Episode 5 of Paul G. Allen and Morgan Spurlock’s We The Economy explores the hidden value of natural capital:
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EDF economists discuss how to make markets work for the environment.
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Episode 5 of Paul G. Allen and Morgan Spurlock’s We The Economy explores the hidden value of natural capital:
By Bob Litterman and Gernot Wagner
Whenever the conversation turns to climate change, someone is sure to opine that there’s no silver bullet. The issue is simply too complex to have one solution. When you focus on all the changes that need to occur to reduce greenhouse gas emissions globally it seems like a multifaceted approach is the only way forward.
Most of the world’s vexing problems share that feature. Mideast peace, nuclear non-proliferation, Eurozone stability, and plenty of other national security problems have no single right plan of attack. Some past plans might have brought us tantalizingly close to a seeming solution, but then reality started interfering once again, reconfirming the complexity of it all.
Climate change must surely be in that category. No single country, no single technology, no single approach can seemingly solve this one for us once and for all. Picking a single technology will almost inevitably end in some form of disappointment. Bureaucrats, the saying goes, ought not to try to pick winners. Leave that to venture capitalists for whom failure is a way of life. For every Apple and Facebook, there are dozens who never make it out of the garage. And clean technology doesn’t yet even have a single Apple and Facebook as the standout approach revolutionizing the field.
It turns out, though, that how you frame the issue is crucial. If you think like an engineer there are dozens of challenges. If you think like an economist, there is one. It’s guiding the ‘invisible hand’. How can you create the appropriate incentive to decrease the pollution that’s causing climate change? For that, the government need not be in the business of picking winners at all. What it should—and can—do is identify the loser that’s been clear for decades: greenhouse gas pollution. And the solution is equally clear: create incentives to reduce emissions by pricing it. If we make this one change, most other actions that are needed will follow.
That’s what the European Union has done by capping carbon emissions from its energy sector, including large industrials, covering almost half of total carbon emissions. That’s what California is doing with over 80 percent of its total global warming emissions. It’s what China is experimenting with in seven city and regional trials, including in Beijing and Shanghai. All these systems put a price on greenhouse gas pollution.
On the other side of the ledger, there are still much larger incentives to consume fossil fuels in many other countries. The International Energy Agency estimates that global subsidies are well over $500 billion. These subsidies, which incentivize emissions, sadly dwarf the paltry incentives to reduce them. Free marketeers, small government advocates, and others who dislike distorting government subsidies should be appalled at the tax money poured into fossil fuels.
There’s one simple principle that’s been around in economics for so long that no economist worth his or her degree would question the conclusion: increase the price, watch the quantity demanded go down. It’s such a universal truism that economists call it the “Law of Demand.” Generations of graduate students have estimated the effects of price on demand for anything from the generic widget to demand for car miles driven. People may be irrational at times, but one thing that we know for sure is that they respond to incentives.
Everything we know from decades of the study of human behavior would lead us to believe that carbon pollution will go down as the price on emissions increases. The only interesting question is by how much.
The prescription then for anyone seriously concerned about climate change is simple: price carbon to the point where its now unpriced damages are incorporated into the price, and get out of the way. It’s simple. It works. It’s conservative to the core.
It’s also a silver bullet solution if there ever was one.
From EDF Voices:
Tell someone you are a “climate economist,” and the first thing you hear after the slightly puzzled looks subside is, “How much?” Show me the money: “How much is climate change really costing us?”
Here it is: at least $40.
That, of course, isn’t the total cost, which is in the trillions of dollars. $40 is the cost per ton of carbon dioxide pollution emitted today, and represents the financial impacts of everything climate change wreaks: higher medical bills, lost productivity at work, rising seas, and more. Every American, all 300 million of us, emit around twenty of these $40-tons per year.
The number comes from none other than the U.S. government in an effort to uncover the true cost of carbon pollution. This exercise was first conducted in 2010. It involved a dozen government agencies and departments, several dozen experts, and a fifty-page, densely crafted “technical support document,” replete with some seventy, peer-reviewed references and an even more technical appendix.
