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Why the EPA gives Taxpayers the Biggest Bang for their Hard-earned Buck

This blog was co-authored with Gernot Wagner

The Trump administration’s proposed federal budget for fiscal year 2017 slashes the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) budget by 31 percent, targeting an entity that already operates with one of the smallest budgets in the government – of every 10 dollars the federal government spends, EPA only gets 2 cents.

But absolute numbers aren’t the right metric. The big question is what the public (President Trump’s employer) gets for its investment. And using that metric, the EPA generates the biggest benefits of any agency, bar none.

 

 

Between 2005 and 2015, EPA regulations produced on average $9 in benefits for every $1 spent towards compliance. These benefits include: keeping Americans safe from dirty air, water, and dangerous chemicals – all of which can cause increased hospitalizations, missed work days, premature death, and birth defects. While numerous agencies across the federal government provide vital, lifesaving services, as well, EPA has the best benefits-to-costs ratio of any U.S. agency, according to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), which produces an annual report tallying the benefits and the costs of major federal rules for every U.S. agency.

Total numbers are even more staggering: over those ten years, EPA is responsible for $376 billion in social benefits after subtracting the costs incurred by its regulations. That’s an order of magnitude higher than any other U.S. agency.

The message is clear: EPA provides large benefits at a bargain. In fact, while a high benefit-to-cost ratio is good, the goal isn’t to maximize the ratio. The goal is to maximize net benefits to society. EPA has been extremely successful at doing exactly that. Now is not the time to walk back that kind of progress.

 

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What Night-time Lights Tell us about the World and its Inhabitants

Night viewMost people are familiar with the iconic image of North Korea at night—Pyongyang stands as a beacon of light amid of what looks almost like a large body of water—but what is, in fact, land draped in complete darkness. That imagery revealed details about what was previously unknowable due to the country's cloak of secrecy—its meager electricity use and level of poverty. My colleagues Daniel Zavala-Araiza, Gernot Wagner and I took an even deeper look at how well night-time lights can account for other measures of socio-economic activity in a new article published today in the journal PLOS ONE.

I got interested in what these images could tell us back in 2012 when I started attending the Geo for Good conference, an annual event hosted by Google where nonprofits and researchers learn how to use geospatial tools such as Earth Engine. Gernot, Daniel and I started wondering what interesting applications we could explore with night-time lights data, and see what we could learn by examining the entire 21-year record of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Defense Meteorological Satellite Program (DMSP) at the country level. We took that dataset and compared it to a much wider scope of other datasets. By using a distributed, parallelized platform such as Earth Engine, the scope of this research and our analysis is able to be larger than prior studies.

The prevalence and magnitude of night-time light is an alternative, standardized, and relatively unbiased way to gather information about important socio-economic indicators like CO2 emissions, GDP, and other measures that would in some cases be unknowable. For example, these data helped estimate the size of the informal economy of Mexico in a 2009 study by Ghosh et al.

We’re hoping that by combining all of these methods, data sets, and tools, researchers can develop an even better understanding of how we relate to the environment, so we can ultimately become better stewards of it. Google Earth Engine, Hadoop and Spark are powerful examples of such tools —our hope is that our fellow researchers will ask and pursue new questions, so we can advance the conversation even further.

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Trump Moves to Cook the Books, Undercutting Common Sense Climate Protections

This blog was co-authored with Martha Roberts

It’s reported that the Trump Administration is poised to continue its barrage of attacks on some of our most vital health and environmental protections, following last week’s assault on broadly supported fuel economy and greenhouse gas safeguards for cars and light trucks. Here’s one attack that they may try to sneak under the radar—a move that would undercut common sense climate protection all across the federal government: directing federal agencies to abandon the use of social cost of carbon estimates in their evaluation of new policy.

The social cost of carbon is a measure of the economic harm from the impacts of climate change. Specifically, it’s the dollar value of the total damages from emitting one ton of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Weakening or eliminating the use of the social cost of carbon would result in skewed and biased policy-making that ignores the benefits of crucial safeguards and stacks the deck against actions to protect communities from the mounting costs of climate change.

The devastating impacts of climate change on health and the environment – such as extreme weather events, the spread of disease, sea level rise, and increased food insecurity – can cost American businesses, families, governments and taxpayers hundreds of billions of dollars through rising health care costs, destruction of property, increased food prices, and more. Many of these impacts are already being felt by communities across the country, as the government’s leading scientific agencies have found.

When the federal government develops policy affecting the carbon pollution causing climate change, it is both reasonable and essential that it takes these costs into account. The social cost of carbon is a tool that allows policy-makers to do just that.

Currently, the federal government uses a social cost of carbon estimate—roughly $40 per ton of carbon pollution—that was developed through a transparent and rigorous interagency process, relied on the latest peer-reviewed science and economics available, and allowed for repeated public comment as well as input from the National Academy of Sciences.

