Category Archives: Politics

Reality check: Society pays for carbon pollution and that's no benefit

This open letter, co-authored by Gernot Wagner and first published on EDF Voices, was written in response to a New York Times article citing Dr. Roger Bezdek’s report on “The Social Costs of Carbon? No, The Social Benefits of Carbon.”

Dear Dr. Bezdek,

After seeing so many peer-reviewed studies documenting the costs of carbon pollution, it’s refreshing to encounter some out-of-the-box thinking to the contrary. You had us with your assertion that: “Even the most conservative estimates peg the social benefit of carbon-based fuels as 50 times greater than its supposed social cost.” We almost quit our jobs and joined the coal lobby. Who wouldn’t want to work so selflessly for the greater good?

Then we looked at the rest of your report. Your central argument seems to be: Cheap fuels emit carbon; cheap fuels are good; so, by the transitive property of Huh?!, carbon is good. Pithy arguments are fine, but circular ones aren’t.

First off, cheap fuels are good. Or more precisely, cheap and efficient energy services are good. (Energy efficiency, of course, is good, too. Inefficiency clearly isn’t.) Cheap energy services have done wonders for the United States and the world, and they are still doing so. No one here is anti-energy; we are against ruining our planet while we are at it.

The high cost of cheap energy

Yes, the sadly still dominant fuels—by far not all—emit carbon pollution. Coal emits the most. Which is why the cost to society is so staggering. Forget carbon for a moment. Mercury poisoning from U.S. power plants alone causes everything from heart attacks to asthma to inhibiting cognitive development in children. The latter alone is responsible forestimated costs of $1.3 billion per year by knocking off IQ points in kids. All told, coal costs America $330 to 500 billion per year.

Put differently, every ton of coal—like every barrel of oil—causes more in external damagesthan it adds value to GDP. The costs faced by those deciding how much fossil fuel to burn are much lower than the costs faced by society.

None of that means we shouldn’t burn any coal or oil. It simply means those who profit from producing these fuels shouldn’t get a free ride on the taxpayer. Conservative estimates indicate that carbon pollution costs society about $40 per ton. And yes, that’s a cost.

Socializing the costs is not an option

As someone with a Ph.D. in economics, Dr. Bezdek, you surely understand the difference between private benefits and social costs. No one would be burning any coal if there weren’t benefits to doing so. However, the “social benefits” you ascribe to coal are anything but; in reality they are private, in the best sense of the word.

If you are the one burning coal, you benefit. If you are the one using electricity produced by burning coal, you benefit, too. To be clear, these are benefits. No one disputes that. It’s how markets work.

But markets also fail in a very important way. The bystanders who are breathing the polluted air are paying dearly. The costs, if you will, are socialized. Society—all of us—pays for them. That includes those who seemingly benefit from burning coal in the first place.

Your claim that what you call “social benefits” of coal dwarf the costs is wrong in theory and practice. In theory, because they are private benefits. As a matter of practice because these (private) benefits are very much included in the calculations that give us the social costs of coal. What you call out as the social benefits of coal use are already captured by these calculations. They are part of economic output.

Our indicators for GDP do a pretty good job capturing all these private benefits of economic activity. Where they fail is with the social costs. Hence the need to calculate the social cost of carbon pollution in the first place.

So far so bad. Then there’s this:

Plants need carbon dioxide to grow, just not too much of it

In your report, you also discuss what you call the benefits of increases in agricultural yields from the well-known carbon dioxide fertilization effect. It may surprise you to hear that the models used to calculate the cost of carbon include that effect. It turns out, they, too, in part base it on outdated science that ought to be updated.

But their science still isn’t as old as yours. For some reason, you only chose to include papers on the fertilization effect published between 1902 and 1997 (save one that is tangentially related).

For an updated perspective, try one of the most comprehensive economic analysis to date, pointing to large aggregate losses. Or try this Science article, casting serious doubt on any claims that carbon dioxide fertilization could offset the impacts on agricultural yields from climate change.

Farmers and ranchers already have a lot to endure from the effects of climate change. There’s no need to make it worse with false, outdated promises.

