Market Forces

Nature-based solutions can help New York and New Jersey adapt to rising seas and intensifying storms

Are we prepared?

With peak hurricane season upon us and what seems like daily coverage of record storms, floods, and ice melt, climate adaptation solutions should be top of mind for individuals and governments alike. After all, recent data show billion-dollar disaster events continue to take place with increasing frequency. Here in New York, many are wondering whether we’ll be ready when the next big storm hits. An emerging consensus —even among local elected leaders —seems to be: “Nope.”

The ongoing upward trend in global GHG emissions suggests we are far from experiencing the worst impacts of a changed climate. And while swift decarbonization is a first-best solution, we also need to bolster community resilience to prepare for the climate impacts around the corner.

What to expect?

New York and New Jersey are acutely vulnerable to sea level rise and storm intensification. Roughly 400,000 New York City residents currently live in an area with a 1% annual chance of flooding. The region’s coast has a booming property market, with an estimated $101.5 billion of property value in an area with a 0.5% annual chance of flooding. Like so many coastal communities, a significant number of lives, assets, and locations of priceless social value are at stake.

An intermediate scenario from NOAA anticipates global mean sea level will rise by more than three feet by 2100. The New York City Panel on Climate Change recently introduced a new low-probability, high-impact “Antarctic Rapid Ice Melt” scenario, which considers the triggering of a critical tipping point that would result in 9.5 feet of sea level rise by 2100.

The science is clear: our coastline is going to look very different by the end of the century.

What can we do?

Superstorm Sandy was a wakeup call. It exposed myriad deficiencies with regard to disaster response, electricity systems, and post-disaster recovery. The storm incurred more than $19 billion in damages in New York City alone, and led to the deaths of 24 people from my home borough of Staten Island.

In the wake of the storm, a number of promising policy responses created momentum toward greater resilience in the region. One major effort is the Army Corps of Engineers’ “New York-New Jersey Harbors and Tributaries Study,” a comprehensive regional assessment spanning 900 miles of shoreline and 25 congressional districts  that will prompt the development of large-scale storm risk mitigation infrastructure projects across both states.

This work has massive implications. One of the alternatives includes a five-mile storm surge barrier, stretching from Breezy Point, Queens, to Sandy Hook, New Jersey. The preliminary price tag of the projects in this alternative: $118.8 billion. While this is just one of five alternatives under consideration, it is clear the Corps’ work will be expensive, transformative and serve as the backbone of the region’s storm risk mitigation infrastructure for generations.

Natural infrastructure can play a part

While the vast majority of the infrastructure solutions considered in the NYNJHATS study are grey — i.e., human-engineered structures which often include steel or concrete— nature-based solutions deserve full consideration as well, because they can be economically viable components of our adaptation strategies. For example, earlier this year the Corps released a final report for a smaller civil works project—still expected to cost more than $600 million—in the Rockaways and Jamaica Bay. EDF successfully advocated to include more than nine acres of new and restored wetlands and maritime forests, and they were ultimately included, as they were deemed the most viable and economically justified solutions in those cases.

While by no means a silver bullet, nature-based solutions are sometimes the most cost-effective flood mitigation options at our disposal. Unfortunately, current Corps guidance does not factor certain incidental benefits, including those from ecosystem services, into cost-benefit analyses. This means things like improved water quality, oxygenation, carbon sequestration, and habitat restoration are excluded from the calculation, on the grounds they are difficult to quantify. Even so, the recent release of “Engineering with Nature: An Atlas” suggests the Corps is moving in a direction that will feature natural infrastructure solutions more prominently in future coastal adaptation efforts.

In the face of historic sea level rise and flood risk, natural and nature-based solutions can play a key role to restore ecosystems and serve as additional lines of defense against flooding in New York and New Jersey. Adaptation authorities need to consider the full range of benefits natural and nature-based flood risk mitigation projects can provide, otherwise we run the risk of leaving economic value on the table. Adapting to climate change is going to be a costly endeavor- let’s not make it more expensive than it has to be.