Cass Sunstein, the Harvard legal scholar of Nudge fame, who was co-leading the process for the White House at the time, recently declared himself positively surprised how the usual interest-group politics were all-but absent from the discussions throughout that process. This is how science should be done to help guide public policy.
The cost of carbon pollution is too low
The number originally reached in 2010 wasn’t $40. It was a bit more than half as much. What happened? In short, the scientific understanding of the impacts of rising seas had advanced by so much, and the peer-reviewed, economic models had finally caught up to the scientific understanding circa 2007, that a routine update of the cost of carbon number resulted in the rather dramatic increase to near $40 per ton. (There are twenty pages of additional scientific prose, if you want to know the details.)
In other words, we had been seriously underestimating the cost of climate change all along. That’s the exact opposite of what you hear from those who want to ignore the problem, and the $40 itself is still woefully conservative. Some large companies, including the likes of Exxon, are voluntarily using a higher price internally for their capital investment decisions.
And everything we know about the science points to the fact that the $40 figure has nowhere to go but up. The more we know, the higher the costs. And even what we don’t knowpushes the costs higher still.
Howard Shelanski, Sunstein’s successor as the administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA, pronounced “oh-eye-ruh”), has since presided over a further update of the official number. In fact, this one didn’t incorporate any of the latest science. It was simply a minor technical correction of the prior update, resulting in a $1 revision downward. (The precise number is now $37, though I still say $40 at cocktail parties, to avoid a false sense of precision. Yes, that’s what a climate economist talks about at cocktail parties.)
And once again, it all demonstrated just how science ought to be done: Sometimes it advances because newer and better, peer-reviewed publications become available. Sometimes it advances because someone discovers and fixes a small mathematical error.
Your input is needed
While announcing the correction, Shelanski added another layer of transparency and an opportunity for further refinements of the numbers: a formal call for public comments on the way the cost of carbon figure is calculated, open through January 27 February 26.
We are taking this opportunity seriously. EDF, together with our partners at the Natural Resource Defense Council, New York University School of Law’s Institute for Policy Integrity, and the Union of Concerned Scientists, is submitting formal, technical comments in support of the administration’s use of the cost of carbon pollution number as well as recommending further revisions to reflect the latest science.
The bottom line, as economists like to put it, is that carbon pollution costs society a lot of money. So as the technical experts trade scientific papers, you can help by reminding our leaders in Washington that we need strong, science-based climate policies.
Update (on January 24): The official comment period just was extended for another month, through February 26. More time to show your support.
(This post first appeared on Climate 411.)
A nine-minute video, released earlier this fall, argues that climate mitigation is 50 times more expensive than adaptation. The claims are based on calculations done by Christopher Monckton. We analyzed the accompanying “sources and maths” document. In short, the author shows a disconcerting lack of understanding of climate science and economics:
What’s the real cost of cutting carbon? The U.S. government’s estimate of the cost of one ton of CO2 pollution released today is about $40.[iii] That's also the optimal price to make sure that each of us is paying for our own climate damages. Any policy with a lower (implied) carbon price—including the Australian tax—easily passes a benefit-cost test.
With all due respect Lord Monckton, 3rd Viscount of Brenchley, your maths are way off.