Coal lobby speaks, industry no longer listens

It’s for all these reasons that, to borrow the apt title to the otherwise excellent New York Times story that ran your quote: “Industry Awakens to Threat of Climate Change”. And it’s precisely why the U.S. government calculates the social cost of carbon pollution. Yes, sadly, it’s a cost, not a benefit.

To our readers: Want to get involved? The White House has issued a formal call for public comments on the way the cost of carbon figure is calculated, open throughFebruary 26. You can help by reminding our leaders in Washington that we need strong, science-based climate policies.

Also posted in Climate science | 1 Response

The Silver Bullet Of Climate Change Policy

From Forbes.com:

By Bob Litterman and Gernot Wagner

Whenever the conversation turns to climate change, someone is sure to opine that there’s no silver bullet. The issue is simply too complex to have one solution. When you focus on all the changes that need to occur to reduce greenhouse gas emissions globally it seems like a multifaceted approach is the only way forward.

Most of the world’s vexing problems share that feature. Mideast peace, nuclear non-proliferation, Eurozone stability, and plenty of other national security problems have no single right plan of attack. Some past plans might have brought us tantalizingly close to a seeming solution, but then reality started interfering once again, reconfirming the complexity of it all.

Climate change must surely be in that category. No single country, no single technology, no single approach can seemingly solve this one for us once and for all. Picking a single technology will almost inevitably end in some form of disappointment. Bureaucrats, the saying goes, ought not to try to pick winners. Leave that to venture capitalists for whom failure is a way of life. For every Apple and Facebook, there are dozens who never make it out of the garage. And clean technology doesn’t yet even have a single Apple and Facebook as the standout approach revolutionizing the field.

It turns out, though, that how you frame the issue is crucial. If you think like an engineer there are dozens of challenges. If you think like an economist, there is one. It’s guiding the ‘invisible hand’. How can you create the appropriate incentive to decrease the pollution that’s causing climate change? For that, the government need not be in the business of picking winners at all. What it should—and can—do is identify the loser that’s been clear for decades: greenhouse gas pollution. And the solution is equally clear: create incentives to reduce emissions by pricing it. If we make this one change, most other actions that are needed will follow.

That’s what the European Union has done by capping carbon emissions from its energy sector, including large industrials, covering almost half of total carbon emissions. That’s what California is doing with over 80 percent of its total global warming emissions. It’s what China is experimenting with in seven city and regional trials, including in Beijing and Shanghai. All these systems put a price on greenhouse gas pollution.

On the other side of the ledger, there are still much larger incentives to consume fossil fuels in many other countries. The International Energy Agency estimates that global subsidies are well over $500 billion. These subsidies, which incentivize emissions, sadly dwarf the paltry incentives to reduce them. Free marketeers, small government advocates, and others who dislike distorting government subsidies should be appalled at the tax money poured into fossil fuels.

There’s one simple principle that’s been around in economics for so long that no economist worth his or her degree would question the conclusion: increase the price, watch the quantity demanded go down. It’s such a universal truism that economists call it the “Law of Demand.” Generations of graduate students have estimated the effects of price on demand for anything from the generic widget to demand for car miles driven. People may be irrational at times, but one thing that we know for sure is that they respond to incentives.

Everything we know from decades of the study of human behavior would lead us to believe that carbon pollution will go down as the price on emissions increases. The only interesting question is by how much.

The prescription then for anyone seriously concerned about climate change is simple: price carbon to the point where its now unpriced damages are incorporated into the price, and get out of the way. It’s simple. It works. It’s conservative to the core.

It’s also a silver bullet solution if there ever was one.

Bob Litterman is a Partner at Kepos Capital, LP. Gernot Wagner is a senior economist at the Environmental Defense Fund.

Also posted in Cap and Trade, Technology | 3 Responses

Correcting the maths of the "50 to 1 Project"

(This post first appeared on Climate 411.)

