Selected category: Markets 101

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.

Also posted in Cap and Trade, Uncategorized| Leave a comment

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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Capping Pollution from Coast to Coast

As the second auction in California’s landmark cap and trade program approaches, a coalition of states on the opposite side of the country – that have been cost-effectively reducing their carbon pollution while saving their consumers money – announced plans to strengthen their emission reduction goals.  Last week, the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) – the nation’s first cap and trade program which sets a cap on carbon dioxide pollution from the electric power sector in 9 Northeastern states (Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Rhode Island, and Vermont) – released an updated Model Rule containing a number of improvements to the program, primarily a significantly lower (by 45%) overall cap, realigning it with current emissions levels.

Since the program took effect in 2009, emission reductions in the RGGI region have occurred faster and at lower cost than originally expected.  This has primarily been the result of increased electric generation from natural gas and renewables which have displaced more carbon-intensive sources like coal and oil, as well as investments in energy efficiency that lower overall electricity demand.  These reductions have been accompanied by lower electricity prices in the region (down 10% since the program began) and significant economic benefits:  a study from the Analysis Group estimated that electric consumers would save $1.1 billion on their bills over 10 years from the energy efficiency improvements funded by allowance revenue, and further, that these savings would generate over $1.6 billion in economic benefits for the region.

The new lower cap allows RGGI to secure the reductions already achieved, and push forward towards more ambitious pollution reduction goals.  The changes to the program are the result of a transparent and comprehensive program review process set in motion through RGGI’s original Memorandum of Understanding – a mechanism that is successfully fulfilling its original intention by allowing the states to evaluate results and make critical improvements.

While the changes will go a long way to fortify the program, there is room in the future for the RGGI states to look to California’s strong program design for additional enhancements.  For example, RGGI’s updated Model Rule creates a Cost Containment Reserve (CCR) – a fixed quantity of allowances which are made available for sale if allowance prices exceed predefined “trigger prices”.  A CCR is a smart design feature which provides additional flexibility and cost containment – however, RGGI’s CCR allowances are designed to be additional to the cap, rather than carved out from underneath it as in CA’s program (ensuring the overall emission reduction goals will be met).  California’s program has displayed enormous success already, with a strong showing in their first auction.

In the meantime, the RGGI states should be commended for their success thus far, and for their renewed leadership as they take important steps to strengthen the program.  These states have achieved significant reductions in emissions of heat-trapping pollutants at lower costs than originally projected, all while saving their citizens money and stimulating their economies, transitioning their power sector towards cleaner, safer generation sources, and laying a strong foundation for compliance with the Carbon Pollution Standards for power plants being developed under the Clean Air Act.  Such impressive achievements provide a powerful, concrete example of how to tackle harmful carbon pollution and capture the important co-benefits of doing so.

The bottom line is that cap and trade is alive and well on both coasts as the states continue to lead the charge on tackling climate change in the U.S. while delivering clear economic benefits.

Also posted in California, Cap and Trade, Cap and Trade Watch, Clean Air Act, Politics| Leave a comment

Newsflash: Clean Air Act saves lives, boosts GDP

We have sometimes been the bearers of bad news on jobs in the past. Not bad news, really. Realistic news. So excuse me for being a bit giddy at the sight of the latest piece of very realistic—and very good—news.

The EPA just released a new White Paper that turns out to be as green as it is red, white, and blue.

Lives and health at a bargain price

First, it starts with what really matters when considering the impact of the Clean Air Act—health and the corresponding social and economic benefits:

  • 18 million child respiratory illnesses prevented in 1990 alone,
  • 200,000 lives saved that year (160,000 in 2010),
  • total benefits outpacing costs 30:1 since 1990.

These are the key figures we need to keep in mind. Always.

Healthy kids means a healthy workforce

For anyone who isn't yet satisfied but worries about the economic impact of the Clean Air Act, there's more good news:

Protecting children from neurotoxins leads to workers with higher IQs.

That should be an obvious statement. It also turns out to come with real economic benefits. The latest study by Harvard's Dale Jorgenson et al shows that the Clean Air Act has boosted productivity and growth:

GDP in 2010 is 1.5 percent higher than it would have been without the Clean Air Act.

Again, that's GDP. Hard economic growth. The number that measures everything except that which makes life worthwhile.

Clean and competitive

Lastly, the paper concludes with a look at competitiveness concerns. The verdict: the Clean Air Act does not harm competitiveness.

That's not as strong as saying that the Clean Air Act improves U.S. competitiveness. Improving productivity also improves competitiveness, and combining the standard competitiveness arguments with Jorgenson's productivity results may well show that to be the case.