[ii] Results differ across scenarios, but a rough rule of thumb suggests that approximately 70% of the ‘peak enhancement level’ over the preindustrial level of 280 ppm perseveres after 100 years of zero emissions, while approximately 40% of the ‘peak enhancement level’ over the preindustrial level of 280 ppm persevered after 1,000 years of zero emissions (Solomon, Susan, Gian-Kasper Plattner, Reto Knutti and Pierre Friedlingstein, “Irreversible climate change due to carbon dioxide emissions” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 106, no. 6 (2009): 1704-1709). Note that this refers to the net increase in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, not the exact molecule. Archer, David, Michael Eby, Victor Brovkin, Andy Ridgwell, Long Cao, Uwe Mikolajewicz, Ken Caldeira et al. "Atmospheric lifetime of fossil fuel carbon dioxide." Annual Review of Earth and Planetary Sciences 37 (2009): 117-134 discusses these two often confused definitions for carbon’s ‘lifetime,’ and concludes that 20-40% of excess carbon levels remain hundreds to thousands of years (“2-20 centuries”) after it is emitted. Each carbon dioxide molecule has a lifetime of anywhere between 50 to 200 years, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s “Overview of Greenhouse Gases: Carbon Dioxide Emissions.” The precise number is under considerable scientific dispute and surprisingly poorly understood. (Inman, Mason, “Carbon is forever,” Nature Reports Climate Change 20 November 2008)
[iii] The precise value presented in Table 1 of the Technical Update of the Social Cost of Carbon for Regulatory Impact Analysis Under Executive Order 12866 for a ton of carbon dioxide emitted in 2015, using a 3% social discount rate increased is $38. For 2020, the number is $43; for 2030, the number increases to $52. All values are in inflation-adjusted 2007 dollars. For a further exploration of this topic, see Nordhaus, William D. The Climate Casino: Risk, Uncertainty, and Economics for a Warming World. Yale University Press (2013) as only one of the latest examples summarizing this kind of analysis. Nordhaus concludes that the optimal policy, one that maximizes net benefits to the planet, would spend about 3% of global GDP.
Many thanks to Michelle Ho for excellent research assistance.
By Gernot Wagner & Martin L. Weitzman
The headline in The New York Times yesterday was succinct. “By 2047, Coldest Years May Be Warmer Than Hottest in Past, Scientists Say.” Not, say, “around 2050” or “within our lifetime.” The specificity makes the crisis feel real, imminent and terrible. Call it a convenient truth.
The story was about a new study published this week in the journal Nature that calculated that by 2047, the average temperature will be hotter across most parts of the planet than it had been at those locations in any year between 1860 and 2005.
In truth, attention to the year 2047 is misguided. Climate around the world has already changed to a point where we can perceive humanity’s fingerprint. Extreme weather events like the two hurricanes that hit New York City in the past two years are going to be only more intense in the future.
Continue reading at nytimes.com/opinion.
Last week, the Obama administration released new energy efficiency standards for microwaves, along with an update to the government’s official Social Cost of Carbon (SCC) figure. What do those two things have to do with each other? Well, the efficiency standards will help the planet by cutting the energy needs of microwaves, which will in turn save consumers money. And the new SCC numbers show just how expensive our addiction to fossil fuels has become.
The SCC is used to estimate the damages from carbon emissions (and the benefits from reducing those emissions) for the purposes of regulatory benefit-cost analyses. The central estimate for the SCC is now around $35 per ton of carbon dioxide pollution emitted today.
That’s the administration’s estimate of the damage—to human health, ecosystems, and the economy—caused by every ton of carbon dioxide emitted into the atmosphere. The average American emits about 20 tons each year.
The new cost of carbon figure is a welcome step forward, reflecting the latest versions of the underlying models. The bad news is that the increased number also shows that our lack of a comprehensive climate policy is becoming ever more costly.
Moreover, this updated SCC number underestimates the true costs of carbon emissions. For example, the current SCC quickly rises to $55 per ton under a lower discount rate (that is, an estimate that doesn’t “discount” harms to the wealth and health of future generations by quite as much as the administration did in reaching its $35 per ton figure).
The value of one ton of carbon dioxide would rise higher still with a declining discount rate, something that, in line with the general consensus among economists, would more closely reflect the true costs of climate change. And none of that includes the cost of extreme climate events.
Basing Policy on Science
The good news: the administration’s latest numbers show exactly how policy analysis should be done—rigorously and consistent with the latest advances in science and economics. For example, instead of using older versions of three main SCC models to calculate its official number, the administration now uses the most recent peer-reviewed versions of each. That simple but important step helps to bring the new official SCC more in line with the latest academic literature.
In short, the administration’s economics are slowly and carefully catching up with what we all can see outside our windows. While atmospheric carbon dioxide levels have just passed the 400 parts per million threshold for the first time in over 3 million years, the real costs of climate change keep piling on.
What the country really needs, of course, is for Congress to pass a comprehensive climate policy. Only then will Americans stop living in a world where their personal behavior leads to socialized costs of at least $35 for each of the 20 tons of carbon dioxide we emit every year. Until then, the Obama administration is right to at least include these costs in its own regulatory impact assessments.
Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is broken. Robert F. Kennedy said as much in his first major presidential campaign speech. Simon Kuznets, the father of GDP, acknowledged its shortcomings. GDP is an imperfect indicator of human well-being at best, and outright misleading at worst.
Still, we shouldn’t scrap GDP and start over.
Up to a point, GDP does tell us important facts about people’s lives, livelihoods and aspirations. Living on a dollar a day is miserable no matter how you look at it.
Choking on economic growth, of course, is equally bad. There are a few simple, well-established steps we ought to take to bring GDP closer to where we should be. That, by the way, isn’t “Green GDP” or “green accounting.” It’s honest accounting.
Start with accounting for the true value of natural assets still in the ground. We don’t “produce” coal. We extract it. And the fact that the ton of coal extracted today is no longer there for the taking tomorrow should show up in our national income accounts. A ton of West Virginian coal adds about $30 to GDP. Honest bookkeeping would decrease that amount to $15. The same holds for oil, trees, water and all the other valuable natural assets that fuel our economy but are largely treated as free in our GDP accounting.
Then quickly move on to pollution. Every ton of coal, every barrel of oil causes more in external damages than it adds value to GDP. Properly measured GDP ought to reflect that fact.
In the end, policy makers should expand their horizon and look at a dashboard of indicators to get a fuller picture of the true state of the economy, society and the planet. Yet when it comes to GDP itself, the name of the game is fixing it rather than scrapping it. We know how to do that. The U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis is at the ready. Let’s have a go at it.
See the original post on ensia.com for a perspective from Sir Partha Dasgupta, Frank Ramsey Professor Emeritus of Economics at the University of Cambridge.
(This post was first published on EDF Voices.)
The Office of Management and Budget is nerd heaven: a bunch of people getting their professional kicks from analyzing federal regulation. This bean counting may sound painfully lacking in glamour, but it’s incredibly important. OMB’s annual report to Congress on the benefits and costs of all major rules adopted by most federal agencies over the past 10 years shows how efficiently, or inefficiently, those agencies are functioning. And the conclusion is clear: the Environmental Protection Agency comes out on top.
These numbers are based on the 2013 draft report, so they could still change. But the pattern is the same as in any of theirreports from the past few years, including the final 2012 report that came out last week.
None of this is to diminish the contributions of the other government agencies, but if you are a do-gooder trying to achieve the greatest good for the greatest number of people, EPA is the place to be.
One of the driving forces behind this rule is the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards, an extraordinary achievement for clean air and public health. Because of these standards, all coal fired power plants will for the first time be required to control their emissions of toxic air pollutants — including mercury, arsenic and acid gases. Forty years after the Clean Air Act signed by Richard Nixon, twenty after the landmark Amendments signed by George H.W. Bush, we are finally getting around to regulating mercury from burning coal.
The analysis of the benefits of reducing mercury pollution demonstrates just how much we underestimate the benefits of environmental protections. For example, when it comes to reducing mercury pollution, the benefits are based on EPA’s estimates of increased wages of (higher IQ) children born to families that catch freshwater fish for their own consumption.
Think about that one for a second. Mercury is a potent neurotoxin in all its forms, but the EPA estimates do not include mercury that is inhaled or that enters our bodies through other means. And there is nothing in the estimates about the fact that mercury harms the brains of our kids, regardless of whether it influences their future earning potential.
In a sense, this analysis is the moral equivalent of arguing that we should have child labor laws because keeping kids in school makes for more productive workers later on. This kind of reasoning, alas, is why economists are often called names unfit for a family-friendly blog. It’s the most reductionist argument you can find in favor of reducing mercury. (In fact, the bulk of the benefits that were quantified by EPA are due to inextricably connected benefits in reducing deleterious particulate pollution.)
Costs, by the way, are relatively well estimated, since businesses are all-too willing to share them. So yes, there are costs—but they are small relative to benefits. And costs, as opposed to benefits, are typically overestimates. They are largely based on current available control technologies. They don’t consider that industry may invent an entirely new and unexpected way of complying with regulations at lower cost. This happens over and over again, and it comes with a name: entrepreneurial ingenuity. Works every time.
