Market Forces

Four reasons why China’s 2060 net-zero goal is so important

A shift in ambition, narrative, global cooperation and likely support for mitigation in least-developed countries

Shanghai Bund skyline landmark ,Ecological energy renewable solar panel plant

The announcement by President Xi Jinping at the UN General Assembly last month makes me optimistic.

First, on its own, achievement of this goal will contribute to a reduction in expected future temperature by 0.2 to 0.3 degrees

Second, having a clear and ambitious end goal will shift the narrative within China from incremental slowing of emissions growth and reductions in some sectors to a focus on how emissions can be eliminated entirely (or close to it).

A vision of transformation toward a low-emissions China will complement the vision of a “Beautiful China.” Pollution control efforts are highly complementary with climate mitigation actions – e.g. moving to renewable energy from fossil fuels, restoring ecosystems – and can dramatically improve the wellbeing of the Chinese people. A clear and attractive vision can mobilize a wider community to seek and implement the multitude of small and large changes needed. It will increase confidence in the future of China’s new national ETS, the strengthening of which will almost inevitably need to be part of China’s strategy. That confidence will make the ETS more effective by generating realistic prices and greater certainty for investors.

Third, it changes the climate cooperation ‘game’, significantly.

Economists think of climate cooperation as a game because each player’s (in this case country’s) decisions depends on what they think other players/countries will do – like chess, or rugby. China’s latest ‘move’ responds to others’ earlier moves and anticipates and will influence later ones. Global cooperation on climate change is hard, because of temptations to free-ride. We can use game theory to explore ways to improve humanity’s odds of a good outcome. We know that humans can sometimes cooperate when it’s a repeated ‘game’ – we get many chances to try to cooperate, observe others, reward or sanction and then try again.

And it’s not a binary outcome where we either win or lose.  Any level of cooperation is better than nothing. It might be optimal to aim for no more than 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial temperatures but even if we don’t achieve that, 2 degrees would be better than 2.5 degrees.

Cooperation is easier when some players take leadership, and that’s what China has done. They are not the first emerging economy to set a net-zero target (Bhutan, Chile, Costa Rica, Fiji, the Marshall Islands and South Africa are examples of others), but China’s size makes its announcement a game changer in several ways. The Chinese have shifted the focal point for emerging country contributions to a more ambitious level.

In addition, the rewards to other countries from helping to encourage and sustain China’s efforts rise – if they act in ways that lead China to draw back from this commitment there is more to lose. The costs of mitigation will fall as China learns and shares its new knowledge and technology. Finally, there is less risk that efforts to lower emissions in one country will lead to movement of high emitting-activity to China thereby having no global impact.

Fourth, it means that China, a really large player, will now need to engage even more seriously in helping less developed countries accelerate their mitigation.

Reaching net-zero will be much easier for the Chinese if they can buy high-quality internationally transferable mitigation outcomes (new United Nations Paris Agreement language for international credits). Their engagement in this market could firm up the rules and, critically, mobilize the skills and financial and technical resources that the poorer countries who could credibly sell such credits will need to embark on their own transformational emission reductions journeys.

As China mitigates more aggressively domestically it will develop technology and know-how that it can also export, as it has already on a smaller scale. Some exports will be particularly useful for countries where lower-cost Chinese technology, such as electric buses or cars might be more attractive than expensive European or North American ones. China’s Belt and Road Initiative offers a critical mechanism that can be turned to this purpose. If China can help poor countries develop strong mitigation policies, through strong South-South cooperation, they could transform global cooperation further and strengthen markets for this technology. This would make me even more optimistic.

 

Also posted in china / Leave a comment

How the pandemic is affecting oil markets, shale and the future of climate action

Earlier this month, EDF’s Office of Chief Economist hosted a virtual fireside chat with Jason Bordoff, Professor of Professional Practice and Founding Director of Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy and Marianne Kah, an Adjunct Senior Research Scholar and Advisory Board member at the Center.

