Selected category: Cap and Trade

Ensuring Environmental Outcomes from a Carbon Tax

How can we ensure that a carbon tax delivers on its pollution reduction potential? An innovative, new idea could provide greater certainty over the environmental outcome.

As momentum intensifies around the world for action to fight climate change, the United States is emerging as a leader in the new low-carbon economy. But if we are going to reduce climate pollution at the pace and scale required — cutting emissions 26-28% below 2005 levels by 2025 and at least 83% by 2050, on a path to zero net emissions —we need to roll up our sleeves on a new generation of ambitious climate policies that harness the power of the economy and American innovation. An emerging idea could be a game-changer for the prospects of a carbon tax to help tackle climate pollution.

Economics 101 teaches us that market-based policies, including cap-and-trade programs as well as carbon taxes, are the most cost-effective and economically efficient means of achieving results. Both put a price on carbon emissions to reduce dangerous pollution. Cap-and-trade programs place a “cap” on the total quantity of allowable emissions, directly limiting pollution and ensuring a specific environmental result, while allowing prices to fluctuate as pollution permits are traded. The “guarantee” that the cap provides is a primary reason this tool has been favored by EDF and other stakeholder s focused on environmental performance. That U.S. targets are based on quantities of pollution reductions also speaks to the need for policy solutions tied to these pollution limits.

In comparison, a carbon tax sets the price per unit of pollution, allowing emissions to respond to the changes in behavior this price encourages. The problem, from an environmental standpoint, is that a carbon tax lacks an explicit connection to a desired pollution reduction target — and therefore provides no assurance that the required reductions will actually be achieved. We know that a carbon tax will impact emissions, but even the most robust modeling cannot provide certainty over the magnitude of that impact. Furthermore, fundamental factors like energy or economic market dynamics can change over time, affecting the performance of a tax. Because greenhouse gas pollution accumulates in the atmosphere over time, even being slightly off the desired path over several decades can produce significant consequences for cumulative emissions, and thus climate damages.

A new approach: Environmental Integrity Mechanisms (EIMs)

Two recently-released papers by the Nicholas Institute at Duke University and Resources for the Future (RFF) directly address this key concern with a carbon tax —and suggest an innovative path forward. They illustrate how a suite of provisions – we’ll call them “Environmental Integrity Mechanisms” or “EIMs,” though each paper uses different terminology – could provide greater levels of certainty regarding the emissions outcome, by allowing for adjustment of the carbon tax regime over time to course-correct and keep us on track for meeting our targets.

EIMs – if carefully designed – can play an important role in connecting a carbon tax to its performance in reducing pollution. They are a type of built-in insurance mechanism: they may never be triggered if the initial price path achieves its projected impact, but provide a back-up plan in case it does not.

These mechanisms are analogous to well-studied “cost containment” provisions in cap-and-trade that are designed to provide greater certainty over prices. Cost containment provisions are included in several successful cap-and-trade programs around the world. For example, California’s cap-and-trade program includes a price collar that sets a floor as well as a ceiling that triggers the release of a reserve of allowances.

EIMs are a parallel effort to introduce greater emissions certainty into a carbon tax system. With the recent publication of these two papers, EIMS are beginning to receive well-deserved greater attention. These provisions help bridge the gap between caps and taxes, merging the strengths of each to create powerful hybrid programs.

How EIMs might work

Let’s take a closer look at how these “EIMs” could work.

• First, the initial tax level and/or growth rate could be adjusted depending on performance against an emissions trajectory or carbon budget benchmark. This could occur either automatically via a simple formula built into the legislation, by Congressional intervention at a later date based on expert recommendations, or by delegation of authority to a federal or independent agency or group of agencies.

There are clear advantages to including an automatic adjustment in the legislation. This avoids having to go back to a sluggish Congress to act; and there is no guarantee that Congress would make appropriate adjustments. Moreover, Congress is likely to be loath to relinquish its tax-setting authority to an executive agency — and such delegation could even face legal challenges. Delegating tax-setting authority to an executive agency could also introduce additional political uncertainty in rate setting.

In designing such an automatic adjustment, policy makers will need to consider the type, frequency and size of these adjustments, as well as how they are triggered. The RFF paper in particular discusses some of the resulting trade-offs. For example, an automatic adjustment will reduce the price certainty that many view as the core benefit of a tax. On the other hand, by explicitly and transparently specifying the adjustments that would occur under certain conditions, a high degree of price predictability can still be maintained – with the added benefit of increased emissions certainty.