A nine-minute video, released earlier this fall, argues that climate mitigation is 50 times more expensive than adaptation. The claims are based on calculations done by Christopher Monckton. We analyzed the accompanying “sources and maths” document. In short, the author shows a disconcerting lack of understanding of climate science and economics:

  1. Fundamental misunderstanding of basic climate science: Pre-industrial levels of carbon dioxide (CO2) were at around 280 parts per million (ppm).[i] One of the most commonly stated climate policy goals is to keep concentrations below 450 ppm CO2. Monckton, oddly, adds 280 and 450 to get to 730 ppm as the goal of global stabilization efforts, making all the rest of his calculations wildly inaccurate.
  2. Prematurely cutting off analysis after ten years: Monckton calculates the benefits of the carbon tax over a ten-year time horizon. That is much too short to see the full effects of global warming or of the policy itself. Elevated carbon levels persist for hundreds to thousands of years.[ii]
  3. Erroneously applying Australian “cost-effectiveness” calculation to the world: This may be the most troubling aspect from an economist's point of view. Monckton first calculates the effect of the Australia-only tax on global temperatures, which is unsurprisingly low, as Australia accounts for only 1.2% of world emissions. Next, he calculates the tax’s resulting “cost-effectiveness” — defined as the Australian tax influencing global temperatures. No surprise once again, that influence is there, but Australia alone can't solve global warming for the rest of us. Then, Monckton takes the Australia-only number and scales it to mitigate 1ºC globally, resulting in a purported cost of “$3.2 quadrillion,” which he claims is the overall global “mitigation cost-effectiveness.” But this number simply represents the cost of avoiding 1ºC of warming by acting in Australia alone. Monckton has re-discovered the fact that global warming is a global problem! The correct calculation for a globally applied tax would be to calculate cost-effectiveness on a global level first. If Australia’s carbon price were to be applied globally, it would cut much more pollution at a much lower cost. And that, of course, is very much the hope. Australia, California, and the European Union are called “climate leaders” for a reason. Others must follow.

What’s the real cost of cutting carbon? The U.S. government’s estimate of the cost of one ton of CO2 pollution released today is about $40.[iii] That's also the optimal price to make sure that each of us is paying for our own climate damages. Any policy with a lower (implied) carbon price—including the Australian tax—easily passes a benefit-cost test.

With all due respect Lord Monckton, 3rd Viscount of Brenchley, your maths are way off.


[i] "Summary for Policymakers," IPCC Fifth Assessment Report, Working Group I (2013).

[ii] Results differ across scenarios, but a rough rule of thumb suggests that approximately 70% of the ‘peak enhancement level’ over the preindustrial level of 280 ppm perseveres after 100 years of zero emissions, while approximately 40% of the ‘peak enhancement level’ over the preindustrial level of 280 ppm persevered after 1,000 years of zero emissions (Solomon, Susan, Gian-Kasper Plattner, Reto Knutti and Pierre Friedlingstein, “Irreversible climate change due to carbon dioxide emissionsProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 106, no. 6 (2009): 1704-1709). Note that this refers to the net increase in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, not the exact molecule. Archer, David, Michael Eby, Victor Brovkin, Andy Ridgwell, Long Cao, Uwe Mikolajewicz, Ken Caldeira et al. "Atmospheric lifetime of fossil fuel carbon dioxide." Annual Review of Earth and Planetary Sciences 37 (2009): 117-134 discusses these two often confused definitions for carbon’s ‘lifetime,’ and concludes that 20-40% of excess carbon levels remain hundreds to thousands of years (“2-20 centuries”) after it is emitted. Each carbon dioxide molecule has a lifetime of anywhere between 50 to 200 years, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s “Overview of Greenhouse Gases: Carbon Dioxide Emissions.” The precise number is under considerable scientific dispute and surprisingly poorly understood. (Inman, Mason, “Carbon is forever,” Nature Reports Climate Change 20 November 2008)

[iii] The precise value presented in Table 1 of the Technical Update of the Social Cost of Carbon for Regulatory Impact Analysis Under Executive Order 12866 for a ton of carbon dioxide emitted in 2015, using a 3% social discount rate increased is $38. For 2020, the number is $43; for 2030, the number increases to $52. All values are in inflation-adjusted 2007 dollars. For a further exploration of this topic, see Nordhaus, William D. The Climate Casino: Risk, Uncertainty, and Economics for a Warming World. Yale University Press (2013) as only one of the latest examples summarizing this kind of analysis. Nordhaus concludes that the optimal policy, one that maximizes net benefits to the planet, would spend about 3% of global GDP.