Prior to joining Columbia, Bordoff had served in the Obama Administration as the Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for Energy and Climate Change on the Staff of the National Security Council. Kah had been the Chief Economist of ConocoPhillips for 25 years, where she developed the company’s market outlooks for oil and natural gas and led the company’s scenario planning exercises. The two discussed the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on oil markets, the outlook for shale and what the 25% decline in demand says about the challenge to move beyond fossil fuels, carbon reduction and climate action.

Maureen Lackner and Aurora Barone of EDF moderated the discussion.

Maureen: Let’s talk about the impact of COVID-19 on oil markets.

Jason: We told 4.2 Billion people around the world to stay home, and oil demand only dropped 25%. On the one hand, that was the largest drop you could possibly imagine. On the other hand we were still using 75% even though we had put half the world’s population under lockdown.  I found that a sobering reminder of how staggering a challenge it is to think about moving to a world beyond oil.

Maureen: You’ve said this idea of energy dominance or energy independence has emerged as a fallacy in the last few months. Can you explain what that means and how we should be thinking about the US role in global oil markets?

Jason: Independence is a fallacy, and this clearly revealed it. Because it’s still a global oil market. What often matters politically and from the standpoint of producers is the price you’re paying at the pump. What is different now is the macroeconomic impact of oil price shocks. This has revealed that we are still vulnerable to global oil supply shocks when oil prices go up and when they fall. There are few politicians who have been more critical of OPEC than President Trump, and the fact that he had no options available to him but to pick up phone and call Moscow and to call Riyadh and say, “Can you help us out, because the pain in the oil patch is too much to bear?” lays bare the idea that we’re not able to insulate ourselves against oil price shocks. And the best way to insulate yourself from oil price shocks is to reduce the oil intensity of your economy in the first place. Which, if at the same time that you’re calling Moscow and Riyadh, you’re rolling back fuel economy standards, doesn’t make a lot of sense to me.

Maureen: What happens to US shale in all of this?

Marianne: The outlook for shale really changed before COVID-19 and before the price collapse, and it really had to do with investors being dissatisfied with the returns that were coming from these projects, because the industry was reinvesting 130% of operating cash flow. Investors got tired of it. That reduced investment already slowed production growth. There’s also increasing concern about environmental performance of some of these operations, particularly in the Permian Basin, which is growing at such a rapid rate. There’s a lot of flaring and methane emissions, which further encouraged investors to say, “I don’t want to fund this industry.” All of that happened before COVID. COVID just exaggerated these pre-existing forces by causing a large volume of oil demand to be lost, particularly since some of it may be permanent.

Jason: In the days of prices at $40 or $50, the U.S. was growing at a million to 1.5-million barrels per day per year, which is pretty extraordinary. And we did that year after year. I think those days are gone. Shale is still a major force. Shale is still there, but I think we’re going to see it growing at a much a slower rate, and I think that’s consequential for lots of issues—the environment, the U.S. economy and geopolitics.

Maureen: It seems pretty clear that we will see a pretty big consolidation in terms of the number of players, but when might see production come back, or most of it come back?

Marianne: The industry desperately needs consolidation, because there are really too many producers that are producing small volumes in wells that aren’t that economic. You’ve seen some high-profile bankruptcies—Chesapeake and Whiting petroleum. But the question is, who is going to consolidate it now? Few companies have sufficient cash. The industry is generally in cash preservation mode. And a lot of these companies are very small companies that wouldn’t be material for the oil majors. I’m not sure that consolidation (beyond the Chevron-Noble acquisition) will generally happen now, even though it’s desperately needed.

Maureen: What does the long-term picture look like for major producers, and what does this mean for emissions and a potential energy transition?