• Second, the Nicholas Institute brief discusses regulatory tools that could be employed if emission goals were not met –including existing opportunities under the Clean Air Act, or even new authority. The authors point out that relative to automatic adjustment mechanisms, regulatory options are more difficult to “fine-tune.” Nevertheless, they could provide a powerful safeguard if alternatives fail.

• Finally, as the Nicholas Institute brief discusses, a portion of tax revenue could be used to fund additional reductions if performance goals were not being met. This approach could tap into cost-effective reductions in sectors where the carbon tax might be more challenging to implement (e.g. forestry or agriculture). The revenue could also be used to secure greater reductions from sectors covered by the tax — for example, by funding investments in energy efficiency. In a neat twist, the additional revenue needed to fund these emissions reductions would be available when emissions were higher than expected — that is, precisely when more mitigation was needed.

EDF’s take

Our goal is to reduce the amount of carbon pollution we put into the atmosphere in as cost-effective and efficient a manner as possible. This means putting a limit and a price on carbon pollution.

Even at this preliminary stage in the exploration of EIM design, one takeaway is clear: all carbon tax proposals should include an EIM with an automatic adjustment designed to meet the desired emissions path and associated carbon budget.

More work is needed to develop and evaluate the range and design of EIMs. And while a cap is still the most sure-fire means of guaranteeing an emissions outcome, this growing consideration by economists and policy experts opens a new path for the potential viability of carbon taxes as a pollution reduction tool in the United States.

The bottom line is this: The fundamental test of any climate policy is environmental integrity. For a carbon tax, that means an EIM.

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The Atlantic's year-end feature "Hope & Despair"

Lucy Nicholson / Reuters / Zak Bickel / The Atlantic

Lucy Nicholson / Reuters / Zak Bickel / The Atlantic

Reason for despair: Climate change. It’s the perfect problem: more global, more long-term, more irreversible, and more uncertain that virtually any other public-policy problem facing us. Climate change is a lot worse than most of us realize. Almost regardless of what we do on the mitigation front, we are in for a whole lot of hurt.

On the policy front, we have now talked for more than 20 years about how we need to turn this ship around “within a decade.” Not unlike the ever-elusive fusion technology, that hasn’t happened yet. Global carbon emissions declined slightly this year—for the first time ever without a global recession—but the trends are still pointing in the wrong direction. Worse, turning around emissions is only the very first step. It’s not enough to stabilize the flow of water going into the bathtub when the goal is to prevent the tub from overflowing. We need to turn around atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases. That means turning off the flow of water into the tub—getting net emissions to zero and below. It doesn’t help our efforts that many people seem to confuse the two. A study involving over 200 MIT graduate students faced with this same question revealed that even they confuse emissions and concentrations—water flowing into the tub and water levels there. If MIT graduate students can’t get this one right, what hope is there for the rest of us?

Reason for hope: Climate change. Many signs point to some real momentum to finally tackle this momentous challenge.

The Paris Climate Accord builds an important foundation. It enables transparency, accountability, and markets to help solve the problem. Many governments are moving forward with pricing carbon: from California to China, from Sweden to South Africa, we see ambitious action to reign in emissions in some 50 jurisdictions. Meanwhile, lots is happening on the clean-energy front. That’s particularly true for solar photovoltaic power, which has climbed up the learning curve—and down the cost curve—faster than most would have expected only five years ago. That has also provided an important jolt for sensible climate policy. Then there’s R&D for entirely new technologies. Bill Gates leading an investment coalition with $1 billion of his own money is only one important sign of movement in that direction. The excitement for self-driving, electric vehicles is palpable up and down Silicon Valley, to name just one potentially significant example. In the end, it’s precisely this mix of Silicon Valley, Wall Street, and, of course, Washington that will lead—and, in part, is already leading—to the necessary revolution in a number of important sectors, energy and transportation chief among them.

Excerpt from The Atlantic's year-end feature on Hope and Despair: "Can the Planet Be Saved?"

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PBS NewsHour Making Sen$e with Paul Solman

Q&A accompanying a re-broadcast of a PBS NewsHour segment featuring Climate Shock:

Everyone is talking about 2 degrees Celsius. Why? What happens if the planet warms by 2 degrees Celsius?