These omissions and shortcomings on either side of the equation only stand to bolster the most important claim: benefits outweigh costs more than 10 to 1 for all major EPA regulations adopted in the past decade.
For every dollar invested, Americans get $10 worth of benefits. I’ll take that ratio any day.
(This post was first published on EDF Voices.)
Nudge is the best kind of book. It presents the type of head-slappingly obvious solutions to public policy problems that make you wonder why you needed a book to tell you about them in the first place. Place the veggies before the French fries in the cafeteria, and people will eat more greens. Enroll employees into retirement programs with the option of opting out rather than in and they’ll save more as a result.
Such nudges are the best kinds of policy interventions: minimum intrusion, maximum freedom of choice, maximum relative impact. But one area in which Nudge comes up short is global warming. Putting smiley faces on your electricity bill as a reward for using less electricity than your neighbor, something oPower has done with utilities around the country, helps bring down electricity use by 1 to 3%. Better than zero, but not the solution by a long shot.
That solution would be making polluters pay: putting a price on carbon dioxide through a direct cap or tax on carbon pollution. Cass Sunstein, who wrote Nudge with Richard Thaler, says as much in his latest piece on the topic. He laments the fact that we don’t seem to be able to get these kinds of taxes passed, and then adds a few items to his running list of things we can do, all under the broad heading of setting “clean-energy default rules”: Change the default printer setting to “print on front and back,” and people will. Enroll people into programs where they spend extra for clean energy (with the option of opting out), and 90% will choose to stick with the clean energy.
All these proposals represent the best of what nudges ought to be. Policymakers need to set defaults either way. So set them in the way that goes furthest toward achieving your goal. Just that there’s still a big gulf between the policies we know are necessary and what appears to be doable.
The plastic bag solution
But there is one policy that seems to bridge the gap between the type of non-intrusive nudges Sunstein champions and the type of policies he knows are ultimately necessary to do something about global warming. They’re called bag taxes.
In 2002, Ireland started charging shoppers 15 eurocents a plastic bag. The result: bag use plummeted 90 percent. That's a billion bags a year.
In 2010, Washington, D.C., began charging 5 cents per disposable bag, paper or plastic. As a result, plastic bag usedeclined 80 percent within a year by some estimates.
These fees are tiny. Compared to the $100 worth of groceries you’ll be carrying home in your bags, they might as well be zero. The point is that they are not. The fees are big enough to change the default behavior of shoppers. A few pennies (and the odd public information campaign) are all it takes to motivate shoppers to bring reusable bags to the store.
It’s quite a leap from plastic bags to carbon prices. The principle is the same: It’s the price that counts—a price that is directly connected to an action. Change the action (stop using plastic bags) and you avoid the fee. Similarly, increase the price of carbon, watch carbon pollution fall. This price-up-demand-down relationship is so well established, it’s one of the very few actual “laws” economists have. Violations are tough to find. Plastic bags and carbon certainly don’t violate this common sense principle.
Bag fees and carbon prices have this important feature in common. They don’t just nudge, they also charge consumers for the cost of their—our—actions. For carbon dioxide, there are plenty of studies that estimate the cost to society of this type of pollution. The right price for each ton of carbon dioxide would be at least about $20. Given the fact that the average American emits his body weight worth of carbon dioxide every day and a half, that comes out to about $1 per day. Double it to account for the fact that there are plenty of damages we haven’t yet incorporated in the official number, and doing something serious about global warming is still a bargain at $2 per person per day.
As an insurance policy against the worst effects of global warming, that’s tiny. Never mind how small a price, though, the politics of actually doing it are tricky, to say the least. The plastic bag lobby just isn’t as important as the fossil lobby. And bag fees can be implemented on the local level. A carbon price can’t. It requires Congressional action, a seeming oxymoron these days. Even with carbon, though, states—if not cities—can lead the way. Look no further than California and its comprehensive cap-and-trade system. It limits carbon pollution with a firm, declining cap, giving Californian businesses maximum flexibility in how to make their operations more efficient and innovate their way out of the high-carbon, low-efficiency bind. That ought to be a template for the nation.