Jason: I think for those of us who care about transitioning to a much cleaner decarbonized world, it’s not terribly encouraging. You see traffic patterns and congestion patterns in countries that have reopened like China at pretty close to pre-COVID-19 levels, in some cases even a little higher. Mass transit ridership is still down 30-50% in Chinese cities, not surprisingly, because people are worried about crowded spaces. They’re taking private vehicles more. Intercity travel is still down; diesel demand has held up. Jet fuel obviously is going to be down for a while. And maybe it’s middle to the end of next year when we get back to the level of oil demand where oil was before COVID-19. And then I think it will continue growing. I don’t think we’ve seen peak oil demand. I think aviation might look different for an extended period, given how concerned people will be about traveling coming out of this pandemic.

The kind of transformational change we need for deep decarbonization is not going to happen unless we make it happen, and that’s going to need significant policies, regulations, standards and investments. We may have a window to think about very large-scale investment in the economy, and that’s going to be a historic opportunity to use in a smart way from a climate standpoint.

Maureen: What do you think about this idea that we may be seeing peak oil happen sooner than anticipated, and how can we hold companies to account here and make sure this isn’t just some type of greenwashing, empty promise?

Marianne: There are some people who think we’ve lost two years—whenever the peak was going to be, it’s now going to be two years sooner, all the way to this transition is going to get rid of commuting and reduce travel by air. It may also geographically shrink  supply chains given concern about dependence on China and other foreign sources. There is a desire to nationalize supply chains—and not, for example, buy ventilators from China. That’s going to lower the amount of marine fuel used. One thing that I think is a sleeper is, there’s a renewed emphasis on clean air. On the other side, is the movement to personal vehicles. People are leaving mass transit and moving to personal vehicles. In a low price environment, it’s harder for electric vehicles to compete. People may decide to move out of cities, because they don’t want to be in an urban area anymore, which is going to mean more driving. There’s more deliveries, so that’s again, more driving. Single-use plastics were being banned, but now there may be a reversal of that trend, because people are worried about sanitary packaging. All of these deliveries are using plastic in their boxes. So I think the jury is still out on whether and the direction of long-term impacts on oil demand. There are a lot of moving parts, which is why it’s not obvious.

Maureen: Do you think that there are certain climate policies that are more palatable that we have more leverage for now? A price on carbon might actually be an attractive source of revenue under this new situation?

Marianne: Being an economist, I do favor a carbon price, because that is the most efficient way to get people to change their behavior. The devil is in the details in terms of whether it’s fair. How you get it done in the U.S. is the obvious question. And yes, the U.S. government does need the revenues given growing deficits, but if we don’t recirculate the revenues from the carbon tax into the economy, it will have a negative impact on the economy.

 Aurora: How might US E&P [Exploration & Production] financing be affected by recent events?

 Marianne: The low oil prices certainly have affected it. The current pandemic is considered a temporary situation, so there’s a belief that demand will come back to some degree and that prices will come back to $50-60, some forecasters even think $70 a barrel. In fact, we could even see a period of very high prices because there’s insufficient investment going on in the entire E&P sector now. It’s a cyclical industry. When people don’t have cash, they don’t invest.  I think the very low price we’re getting now from the coronavirus certainly hurts, but it’s really the change of perception—whether this industry is attractive to invest in, and does it have a long-term future that impacts investment. There are increasing questions from investors—how is this industry going to be impacted by carbon actions from governments? As more and more investors ask these questions, I think there’s going to be less and less investment.

 

Also posted in Economics / Leave a comment

What a small country’s successes and mistakes can teach us about emission pricing

I’m from Aotearoa, New Zealand, and I really love its land and people, but I am fully aware that from a global perspective it appears pretty insignificant – that’s actually one of its charms.  But being small doesn’t mean you can’t make big contributions including toward stabilizing the climate. This recently published article highlights some lessons New Zealand’s experience with emissions trading can offer other Emissions Trading System (ETS) designers at a time when effective climate action is ever more urgent.

Talking intensively to ETS practitioners and experts around the globe about their diverse choices and the reasons why they made them has made me acutely aware of the need to tailor every ETS to local conditions.  In a complex, heterogeneous world facing an existential crisis, diversity in climate policy design makes us stronger and frankly, improves the odds that the young people we love will live in a world where they can thrive.

