Market Forces

Building North-South cooperation to fight the ‘tragedies’ of climate change

This post draws from a chapter for a book I wrote in 2020: “Overcoming the tragedy of distance – cooperating with our friends’ friends” in Living with the Climate Crisis ed. Tom Doig. Bridget Williams Books, Wellington, New Zealand 

I believe that finding ways to work more intensively and effectively with people with very different resources, cultures and life experiences is critical to rapid global decarbonization.

For me, the unprecedented challenge from climate change is that most mitigation has to occur in countries with fewer resources. Key high-emitting countries such as India, China, Indonesia and Brazil, as well as smaller countries such as Laos, Ethiopia, and Peru are all projected, in business as usual forecasts, to have rising emissions as they develop.

These countries have strongly competing priorities, as they also need to address poverty or resolve internal conflict. They are unlikely to mitigate greenhouse-gases fast enough without help. Yet, to stabilize the climate, those countries and all others must reduce their emissions to net zero and the faster the better.

Models by EDF(2019, pp. 200-232) and IETA(2019) suggest that we could double the amount of global carbon dioxide mitigation to 2035 with no extra cost if richer countries can support emerging and developing countries effectively, but that’s hard. ‘International trading’ of mitigation, where richer countries, or their companies, support developing countries to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, has long been a goal, but it has not yet lived up to its promise.

We will all benefit if we can resolve this together. I also think those of us with more resources owe it to poorer countries to help; they are the most vulnerable to climate change, to which they have contributed little. It seems deeply unfair to also expect them to bear the full burden of their transition to net-zero.

Tragedies of climate change

Humans however often struggle with cooperating and sharing with people who are far away from them, in either a physical or social sense. I struggle to empathize with people in India whom I will never meet, but who will need support when they replace coal-fired power plants with renewables as India moves toward net-zero emissions. I don’t think I’m alone in this and I imagine they feel the same about people like me who are not taking rapid action on climate change even when we can afford it.

Is our fundamental problem in mobilizing resources to support developing country decarbonization this “tragedy of distance?”

“Tragedies” are situations where we humans are brought down by our own flaws. These tragedies make climate change particularly challenging to address.

The “tragedy of the commons” suggests that if we can’t exclude people from use of a common resource, we are doomed to destroy it through overuse. For example, the fish stock in a particular area isn’t destroyed because people can’t see what is happening, but because if others are going to over-fish, whatever one individual does, it is in each individual’s personal interest to go fishing while the fish are still there. They feel they can’t protect it. That’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The “tragedy of the horizon” suggests that individual and collective myopia and selfishness lead us to take actions now although they will cause our future selves and future generations to suffer. The phrase was coined by Mark Carney (Former Governor, Bank of England) for climate change, but another classic example is most countries’ inability to invest enough of the wealth that they extract from non-renewable minerals, like oil, to sustain their citizens’ well-being in the future. Again, we can see this coming but struggle to avoid it.

These tragedies are not inevitable. Some communities solve them impressively (e.g., the many examples from the work of Nobel Prize winner Elinor Ostrom and her colleagues, or Norway’s Sovereign Wealth Fund). Others find partial solutions. New Zealand avoids the worst problems of overfishing by limiting catches through the Quota Management System, a system which, though imperfect, has now lasted for more than thirty years. Humans also have relatively good ‘institutions’ for making intergenerational decisions. Families tend to have strong bonds for at least a couple of generations. We may not make “efficient” decisions for our own future selves and our descendants, but we do, generally, care.

Climate change is an issue where all tragedies—of distance, of the commons, and of the horizon—are fully engaged. Climate change is global and cumulative, with extremely long-term, long-lived impacts. Although it is now clear that people alive today are already experiencing the impacts, the major benefits from our mitigation actions today will be experienced not by older people like me, but by our children and grandchildren.

We have worked hard for nearly thirty years to build institutions at the international, national and local level to coordinate mitigation efforts. We need to keep doing this. Despite our lack of obvious success so far, we have made considerable progress. However, these approaches depend very much on a hierarchical approach. That approach is appealingly elegant and logical in responding to a global problem, and is a critical part of the solution, but it’s not working fast enough. And having only one coherent institutional approach is inherently fragile.

We need both coordination and cooperation

United Nations climate agreements try to replicate the success of economic institutions in managing human activity. However, in contrast to institutions that aim to address climate change, many international economic institutions, such as those that govern commerce and banking are essentially addressing a coordination problem. Their success is not easily replicated when dealing with a global cooperation problem like climate change.

