Author Archives: Jeremy Proville

Reality check: Society pays for carbon pollution and that's no benefit

This open letter, co-authored by Gernot Wagner and first published on EDF Voices, was written in response to a New York Times article citing Dr. Roger Bezdek’s report on “The Social Costs of Carbon? No, The Social Benefits of Carbon.”

Dear Dr. Bezdek,

After seeing so many peer-reviewed studies documenting the costs of carbon pollution, it’s refreshing to encounter some out-of-the-box thinking to the contrary. You had us with your assertion that: “Even the most conservative estimates peg the social benefit of carbon-based fuels as 50 times greater than its supposed social cost.” We almost quit our jobs and joined the coal lobby. Who wouldn’t want to work so selflessly for the greater good?

Then we looked at the rest of your report. Your central argument seems to be: Cheap fuels emit carbon; cheap fuels are good; so, by the transitive property of Huh?!, carbon is good. Pithy arguments are fine, but circular ones aren’t.

First off, cheap fuels are good. Or more precisely, cheap and efficient energy services are good. (Energy efficiency, of course, is good, too. Inefficiency clearly isn’t.) Cheap energy services have done wonders for the United States and the world, and they are still doing so. No one here is anti-energy; we are against ruining our planet while we are at it.

The high cost of cheap energy

Yes, the sadly still dominant fuels—by far not all—emit carbon pollution. Coal emits the most. Which is why the cost to society is so staggering. Forget carbon for a moment. Mercury poisoning from U.S. power plants alone causes everything from heart attacks to asthma to inhibiting cognitive development in children. The latter alone is responsible forestimated costs of $1.3 billion per year by knocking off IQ points in kids. All told, coal costs America $330 to 500 billion per year.

Put differently, every ton of coal—like every barrel of oil—causes more in external damagesthan it adds value to GDP. The costs faced by those deciding how much fossil fuel to burn are much lower than the costs faced by society.

None of that means we shouldn’t burn any coal or oil. It simply means those who profit from producing these fuels shouldn’t get a free ride on the taxpayer. Conservative estimates indicate that carbon pollution costs society about $40 per ton. And yes, that’s a cost.

Socializing the costs is not an option

As someone with a Ph.D. in economics, Dr. Bezdek, you surely understand the difference between private benefits and social costs. No one would be burning any coal if there weren’t benefits to doing so. However, the “social benefits” you ascribe to coal are anything but; in reality they are private, in the best sense of the word.

If you are the one burning coal, you benefit. If you are the one using electricity produced by burning coal, you benefit, too. To be clear, these are benefits. No one disputes that. It’s how markets work.

But markets also fail in a very important way. The bystanders who are breathing the polluted air are paying dearly. The costs, if you will, are socialized. Society—all of us—pays for them. That includes those who seemingly benefit from burning coal in the first place.

Your claim that what you call “social benefits” of coal dwarf the costs is wrong in theory and practice. In theory, because they are private benefits. As a matter of practice because these (private) benefits are very much included in the calculations that give us the social costs of coal. What you call out as the social benefits of coal use are already captured by these calculations. They are part of economic output.

Our indicators for GDP do a pretty good job capturing all these private benefits of economic activity. Where they fail is with the social costs. Hence the need to calculate the social cost of carbon pollution in the first place.

So far so bad. Then there’s this:

Plants need carbon dioxide to grow, just not too much of it

In your report, you also discuss what you call the benefits of increases in agricultural yields from the well-known carbon dioxide fertilization effect. It may surprise you to hear that the models used to calculate the cost of carbon include that effect. It turns out, they, too, in part base it on outdated science that ought to be updated.

But their science still isn’t as old as yours. For some reason, you only chose to include papers on the fertilization effect published between 1902 and 1997 (save one that is tangentially related).

For an updated perspective, try one of the most comprehensive economic analysis to date, pointing to large aggregate losses. Or try this Science article, casting serious doubt on any claims that carbon dioxide fertilization could offset the impacts on agricultural yields from climate change.

Farmers and ranchers already have a lot to endure from the effects of climate change. There’s no need to make it worse with false, outdated promises.

Coal lobby speaks, industry no longer listens

It’s for all these reasons that, to borrow the apt title to the otherwise excellent New York Times story that ran your quote: “Industry Awakens to Threat of Climate Change”. And it’s precisely why the U.S. government calculates the social cost of carbon pollution. Yes, sadly, it’s a cost, not a benefit.