New Zealand created the second national emissions trading system in 2008, and the system established a number of firsts, some of which have been repeated widely, like output-based allocation of allowances to combat leakage risk.  Others offer cautionary tales, like linking a small country’s emissions trading market to a large emissions trading market over which you have little control.

Simplicity helps make an ETS more manageable and effective

New Zealand’s small scale makes simplicity a key virtue. Our regulators are well educated, but there just aren’t many of them.  This simplicity would also be a strength in a country with capability constraints, or where corruption is a problem and simplicity naturally increases transparency and reduces opportunities for manipulation.

Regulating fossil-fuel production and imports (that inevitably lead to predictable amounts of emissions – in the absence of effective carbon capture and storage) at the first point of commercialization, another first, made monitoring simple and, in the New Zealand context, minimized the number of regulated agents needed to cover almost 100% coverage of energy-related emissions including all domestic transport.

An ETS needs to match a country’s profile and culture

New Zealand’s small scale and our unusual emissions profile (around half our emissions are biological emissions from agriculture – cow burps and other unmentionables – and lots of land ripe for reforestation) led New Zealand to aim for an ‘all sources – all sectors’ coverage of emission pricing – and this worked well for our politics.  In New Zealand ‘fairness’ is a critical cultural valueNew Zealand’s ETS covers energy, transportation and industrial process emissions but also deforestation, reforestation, and fugitive emissions from fossil fuel production and landfill waste management.  We are still working out how to cover those challenging cows in a way that allows rural communities to thrive – with the current intention being to regulate with emission pricing at the farm level starting in 2025.

The cultural value of fairness also led to a strong linkage between the motivations for free allocation and th methods chosen.  Sectors and companies (sometimes pretty much the same thing in NZ) who lobbied for free allocation had to make a logical case that was publicly scrutinized. Lump-sum allocations were given as compensation to those who were losing the value of stranded assets – e.g. owners of pre-1990 forests, including Māori Iwi (tribes) who lost some of the value of forests they had recently received in Treaty settlements when deforestation began to attract carbon liabilities.  Output-based allocation is still provided for industrial activities that are emissions intensive and trade exposed and therefore face a risk of leakage of these economic activities to other countries where climate policy is weaker.  By effectively subsidizing the activities that might move, output-based allocation reduces that risk.

Political instability can negatively impact markets

Not all experiences have been positive however.  As the report highlights, New Zealand’s ETS has suffered from a lack of policy stability and hence lack of emission price stability.  This was partly because our emissions price was largely determined by international markets (from 2008 to mid-2015, New Zealand companies could buy and surrender unlimited amounts of international Kyoto units such as those from the Clean Development Mechanism and Joint Implementation).  New Zealand’s emission prices bobbed like a cork on the international market. Another critical flaw: not embedding our ETS firmly in a long-term vision for low-emissions transformation and within a wider non-political institutional framework that gives predictability of purpose in the inevitable ETS evolutionary process.

The ability to guide, enable and incentivize dynamic efficiency (e.g. efficient low-emissions investment) has always been a key argument for emissions pricing, but, as a profession we economists have paid too little attention to the political and cultural stability that is critical to enable this. Policy makers need to regularly adapt and update policies. That process of policy evolution can help guide us efficiently through a low-emissions transformation, or, in the face of powerful vested interests and strong temptations to globally free-ride, it can open up repeated opportunities to undermine ambition.

New Zealand is now engaged in the next step of its ETS evolution, learning from others and through critical reflection on our own positive and negative experiences, but continuing to innovate and tailor ETS solutions to our own unusual circumstances. The direct impact on global emissions will be small whatever New Zealand does with its ETS, but the lessons and the example that even small yet significant  countries can act and find new solutions, will hopefully help and inspire others.

Kia kaha Aotearoa

Also posted in Cap and Trade, Markets 101 / Leave a comment

Policy Design for the Anthropocene

There’s no denying we humans are changing the planet at an unprecedented pace. If carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is any guide, that pace is increasing at an increasing rate. For those so mathematically inclined, that’s the third derivative pointing in the wrong direction.