Many thanks to Michelle Ho for excellent research assistance.

Also posted in Climate science, International | Leave a comment

Uncovering the Real Cost of Carbon

(This post was co-authored by Thomas Sterner and appeared first on EDF Voices.)

Last week, the Obama administration released new energy efficiency standards for microwaves, along with an update to the government’s official Social Cost of Carbon (SCC) figure. What do those two things have to do with each other? Well, the efficiency standards will help the planet by cutting the energy needs of microwaves, which will in turn save consumers money. And the new SCC numbers show just how expensive our addiction to fossil fuels has become.

The SCC is used to estimate the damages from carbon emissions (and the benefits from reducing those emissions) for the purposes of regulatory benefit-cost analyses. The central estimate for the SCC is now around $35 per ton of carbon dioxide pollution emitted today.

That’s the administration’s estimate of the damage—to human health, ecosystems, and the economy—caused by every ton of carbon dioxide emitted into the atmosphere. The average American emits about 20 tons each year.

The new cost of carbon figure is a welcome step forward, reflecting the latest versions of the underlying models. The bad news is that the increased number also shows that our lack of a comprehensive climate policy is becoming ever more costly.

Moreover, this updated SCC number underestimates the true costs of carbon emissions. For example, the current SCC quickly rises to $55 per ton under a lower discount rate (that is, an estimate that doesn’t “discount” harms to the wealth and health of future generations by quite as much as the administration did in reaching its $35 per ton figure).

The value of one ton of carbon dioxide would rise higher still with a declining discount rate, something that, in line with the general consensus among economists, would more closely reflect the true costs of climate change. And none of that includes the cost of extreme climate events.

Basing Policy on Science

The good news: the administration’s latest numbers show exactly how policy analysis should be done—rigorously and consistent with the latest advances in science and economics. For example, instead of using older versions of three main SCC models to calculate its official number, the administration now uses the most recent peer-reviewed versions of each. That simple but important step helps to bring the new official SCC more in line with the latest academic literature.

In short, the administration’s economics are slowly and carefully catching up with what we all can see outside our windows. While atmospheric carbon dioxide levels have just passed the 400 parts per million threshold for the first time in over 3 million years, the real costs of climate change keep piling on.

What the country really needs, of course, is for Congress to pass a comprehensive climate policy. Only then will Americans stop living in a world where their personal behavior leads to socialized costs of at least $35 for each of the 20 tons of carbon dioxide we emit every year. Until then, the Obama administration is right to at least include these costs in its own regulatory impact assessments.

Also posted in Clean Air Act, Climate science | Leave a comment

Benefits of Clean Air and Water Dwarf Costs 10 to 1

(This post was first published on EDF Voices.)

The Office of Management and Budget is nerd heaven: a bunch of people getting their professional kicks from analyzing federal regulation. This bean counting may sound painfully lacking in glamour, but it’s incredibly important. OMB’s annual report to Congress on the benefits and costs of all major rules adopted by most federal agencies over the past 10 years shows how efficiently, or inefficiently, those agencies are functioning.  And the conclusion is clear: the Environmental Protection Agency comes out on top.

 

Source: OMB’s “Draft 2013 Report to Congress on the Benefits and Costs of Federal Regulations"

These numbers are based on the 2013 draft report, so they could still change. But the pattern is the same as in any of theirreports from the past few years, including the final 2012 report that came out last week.

None of this is to diminish the contributions of the other government agencies, but if you are a do-gooder trying to achieve the greatest good for the greatest number of people, EPA is the place to be.

One of the driving forces behind this rule is the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards, an extraordinary achievement for clean air and public health. Because of these standards, all coal fired power plants will for the first time be required to control their emissions of toxic air pollutants — including mercury, arsenic and acid gases. Forty years after the Clean Air Act signed by Richard Nixon, twenty after the landmark Amendments signed by George H.W. Bush, we are finally getting around to regulating mercury from burning coal.

The analysis of the benefits of reducing mercury pollution demonstrates just how much we underestimate the benefits of environmental protections. For example, when it comes to reducing mercury pollution, the benefits are based on EPA’s estimates of increased wages of (higher IQ) children born to families that catch freshwater fish for their own consumption.