But that may not last much longer. As we’ve seen, the Trump Administration is waging war against an array of our most crucial health and environmental protections, ignoring the urgent threat of climate change while prioritizing fossil fuel interests. President Trump’s new Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, Scott Pruitt, denies that carbon pollution is a primary contributor to climate change, and built his political career by suing EPA 14 times as Oklahoma Attorney General to block protections from mercury, arsenic and smog pollution, hand in hand with the worst elements of the fossil fuel industry. Meanwhile the Administration is proposing devastating cuts to the budgets for EPA and climate research, and is moving towards revoking the Clean Power Plan, America’s first-ever nationwide limits on carbon pollution from power plants.

All of this points to a clear disregard for basic science, economic principles, and our nation’s clean air laws. Eliminating or weakening the social cost of carbon is another pernicious tactic by the Administration to undermine the development of crucial climate safeguards – by erroneously making it appear as though reducing carbon pollution has little or no benefit to society and the economy. Even the current figure is very likely a conservative lower bound since it does not yet include all of the widely recognized and accepted impacts of climate change.

The details of the upcoming attack are still unclear. It’s possible that the Administration may end use of the uniform social cost of carbon estimate at the federal level—despite its rigorous basis and judicial precedent. Other indications suggest that the Administration may choose to artificially and arbitrarily discount the costs of climate change for the health and economic well-being of our kids, grandkids, and future generations—ignoring the growing consensus among economists that supports valuing these impacts more, as does a recent report from the Council of Economic Advisors. Or the Administration may decide to disregard the fact that our greenhouse gas pollution has harmful impacts outside U.S. borders that can have costly repercussions for Americans.

Throwing out the social cost of carbon may play well with President Trump’s supporters in the fossil fuel industry. But the importance and appropriateness of accounting for these costs is a matter of both economics and law. We also know that nearly two thirds of Americans are concerned about climate change. Undermining limits on pollution—protections that are rooted in rigorous scientific research, reflecting long-standing bipartisan economic principles—will ultimately harm the health and environmental safety of all Americans, including Trump’s supporters.

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Good news in California as carbon auction results improve, and carbon emissions continue falling

Co-authored by Erica Morehouse and Jonathan Camuzeaux (this post was originally posted in EDF Talks Global Climate).

While we hope President-elect Trump will listen to the almost unanimous global voice of governments and business leaders who all understand that we must act to avert catastrophic climate change, it’s indisputable that leadership from U.S. states will be of paramount importance. Amidst this chaos and uncertainty California and Quebec are now four years into a successful cap-and-trade program with shrinking carbon pollution footprints and thriving economies.

California and Quebec released results today from a much anticipated carbon auction that took place on November 15, and sold a greater number of allowances than in the past two auctions resulting in proceeds for the state Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund.  This good news comes after California’s 2015 greenhouse gas reporting data earlier this month showed another year of carbon pollution decline for the Golden State.

These year-over-year pollution declines are the most important indicator of success.  But understandably the auction performance and amount raised for climate investment priorities will get a lot of attention in California, Quebec, and Ontario, which is slated to launch its own cap-and-trade program in January with linkage likely to California and Quebec in 2018.

Auction results see increased demand

The November 15 auction offered more than 87 million current vintage allowances (available for 2016 or later compliance) and sold almost 77 million. Approximately 10 million future allowances were offered that will not be available for use until 2019 or later; over one million of those allowances were sold.

These auction results represent a significant increase in demand from the August auction which offered a similar number and sold about 31 million allowances, up from a little over eight million allowances sold at the May auction, the first auction to experience very low demand for allowances.  The May and August auctions raised almost no revenue for the California Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund (GGRF).  While final numbers won’t come in for another few weeks, based on the allowances sold, this auction likely raised over $360 million for the California GGRF. 

Impacts on demand for this auction

A number of factors, good and otherwise, contributed to this quarter’s results.

  1. One of the most immediate factors that likely contributed to increased demand in this auction is the knowledge that the minimum sale price or “floor price” will rise to about $13.50 in 2017. This is the last auction that participants will be able to purchase allowances for $12.73 before the annual increase.
  1. A constant during this and previous auctions is litigation brought by the California Chamber of Commerce and others challenging California’s cap-and-trade program design. The case was brought the day before California’s very first auction in 2012 and California won at the trial court level. The plaintiffs appealed, and the Court of Appeals will hear oral arguments on January 24, 2017. This outstanding litigation may be leading some potential auction participants to take a wait-and-see approach.
  1. This wait-and-see approach is only possible if regulated businesses in California already have enough allowances to cover their 2016 obligations. California just released preliminary data for 2015 which shows emissions were about 14 percent below the cap. This suggests a successful set of climate policies that are incentivizing polluters to lower levels of pollution below required levels if they are able.  Some have referred to this as an oversupply of allowances, but it’s perhaps more accurate to refer to it as over-compliance.  Businesses have a choice of how to respond when they over-comply: avoid buying allowances in a future auction or buy allowances when they are presumably cheaper and bank them for future use.