Enter The Sixth Extinction, The Uninhabitable Earth, Falter, or simply the “Anthropocene”—us humans altering the planet to the point where the changes are visible in the geological record, ringing in a new epoch.

A team led by Earth systems scientists Johan Rockström and Will Steffen developed the concept of “planetary boundaries” in 2009. They identified nine major systems where humans are altering fundamental Earth systems—from climate change to land-system change to stratospheric ozone, and gave us now infamous spider graphs summarizing the all-too dire warnings (Figure 1).

Planetary boundaries, tipping points, and policies (Figure 1 from “Policy design for the Anthropocene”)

It is all the more significant, that both Rockström, now director of the famed Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK), and Steffen joined another large, multidisciplinary team ten years later to focus on “Policy design for the Anthropocene.” This team, led by EDF senior contributing economist Thomas Sterner, focused on the solutions.

The good news: there are many.

Table 2 summarizes the crowded field of approaches at the disposal of policymakers. It also shows the decisions to be made when deciding among them.

Policy instruments (based on Table 2 from “Policy design for the Anthropocene”)

How to choose?

Choosing among the many options available quickly moves from policy design to politics.

Take climate change as an all-too prominent example. For one, the obvious first step is to agree that there is a problem in the first place. Denying the problem is not going to get us anywhere near a constructive debate about policy solutions.

One big political decision then is to identify who benefits from acting—or conversely, who pays the costs. If the rights go to the polluter, it’s the victims who pay—all of us, in the case of climate change. If the rights go to society, it’s broadly speaking the polluters who pay. The difference is as stark as between permits on the one hand, and outright bans on the other.

Price or rights-based policies?

Often the decision how to act is among two broad buckets of policies: price or rights-based. The two are broadly speaking two sides of the same coin. Rights generate prices, and prices imply rights.

The difference plays out between carbon pricing and tradable permits. One fixes the price level, the other the amount of emissions. Cue endless academic debates about which instrument is better under which circumstances. Details, of course, do matter.

And this also brings us immediately back to politics. A big difference between price and rights-based policies, is that the latter implies that the political horse-trading doesn’t affect the overall quantity of pollution, at least to a first approximation. Whether tradeable permits are auctioned off—with polluters paying the full price—or whether they are given away for free doesn’t, at first, make a difference. Overall emissions reductions stay the same. I’m saying “at first,” because, any money raised could be spent intelligently on further emissions reductions.

Environmental effectiveness, economic efficiency, political efficacy

The larger point is that (almost) everything is possible. The problems might be dauntingly large. The solution space is similarly large. It’s also clear that no single decision criterion is enough.

Environmental effectiveness is key. Economic efficiency is similarly important.

Achieving the environmental goal is like building a train to the right station. That’s clearly the most important step. Economic efficiency is akin to building the fasted possible train. Just being fast doesn’t help, if the journey goes in the wrong direction. But efficiency implies that one can achieve the same goal at lower cost, or more at the same cost.

But smart policy design, of course, is not enough. It takes political will to get there. Designing policies that pass political muster is clearly one criterion, especially in a polarized environment.

Getting the policy minutiae right is important, but it’s also clear, of course, that politics trumps all. Policies don’t inspire action. Visions of a better future, and a just transition do.

This is party 1 of a 5-part series exploring these policy solutions outlined in broad terms in Policy Design for the Anthropocene in more detail. Part 2 will focus on “Pigouvian” price instruments, taking a closer look at fossil fuel subsidies and carbon pricing.

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

How China is cleaning up its air pollution faster than the post-Industrial UK

Beijing has seen some of the lowest air pollution levels in recent history this past winter, just as China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP) – now strengthened and renamed to Ministry of Ecology and Environment (MEE) – has put the final touches on a new, three-year plan to improve air quality. But while the trend is positive, air pollution levels in China are still dire: The MEP calculates an annual average PM2.5 concentration of 43 µg/m3 for China’s cities in 2017, more than 4 times the level of 10 µg/m3 recommended by the WHO. Official measurements for Beijing even showed the capital’s air quality at 58 µg/m3

Still, China is cleaning up its air faster than the United Kingdom did after its Industrial Revolution. Despite this early success, however, China could spark even more efficient improvements by adopting market-based incentives.