Think about that one for a second. Mercury is a potent neurotoxin in all its forms, but the EPA estimates do not include mercury that is inhaled or that enters our bodies through other means. And there is nothing in the estimates about the fact that mercury harms the brains of our kids, regardless of whether it influences their future earning potential.

In a sense, this analysis is the moral equivalent of arguing that we should have child labor laws because keeping kids in school makes for more productive workers later on. This kind of reasoning, alas, is  why economists are often called names unfit for a family-friendly blog. It’s the most reductionist argument you can find in favor of reducing mercury. (In fact, the bulk of the benefits that were quantified by EPA are due to inextricably connected benefits in reducing deleterious particulate pollution.)

Costs, by the way, are relatively well estimated, since businesses are all-too willing to share them. So yes, there are costs—but they are small relative to benefits. And costs, as opposed to benefits, are typically overestimates. They are largely based on current available control technologies. They don’t consider that industry may invent an entirely new and unexpected way of complying with regulations at lower cost. This happens over and over again, and it comes with a name: entrepreneurial ingenuity. Works every time.

These omissions and shortcomings on either side of the equation only stand to bolster the most important claim: benefits outweigh costs more than 10 to 1 for all major EPA regulations adopted in the past decade.

For every dollar invested, Americans get $10 worth of benefits. I’ll take that ratio any day.

Also posted in Clean Air Act | Leave a comment

Follow the Plastic Bag Example, Nudge Polluters to Pay

(This post was first published on EDF Voices.)

Nudge is the best kind of book. It presents the type of head-slappingly obvious solutions to public policy problems that make you wonder why you needed a book to tell you about them in the first place. Place the veggies before the French fries in the cafeteria, and people will eat more greens. Enroll employees into retirement programs with the option of opting out rather than in and they’ll save more as a result.

Such nudges are the best kinds of policy interventions: minimum intrusion, maximum freedom of choice, maximum relative impact. But one area in which Nudge comes up short is global warming. Putting smiley faces on your electricity bill as a reward for using less electricity than your neighbor, something oPower has done with utilities around the country, helps bring down electricity use by 1 to 3%. Better than zero, but not the solution by a long shot.

That solution would be making polluters pay: putting a price on carbon dioxide through a direct cap or tax on carbon pollution. Cass Sunstein, who wrote Nudge with Richard Thaler, says as much in his latest piece on the topic. He laments the fact that we don’t seem to be able to get these kinds of taxes passed, and then adds a few items to his running list of things we can do, all under the broad heading of setting “clean-energy default rules”: Change the default printer setting to “print on front and back,” and people will. Enroll people into programs where they spend extra for clean energy (with the option of opting out), and 90% will choose to stick with the clean energy.

All these proposals represent the best of what nudges ought to be. Policymakers need to set defaults either way. So set them in the way that goes furthest toward achieving your goal. Just that there’s still a big gulf between the policies we know are necessary and what appears to be doable.

The plastic bag solution

But there is one policy that seems to bridge the gap between the type of non-intrusive nudges Sunstein champions and the type of policies he knows are ultimately necessary to do something about global warming. They’re called bag taxes.

In 2002, Ireland started charging shoppers 15 eurocents a plastic bag. The result: bag use plummeted 90 percent. That's a billion bags a year.

In 2010, Washington, D.C., began charging 5 cents per disposable bag, paper or plastic. As a result, plastic bag usedeclined 80 percent within a year by some estimates.

These fees are tiny. Compared to the $100 worth of groceries you’ll be carrying home in your bags, they might as well be zero. The point is that they are not. The fees are big enough to change the default behavior of shoppers. A few pennies (and the odd public information campaign) are all it takes to motivate shoppers to bring reusable bags to the store.

It’s quite a leap from plastic bags to carbon prices. The principle is the same: It’s the price that counts—a price that is directly connected to an action. Change the action (stop using plastic bags) and you avoid the fee. Similarly, increase the price of carbon, watch carbon pollution fall. This price-up-demand-down relationship is so well established, it’s one of the very few actual “laws” economists have. Violations are tough to find. Plastic bags and carbon certainly don’t violate this common sense principle.