A big question is how much the passage of SB 32 in August has impacted auction demand.  Governor Brown had previously established a target of reducing carbon pollution 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030 through an executive order, but SB 32 cemented this requirement into law making it much more certain.  Setting a 2030target could increase demand for allowances, but the market will not necessarily get certainty about that target or how California will meet it in one fell swoop.  While SB 32 set the 2030 target, like AB 32 it was silent on policy tools to meet that target so decisions about cap-and-trade post-2020 are still outstanding.

Greenhouse gas emissions decline again in 2015

California’s Mandatory Greenhouse Gas Reporting program requires that state’s largest polluters to report their emissions annually. The California Air Resources Board released the final tally of 2015 greenhouse gas emissions on November 4th, which showed yet another year of carbon pollution decrease.

In 2015, California’s emissions covered under the cap-and-trade program decreased by roughly one percent compared to the year before. California is on track to meet its target of reducing pollution to 1990 levels by 2020.  Carbon pollution for capped and uncapped sources was down in 2015.

Meanwhile, data from the Bureau of Economic Analysis shows the state’s gross domestic product increased by almost six percent in 2015 – while California also experienced an increase of total employment of a little over two percent in 2015 – proving again that economic output and emissions don’t necessarily go hand in hand.

With these results California is on solid footing to continue as a beacon of hope for climate action in the United States and perhaps even to attract new partners inside or outside the country who are ready to join a successful program.

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Ensuring Environmental Outcomes from a Carbon Tax

How can we ensure that a carbon tax delivers on its pollution reduction potential? An innovative, new idea could provide greater certainty over the environmental outcome.

As momentum intensifies around the world for action to fight climate change, the United States is emerging as a leader in the new low-carbon economy. But if we are going to reduce climate pollution at the pace and scale required — cutting emissions 26-28% below 2005 levels by 2025 and at least 83% by 2050, on a path to zero net emissions —we need to roll up our sleeves on a new generation of ambitious climate policies that harness the power of the economy and American innovation. An emerging idea could be a game-changer for the prospects of a carbon tax to help tackle climate pollution.

Economics 101 teaches us that market-based policies, including cap-and-trade programs as well as carbon taxes, are the most cost-effective and economically efficient means of achieving results. Both put a price on carbon emissions to reduce dangerous pollution. Cap-and-trade programs place a “cap” on the total quantity of allowable emissions, directly limiting pollution and ensuring a specific environmental result, while allowing prices to fluctuate as pollution permits are traded. The “guarantee” that the cap provides is a primary reason this tool has been favored by EDF and other stakeholders focused on environmental performance. That U.S. targets are based on quantities of pollution reductions also speaks to the need for policy solutions tied to these pollution limits.

In comparison, a carbon tax sets the price per unit of pollution, allowing emissions to respond to the changes in behavior this price encourages. The problem, from an environmental standpoint, is that a carbon tax lacks an explicit connection to a desired pollution reduction target — and therefore provides no assurance that the required reductions will actually be achieved. We know that a carbon tax will impact emissions, but even the most robust modeling cannot provide certainty over the magnitude of that impact. Furthermore, fundamental factors like energy or economic market dynamics can change over time, affecting the performance of a tax. Because greenhouse gas pollution accumulates in the atmosphere over time, even being slightly off the desired path over several decades can produce significant consequences for cumulative emissions, and thus climate damages.

A new approach: Environmental Integrity Mechanisms (EIMs)

Two recently-released papers by the Nicholas Institute at Duke University and Resources for the Future (RFF) directly address this key concern with a carbon tax —and suggest an innovative path forward. They illustrate how a suite of provisions – we’ll call them “Environmental Integrity Mechanisms” or “EIMs,” though each paper uses different terminology – could provide greater levels of certainty regarding the emissions outcome, by allowing for adjustment of the carbon tax regime over time to course-correct and keep us on track for meeting our targets.

EIMs – if carefully designed – can play an important role in connecting a carbon tax to its performance in reducing pollution. They are a type of built-in insurance mechanism: they may never be triggered if the initial price path achieves its projected impact, but provide a back-up plan in case it does not.

These mechanisms are analogous to well-studied “cost containment” provisions in cap-and-trade that are designed to provide greater certainty over prices. Cost containment provisions are included in several successful cap-and-trade programs around the world. For example, California’s cap-and-trade program includes a price collar that sets a floor as well as a ceiling that triggers the release of a reserve of allowances.