Maybe the approaches of more traditional and Indigenous societies have something to offer us as a complement. These societies have broad networks of relationships that extend into the natural world and rely on these and shared belief systems rather than institutions to manage goals and conflicting interests. Traditional ways of thinking of Māori, the Indigenous people of New Zealand, contrast strongly with the hierarchical assumptions about how humans relate to each other and the natural world, “the Great Chain of Being,” common in much contemporary Western thought.

Can we harness shared belief systems and existing North-South relationship networks and reduce the tragedy of distance? Could that help us build deep collaborations among small groups of countries to support the large-scale transfers of resources needed for efficient global climate action?

Is it better to think about transfers to support mitigation in developing countries as primarily about establishing networks of relational contracts, and the strong communication and trust that supports them, rather than centralized carbon commodity trading systems where all have to trust one system?

Also posted in Climate Change, International / Leave a comment

Barriers to tapping the potential of carbon markets for agriculture

An EDF analysis of carbon credits for rice growers shows great climate and cost-savings potential, but is that enough for farmers to participate?

In 2015, rice became the first crop for which agricultural carbon credits were valid for compliance in the California cap-and-trade system. Unfortunately, as of September 2020, no compliance credits have been generated. A newly released report by EDF explores the reasons why.

In the U.S., agricultural greenhouse gas emissions comprise approximately 10% of the economy-wide total emissions. The share of emissions from agriculture is larger for non-CO2 GHGs, making up approximately 78% of the U.S. total for nitrous oxide and 38% for methane.

Policymakers are eager to find mitigation opportunities in the agriculture sector, best evidenced by the bipartisan Growing Climate Solutions Act, which seeks to enable voluntary credit markets for producers to mitigate climate change.

As both policymakers and producers eye the potential of the agriculture sector to grow climate solutions, it’s worth taking a closer look at both the opportunities and the challenges that must first be addressed to tap this potential.

A case study of carbon credits for rice

EDF’s work on agricultural carbon credits began in earnest in 2007 after receiving the first of several U.S. Department of Agriculture grants to investigate how to bring agricultural emissions reduction credits to market. The objective was to design crediting systems that achieve the dual benefits of reducing GHG emissions while also providing meaningful revenue opportunities to landowners.

An EDF discussion paper summarizes some of the underlying analytics of these efforts for a series of crops and geographies. One specific example from the paper — rice in California — highlights both the carbon- and cost-saving opportunities associated with conservation practices like bailing and drainage, and the challenges associated with agricultural credits as a viable abatement measure.

The opportunity: Lowering costs and emissions

Rice is a GHG-intensive crop. It emits twice the amount of emissions per calorie as wheat, three times that of maize, and accounts for 5-20% of global methane emissions. EDF’s research focused on the nation’s two most intensive rice production regions — California’s Sacramento Valley and Mid-Southern U.S. These regions produce 26% and 72% of the domestic rice supply, respectively.

Our analysis began by using a biogeochemical model, DeNitrification-DeComposition (DNDC), to assess the abatement potential for current (baseline) practices and other lower-GHG alternatives in the California rice region. This led our scientists to discover a fairly large overall mitigation potential of more than 0.6 MMt-CO2e-100/year, or approximately 15%, of overall California rice emissions.

We then developed estimates of abatement costs by practice through cost budgets and consultation with agronomists. Combining this with the GHG modeling yielded the following marginal abatement cost curves (one for each practice).

Marginal Abatement Cost Curves for Rice Practices in California. Abbreviations: N (number of fields); WF (winter flooding of rice paddies); NWF (no winter flooding). WF/NWF practices follow a 60/40% distribution, historically, and play a role in determining the scale of achievable reductions.

These graphs illustrate that for all but one practice there are negative abatement costs with averages ranging from -$29.45/acre to -$0.45/acre, suggesting potential savings for farmers from implementing practice changes. For yields, the DNDC model projected that yields would remain relatively unchanged, aside from dry seeding, for which growers would experience an average 4.5% decrease.

These findings show great promise in terms of GHG abatement potential and cost savings for producers with minimal yield impacts (dry seeding aside). So, why aren’t growers already pursuing these practices? What barriers are getting in the way?

Three key barriers to entry

Our analysis identified a few potential barriers for farmers to generate carbon credits.

  1. Weak price signals

Understanding why growers are passing up potential cost savings from practices that reduce GHG emissions requires a closer look at farm economics. Adam Jaffe offers a useful typology for the various barriers to adoption, some of which I have identified below.