Bag fees and carbon prices have this important feature in common. They don’t just nudge, they also charge consumers for the cost of their—our—actions. For carbon dioxide, there are plenty of studies that estimate the cost to society of this type of pollution. The right price for each ton of carbon dioxide would be at least about $20. Given the fact that the average American emits his body weight worth of carbon dioxide every day and a half, that comes out to about $1 per day. Double it to account for the fact that there are plenty of damages we haven’t yet incorporated in the official number, and doing something serious about global warming is still a bargain at $2 per person per day.

As an insurance policy against the worst effects of global warming, that’s tiny. Never mind how small a price, though, the politics of actually doing it are tricky, to say the least. The plastic bag lobby just isn’t as important as the fossil lobby. And bag fees can be implemented on the local level. A carbon price can’t. It requires Congressional action, a seeming oxymoron these days. Even with carbon, though, states—if not cities—can lead the way. Look no further than California and its comprehensive cap-and-trade system. It limits carbon pollution with a firm, declining cap, giving Californian businesses maximum flexibility in how to make their operations more efficient and innovate their way out of the high-carbon, low-efficiency bind. That ought to be a template for the nation.

Meanwhile, we can do a lot worse than look to plastic bag fees as a model for the kinds of policies that we know are necessary to tackle global warming. Cass Sunstein, the co-author of Nudge, and Cass Sunstein, the policy analyst calling for a price on carbon pollution, would approve.

Posted in Politics | Leave a comment

Four Years in the Making: The Big U.S. Climate Review

(Note: This post was co-written with Graham McCahan and was first published on EDF Voices.)

Congress may be ignoring climate change these days, but there are laws already in place that make progress possible, right now, on this defining issue.

Take the Clean Air Act. Under it, the President has begun to use his authority – as confirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court – to regulate greenhouse gases in a serious way.

The Global Change Research Act is another, lesser known law that could have a major impact on the national understanding of what climate change is doing to our world.

Congress passed the Act in 1990 to provide for “a comprehensive and integrated United States research program which will assist the Nation and the world to understand, assess, predict, and respond to human-induced and natural processes of global change.” What that means, in part, is that the government must prepare a National Climate Assessment every four years. The next report is due out this June.

April 12 was the deadline for public comments on the draft report.

A lot has happened since the last assessment in 2009. The country has begun to experience the effects of climate change: droughts, floods, heat waves, two hundred-year storms hitting New York City within two years. The abnormal is becoming the new normal. (True, no single such event can be conclusively linked to the fact that the average American emits carbon dioxide equal to his body weight every day and a half. But that’s like saying that no single Barry Bonds homerun or Lance Armstrong Tour de France win can be linked to doping.)

This year’s quadrennial report should set the standard as an analysis of these phenomena. Thus far, the draft assessment, written by some of the nation’s leading scientists and experts, is rich in sobering data and analysis on things like extreme weather and the damage it is causing. But its consideration of the economic impacts of climate change – the enormous and rising costs — is scattershot and incomplete.

For example, the draft report shows that the 2011 Texas drought cost farmers and ranchers in that state over $5 billion. And it tells us that wastewater utilities will have to spend between $120 billion and $250 billion by 2050 to adapt their infrastructure to a changed climate. But the draft makes no attempt at a rigorous estimate of the costs of climate change, or the rising costs of inaction in the face of it.

Between now and June, this weak spot needs to be shored up by the report’s authors.

EDF, in its official comments to the National Climate Assessment, is urging that it incorporate all relevant information on the economics of climate change, whether from the federal government or the private sector. That’s the only way to get a handle on the costs that climate change is levying on each and every one of us.

Recently, for example, the independent, nonpartisan, U.S. Government Accountability Office, warned that climate change “presents a significant financial risk to the federal government” in four key areas:

1) Damage to federal property and infrastructure, and associated adaptation costs.

2) Rising costs for federal insurance programs. For instance, the federal government’s crop insurance costs have increased from an average of $3.1 billion per year from 2000 through 2006 to an average of $7.6 billion per year from 2007 through 2012; and these costs are projected to increase further.

3) Costs related to providing assistance to state and local governments to respond to local climate impacts.