Martin L. Weitzman: Two degrees Celsius has turned into an iconic threshold of sorts, a political target, if you will. And for good reason. Many scientists have looked at so-called tipping points with huge potential changes to the climate system: methane being released from the frozen tundra at rapid rates, the Gulfstream shutting down and freezing over Northern Europe, the Amazon rainforest dying off. The short answer is we just don’t — can’t — know with 100 percent certainty when and how these tipping points will, in fact, occur. But there seems to be a lot of evidence that things can go horribly wrong once the planet crosses that 2 degree threshold.

In “Climate Shock,” you write that we need to insure ourselves against climate change. What do you mean by that?

Gernot Wagner: At the end of the day, climate is a risk management problem. It’s the small risk of a huge catastrophe that ultimately ought to drive the final analysis. Averages are bad enough. But those risks — the “tail risks” — are what puts the “shock” into “Climate Shock.”

Martin L. Weitzman: Coming back to your 2 degree question, it’s also important to note that the world has already warmed by around 0.85 degrees since before we started burning coal en masse. So that 2 degree threshold is getting closer and closer. Much too close for comfort.

What do you see happening in Paris right now? What steps are countries taking to combat climate change?

Gernot Wagner: There’s a lot happening — a lot of positive steps being taken. More than 150 countries, including most major emitters, have come to Paris with their plans of action. President Obama, for example, came with overall emissions reductions targets for the U.S. and more concretely, the Clean Power Plan, our nation’s first ever limit on greenhouse gases from the electricity sector. And earlier this year, Chinese President Xi Jinping announced a nation-wide cap on emissions from energy and key industrial sectors commencing in 2017.

It’s equally clear, of course, that we won’t be solving climate change in Paris. The climate negotiations are all about building the right foundation for countries to act and put the right policies in place like the Chinese cap-and-trade system.

How will reigning in greenhouse gases as much President Obama suggests affect our economy? After all, we’re so reliant on fossil fuels.
Gernot Wagner: That’s what makes this problem such a tough one. There are costs. They are real. In some sense, if there weren’t any, we wouldn’t be talking about climate change to begin with. The problem would solve itself. So yes, the Clean Power Plan overall isn’t a free lunch. But the benefits of acting vastly outweigh the costs. That’s what’s important to keep in mind here. There are trade-offs, as there always are in life. But when the benefits of action vastly outweigh the costs, the answer is simple: act. And that’s precisely what Obama is doing here.

And what steps should the countries in Paris this week take to combat climate change?

Martin L. Weitzman: If it were entirely up to me, I would have a very simple solution: negotiate one uniform price on carbon dioxide applicable to everyone. That doesn’t mean some imaginary world government would be in charge — not at all. Every country — every government — can implement their own policy, keep the revenue and decrease taxes elsewhere. But the price is universal across the world.

Gernot Wagner: Pricing carbon, of course, is indeed the answer. It’s the obvious one or at least it should be. Now, the negotiations themselves, of course, are messy, and there currently is no negotiation around a uniform, globally applicable carbon price. Instead, what’s happening is many large countries — the U.S., the EU, and chief among them China — are putting forward internal policies that will put a price on carbon and other greenhouse gases. That’s also where Paris comes in: putting a framework on all these country actions.

Are you hopeful?

Gernot Wagner: I am. The climate problem is, in fact, a lot worse than many people realize. The climate shock is real. But there are solutions. They work. They are getting better and cheaper by the day. And we are largely moving in the right direction.

Martin L. Weitzman: Climate change is an extremely difficult problem to solve, certainly among the most difficult I have seen in my lifetime. But I’m guardedly optimistic, yes.

Gernot Wagner: In the end, it’ll take Washington, Wall Street and Silicon Valley to make this right by pricing carbon, deploying clean technologies at scale and investing in research and development that will lead to new, even cleaner technologies we can’t yet even imagine. A lot is happening on all these fronts. A lot more, of course, needs to be done.

Originally published on the PBS NewsHour Making Sen$e blog, on December 3rd, 2015.

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California Market at Three: All Grown Up and Thriving

This post was co-authored by Jonathan Camuzeaux and Derek Walker.

2960384757_155b4e2efa_zAs we pointed out in August, no news is good news when it comes to California’s cap-and-trade quarterly allowance auctions, which have been running effectively and without hiccups since November 2012. That’s right, last Tuesday’s auction marks the three-year anniversary of the program’s first auction, and the fifth time that California and the Canadian province of Quebec have conducted a joint auction. Time flies by when you settle into a routine, and another set of consistent, stable results indicates once again that California has a strong, well-functioning cap-and-trade program.