 

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Not all fossil fuel subsidies are created equal, all are bad for the planet

This is part two of a five-part series exploring Policy Design for the Anthropocene,” based on a recent Nature Sustainability Perspective. The first post explored the intersection of policy and politics in the development of instruments to help humans and systems adapt to the changing planet.

A recent International Monetary Fund (IMF) working paper made headlines by revealing that the world is subsidizing fossil fuels to the tune of $5 trillion a year. Every one of these dollars is a step backward for the climate. That much is clear.

Instead of subsidizing fossil emissions, each ton of carbon dioxide (CO2) emitted should be appropriately priced. That’s also where it’s important to dig into the numbers.

It’s tempting to go with the $5 trillion figure, as it suggests a simple remedy: remove the subsidies. At one level, that is precisely the right message. But the details matter, and they go well beyond the semantics of what it means to subsidize something.

Direct subsidies are large

The actual, direct subsidies—money flowing directly from governments to fossil fuel companies and users—are “only” around $300 billion per year. That is still a huge number, and it may well be an underestimate at that. The International Energy Agency’s World Energy Outlook 2014, which took a closer look at fossil subsidies than reports since, put the number closer to around $500 billion; a 2015 World Bank paper provided more detailed methodologies and a range of between $500 billion and $2 trillion.

What all these estimates have in common is that they stick to a tight definition of a subsidy:

Subsidy (noun, \ ˈsəb-sə-dē \)

“a grant by a government to a private person or company to assist an enterprise deemed advantageous to the public,” per  Merriam-Webster.

These taxpayer-funded giveaways are not only not “advantageous to the public,” they also ignore the enormous now-socialized costs each ton of CO2 emitted causes over its lifetime in the atmosphere. (Each ton emitted today stays in the atmosphere for dozens to hundreds of years.)

The direct subsidies also come in various shapes and forms—from some countries keeping the cost of gasoline artificially low, to a $1 billion tax credit for “refined coal” in the United States.

Indirect subsidies are significantly larger

The vast majority of the IMF’s total $5 trillion figure is the unpriced socialized cost of each ton of CO2 emitted into the atmosphere. Each ton, the IMF estimates conservatively, causes about $40 in damages over its lifetime in today’s dollars.

Depending on one’s definition of a subsidy, this may well qualify. It’s a grant from the public to fossil fuel producers and users—something the public pays for in lives, livelihoods and other unpriced consequences of unmitigated climate change.

The remedy here is very different than removing direct government subsidies. It’s to price each ton of CO2 emitted for less to be emitted. The principle couldn’t be simpler: “When something costs more, people buy less of it,” as Bill Nye imbued memorably on John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight recently.

 

All that goes well beyond semantics of what it means to subsidize. One policy is to remove a tax loophole or another kind of subsidy, the other is to introduce a carbon price. The politics here are very different.

Unpriced climate risks might be much larger still

The $5 trillion figure also hides something else. By using a $40-per-ton figure, the IMF focuses on a point estimate for each ton of CO2 emitted, and a conservative one at that. The number comes from an estimate produced by President Obama’s Interagency Working Group on the Social Cost of Carbon. That’s a good starting point, certainly a better one than the current Administration’s estimate.

But even the $40 figure is conservative. It captures what was quantifiable and quantified at the time. It does not account for many known yet still-to-be-quantified damages. It does not account for risks and uncertainties, the vast majority of which would push the number significantly higher still.

In short, the $5 trillion figure may well convey a false sense of certainty.

In some sense, little of that matters. The point is: there is a vast thumb on the scale pushing the world economy toward fossil fuels, the exact opposite of what should be done to ensure a stable climate.

In another very real sense, the different matters a lot: Politics may trump all else, but policy design matters, too.

By now the task is so steep that it’s simply not enough to say we need to price emissions and leave things at that. Yes, we need to price carbon, but we also need to subsidize cleaner alternatives—in the true sense of what it means to subsidize: to do so for the benefit of the public. Whether that comes under the heading of a “Green New Deal” or not, it is a much more comprehensive approach than one single policy instrument.