Let’s take a look at how both countries fared immediately after each of their industrial booms.

Figure notes: The figure shows annual average concentrations of total suspended particles (TSP), a coarse and now outdated measure of air pollution. The black line shows the average for China, while the grey line shows London. Data sources: TSP concentrations for China through 2003 are based on the China Energy Databook 9.0 based on data provided by State Environmental Protection Administration. From 2004 on, TSP concentrations for China are based on author-collected air pollution index (API) data from the MEP datacenter. I imputed PM10 concentrations based on information on the main pollutant on a given day and the assumption that an API reading below 51 reflects PM10 (see Stoerk 2016 for explanations on the procedure). I then converted the PM10 concentrations into TSP using a conversion factor of 2 following Matus et al. 2012. TSP concentrations for London come from Fouquet 2011, who generously shared his dataset.

 

Air quality in London is far from perfect, but it’s also come a long way from the days when people died in the “Great Smog.” The graphic above brings together the earliest known air pollution data from China, from 1980 to 2012, and from the UK from the Industrial Revolution until 2008. Air pollution levels in the main Chinese cities at the beginning of the 1980s were almost exactly at the level of London at the height of the Industrial Revolution in 1890 (a shocking outlier is Hohhot, the capital of Inner Mongolia, which reached a concentration of Total Suspended Particles of 1,501 µg/m3 in 1987, possibly the highest level of urban air pollution in recorded history).

The difference is in the speed of improvements: Air pollution in China has been decreasing at a similar trajectory as London’s 90 years earlier, but at twice the pace. While extreme air pollution levels in China’s recent history are typical for an industrializing economy, its pace in cleaning up the pollution is fast by historical standards.

China started to seriously control air pollution from 2006 to 2010 by limiting emissions for each province. Relying on satellite data, my research shows that this first attempt was ultimately successful in reducing nationwide SO2 emissions by over 10 percent relative to 2005. Studying compliance over time, however, suggests that reductions in air pollution only happened after the Chinese government created the MEP in 2008. After its creation, among the many changes in environmental policy, the MEP started to gather reliable SO2 emissions data from continuous emissions monitoring systems (CEMS) at the prefecture level and increased the number of enforcement officials by 17 percent (a task that EDF China actively supported).

This early success notwithstanding, China could do better by implementing well-designed market-based solutions, policies that align with the country’s ambition to combine economic prosperity and environmental protection. Or, in the words of President Xi, to combine ‘green mountains and gold mountains’.

For example, a well-designed cap-and-trade program at the province level could have decreased the cost of air pollution abatement from 2006 to 2010 by 25% according to my research. The anticipated launch of a sectoral emissions trading system to limit a portion of China’s greenhouse gas emissions suggests that the Chinese government is looking to embrace lessons learned in air pollution control and wishes to build on its own pilot market-based pollution control programs to bring its environmental policy into the 21st century.

EDF is playing a key role in helping this endeavor through both hands-on policy work and research. The timing is serendipitous: China is at a cross-roads in environmental policy. Evidence based policy making is welcome. And data quality has improved in recent years. Given the right set of policies, countries can control air pollution, and improvements in air quality typically go hand in hand with economic prosperity.

Both China and London have remaining challenges. Despite dramatic improvements, Londoners, like the Chinese, still live with significant air pollution. A recent report on London’s air pollution found the city is not close to meeting WHO standards. Meeting them will be a challenge, in part because of the complexity of the causes (road transport accounts for over half of local contributions). So just as London must keep battling to improve air quality, Beijing will need to do likewise–but at least now each can now learn from the other.

Also posted in air pollution, china / 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, Economics, Politics, Social Cost of Carbon / Leave a comment