Putting the practice costs and yield impacts together, we can imagine a scenario where we have a carbon market in place and a carbon price of $10/ton (the California spot price at the time this work was carried out). In this instance, we’d find that with an average 0.7 ton/acre reduction, most rice growers would be looking at potential revenue from the market of approximately 0.5% of their overall crop sales revenue (typically $1,500/acre), or 2.6% of their net profit (approximately $250/acre), not including further potential gains from the negative abatement costs of certain practices and locations.

Unfortunately, in context of the overarching farm economics, this makes for a weak incentive.

If we now imagine a new scenario with a carbon price closer to today’s social cost of carbon ($42/ton), we find that the potential revenue from participating in the market rises closer to 2% of crop sales revenue and 11% of net profit. At this price, the incentive appears to be substantially more robust, which tells us that, from a social standpoint and with a strong price signal, the market could be viable. But as it currently stands, conditions are falling short of this potential.

  1. Large transaction costs

Another critical consideration for engaging in any market is transaction costs — for GHG markets in particular, monitoring, reporting and verification (MRV) costs.

Our analysis found transaction costs to be significant on a per-grower basis at approximately $14/acre for an average 1,000-acre California farm. At a market price of $10/ton, transaction costs are double the average expected return from carbon markets of $7/acre, providing a steep disincentive. Even with credits priced at the higher social cost of carbon ($42/ton), transaction costs would still equal nearly 50% of potential revenue, essentially cutting their expected financial gains in half.

Further economic modeling showed the importance of allowing a way to aggregate projects for MRV transations due to the very large third-party fees incurred to verify reductions. However, even if growers use aggregation as a means to cost-share, it will be critical to find ways to use technologies like remote sensing and automated data generation and analysis to streamline this process, realize savings and still guarantee accurate verification.

  1. Changing behavior is an obstacle in itself

Finally, behavioral factors represent a hurdle that cannot be ignored — the hidden additional cost of switching practices. This cost is difficult to quantify precisely, but we know from experience that behavior is hard to shift and farming practice changes typically require planning and close coordination with a number of consultants and business partners.

Understanding this, we performed a survey for corn and almond growers, asking how much participants in a carbon market would need to be paid to reduce fertilizer applications, and thereby decrease nitrous oxide emissions. To isolate the behavioral barriers, we designed the survey to encourage the farmers to assume no additional costs, risks or yield impacts.

Their responses ranged from $18-40/acre, when a representative farmer might only receive $7/acre in returns with a $10/t carbon price. This gap in the valuation likely represents factors such as personal or cultural values and aversion to risk and uncertainty that may be very difficult to overcome using market incentives alone[1].

Managing risk and risk perceptions is a challenge that must be addressed to see widespread uptake of mitigation practices.

Where do we go from here?

The agricultural sector has the potential to play a key role in contributing to national climate goals.

Crediting systems are just one tool to support this, but more research and pilot programs are needed to help overcome the barriers to entry, increase confidence in high-quality and cost-effective credits, and also evaluate and correct for potential inequities and injustices.

EDF is launching a new phase of research dedicated to this work, in addition to developing complementary finance and policy tools that correct for existing disincentives and inequities to create a more just and resilient food system.

With the right combination of tools in the toolbox, we can unleash the power of carbon markets to boost long-term resilience on the farm and beyond.

 

[1] It is important to note that all of the numbers depicted above represent averages, and there are certainly cases for which incentives are large at the individual level, and some growers may have zero or even negative switching costs, so many farmers have ripe potential for carbon market participation.

 

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

Canaries in the mine of climate cooperation

Strong emissions trading system prices encourage and facilitate climate action but also reflect private sector confidence in governments’ commitments to long-term transformation.

Every evening in my Brooklyn neighborhood we come out onto our stoops with our children, dogs, bells, horns and pots (my contribution – inspired by the Colombian cacerolazos I witnessed protesting – non-violently, though I can’t say quietly – in Bogotá). We make a big noise to thank and celebrate the generosity and selflessness of the medical personnel and essential workers who are keeping life going during the crisis. Their example is an inspiration to us all and reminds us that humans are at essence a cooperative species. This same spirit of cooperation, backed up by strong social and political institutions including effective emissions trading systems, can help protect our climate in these difficult times.

Our focus now must be on flattening the curve, caring for the sick and vulnerable, and then getting back to work. But as we recover from this crisis, we need to do so in a way that helps us confront the next one: global climate change. Lawmakers in many countries are beginning to pivot from relief to recovery, focusing on the longer-term work of getting the economy back on track. We need that economy to have low greenhouse gas emissions.