4) Rising costs of climate disaster relief. For example, federal disaster declarations have increased over recent decades, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) obligated over $80 billion in assistance for disasters from 2004 through 2011. The growing number of disaster declarations—a record 98 in fiscal year 2011 compared with 65 in 2004—has contributed to increased federal disaster costs.

Material like that should be included in the final assessment.

The same holds true for data from the private sector. In a recent report, the world’s largest reinsurance company, Munich Re, analyzed the costs of severe weather in North America. It found that the number of natural catastrophes escalated from 1980 through 2011, as did the losses for weather-related events during the same time period – both insured and uninsured. The total losses from weather catastrophes over these three decades exceeded $1.06trillion. About half, $510 billion, were insured losses. The rest wasn’t. All of it was ultimately born by all of us – whether in increased taxes or insurance premiums, or directly out of our wallets.

The Global Change Research Act compels the government to make a definitive assessment of what climate change is doing to the nation’s health and welfare. In that spirit, the National Climate Assessment, when it is released in June, should strive to be the last word on the issue – to set the terms of the debate.  And let’s hope it also helps move our elected leaders to action.

Posted in Politics | Leave a comment

Capping Pollution from Coast to Coast

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

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

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

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

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

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

Also posted in California, Cap and Trade, Cap and Trade Watch, Clean Air Act, Markets 101 | Leave a comment

Nature: The rebound effect is overplayed

Trying to put the rebound effect for energy efficiency in its rightful place is like playing a game of wack-a-mole. Predictably every couple of years, someone new discovers the counter-intuitive appeal of showing how more efficient energy policies may lead to more energy use. Wham! Told you there's something wrong with those clean-car standards. Well, not so fast.

Yes, the rebound effect is real. But it's also small. And what's there is actually positive! Why shouldn't people who can now afford to due to more efficient energy technologies be able to improve their lives?

Together with three co-authors (Ken Gillingham at Yale, Dave Rapson at University of California, Davis, and Matt Kotchen, currently on leave from Yale to serve as Deputy Assistant Secretary for Environment and Energy at the U.S. Treasury), I surveyed a bajillion+1 energy efficiency rebound studies. Nature then made us cut down those references to 6. We settled at 9.

We couldn't find a single study that has the rebound be above 100% or anything close to it, what's necessary to nix energy efficiency savings. The maximum number you can get is 60%, and that's already quite a stretch. Think 30% as the upper bound for actual behavioral responses. Yes, we are more efficient today than we were a hundred years ago, and we also use more energy today. But that's far from talking about the rebound effect. It's simply economic growth.

Establishing a causal link between efficiency and energy use isn't quite as simple. In the end, the rebound effect comes in four forms. Buy a more fuel-efficient car, and driving that next mile just became cheaper. The result: a bit more driving, to the tune of 5 to a maximum of 30%, although most likely much closer to 5-10% of the initial fuel savings. Then there's the indirect effect: Drivers may now use some of the savings to buy other products that consume energy.

You can already see that we can't just add these two effects. If you spend some of the gas money on driving more, you have less to spend on that plane ticket, and vice versa.

Then there are two macroeconomic effects: one via the price and one via technological advances. They are the trickiest to pin down and could, in theory, be the largest. But theory lends a helping hand in getting an upper bound: the basic demand-and-supply relationship tells us that the macroeconomic price effect can't be more than 100%.

And once again, all these effects aren't anywhere near that threshold. 60% is as high as it gets for the combined effect, and only in rare circumstances. For the most part, it's much closer to 5 to perhaps 30%.

So where does that leave us?

When designing energy efficiency policies like clean-car standards, consider the rebound effect, much like the government already does. The Department of Energy's model uses a highly appropriate 10% rebound figure for the car standards. And that's about it. Not much else to see here.

If you did want to take it a step further — full disclosure: a step I couldn't convince my three co-authors to take in the Nature piece itself — everything else equal, the existence of the rebound effect may prompt us to use even stricter energy efficiency standards. If you have an overall target in mind, and the rebound effect shaves off a bit, you ought to consider using a slightly stricter target to get back to where you wanted to be.

For more, check out the full Nature piece. Well worth the $32 to put the rebound effect in its rightful place once and for all.

Also posted in Clean Air Act | Leave a comment

Geoengineering: ignore economics and governance at your peril

Cross-posted from Climate 411.