This is party 2 of a 5-part series exploring policy solutions outlined in broad terms in Policy Design for the Anthropocene.” Part 3 will focus on “Coasian” rights-based instruments, taking a closer look at tools that limit overall pollution to create markets where there were none before.

Also posted in Markets 101, Social Cost of Carbon / Leave a comment

A growing call for environmental integrity

The recent introduction of bipartisan carbon fee legislation is demonstrating an important pattern taking hold as policymakers focus on climate change solutions. The Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act, like the MARKET CHOICE Act introduced earlier this year by Republican Rep. Curbelo, recognizes that any carbon fee aimed at meeting the challenge of climate change must be designed with environmental performance in mind.

The new legislation is the first time in a decade that lawmakers from both sides of the aisle have come together to put forth serious climate policy. And like the MARKET CHOICE Act, it uses a fee to reduce pollution across the economy and includes “environmental integrity mechanisms” (EIMs) — provisions that tie a carbon fee to clear, measurable pollution reduction goals and keep us on track to meet those goals. EIMs are still a relatively new concept on the climate policy scene, but leading thinkers have begun to pay them significantly more attention, and it is clear they are emerging as a critical component of any serious carbon fee proposal: and with good reason.

A carbon fee – which sets a price per unit of pollution – prompts the economy to respond by providing powerful incentives to reduce that pollution, but it cannot guarantee the environmental result. While energy and economic modeling tools can provide critical insight into possible or likely outcomes, they cannot provide certainty over the magnitude of the impact. That’s why it is critical to include EIMs designed to provide greater assurances that a fee will deliver on its pollution reduction potential.

Momentum is building for urgent action on climate change. Last week, hundreds of protestors flooded into the Capitol calling for lawmakers to act. The recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report on the climate impacts of 1.5 degrees of warming and the U.S. National Climate Assessment paint a stark picture: the effects of warming are already here and there is no room for more delay if we are to avert disastrous impacts on human health and our economy. As this demand for action has gotten louder, so has the call for solutions that guarantee the results we need.

There is growing recognition that we need serious solutions to these pressing problems – and that means performance-based policy designed to ensure pollution reductions occur at the pace and scale the science demands. EIMs play the role of an insurance mechanism – they may never be triggered if a fee performs as expected, but provide critical safeguards in case it does not. As Rep. Ted Deutch, the author of the new bill, recognized, a price on pollution can harness the power of the market and provide a flexible cost-effective means of achieving results. But Rep. Deutch and the bill’s co-sponsors also realized that it is no longer acceptable to simply set a price and walk away, hoping the fee does the job. We also need limits on pollution, and effective mechanisms to ensure we meet our critical emissions reduction goals.

Indeed, the most straightforward way to cut pollution is to place enforceable declining limits on pollution, guaranteeing the environmental outcome, while giving businesses flexibility to determine the best way to meet it. We already have proof that those kinds of policies can help meet environmental goals faster and more cheaply than expected while growing the economy.

Regardless of the approach we take, the cornerstones of good policy design are the same: clear and measurable emission reduction goals, effective provisions to ensure they are met, and flexibility in how to meet them coupled with strong incentives to do it cheaply and efficiently. In the context of a carbon fee, that means including an EIM.

Ultimately, in order to achieve the dramatic transformational change needed to reach a 100% clean energy economy and the pollution reductions that science demands: net-zero emissions as soon as possible, a portfolio of policy approaches is needed (as others have pointed out). This means not only a limit and a price on pollution, but also investing in innovation and development of promising emerging clean energy technologies. It also means putting in place other programs that accelerate deployment of clean transportation infrastructure and promote electrification of cars and buildings. And it means encouraging states and cities to continue to lead and take action to cut pollution, pushing beyond federal requirements.

The seeds of future progress in Congress are being planted and demand is growing for durable and effective solutions that ensure environmental goals will be met. The key metric for any climate policy is environmental performance – lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are demonstrating they recognize this fundamental principle.