No one should take false hope from the temporary decline in greenhouse gas emissions we have seen recently. In the short term, when economic activity falls, pollution falls. During the financial crisis of 2007-9 global greenhouse gas emissions did drop, slightly and briefly. The current economic crisis is deeper but will also pass and when it does, so too will the dip in climate pollution.

To make declines in emissions permanent, we need to seize this moment of fundamental change to ensure effective, efficient, resilient policies to lock in economic and behavioral shifts that do contribute to a transition to a low emission future where all people thrive.

One key element of the policy mix in an increasing number of countries and jurisdictions is an Emissions Trading System. These systems limit greenhouse gas emissions while allowing flexibility around where and when emissions occur.  They provide price signals to help guide clean investment and other climate actions. The limit, or cap, controls emissions; the marginal cost of achieving that limit, which depends on technology and other climate policies among other things, drives the ETS price.

What drives emission prices?

Those ETS price signals have been affected by COVID and its economic consequences. The climate challenge is no less urgent, but is the private sector feeling less pressure from governments to act? Are the canaries who sing in the healthy cooperation mine falling quiet?

Initially both the European Union and New Zealand ETS prices dropped dramatically, but they have since clawed back much of their initial losses. Will they recover and even move to levels consistent with modeled estimates of prices required to stabilize the global at less than two degrees above pre-industrial levels? A recent survey by IETA suggests not. It finds private sector expectations of emissions prices over the next 10 years have fallen relative to expectations a year ago by 12% (EU and the Western Climate Initiative (WCI) – California and Quebec), 27% (Regional Greenhouse Gas initiative), and 35 – 38% (New Zealand and Mexico). What does this mean?

During a recession, when capital is scarce, because ETS units are assets their price will also tend to fall in a similar way to other assets. As the financial sector recovers, asset prices should also recover. These price adjustments, like those driven by new information about mitigation technology provide useful signals. However, general economic factors and new information about the true costs of achieving our climate goals are not the only drivers of these changes in prices.

Because an emissions trading system is a market created by regulation, the price in each ETS is deeply dependent on expectations about the future stringency of that regulation. Because allowances in emissions trading systems are ‘bankable’ (they can be saved for future use by those who emit less and hence surrender fewer allowances today), as long as there is a ‘bank’ of units available their price depends on what people expect demand and supply will be in future, not just on current scarcity. That makes ETS prices a barometer of both the stringency of policy that politicians are willing to implement—and also of the private sector’s expectations about how stringent policy is likely to be over the long term.

In 2008 there was some international optimism about climate action. The Kyoto Protocol had come into force in 2005; obligations began in 2008. Climate policies were gaining traction in many countries. The EU emissions trading system started its second phase with a healthy price, and New Zealand’s ETS kicked off with similar prices. These reflected that optimism. In the US, the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative held its first auction in 2008, and California was moving forward after passing the ambitious Global Warming Solutions Act in 2006. But by December 2009, the price of carbon allowances in the EU emissions trading system had fallen, partly as a result of economic contraction, and more importantly things were beginning to fall apart internationally starting with an unsuccessful U.N. Climate Summit in Copenhagen. By the end of 2012 emission prices had largely collapsed (though prices in the California ETS, launched one year later, were protected by a price floor). Recession was not the only driver, and it’s always hard to disentangle various causes, but the financial crisis did not help.

After the financial crisis and recession, the private sector clearly did not believe that policy makers would impose stringent caps in emissions trading systems; this kept prices low. Optimism around government-led climate action had evaporated. Emission prices, and the signals they provide to investors and companies, only really recovered after 2016 in New Zealand and 2018 in Europe. We can’t wait that long again.

How we can protect climate action from shocks like COVID

Recessions don’t have to lead us to fall even further behind in addressing climate change. The way we manage ETS can help protect the continuity of climate efforts and returns on clean investments against short-term loss of confidence in governments’ commitments to climate cooperation. Possibly the smaller shifts in expectations of prices in the EU and in California and Quebec reflect their more mature institutions and price management approaches—the Market Stability Reserve in the EU and the auction price floor in California and Quebec. Market players have more confidence that the institutions will manage short-term shocks. Critically though, they also have more confidence—though still not enough—that these jurisdictions have a sustained commitment to real long-term change.

When ETS participants believe in society’s commitment to long-term, transformational change to low emissions, ETS prices will reflect only the cost of achieving that.