Steady results equal a healthy carbon market

Over 75 million current vintage allowances – which covered entities can use for compliance as early as this year – were offered at last Tuesday’s auction, and 100% of these allowances were purchased at a price of $12.73. This price, known as the settlement price, is 63 cents above the floor price set by the California Air Resources Board (CARB) for this auction, and is in line with previous auctions where allowances have cleared at prices slightly above the floor. In the advanced auction for 2018 vintage allowances – which can only be used starting in 2018 – over 10 million allowances were offered and 100% of these were purchased at a price of $12.65. Read More »

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From climate finance to finance

IETA 2015 Making WavesClimate finance is lots of things to lots of people. For some, it’s the $100 billion “Copenhagen commitment”. For others, it’s Citi’s latest sustainable finance pledge of $100 billion. It’s Bill Gates’s $1 billion clean energy investment. It’s public and private monies; mitigation and adaptation; loans, bonds, equity stakes, high-risk ventures, Kyoto-style allowances, offset credits, and private and public grants. It’s all of the above. When it comes to carbon markets, climate finance is often about what happens with allowance revenue. That's important. But the primary goal is, or ought to be, appropriately pricing the climate externality.

It’s about nudging massive private investment flows from the current high-carbon, low-efficiency path toward a low-carbon, high-efficiency one. That, in turn, means focusing on the incremental dollars necessary to sway private investments. In the end, it’s all about the margin.

Righting the wrong incentives

The incentives facing many private actors today are clearly misleading. Benefits, for the most part, are fully privatised, while many costs are socialised. That goes in particular for environmental and climate costs. The ‘hidden’ costs of energy investments are large and negative. While largely invisible to those doing the polluting, these costs are all too visible to society as a whole: in form of costs to health, ecosystems, and the economy. In the United States, for example, every additional tonne of coal, every barrel of oil, causes more in external damages than it adds value to GDP. That calculation does not even consider the large carbon externality.

There, one of the more important metrics is the so-called ‘social cost of carbon’. The US government’s central estimate is $40 per tonne of CO2 released today. The true number is likely a lot higher, especially when considering the many ‘known unknowns’ not quantified (and sometimes not quantifiable). Regardless of the precise amount, it’s the cost to society — to the economy, health, ecosystems, the whole lot — of each tonne of CO2 released today over its lifetime.

The social cost itself is inherently a marginal concept. While all of us seven billion pay a fraction of a penny of the social cost for each of the billions of tonnes emitted today, few of those doing the actual polluting pay themselves. A price on carbon, through cap and trade or a carbon tax, ensures that anyone covered by the market forces faces the right incentives. Polluters face a direct cost of pollution and, thus, are driven to pollute less. The law of demand at work.

Incentives at work

One of the guiding principles of economics is that people are motivated by incentives. That’s not too surprising. It would be surprising if people were not motivated by what is designed to motivate them. When faced with a price on carbon, emissions go down, and investments change course.

At the level of individual businesses, solid evidence points to how existing carbon prices have incentivised investment in clean technology, research and development.

In places with no external carbon price, investments can be affected by internal carbon pricing. The Carbon Disclosure Project counts over 400 companies with an internal, ‘shadow’ carbon price, either independently or in reaction to an external market price. That price, in turn, figures into day-to-day decisions from where to site a new facility to how to source energy.

In 1999, the World Bank conducted a study to determine the impact of a shadow price for carbon on the Bank’s investments. At an internal price of $40, the highest evaluated price, almost half of the analysed investments would have had a negative net present value, and, thus, would likely not have been made. For the rest, profitability would have been significantly reduced.

Individual investments, if organised at a large enough scale, make the difference. Take the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), a market-based mechanism that channels funding to emission reduction projects in developing countries. Countries and investors can invest in CDM projects as a way of meeting domestic reduction goals, or complying with domestic carbon prices. Through the CDM, hundreds of billions of private sector dollars have gone towards funding GHG mitigation.

With a government-imposed carbon price, reflecting the true cost of carbon to society, investment portfolios would change. Drastically. We’ve seen it in practice, but the current scale is not large enough to sway the majority of investments that matter. Today, in fact, much of firms’ investments towards mitigating climate change are made voluntarily.