To our readers: Want to get involved? The White House has issued a formal call for public comments on the way the cost of carbon figure is calculated, open throughFebruary 26. You can help by reminding our leaders in Washington that we need strong, science-based climate policies.

Posted in Climate science, Politics| 2 Responses

Creating Incentives for Agricultural GHG Abatement

One of the goals of EDF’s Ecosystems work is to provide farmers with revenue opportunities in reducing their greenhouse gas (GHG) footprint. Under AB32, California’s landmark legislation aimed at reducing GHG emissions, regulated entities may purchase carbon offsets to meet up to 8% of their obligations. Over the past six years, EDF has worked closely with growers to capitalize on the anticipated demand for these offsets, by developing protocols that will allow landowners to generate and sell agricultural offsets. On March 28, we reach a milestone in these efforts: the California Air Resources Board will host a workshop to begin a rulemaking process to consider the adoption of an offset protocol EDF has developed with the American Carbon Registry, crediting rice producers for GHG abatement practices.

We’ve put a great deal of work into understanding and piloting a myriad of rice farming techniques, while studying their implications for GHG emissions. A major conclusion from our analysis is that there exists a subset of viable alternative practices for rice producers in California with potential agronomic, economic and environmental benefits. The ones we’ve decided to focus on for our offset protocol are: baling, dry seeding, and early drainage of fields before harvest.

Agricultural activities account for an estimated 12% of global GHG emissions – the majority of these arise from sources of nitrous oxide and methane gases, composing ~60% and ~50% of the global total, respectively (as of IPCC AR4). Rice cultivation accounts for 5-20% of worldwide methane emissions; much of it is emitted as a byproduct of organic decomposition under flooded paddies. California’s goal to reduce its emissions to 1990 levels by 2020 through its cap-and-trade program (AB32) provides an opportunity for rice farmers to help the state meet its reduction goal.

There are multiple approaches for rice farmers to reduce GHG emissions. Some of these practices can be carried out before the harvest and others post-harvest. We’ve carried out some in-depth analysis on the various options, to better understand the incentives and revenue possibilities we will be encouraging through our policy work – we have found that there are a handful of ways that farmers can reduce GHG emissions while maintaining yields, earning some revenue for their efforts, and potentially save on costs in some circumstances.

Our analysis builds on a prior study by our partners Applied Geosolutions, UC Davis and the California Rice Commission that estimates GHG emissions and yields for the majority of rice producing acreage in the state. They use the DeNitrification-DeComposition (DNDC) model, simulating 6,316 rice fields for 16 farming practices. In our analysis, we first estimate the potential greenhouse gas abatement of a suite of specific practices: dry seeding the rice fields, baling harvest residue, and hydroperiod adjustments (draining of fields in midseason, before harvest and/or reducing winter flooding).

We then tabulate the cost of each management practice through a combination of literature, farmer and farm advisor consultation and combine these with abatement estimates to generate marginal abatement cost curves for each practice. Our preliminary results indicate a wide variability in abatement costs, depending on farming conditions. Of course, this is before factoring in the role of a carbon credit.

Unfortunately, not all of the practices we’ve studied are tenable in the Californian setting. One practice (midseason drainage of the fields) is accompanied with a significant decrease in yield and therefore does not lend itself well to the Sacramento Valley climate. In the case of stopping winter flooding, there could be negative habitat impacts for waterfowl that use this ecosystem as a feeding ground. Striving to understand such risks has been crucial in determining the extent to which producers will consider the new incentives created through the market.

Because the practices listed above have not been widely adopted, they are key opportunities for the generation of offsets.  To better understand adoption rates, EDF is conducting further research in determining the quantitative and qualitative barriers that are limiting farmers from adopting such farming methods.

California will be one of the first rice producing regions in the U.S. to present abatement opportunities in conjunction with a carbon market. Combining economic principles such as abatement cost curves with biogeochemical models (e.g. DNDC) is useful in studying such opportunities. Further, the ability to simulate practices at the field level is central to understanding the economic potential of offset protocols granting agricultural producers access to carbon markets. In turn, this can create new incentives to abate GHG emissions from agriculture while potentially providing new sources of revenue to landowners – potentially a win-win situation.

We are excited that Thursday’s California Air Resources Board workshop will kick off the rulemaking process and that farmers can soon benefit from these interesting prospects.

Posted in California, Cap and Trade, Climate science| 1 Response