Recent reductions have come at an enormous cost to human wellbeing. This is not what a transition to a low-emissions economy looks like. The good news: there is still time to stop climate change in ways that allow people and nature to prosper together, and human well-being to burgeon. But the window for such action is rapidly closing. We need a positive and attractive transformation, not economic crises that cause distress and bring only temporary reductions.

We can’t avoid the worst impacts of climate change unless we transform our energy and food systems—changing not only our production but also our culture and the stories we tell ourselves about how we can flourish in balance with our environment. This requires a shift in the fundamental assumptions of all key actors (politicians, business people, officials) and a change in institutions (public and private—e.g. banks, regulations, education, supply chains) so they support of a new set of clean investments and activities and discourage emissions-intensive activities. This won’t happen through forced change. It needs leadership and steady effort.

Once the immediate health crisis from COVID abates we don’t want policy makers (and the public) to lose sight of climate policy and action and focus only on short-term economic concerns. This is what we experienced after 2009 when unemployment levels stayed high long after the global recession passed. We need to find a way to address these critical economic needs while also moving even more aggressively towards a strong, longer-term economic future that offers high wellbeing in a stable climate.

When ETS market players believe we are really on this track, ETS prices will reflect their prediction of the costs of achieving global climate goals—not their assessment of political will.  Maybe we are closer than we think. Prices in the EU-ETS recently passed €30 for the first time since 2006 (briefly before falling a little with bad economic news) and NZ-ETS prices have reached their highest level ever around NZ$34 despite the announced closure of a major emitter. I’m optimistic. The canaries are singing again.  We need to help them to sing even louder.

 

Also posted in Economics / Leave a comment

Firms can manage climate policy uncertainty. Here’s how.

This post was co-authored by Alexander Golub, Adjunct Professor of Environmental Science at American University.

shutterstock_194915288

Shutterstock

For companies that are large emitters of greenhouse gases, uncertainty about policies to address climate change can be a real challenge. But our new paper in the journal Energy shows how companies that invest now in a novel approach to climate mitigation could help manage their risk of future policy obligations more effectively and at a lower cost.

The challenge

In Energy, we demonstrate how policy uncertainty puts greenhouse gas emitting companies in a bind, raising risks for these companies and making it likely that carbon prices—an indicator of costs—will rise in a series of sudden bursts, rather than following a smooth transition.

Policy uncertainty discourages private investment in low-carbon technologies. However, when credible climate policy is finally in place, industry will have missed out on prudent investment opportunities and face spiking costs as they rush to catch up with tightened emissions controls requirements.

In the paper, we show that companies have a latent demand for suitable strategies that can help manage these risks.

Abatement short squeeze

When a government institutes stronger climate policy, businesses may find themselves over-weighted with carbon-intensive assets. Caught short of investments to reduce or “abate” emissions, companies will rush to rebalance their capital stock in favor of lower carbon technologies. At the same time, other businesses will also be rushing to unload high-carbon assets and adopt the lower carbon technology. This can cause carbon prices and associated costs of reducing emissions to rise dramatically.

This is similar to the case in financial markets when prices jump as investors must rush to square accounts on an investment they have bet against—going “short” rather than “long” — in anticipation of falling prices. Until now, such a “short squeeze” was a phenomenon of the stock market — product of speculations and uncalculated risk. Climate change threatens to create such a squeeze of much broader scope and economic consequences.

A down payment on abatement

Companies need access to strategies to manage the risks of future climate liabilities. In our study, we describe how companies could reduce the costs of meeting pollution targets in an uncertain policy landscape by making relatively small investments today that can preserve the flexibility to reduce emissions more dramatically in the future—essentially putting a down payment into cost-effective climate protection programs from large-scale sources. Such strategies can include investments in research and development that could pay off in the future through the availability of low-carbon technologies.

A conceptually similar way to manage exposure to future climate costs is by helping to secure and preserve low-cost “call options” on future abatement. A “call” is a type of option that gives companies the right but not the obligation to purchase an underlying product (whether it be a stock, commodity, or carbon credit) in the future at a guaranteed price. We highlight tropical forest conservation as an ideal type of program that companies can use to buy large-scale call options on abatement. A down payment on abatement on forest protection programs would yield an immediate impact on protecting climate, biodiversity, and local communities, while protecting companies’ ability to obtain further cost-effective emissions reductions in the future.