But no one to my knowledge has done that yet credibly. (Of course, I'd love to be proven wrong on that point.) To the full credit of EPA and the credibility of its analysis, the paper does not go that far either.

The White Paper stays well within the mainstream of economic analysis of the Clean Air Act and bears plenty of good news for health, wealth, and the planet.

Read it at your own peril. It may well be the first piece of economic analysis that makes you giddy yourself.

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Not the U.S. or China, but the U.S., China and the Planet

One of the pleasures of my job is having a slew of superbly qualified prospective interns knock on our doors. Yesterday, I interviewed someone who graduated at the top of his class at Renmin University in Beijing.

There have been plenty of column inches written on "China versus the US," including when it comes to green jobs and clean tech. So,

Who's going to come out ahead, China or the United States?

It took him nary a second to nail this one:

China, relatively. Both China and the U.S. in an absolute sense.

That's the textbook answer.

The atmosphere wins

China has a lot of catching up to do. Comparatively, it will clearly gain on the U.S. But trade also has advantages for both parties involved. That's why we trade in the first place.

The planet emerges as a winner as well. It doesn't care where a ton of carbon gets emitted or where it gets reduced—just that reductions happen.

If China produces cheaper solar panels, we get fewer emissions overall. The planet wins. China wins. What about the U.S.?

What about jobs?

If you are among the 800 workers in Devens, MA, who last week found out that Evergreen Solar was moving its plant to China, you will feel very differently about free trade right about now. The textbook economic answer would say that the move can still make everyone better off: compensate the losers through portions of the gains from the winners, and everybody wins once again.

This situation, of course, is the moment when you throw out your textbook and think about the full consequences.

As a result of the move, solar panels will likely become even cheaper for everyone, enabling many more to buy them. Still, the Devens 800 will not be among the people lining up to buy cheaper solar panels.

What can they do? What should the U.S. do as a matter of policy?

First, we need to realize that the rules of trade still apply. China has lots of cheap labor. It does and will continue to manufacture many products sold in the U.S. Solar panels are no different.

But that's still not a satisfying answer, nor is it the whole story—not for manufacturing itself, and not for the clean tech industry overall.

How to keep clean tech jobs in the U.S.

To get to the bottom of this, we need to look at the full supply chain for solar panels. This, of course, oversimplifies things, but we can split the entire process into three distinct buckets: inventing, producing, and installing.

Right now, the U.S. is inventing, China is producing, and it is the one installing the resulting solar panels domestically at massive scale.

The U.S. ought to do everything to make sure it keeps inventing clean tech products. That means a concerted push to fund basic research and development. But R&D subsidies alone won't do.

Many mentions of "R&D" add a second "D" for deployment. Government support can get things going, but large-scale deployment of clean technologies won't happen through subsidies alone (at least not without bankrupting the government).

So how do you get deployment up to scale?

Deployment clearly needs to be driven by demand. That's where a cap on carbon pollution, with its resulting price on carbon, comes in. A cap helps create a more level playing field for solar and other renewable energy sources relative to fossil energy and, therefore, creates the necessary demand. (There are alternatives, like simply requiring a certain percentage of power to come from solar, but none is quite as cheap and flexible as a cap.)

Made in USA?

Moreover, cheap labor and cheaper production facilities may be a decisive factor, but they are not the only reason companies consider when choosing where to locate. There are many more, but let's focus on two: intellectual property (IP) protection and being close to where the demand is.

The U.S. has a leg up on China in terms of IP protection. That's, in part, why the U.S. (still) leads on R&D. It's also a clear draw for some companies to locate their production facilities in the U.S.

Another oft-cited reason is to be close to consumers. That's once again where the importance of the second "D"—deployment—comes in. The more demand there is for solar panels in the U.S., the more companies will locate their production plants in the U.S. as well. The case of First Solar supplying panels for Wal-Mart is a prime example. (Note that this is distinct from cheaper production leading to more demand in the first place.)

In the end, though, we must also be clear that jobs will be different in the new, cleaner economy. We will need fewer gas station attendants. Many other jobs will thrive. Underlying trade forces will mean that China may well be producing many of the solar panels sold globally. Assembling, installing, and maintaining solar panels in the U.S. will require plenty of skilled labor. And none of these jobs can be exported.

California leading

With the right policies in place, the U.S. will keep inventing. It will also create thousands of jobs dedicated to deployment. China will play a major role in producing, but even there, smart environmental policy can only help.

California is taking the lead with its Million Solar Roofs initiative, creating many a job assembling, installing, and maintaining solar panels. That initiative, though, still has to be paid for by tax dollars, and it won't go on forever.