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California Bucks Global Trend with another Year of GHG Reductions

This post was co-authored by Maureen Lackner and originally appeared on the EDF Talks Global Climate blog.

The California Air Resources Board’s November 6 release of 2016 greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions data from the state’s largest electricity generators and importers, fuel suppliers, and industrial facilities shows that emissions have decreased even more than anticipated. California’s emissions trends are showing what is possible with strong climate policies in place and provide hope even as new analysis projects that global emissions will increase by 2% in 2017 after a three-year plateau.

California’s emissions kept falling in 2016

The 2016 emissions report, an annual requirement under California’s regulation for the Mandatory Reporting of Greenhouse Gas Emissions (MRR), shows that emissions covered by the state’s cap-and-trade program are shrinking, and doing so at a faster pace than in prior years. Covered emissions have dropped each year that cap and trade has been in place, amounting to 31 million metric tons of carbon dioxide-equivalent (MMt CO2e) over the whole period, or 8.8% reduction relative to 2012. The drop between 2015 and 2016 accounts for over half of these cumulative reductions (16 MMt CO2e; 4.8% reduction relative to 2015). The electricity sector is responsible for the bulk of this drop: electricity importers reduced emissions about 10 MMt CO2e while in-state electricity generation facilities reduced emissions by about 7 MMt CO2e.

Some sectors’ emissions grew in 2016. Just as with global transportation emissions, California’s transportation emissions have steadily crept up in recent years, and the MRR report suggests this trend is continuing. Transportation fuel suppliers, which account for the largest share of total emissions, reported a 1.8 MMt CO2e increase in emissions covered by cap and trade since 2015. Cement plants and hydrogen plants also experienced small increases in covered emissions. One of the benefits of cap and trade, however, is that if the clean transition is occurring more slowly in one sector, other sectors will be required to reduce further to keep emissions below the cap while the whole economy catches up.

Emissions that are not covered by the cap-and-trade program dropped, from 92 MMt CO2e in 2015 to 87 MMt CO2e in 2016. While small, this represents the largest reduction in non-covered emissions since 2012 and is mostly driven by suppliers of natural gas/NGL/LPG and electricity importers. Net non-covered and covered emissions reductions resulted in a 20.5 MMt CO2e drop in total emissions from these sectors.

These results are a welcome reminder that the cap-and-trade program is working in concert with other policies to accomplish the primary objective of reducing emissions.

The California climate policies are accomplishing their emissions reductions goals

The 2016 MRR data indicate impactful reductions in GHG emissions and progress toward reaching the state’s target emissions reductions by 2020. The 2016 emissions drop is a consequence of several factors: a CARB analysis of the year’s electricity generation points to increased renewable capacity, decreased imports of electricity from coal-fired power plants, and increased in-state hydroelectric power production. To put it in perspective, the 20.5 MMt CO2e emissions reductions is equivalent to offsetting the energy use of about 2.2 million homes, or 16% of California’s households.

Emissions below the cap are a climate win, not a concern

Total covered emissions in 2016 were about 324 MMt CO2e, well below California’s 2016 cap of roughly 382 MMt. Some observers of the cap-and-trade program worry that an “oversupply” of credits will result in reduced revenue for the state and lesser profits for traders on the secondary market. This concern was especially pronounced when secondary market prices dipped below the price floor in 2016 and 2017.

Importantly, oversupply of allowances is not a bad thing for the climate. As Frank Wolak, an energy economist at Stanford, points out, oversupply may be a sign of an innovative economy in which pollution reductions are easier to achieve than anticipated. Furthermore, having emissions below the cap represents earlier than anticipated reductions which is a win for the atmosphere. Warming is caused by the cumulative emissions that are present in the atmosphere so earlier reductions mean gases are not present in the atmosphere for at least the period over which emissions are delayed.

While market stability is a valid concern, the design of the program has built-in features to prevent market disruptions. Furthermore, the California legislature’s recent two-thirds majority vote to extend the cap-and-trade program through 2030 provides long-term regulatory certainty. Both the May and August auctions were completely sold out suggesting that the extension has succeeded in stabilizing demand.