Call options on large-scale forest protection programs (REDD+)

Tropical forests contain the world’s largest reservoir of carbon within natural ecosystems that once lost cannot be recovered within the necessary time to avoid dangerous climate disruptions. Protecting these forests is thus a time-limited opportunity, but it doesn’t require expensive new technologies or infrastructure. As a result, tropical forest conservation offers one of the least cost ways to immediately reduce carbon emissions at large scales, while providing a multitude of other local and global benefits. Forests also remove carbon from the atmosphere, and as long as they remain intact they will continue to store that carbon. A relatively small investment in protecting forests now can provide urgent near-term financing for conservation while securing call options on carbon credits from ongoing future forest protection.

Tighter emissions targets could lead companies to rush to invest in renewable energy more or less simultaneously. This spike in investment may well exceed the ability of the global capital market to mobilize capital and investment resources. For example, it would be impossible to double or quadruple production of wind turbines or solar panels over a year or so. The economy may reach a physical limitation that could be hardly compensated by pumping capital.

Instead, hedging this risk by investing to secure the ability to generate credits from large-scale programs to protect tropical forests (known as REDD+ programs), companies, and the world, could “flatten the curve” on the costs of capital rebalancing to comply with climate policies. This keeps the total volume of investment below a critical level that could lead to bankruptcy or excessive macro-economic disruption (green line in figure 1).

Who benefits?

By selling REDD+ credits or call options on such credits to firms, forest nations, particularly in the tropics, can start receiving a fair price for keeping their forests protected. Such financing is important to help governments cover their costs of protecting forests and to align incentives of communities, farmers, ranchers and commodity buyers and consumers around forest protection and sustainable agriculture, rather than destructive activities like illegal logging and inefficient cattle ranching.

EDF and partners are pioneering innovative pay-for-performance mechanisms for reducing deforestation. These include the Emergent Forest Finance Accelerator, which links private sector buyers to environmentally rigorous, high-integrity carbon credits from large-scale forest protection programs.

Investments in high-quality REDD+ programs can play an important role in protecting the climate, environment and communities, while allowing companies to better prepare for the moment when society begins implementing more dramatic measures to tackle climate change. To help start the flow of credits, policymakers, companies and other stakeholders should agree on high standards for environmental quality and support the inclusion and prioritization of high-quality REDD+ programs within voluntary climate commitments as well as regulated carbon market systems.

Posted in emissions / Leave a comment

More confirmation that the Trump administration has been disregarding the true costs of climate pollution

This post originally appeared on Climate 411

A new report highlights the Trump administration’s dangerous efforts to obscure the real costs of climate change, while a major court decision firmly rejects the administration’s approach.

Costly flooding in Houston after Hurricane Harvey

new report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO), an independent agency tasked with providing objective nonpartisan information to policymakers, confirms what we’ve known for years: that the Trump administration has been ignoring the enormous costs of climate change. By ignoring these damages, the administration is turning its back on communities across the nation who are footing the bill for those impacts today.

In addition, a federal court recently issued a clear-cut rejection of the administration’s deceptive math on the cost of methane pollution, another greenhouse gas that is 84 times more potent than carbon dioxide over a 20 year time period. This ruling reinforces the fact that the administration has been blatantly disregarding widely accepted science and economics when it comes to the costs of climate change.

All of this comes amid a raging and widespread pandemic that underscores the absolute necessity of relying on experts and scientific data when crafting policy. With unchecked climate change fueling more devastating storms, droughts, and other public health impacts — all of which hit vulnerable communities the hardest — incorporating accurate costs of climate change in policy decision-making matters now more than ever.

Here is what this new report and court decision reveal about the administration’s backwards and harmful approach to decisions on climate change — and how experts and the courts are wholly rejecting it.

Why undervaluing the cost of climate change is dangerous

To justify its own political agenda, the Trump administration has manipulated the calculations behind the estimated impact of emissions to allow for more climate pollution from major sources like power plants and cars. The new GAO report outlines the steps the administration has taken to drastically underestimate the “Social Cost of Carbon” — a measure of the economic harm from climate impacts that is used to inform policy and government decision-making. These impacts include extreme weather events like flooding and deadly storms, the spread of disease, and sea level rise, increased food insecurity, and more.

After a 2008 court decision requiring the federal government to account for the economic effects of climate change in regulatory benefit-cost analysis, an Interagency Working Group (IWG) comprised of experts across a dozen federal agencies began in 2009 to develop robust estimates of the social costs of carbon that could be used consistently by agencies across the government. These estimates were developed through a transparent and rigorous process based on peer-reviewed science and economics that included input from the National Academy of Sciences and the public — and were periodically updated over time to account for the latest science. More recently, the NAS conducted a thorough assessment to provide guidance on updating the social cost of carbon estimates and suggestions for continuing to build on and strengthen it.

