated since 2006 (Japan is considering a compulsory emissions trading system), and Norway operated its own emissions trading system for several years before joining the EU ETS in 2008.  Legislation to establish cap-and-trade systems is under debate in Australia (combined with a carbon tax for an initial three-year period) and in the Canadian provinces of Ontario and Quebec.  And, of course, California is now committed to launching its own GHG cap-and-trade system.

International Coordination Will Be Needed

Of course, climate change is truly a global commons problem:  the location of greenhouse gas emissions has no effect on the global distribution of damages.  Hence, free-riding problems plague unilateral and multilateral approaches, because mitigation costs are likely to exceed direct benefits for virtually all countries.  Cost-effective international policies – insuring that countries get the most environmental benefit out of their mitigation investments – will help promote participation in an international climate policy regime.

In principle, internationally-employed market-based instruments can achieve overall cost effectiveness.  Three basic routes stand out.  First, countries could agree to apply the same tax on carbon (harmonized domestic taxes) or adopt a uniform international tax.  Second, the international policy community could establish a system of international tradable permits, – effectively a nation-state level cap-and-trade program.  In its simplest form, this represents the Kyoto Protocol’s Annex B emission targets and the Article 17 trading mechanism.  Third and most likely, a more decentralized system of internationally-linked domestic cap-and-trade programs could ensure internationally cost-effective emission mitigation.  We examine the merits and the problems associated with each of these means of international coordination in the paper.

What Lies in the Future?

In reality, political responses in most countries to proposals for market-based approaches to climate policy have been and will continue to be largely a function of issues and factors that transcend the scope of environmental and climate policy.  Because a truly meaningful climate policy – whether market-based or conventional in design – will have significant impacts on economic activity in a wide variety of sectors and in every region of a country, proposals for these policies inevitably bring forth significant opposition, particularly during difficult economic times.

In the United States, political polarization – which began some four decades ago, and accelerated during the economic downturn – has decimated what had long been the key political constituency in the Congress for environmental action, namely, the middle, including both moderate Republicans and moderate Democrats.  Whereas Congressional debates about environmental and energy policy had long featured regional politics, they are now fully and simply partisan.  In this political maelstrom, the failure of cap-and-trade climate policy in the U.S. Senate in 2010 was essentially collateral damage in a much larger political war.

It is possible that better economic times will reduce the pace – if not the direction – of political polarization.  It is also possible that the ongoing challenge of large budgetary deficits in many countries will increase the political feasibility of new sources of revenue.  When and if this happens, consumption taxes (as opposed to traditional taxes on income and investment) could receive heightened attention, and primary among these might be energy taxes, which can be significant climate policy instruments, depending upon their design.

That said, it is probably too soon to predict what the future will hold for the use of market-based policy instruments for climate change.  Perhaps the two decades we have experienced of relatively high receptivity in the United States, Europe, and other parts of the world to cap-and-trade and offset mechanisms will turn out to be no more than a relatively brief departure from a long-term trend of reliance on conventional means of regulation.  It is also possible, however, that the recent tarnishing of cap-and-trade in U.S. political dialogue will itself turn out to be a temporary departure from a long-term trend of increasing reliance on market-based environmental policy instruments.  It is much too soon to say.


A Golden Opportunity to Please Conservatives and Liberals Alike

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has a golden opportunity to opt for a smart, low-cost approach to fulfilling its mandate under a Supreme Court decision to reduce carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions linked with global climate change.

Such an approach would provide maximum compliance flexibility to private industry while meeting mandated emission reduction targets, would achieve these goals at the lowest possible cost, would work through the market rather than against it, would be consistent with the Obama Administration’s pragmatic approach to environmental regulation, and ought to receive broad political support, including from conservatives, who presumably want to minimize the cost burden of any policy on businesses and consumers.

Background and Context

By now, it is well known that the 2007 U.S. Supreme Court (5-4) decision in Massachusetts v. EPA found that EPA has the authority to regulate GHGs under the existing provisions of the Clean Air Act (CAA). This, combined with EPA’s “endangerment finding” in 2009 that GHGs threaten public health and the environment, led first in January, 2011, to new motor vehicle fuel efficiency standards, and soon will lead to regulations affecting new and modified stationary sources of emissions (under Section 111b of the CAA) via so-called New Source Performance Standards, and regulations for existing stationary sources (under Section 111d).

In quantitative terms, this last set of regulations – for existing stationary sources – will be key, and by far the most important affected sector will be electricity generation, which accounts for fully 40 percent of U.S. CO2 emissions (and a third of national GHG emissions). Within this sector, coal-fired power plants will be the most drastically affected.