That's where the cap on carbon kicks in. California is bound to stay ahead of the rest of the U.S. with its ambitious cap-and-trade system that starts on January 1, 2012 and the resulting market signal that says that clean tech pays in the U.S. as well.

Consider the just-released Next 10 report, Many Shades of Green, that found that in the most recent observable 12-month period (January 2008 – January 2009) jobs in the green sector grew more than three times faster than total employment in California. (Of course, all of this always comes with the warning that green sector jobs are still a small fraction of total jobs—much like IT jobs were a minuscule part of overall employment in the early 1980s.)

One of our internship spot may well end up going to a Chinese student, but that, too, can only be good for the planet—making a small contribution to help train the next generation of Chinese environmental leaders. And rest assured, there are plenty more open job positions (including one for a post-doc working with our economic team, open to anyone with a Princeton affiliation).

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The long and the short of energy efficiency

David Owen asks a provocative question in the current New YorkerIf our machines use less energy, will we just use them more? He more or less says yes. The real answer comes in two parts.

For now—over days, weeks, months, and even years—energy efficiency will decrease energy use and emissions. Screw a compact fluorescent light (CFL) bulb into a socket that used to hold an incandescent and your energy use will go down. Chances are you won't leave the lights on four times as long just because light now costs a quarter.

Over time—years, decades, centuries, and millennia—more energy efficient lights and appliances will indeed mean that more people use more of them. CFLs make light more affordable. That doesn't matter to the typical U.S. household, where few light sockets remain unused because of energy costs. But globally—and over time—it does make a difference.

The Jevons Paradox

William Stanley JevonsOwen goes back to 1865 and William Stanley Jevons who at 28 came up with what has later been called the "Jevons Paradox":

It is wholly a confusion of ideas to suppose that the economical use of fuel is equivalent to a diminished consumption. The very contrary is the truth.

Jevons is right, of course. We have seen dramatic increases in energy efficiency over centuries while energy use has gone up by orders of magnitude.

Does that mean we shouldn't increase energy efficiency? Of course not. We just need to be clear about what we are getting in exchange.

Energy over the millennia

Sperm WhaleBy the mid-1800s, the latest and greatest in lighting technology was spermaceti, a fat from the head of sperm whales. It cost around $1,500 a barrel in today's dollars and its price was only going to go up as whales became ever scarcer. Since then, we have seen gas lights come and go and by now electric lights cost less than a thousandth as much as the equivalent in lighting power back then.

That's not a recent phenomenon. Bill Nordhaus went back to 500,000 BC. Lighting cost a million times [PDF] as much then as it does today. Needless to say, we are using much more of it now.

Another word for this phenomenon is “technological progress.” That’s really what’s behind the whale oil story, and we want more of it. There is still plenty of energy poverty [PDF] in the world. We clearly want affordable, clean energy for as many people as possible.

Of course, misguided “progress” has also led us to a planet on the brink of breakage. We need to limit greenhouse gas emissions—and do so sooner rather than later.

Will energy efficiency save the climate?

Should we look to energy efficiency as a way to do some of that? Absolutely. Energy efficiency is cheap, quick, clean, and often underutilized.

McKinsey has looked for zero-cost energy efficiency opportunities in the United States and has found possible savings of above 20 percent of total demand in 2020.  Those savings, could go a long way toward meeting commonly discussed climate policy goals.

But won’t those energy savings just mean that we are using more energy eventually? History has shown it to be true after all.

In the short run—over days, weeks, months, and even years—the Jevons Paradox manifests itself in a well-documented “rebound effect” of around 10 percent. On average, you would indeed leave your CFL on for a bit longer than you would an incandescent. We lose a tenth of energy savings to increased use. (Owen cites the 10 percent figure but then goes on to overstate some of the implications dramatically.)

That leaves 90 percent in true savings and points to the clear win-win potential of energy efficiency measures.

Not by energy efficiency alone

In the long run—over years, decades, centuries, and millennia—cleaner and cheaper energy also means more people will be using more of it.

Does that mean energy efficiency is bad? Of course not. Energy inefficiency is another term for waste. And we clearly want less of that. But the problems our planet faces are too large to address through waste reduction (“reduce, reuse, recycle”) alone.

To get emissions down in the long run, there’s no escaping the (gasp) inconvenient truth that we must limit pollution directly—ideally though a declining cap on total emissions.

A cap on emissions—and the ensuing price on carbon pollution and race to invent cleaner energy sources—is the only mechanism we know that can break the link between emissions and energy use.  It limits the former and makes clean energy cheaper relative to fossil fuels.

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