The GAO report underscores the importance of implementing those recommendations, while pointing to the fact that the federal government has done absolutely nothing to follow through. In fact, in 2017 the Trump administration recklessly disbanded the IWG — the very federal entity that already had the mandate to take on this task.

Since then, federal agencies like the EPA have been relying on an “interim cost” to inform important regulatory decisions that is seven times lower than the IWG’s estimate — a move that dramatically underestimates the profound impacts climate change has on families, businesses, taxpayers and local governments. To make matters worse, the administration is dramatically reducing the IWG figure even though it is widely recognized to be an underestimate of the true costs. There is wide consensus that the true costs are much likely significantly higher.

The Trump administration substantially reduces estimates through two key flaws in its calculations, both of which fly in the face of established science and economic principles. First, the reduced estimates ignore that carbon emissions are a global pollutant, omitting important categories of climate change impacts on the United States. Second, they undervalue the harm to our children and future generations by significantly over-discounting future climate impacts.

By vastly undervaluing the costs of climate change — and thus, the benefits of acting on climate — the administration has been able to justify rolling back critical protections such as the landmark federal Clean Car Standards. These important rules offer critical public health benefits and fuel savings for consumers.

A court ruling refutes the administration’s deceptive math on pollution costs

In encouraging news, a recent court decision outright rejected the administration’s deceptive math on a similar metric, the ‘Social Cost of Methane,’ used to estimate the impacts of methane pollution. The Bureau of Land Management, under former Department of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, has been using an interim social cost of methane that is more than 25 times less than the estimate from the IWG. The U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California recently overturned the BLM’s attempt to ease protections from dangerous methane leaking, venting and discharging from oil and gas activities on public and tribal lands, where it used a distorted social cost of methane as justification. EDF joined the states of California and New Mexico and a broad coalition of health, environmental, tribal citizen and Western groups to challenge in court the rescission of these vital safeguards.

In the opinion, the judge ruled that the BLM’s decision to rely on a lower interim estimate for the social cost of methane was “arbitrary” and “capricious,” and therefore, “failed to quantify accurately the forgone methane emissions and the resulting environmental impacts.” In addition, the court underscored that “the President did not alter by fiat what constitutes the best available science” on the social cost of greenhouse gas emissions. This is a major win for not only the broad coalition involved in the case, but for the basic principle of science-based decision-making on climate change. The court’s meticulous critique of the flaws in the interim social cost of methane — and the process used to develop it — could be influential in future cases involving the social cost of greenhouse gas emissions. Such a critical ruling like this opens the possibility that the Trump administration and future administrations could be required to properly account for the costs of climate change.

The Trump administration’s unwavering, politically motivated attempts at twisting facts and discrediting experts is putting Americans’ lives, health and financial well-being at risk. Unfortunately, its effort to skew the costs of climate change is far more than a political game. It is already causing real harm to communities across the country suffering from climate impacts — and it will only add to the mounting costs our children and grandchildren will pay. That is why ongoing efforts to uncover and overturn unjust climate decisions are all the more essential.

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

Decarbonizing industry is difficult but possible

Industry is the backbone of the U.S. economy: it provides and transforms raw materials, goods and chemicals needed for civilization, including the energy transition. Yet, it is also responsible for a third of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and 30% of U.S. GHG emissions .

Industrial GHGs include direct (combustion of fossil fuels, leaks and byproducts) and indirect emissions (the purchase of electricity and heat). Even if we reduce indirect emissions through electrification and clean energy, uncontrolled direct emissions from industry would still be responsible for at least 20% of GHG emissions both globally and in the US. Heavy industry, which creates products like cement, iron and steel, chemicals and plastics is particularly carbon intensive, which is why we should invest in ways to mitigate its large direct emissions of CO2.

Why decarbonizing heavy industry is a challenge

Decarbonizing heavy industry is difficult, because its direct emissions are the byproducts of chemical reactions or related to processes that require very high heat or fossil fuels as feedstocks. And because industry uses fossil fuels like coal as feedstock, manufacturing processes often rely on them for heat as well, making it more challenging to reduce industrial fossil fuel consumption. Moreover, there are other obstacles to rapid decarbonization, such as the long lifetimes of industrial facilities (possibly 30+ years) and their high capital intensity. This makes it difficult—but also necessary—to retire or retrofit them on a timeline consistent with limiting warming to 2 degrees Celsius or less.