EIMs are a parallel effort to introduce greater emissions certainty into a carbon tax system. With the recent publication of these two papers, EIMS are beginning to receive well-deserved greater attention. These provisions help bridge the gap between caps and taxes, merging the strengths of each to create powerful hybrid programs.

How EIMs might work

Let’s take a closer look at how these “EIMs” could work.

• First, the initial tax level and/or growth rate could be adjusted depending on performance against an emissions trajectory or carbon budget benchmark. This could occur either automatically via a simple formula built into the legislation, by Congressional intervention at a later date based on expert recommendations, or by delegation of authority to a federal or independent agency or group of agencies.

There are clear advantages to including an automatic adjustment in the legislation. This avoids having to go back to a sluggish Congress to act; and there is no guarantee that Congress would make appropriate adjustments. Moreover, Congress is likely to be loath to relinquish its tax-setting authority to an executive agency — and such delegation could even face legal challenges. Delegating tax-setting authority to an executive agency could also introduce additional political uncertainty in rate setting.

In designing such an automatic adjustment, policy makers will need to consider the type, frequency and size of these adjustments, as well as how they are triggered. The RFF paper in particular discusses some of the resulting trade-offs. For example, an automatic adjustment will reduce the price certainty that many view as the core benefit of a tax. On the other hand, by explicitly and transparently specifying the adjustments that would occur under certain conditions, a high degree of price predictability can still be maintained – with the added benefit of increased emissions certainty.

• Second, the Nicholas Institute brief discusses regulatory tools that could be employed if emission goals were not met –including existing opportunities under the Clean Air Act, or even new authority. The authors point out that relative to automatic adjustment mechanisms, regulatory options are more difficult to “fine-tune.” Nevertheless, they could provide a powerful safeguard if alternatives fail.

• Finally, as the Nicholas Institute brief discusses, a portion of tax revenue could be used to fund additional reductions if performance goals were not being met. This approach could tap into cost-effective reductions in sectors where the carbon tax might be more challenging to implement (e.g. forestry or agriculture). The revenue could also be used to secure greater reductions from sectors covered by the tax — for example, by funding investments in energy efficiency. In a neat twist, the additional revenue needed to fund these emissions reductions would be available when emissions were higher than expected — that is, precisely when more mitigation was needed.

EDF’s take

Our goal is to reduce the amount of carbon pollution we put into the atmosphere in as cost-effective and efficient a manner as possible. This means putting a limit and a price on carbon pollution.

Even at this preliminary stage in the exploration of EIM design, one takeaway is clear: all carbon tax proposals should include an EIM with an automatic adjustment designed to meet the desired emissions path and associated carbon budget.

More work is needed to develop and evaluate the range and design of EIMs. And while a cap is still the most sure-fire means of guaranteeing an emissions outcome, this growing consideration by economists and policy experts opens a new path for the potential viability of carbon taxes as a pollution reduction tool in the United States.

The bottom line is this: The fundamental test of any climate policy is environmental integrity. For a carbon tax, that means an EIM.

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

EDF-IETA maps show how the world can double down on carbon pricing

Carbon pricing

Currently, about 12% of the world's greenhouse gas emissions are covered by carbon pricing. More details about this map can be found in the Doubling Down on Carbon Pricing report by EDF and IETA.

There are a number of signs we are entering a golden age for carbon pricing. Perhaps the most important one is that many countries around the world are currently considering carbon pricing policies to achieve their greenhouse gas emissions reduction goals.

And for good reason.

A price on carbon gives emitters a powerful incentive to reduce emissions at the lowest possible cost, it promotes innovation while rewarding the development of even more cost-effective technologies, it drives private finance, and it can generate government revenue.

This spring, World Bank Group President Jim Yong Kim and International Monetary Fund Managing Director Christine Lagarde convened the Carbon Pricing Panel to urge countries and companies around the world to put a price on carbon. On April 21, 2016, the Panel announced the goals of doubling the amount of GHG emissions covered by carbon pricing mechanisms from current levels (about 12 percent, as illustrated in the map below) to 25 percent of global emissions by 2020, and doubling it again to 50 percent within the next decade.

EDF and the International Emissions Trading Association (IETA) worked together to explore a range of possible, though non-exhaustive, scenarios for meeting these goals. You can see the results in a series of maps which show how carbon pricing can be expanded worldwide.

Achieving the Carbon Pricing Panel’s goals will be a crucial stepping stone to realizing the ambition of the Paris Agreement, which aims to hold the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels. Meeting that objective will require countries not only to implement the targets they have already announced, but to ratchet up their efforts dramatically in the years ahead. Carbon pricing will have to play a key role in that effort.

Explore how the world can reach the Carbon Pricing Panel’s ambitious goals.

This post originally appeared on Climate Talks.

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