From Climate Finance to Finance

Climate finance often is ‘concessional’ finance. That might be outright development aid. It also includes voluntary commitments like Citi’s $100 billion. Citi, of course, is not alone. Goldman Sachs committed $40 billion in 2012, Bank of America $50 billion in 2013, all made over 10 years. Meanwhile, these three banks alone underwrite hundreds of billions of loans every year. Total global Foreign Direct Investment is in the trillions.

These massive financial flows won’t be redirected overnight. But they do follow incentives. In fact, that’s all they follow.

Enter carbon markets. They ensure that anyone covered by the market faces the right incentives. The prevailing allowance price is one good proxy of the level of ambition of any particular market. It’s also what helps nudge investments into the right direction. In econ-speak, it’s all about internalising externalities. In English, it’s about paying your fair share and no longer socialising costs.

None of that renders what’s traditionally called ‘climate finance’ unnecessary. There are still plenty of uses for additional monies. In particular, carbon markets are all about mitigation. Adaptation might dovetail nicely on some forms of mitigation, but it’s not the primary goal. That’s where foreign aid as well as government and private grants come in. If anything, those amounts need to be scaled up, too.

But the true scaling happens on the investment front. That’s no longer “climate finance.” It’s simply “finance.” Re-channelling only 0.1% of total wealth under active management globally amounts to around a $100 billion shift. Efforts, of course, must not stop there. It’s about channelling the full $100 trillion into the right direction.

Gernot Wagner is lead senior economist at the Environmental Defense Fund, and co-author, with Harvard’s Martin L. Weitzman, of Climate Shock (Princeton University Press, 2015).

This article was first published in IETA's Greenhouse Gas Market 2015 report "Making Waves". Download the full text in PDF form.

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We need a climate insurance policy – now

Q&A with Karin Rives first published on EDF Voices.

Climate Shock

Before climate change gets so bad that we may be forced to “geoengineer” ourselves out of catastrophe, a new book—Climate Shock—suggests that we reframe the problem altogether.

Gernot Wagner, a lead senior economist at Environmental Defense Fund and co-author of the book, says we ought to look at climate change as a risk management problem and treat it as such. I had a chat with Gernot about the book he will release next week together with Martin L. Weitzman, a professor of economics at Harvard University.

Karin Rives: Many books have already been published on climate change. What’s new or different about Climate Shock?

Most everyone focuses on what we know about climate change. Our book is about what we don’t know.

Call it Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s “Black Swan,” or the Rumsfeldian “unknown unknowns”—a state of complete and dangerous uncertainty and unpredictability. Call it what you want, but it’s that tail that may yet wag us in the end.

What we know is bad. What we don’t know is potentially much worse. Climate, in the end, is a risk management issue. Just like homeowners take out insurance against fires and flooding, society needs insurance against climate change.

KR: So what do we know?

Last time the planet experienced as much carbon in its atmosphere as there is now, sea levels where up to 66 feet higher than they are today. Camels lived in Canada. That was more than 3 million years ago. The geological clock read “Pliocene.”

We certainly know enough to take reasoned action today. And almost everything we don’t know points in one and only one direction: that action is all the more urgent.

KR: Why do we need to read this book now?

The time to buy our insurance policy is now—while we still can. And I’m speaking both metaphorically and literally.

Insurance here, of course, is to avoid dumping carbon into the atmosphere. We pay to have our trash picked up instead of just dumping it for free onto our streets. We similarly need to pay to avoid dumping carbon into our atmosphere.

That’s not free, but it’s still relatively cheap to do—and much cheaper than experiencing the consequences of unchecked global warming.

KR: What should be my three most important takeaways from your book?

Scream, cope, and profit.

We need to get the right policies in place, and soon. That’s “scream.” Then there’s some global warming we can no longer avoid—and that we are already experiencing. Let’s prepare ourselves better for that.

“Profit” is, of course, what you would expect two economists to say, dollar signs in their eyes and all. All that starts with smart investment decisions. Green, clean, and lean isn’t just got for the planet. It’s also the right financial choice and we need to ensure that it is much more so going forward.

The main takeaway, in the end, is that this isn’t some artificial battle between capitalism and the climate. It’s not about sticking it to the man. It’s about sticking it to carbon.

Also posted in Climate science, International, Politics| Leave a comment
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