Another constraint: industrial products must often meet precise quality criteria to comply with safety regulations. In other words, lowering the carbon content of steel or cement manufacturing could impact the quality of the material outputs. Hence, if the characteristics  of carbon-intensive industrial products change, the specifications associated with  building codes and standards may need to change as well, especially if changes imply a modification of the physical properties of common building materials. Finally, geographical limitations like the local availability of renewable energy, key energy feedstocks and infrastructure as well as carbon storage capability may dictate the possibility of decarbonizing heavy industry or not.

That’s why we need to move forward with developing technology and processes that can decarbonize direct emissions from heavy industry. Luckily, several options are available.

Reducing CO2 emissions from high temperature industrial processes 

For industrial heat, there are temperature, quality and flow rate constraints on viable options that stand in contrast to electricity and residential heat (the temperatures required in heavy industry varies from 200°C to 2,000°C). The Columbia Center on Global Energy Policy identified hydrogen (blue, from natural gas or green, from renewable feedstocks), biomass and biofuels, electricity (resistance and microwave), nuclear (conventional and advanced), concentrated solar energy, and carbon capture utilization and storage (CCUS) as options for tackling decarbonization of industrial heat. Each has technical and economical tradeoffs:

  • Biodiesel and hydrogen have the highest heat potential, while conventional nuclear the lowest.
  • Nuclear is the least expensive option, while Green Hydrogen the costliest. They estimate CCUS adding up to 50% cost to the fossil fuel.
  • Green Hydrogen and nuclear have the lowest carbon footprint, while blue hydrogen the highest.
  • Biofuels and Hydrogen are the most feasible, while Nuclear is the most challenging to implement or build.
  • Considering indirect costs and quality of heat needed, these options could increase wholesale costs of production between 10 to 200 percent depending on the sector and specific application.
  • Many options are not cost competitive with retrofitting existing fossil fuels plants with CCUS, and low carbon hydrogen seems the most viable option in the future due to both costs and feasibility.

Cutting process CO2 emissions

The other major source of direct emissions, process emissions, represent an even greater challenge. This is where the rest of direct emissions fits: leaks, fossil fuels as feedstock for chemical reactions and GHG emissions as byproducts of chemical reactions. Rissman et al. (2020) identified the following options:

  • On the producer side: CCUS, use of new materials, energy efficiency, new chemical reactions, leak repairs.
  • On the consumer side: circular economy; 3D printing; reduced material use: longevity, intensity and material efficiency; alternate materials.

The role for policy 

Incentivizing industry decarbonization will require collaborating with industry and engaging policy makers. There are several ways policy can mobilize development and deployment of new processes and technologies in heavy industry, including:

  • Carbon pricing, which increases the costs of using fossil fuels in industrial processes. To ensure domestic producers are not put at a disadvantage in the global market and that there is no emissions “leakage” overseas, the carbon price should include a border adjustment on imported products and materials from heavy industry in other countries.
  • Energy efficiency and/or emission standards to drive deployment of low-carbon technologies.
  • Federally funded research, development, and deployment (RD&D) as well as robust financial incentives to spur private RD&D.
  • Procurement standards and government-sponsored pilot projects to help address the financial risks facing entrepreneurs and early movers.

New initiatives show promise

IEA has noted that in order to get to net zero emissions by 2050, it is important to avoid locked-in emissions from investment in the industry sector, especially considering investment cycles beginning around 2030 will endure for 25 years. By boosting spending on research and development, low carbon technology for the Industry sector might be mature enough to be marketable by the time new investments are done.

While there is still a long way to go, some companies are already exploring ways to deploy decarbonizing technology. The Hybrit initiative, backed by Swedish and Finnish state owned companies LKAB, SSAB and Vattenfall,  is preparing the construction of a demonstration plant to produce low carbon steel with hydrogen by 2035. Canadian Carbon Cure is already mixing recycled CO2 into cement reducing the carbon footprint of their production process. Massachusetts-based Boston Metal is already producing steel with molten oxide electrolysis, a process that removes the need to use coal as feedstock and therefore has no CO2 emissions. Archer Daniels Midland Company (ADM) has deployed a commercial scale Carbon Capture and Storage ethanol refinery plant in Illinois.

These examples highlight some of the strategies and tools that can be used to allow heavy industry to continue to provide the goods and materials we rely on – and the emerging technologies necessary for a clean economy – while decarbonizing. But it will take robust policy support and a significant increase in RD&D funding to reduce direct and indirect industrial emissions at the speed and scale science demands.

 

Also posted in Technology / Leave a comment