Meanwhile, we can do a lot worse than look to plastic bag fees as a model for the kinds of policies that we know are necessary to tackle global warming. Cass Sunstein, the co-author of Nudge, and Cass Sunstein, the policy analyst calling for a price on carbon pollution, would approve.
Congress may be ignoring climate change these days, but there are laws already in place that make progress possible, right now, on this defining issue.
Take the Clean Air Act. Under it, the President has begun to use his authority – as confirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court – to regulate greenhouse gases in a serious way.
The Global Change Research Act is another, lesser known law that could have a major impact on the national understanding of what climate change is doing to our world.
Congress passed the Act in 1990 to provide for “a comprehensive and integrated United States research program which will assist the Nation and the world to understand, assess, predict, and respond to human-induced and natural processes of global change.” What that means, in part, is that the government must prepare a National Climate Assessment every four years. The next report is due out this June.
April 12 was the deadline for public comments on the draft report.
A lot has happened since the last assessment in 2009. The country has begun to experience the effects of climate change: droughts, floods, heat waves, two hundred-year storms hitting New York City within two years. The abnormal is becoming the new normal. (True, no single such event can be conclusively linked to the fact that the average American emits carbon dioxide equal to his body weight every day and a half. But that’s like saying that no single Barry Bonds homerun or Lance Armstrong Tour de France win can be linked to doping.)
This year’s quadrennial report should set the standard as an analysis of these phenomena. Thus far, the draft assessment, written by some of the nation’s leading scientists and experts, is rich in sobering data and analysis on things like extreme weather and the damage it is causing. But its consideration of the economic impacts of climate change – the enormous and rising costs — is scattershot and incomplete.
For example, the draft report shows that the 2011 Texas drought cost farmers and ranchers in that state over $5 billion. And it tells us that wastewater utilities will have to spend between $120 billion and $250 billion by 2050 to adapt their infrastructure to a changed climate. But the draft makes no attempt at a rigorous estimate of the costs of climate change, or the rising costs of inaction in the face of it.
Between now and June, this weak spot needs to be shored up by the report’s authors.
EDF, in its official comments to the National Climate Assessment, is urging that it incorporate all relevant information on the economics of climate change, whether from the federal government or the private sector. That’s the only way to get a handle on the costs that climate change is levying on each and every one of us.
Recently, for example, the independent, nonpartisan, U.S. Government Accountability Office, warned that climate change “presents a significant financial risk to the federal government” in four key areas:
1) Damage to federal property and infrastructure, and associated adaptation costs.
2) Rising costs for federal insurance programs. For instance, the federal government’s crop insurance costs have increased from an average of $3.1 billion per year from 2000 through 2006 to an average of $7.6 billion per year from 2007 through 2012; and these costs are projected to increase further.
3) Costs related to providing assistance to state and local governments to respond to local climate impacts.
4) Rising costs of climate disaster relief. For example, federal disaster declarations have increased over recent decades, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) obligated over $80 billion in assistance for disasters from 2004 through 2011. The growing number of disaster declarations—a record 98 in fiscal year 2011 compared with 65 in 2004—has contributed to increased federal disaster costs.
Material like that should be included in the final assessment.
The same holds true for data from the private sector. In a recent report, the world’s largest reinsurance company, Munich Re, analyzed the costs of severe weather in North America. It found that the number of natural catastrophes escalated from 1980 through 2011, as did the losses for weather-related events during the same time period – both insured and uninsured. The total losses from weather catastrophes over these three decades exceeded $1.06trillion. About half, $510 billion, were insured losses. The rest wasn’t. All of it was ultimately born by all of us – whether in increased taxes or insurance premiums, or directly out of our wallets.
The Global Change Research Act compels the government to make a definitive assessment of what climate change is doing to the nation’s health and welfare. In that spirit, the National Climate Assessment, when it is released in June, should strive to be the last word on the issue – to set the terms of the debate. And let’s hope it also helps move our elected leaders to action.