EPA could, in principle, promulgate a regulatory approach that incorporates compliance flexibility, such as through various types of credit, offset, or cap-and-trade mechanisms. It could do this, but may it do so under the legal authority of the Clean Air Act?

Call the Lawyers!

Over the past year, there has been a considerable amount of discussion and no small degree of hand-wringing over whether the relevant parts of the Clean Air Act authorize the use of such flexibility mechanisms. In the midst of this, a new report from Resources for the Future by Gregory Wannier (Columbia Law School) and others makes a compelling, but nuanced case in the affirmative. (See “Prevailing Academic View on Compliance Flexibility under §111 of the Clean Air Act”).

Their conclusion, in a nutshell: “EPA has the tools under §111 of the CAA to implement relatively flexible and efficient GHG regulation. The agency could use a range of compliance flexibility options itself, or facilitate state implementation plans that adopt such measures at the state or regional level.” Included are the market-based, economic-incentive instruments mentioned above.

We should take note, by the way, that Section 111d gives states considerable latitude when choosing their actions to follow EPA guidelines, an approach that is consistent with conservatives’ promotion of the primacy of state authorities in tailoring rules for individual state-by-state circumstances.

Now, for Some Economics

Even if the EPA has the legal authority to adopt a progressive, market-based approach to fulfilling this regulatory mandate, would it really make sense to do this? That is, what would be the consequences of adopting a flexible approach, compared with a conventional, inflexible regulatory scheme? Key issues include the implications for environmental performance, aggregate social cost, and consumer impacts via electricity prices.

Another new study, this one by Dallas Burtraw, Anthony Paul, and Matt Woerman (all at RFF), provides the analysis that is needed, using RFF’s well-regarded Haiku model of the U.S. electricity market, to examine the effect of alternative CAA policies on investment and operation of the nation’s electricity system over a 25-year time horizon in 21 interlinked regions. (See: “Retail Electricity Price Savings from Compliance Flexibility in GHG Standards for Stationary Sources”)

Four scenarios which would achieve the same environmental benefits are examined:

(1) a conventional approach in which the operating efficiency of individual coal-fired power plants would be regulated (labeled an “inflexible performance standard”).

(2) a “flexible performance standard,” under which plants that exceeded the standard could transfer a credit (in exchange for payment) to plants that found it more difficult to achieve the standard. The researchers call these “generation efficiency credit offsets.”

(3) cap-and-trade with auctioned CO2 emission allowances, where the revenue generated for government simply displaces the need for other revenue sources on a one-for-one basis (that is, there is no assumption of a double-dividend through increased efficiency of the tax code).

(4) cap-and-trade with free allocation of allowances to Local Distribution Companies (LDCs), which are regulated and hence assumed to pass the benefits of the free allocation on to consumers.

The results are striking. In terms of aggregate social costs, the inflexible standard would bring with it total costs of about $5 billion per year, whereas – at the other extreme – cap-and-trade with free allocation would involve total costs of only $500 million annually, a 90 percent cost savings!

If – despite its legal authority – EPA believes it is politically unable to adopt a cap-and-trade approach (because of last year’s successful tarnishing of that phrase by Congressional conservatives), then it could opt for a second-best approach, the “flexible-performance standard,” above, which would involve total annual costs of about $1.4 billion, still a 70 percent cost savings compared with the conventional, inflexible standard.

Of course, political consideration of such policy alternatives is more frequently driven by estimates of consumer impacts than by overall social costs (which include consumer costs, industry costs, and costs to government). Here, the analysis is also striking. Consumer costs – due to higher electricity prices – under the inflexible standard would increase by 7 percent, while consumer costs under the flexible performance standard would increase by less than 2 percent. With the cap-and-trade regime with free allowances, consumer costs would actually fall by nearly 1 percent, due to lower electricity prices. [For complete numerical results with all of the scenarios, see the RFF discussion paper.]

The Bottom Line

Clearly, much is to be gained – and virtually nothing lost – by adopting a more flexible approach to meeting a court-ordered mandate that, one way or another, will have a regulation promulgated and eventually finalized. It would be foolish to turn away from a potential 90 percent cost savings for the country’s economy, particularly when the same approach yields lower electricity prices for consumers. All this, while meeting national obligations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

It’s too soon to forget that a year ago the Senate abandoned its attempt to pass climate legislation that would limit CO2 emissions. In the process, conservative Republicans dubbed cap-and-tradecap-and-tax.’’ But, as I’ve said before, regardless of what they think about climate change, conservatives should resist demonizing market-based approaches to environmental protection and reverting to pre-1980s thinking that saddled business and consumers with needless costs.

Market-based approaches to environmental protection should be lauded, not condemned, by political leaders, no matter what their party affiliation. Otherwise, there will be severe and perverse long-term consequences for the economy, for business, and for consumers.