These results are a welcome reminder that the cap-and-trade program is working in concert with other policies to accomplish the primary objective of reducing emissions, and that we’re doing it cheaply is an added bonus. Early reductions at a low cost can lead to sustained or even improved ambition as California implements its world-leading climate targets.

As California closes its fifth year of cap and trade, it should be with a sense of accomplishment and optimism for the future of the state’s emissions.

Also posted in California, Cap and Trade, Cap and Trade Watch / Leave a comment

Why climate policy is good economic policy

More than 200 world leaders met over the last few days at the United Nations’ Annual Climate Change Conference in Bonn to discuss how to fill in the details of individual countries’ pledges of the Paris agreement. And while the United States has clearly ceded its leadership role to China, Germany, France, Canada and others, there are clear signs that adopting an ambitious climate policy is smart for long-term economic prosperity.

Economists across the political spectrum agree that the market alone will not solve climate change, because carbon pollution is still largely unpriced. From an ideal point of view, the optimal climate policy would be a global carbon price. If an appropriate and sufficiently robust global carbon price existed, with clear declining limits on pollution, no other climate policy would be needed.

Unfortunately, such a carbon policy does not currently exist. So, in the absence of such a global pricing regime, what kind of climate policy is cost-effective?   Each individual climate policy can be judged on its merits, and most typically show large economic gains, as the benefits of avoiding climate change far outweigh the costs.

Ambitious climate policy passes a benefit-cost test by using the Social Cost of Carbon

To understand the benefit of climate policy, we first need a sense on the magnitude of the climate damages that can be avoided. The current economic consensus view quantifies the social cost of carbon – that is the damage from emitting one ton of CO2 – at $42 per metric ton of CO2 emissions in 2007 U.S. Dollars based on work by the U.S. Government’s Interagency Working Group on Social Cost of Greenhouse Gases.

And while estimating the full range of climate damages is a daunting task, new research indicates economists are getting much better at it. Recent empirical studies have started to expand and strengthen the quantification of climate damages based on improved statistical techniques. A recent study in Nature, for example, finds that a lack of climate policy would reduce average income by 23% by 2100. These empirical estimates indicate that the true social cost of carbon is a multiple of the estimates based on the integrated climate-economy models that the Interagency Working Group still relies on. Which is what leading researchers suspected all along.

But what about the cost of climate policy? For many, the potential cost of enacting ambitious climate policy has become a powerful argument against taking any sort of action. So how can we tell if enacting climate policy is cost-effective? A first pass is to subject individual climate policy proposals to benefit-cost analyses that weigh the cost of the specific policy against the avoided climate damages using the social cost of carbon. For example, if the climate mitigation component of a renewable energy proposal costs less than the social cost of carbon, then the policy is good economics.

On the flip side, failing to pass a benefit-cost test does not necessarily imply that a policy is not cost-effective. The social cost of carbon still only captures some of the damages, and future revisions will in all likelihood correct it upwards. Additionally, a policy might lead to important co-benefits beyond climate policy such as reductions in criteria pollutants that have negative effects on human health and the environment.

The Clean Power Plan can serve as a good example to illustrate the argument.  Using benefit-cost analysis based on the social cost of carbon, the EPA determined that the Clean Power Plan is a worthwhile investment, with net gains totaling billions of dollars. This is the case even when ignoring any non-climate co-benefits, and when using the lower consensus estimate for the social cost of carbon. Relying instead on the newly available climate impact estimates adds several billion dollars to the net benefits.

Climate policy can go hand in hand with economic prosperity

Moreover, the evidence suggests that – contrary to what some claim – we can implement climate policy while growing the economy. While there can be small adjustment costs, climate policy also leads to lead to new opportunities and innovation. Patenting in clean technologies, for instance, is as vibrant as in biotech, translating into additional growth benefits for the economy as a whole.

Uncertainty makes acting now even more compelling

While there is uncertainty as to just how much CO2 levels in the atmosphere will rise, we know it will be more than ever before encountered by modern humans. And, we already know the economic impacts will be bad. The devastation from hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria—made worse by the impacts of a warming climate—will cost communities, taxpayers and insurance companies billions.