How serious is global warming? Here’s one indication: the first rogue entrepreneurs have begun testing the waters on geoengineering, as Naomi Klein laments in her must-read New York Times op-ed.

Sadly, Klein misses two important points.

First, it’s not a question of if but when humanity will be compelled to use geoengineering, unless we change course on our climate policies (or lack thereof). Second, all of this calls for more research and a clear, comprehensive governance effort on the part of governments and serious scientists – not a ban of geoengineering that we cannot and will not adhere to. (See point number one.)

Saying that we ought not to tinker with the planet on a grand scale – by attempting to create an artificial sun shield, for example – won’t make it so. Humanity got into this mess thanks to what economists call the “free rider” effect. All seven billion of us are free riders on the planet, contributing to global warming in various ways but paying nothing toward the damage it causes. No wonder it’s so hard to pass a sensible cap or tax on carbon pollution. Who wants to pay for something that they’re used to doing for free – never mind that it comes at great cost to those around them?

It gets worse: Turns out the same economic forces pushing us to do too little on the pollution front are pushing us toward a quick, cheap fix – a plan B.

Enter the Strangelovian world of geoengineering – tinkering with the whole planet. It comes in two distinct flavors:

  • Sucking carbon out of the atmosphere;
  • Creating an artificial sun shield for the planet.

The first involves reversing some of the same processes that cause global warming in the first place. Instead of taking fossil fuels out of the ground and burning them, we would now take carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and bury it under ground. That sounds expensive, and it is. Estimates range from $40 to $200 and more per ton of carbon dioxide – trillions of dollars to solve the problem.

That brings us to the second, scary flavor, which David Keith, a leading thinker on geoengineering, calls “chemotherapy” for the planet. The direct price tag to create an artificial sun shield: pennies per ton of carbon dioxide. It’s the kind of intervention an island nation, or a billionaire greenfinger, could pay for.

You can see where economics enters the picture. The first form of geoengineering won’t happen unless we place a serious price on carbon pollution. The second may be too cheap to resist.

In a recent Foreign Policy essay, Harvard’s Martin Weitzman and I called the forces pushing us toward quick and dirty climate modification “free driving.” Crude attempts to, say, inject sulfur particles into the atmosphere to counter carbon dioxide already there would be so cheap it might as well be free. We are talking tens or hundreds of millions of dollars a year. That’s orders of magnitude cheaper than tackling the root cause of the problem.

Given the climate path we are on, it’s only a matter of time before this “free driver” effect takes hold. Imagine a country badly hit by adverse climate changes: India’s crops are wilting; China’s rivers are drying up. Millions of people are suffering. What government, under such circumstances, would not feel justified in taking drastic action, even in defiance of world opinion?

Once we reach that tipping point, there won’t be time to reverse warming by pursuing collective strategies to move the world onto a more sustainable growth path. Instead, speed will be of the essence, which will mean trying untested and largely hypothetical techniques like mimicking volcanoes and putting sulfur particles in the stratosphere to create an artificial shield from the sun.

That artificial sunscreen may well cool the earth. But what else might it do? Floods somewhere, droughts in other places, and a host of unknown and largely unknowable effects in between. That’s the scary prospect. And we’d be experimenting on a planetary scale, in warp speed.

That all leads to the second key point: we ought to do research in geoengineering, and do so guided by sensible governance principles adhered to be all. We cannot let research get ahead of public opinion and government oversight. The geoengineering governance initiative convened by the British Royal Society, the Academy of Sciences for the Developing World, and the Environmental Defense Fund is a necessary first step in the right direction.

Is there any hope in this doomsday scenario? Absolutely. Country after country is following the trend set by the European Union to institute a cap or price on carbon pollution. Australia, New Zealand, South Korea, and also California are already – or will soon be – limiting their carbon pollution. India has a dollar-a-ton coal tax. China is experimenting with seven regional cap-and-trade systems.

None of these is sufficient by itself. But let’s hope this trend expands –fast – to include the really big emitters like the whole of China and the U.S., Brazil, Indonesia, and others. Remember, the question is not if the “free driver” effect will kick in as the world warms. It’s when.

Also posted in Climate science, International | Leave a comment