But things could turn out much worse. Theoretically, catastrophic climate damages could be so high as to dominate any benefit-cost analysis. This as of yet unpriced uncertainty is a compelling reason to act, not to wait. How to quantify uncertainty with precision is still at the frontier of climate economics. A recent working paper at the NBER calibrates a climate-economy model to financial risk attitudes. The authors find that taking the uncertainty in climate impacts seriously will increase the social cost of carbon even more.

Uncertainty taken seriously means ambitious climate policy today. At least that’s what unites groups on both ends of the political spectrum, from progressive environmentalists to Nobel-prize winning Chicago economists.

 The economic case for ambitious climate action is clear. With the right policies, the benefits of avoiding climate change far outweigh the costs. And in the absence of a price on carbon, the only question is: what are the right climate policy instruments? As EDF has long argued, political debates in climate policy must not be over the if, but the how.

Also posted in Clean Power Plan, International, Politics, Social Cost of Carbon / Leave a comment

How and why farmers in the Catskills protect New York City’s drinking water

At a recent EDF board meeting, Geoffrey Heal talked about the economic values that ecosystem services provide for our economic well-being. His presentation included a number of case studies, including the New York City Department of Environmental Protection’s financial support for farmers in the Catskills to farm in ways that protect the city’s water quality. The key to the business model: farmers benefit by getting financial support from the City of New York, and the city avoids having to go through a costly filtration system to physically remove impurities or contaminants in a series of filters. The city water supply does undergo UV decontamination.

Last week, the staff of EDF’s Office of the Chief Economist decided to see for ourselves how this works in practice. We visited with Gibson Durnford, the East of the Hudson Agricultural Coordinator of the Watershed Agricultural Council, based in Yorktown Heights, New York. A non-profit organization led by local farmers, it started in 1993 to lead and administer the program.

Incentives for farmers and the City are aligned

Gibson explained that customers in New York City consume 1 billion gallons of water a day, which is supplied from the West and East Hudson systems. There is one and a half years of water in storage (550 billion gallons).

If farmers did not protect the Delaware and Catskill water sheds, the City would have to make a an estimated capital investment of $8-10 billion in water filtration plants and spend an additional $100 million annually to operate them. Phosphate is a particular problem, and the city would also have to deal with sediment running off the farms into the water supply system.

For farmers, payments for eco-services compensate and empower private landowners to be surface-water stewards of New York City’s drinking water. Whole farm management plans are agreed with farmers, incorporating best management practices that both support sustainable farming and protect water quality; concentrated manure sources like slurry pits or storage piles are a greater concern than waste in the fields. If fields are well-vegetated with grass, the plants will take up nutrients; the vegetation slows water flow and also makes the soil more porous and increases absorption.

Farmers are provided with investment funds for purposes which include drainage, roading, manure pads, and sward management; conservation easements are purchased (a percentage of market value) which simultaneously lets the farmer retain ownership of the land, releases capital for the owner while ensuring that the land remains available for farming and forestry; the forest program helps farmers with erosion control, sustainable harvesting, and planting on the banks of tributaries.

Conservation in action at an Alpaca farm
We visited Leda Bloomberg and Steve Cole’s Faraway Farm, where they raise Alpaca sheep for their wool. The Watershed Agricultural Council supported the installation of a manure pad, and of a rocky channel along the roadway had drains it to collect the water running off the field and divert it away for infiltration into the soil. Leda and Steve indicated that they had benefited greatly from the advice and support of the Watershed Council. The council is “on the side of the farmers” and is proactive in finding new and better ways to conserve and better their well-being.

The economist Ronald Coase won the Nobel Prize, in part for theorizing (without evidence) that those who pollute could negotiate a solution with those who would benefit from pollution reduction. We were honored and delighted to see his theory being acted upon to such great positive effect for both farmers upstate and the water consumers in New York City. As we left, we had only one question: Doesn’t such a great idea deserve to be replicated?

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