In Win for Environment, Court Recognizes Social Cost of Carbon

Co-authored with Martha Roberts

If someone was tallying up all the benefits of energy efficiency programs, you’d want them to include reducing climate pollution, right? That’s just common sense.

Thankfully, that’s what our government does when it designs energy efficiency programs—as well as other policies that impact greenhouse gas emissions. And just this month, this approach got an important seal of approval: For the first time, a federal court upheld using the social cost of carbon to inform vital protections against the harmful impacts of climate change.

So what is the social cost of carbon and why does it matter? It’s a crucial part of the development of climate safeguards and essential to our understanding of the full costs of climate pollution. We know that climate change is a clear and present danger now and for future generations—one that will result in enormous costs to our economy, human health and the environment. And yet, these “social” costs are not accounted for in our markets, and therefore in decision making. It is a classic Economics 101 market failure. Every ton of carbon dioxide pollution that is emitted when we burn fossil fuels to light our homes or drive our cars has a cost associated with it, a hidden one that is additional to what we pay on our utility bills or at the gas pump. These costs affect us all – and future generations – and are a result of the negative impacts of climate change. If we don’t recognize these hidden costs—we aren’t properly protecting ourselves against the dangers of climate pollution.

The social cost of carbon (or SCC) is an estimate of the total economic harm associated with emitting one additional ton of carbon dioxide pollution into the atmosphere. To reach the current estimate, several federal agencies came together to determine the range and central price point – roughly $40 per ton – through a transparent and rigorous interagency process that was based on the latest peer-reviewed science and economics available, and which allowed for repeated public comments.

It’s critical that we protect against the damages and costs caused by climate pollution. So it’s a no-brainer that when considering the costs and benefits of climate safeguards, we must take into account all benefits and costs – and that means including the social cost of carbon.

In their court opinion, the Federal Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit agreed wholeheartedly. Harvard Law Professor Cass Sunstein noted that their decision “upholds a foundation” of “countless” climate protections. In particular, their opinion made two important findings:

  • First, the court affirmed that the DOE was correct to include a value for the social cost of carbon in its analysis. The judges concluded that “[w]e have no doubt” that Congress intended for DOE to have authority to consider the social cost of carbon. Importantly, this conclusion reinforces the appropriateness of including the SCC in future carbon-related rule-makings.
  • Second, the court upheld key choices about how the SCC estimate was calculated. The court agreed that DOE properly considered all impacts of climate change, even those years from now, or outside our borders. These choices, the court concluded, were reasonable and appropriate given the nature of the climate crisis we face.

DOE itself acknowledged “limitations in the SCC estimates.” We couldn’t agree more. As new and better information about the impacts of climate change becomes available and as our ability to translate this science into economic impacts improves, regulators must update the current social cost of carbon estimate. There is still much we do not know about the full magnitude of climate impacts and much that cannot be quantified (as is true of all economic impact analysis) – which means that SCC estimates are likely far lower than the true impact of climate change. But as the Seventh Circuit recognized, their inclusion is a vital step in the right direction for sensible policy-making.

This decision already has positive implications more broadly—in particular, for the Clean Power Plan, our nation’s historic program to reduce carbon pollution from power plants. Just last week, EPA submitted a letter in the Clean Power Plan litigation noting that the Seventh Circuit’s decision further demonstrates the error of challenges to the treatment of costs and benefits in the Clean Power Plan rulemaking. It’s just another affirmation of the rock-solid legal and technical foundation for the Clean Power Plan.

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How More Transparent Electricity Pricing Can Help Increase Clean Energy

By: Beia Spiller and Kristina Mohlin

The price of most goods we purchase is CostPriceImagegenerally based on the costs associated with the goods' production, including the raw materials used to generate them, the labor associated with their manufacturing, and so on. However, when it comes to pricing residential electricity, many regulators choose to use a flat price per unit of electricity (kilowatt-hours, or kWh) that unfortunately fails to adequately reflect the underlying costs of generating and delivering energy to our homes.

This creates incorrect incentives for conservation and investments in distributed energy resources (like rooftop solar, energy storage, and demand response). Getting these incentives right can go a long way in creating more opportunity for efficiency and clean energy resources.

Pricing electricity generation

The cost of generating electricity from large-scale power plants varies significantly over the course of a day. When demand is low, electricity providers call upon the most efficient and inexpensive power plants to produce electricity. As demand increases, they must also utilize more inefficient and expensive power plants. So, for the price of generation to accurately reflect these costs, it too must vary with the time of day. Time-variant pricing charges customers more for using electricity during periods of high demand (such as during hot afternoons) and less when demand is not as great. This pricing system is an accurate reflection of generation costs.

In contrast, flat rates that don’t vary over time incentivize customers to consume more electricity when it’s most valuable to them, even though consuming during times of high demand places a larger cost on the system. Thus, the current, static pricing system creates incorrect incentives for conservation and electricity use. Read More »

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Benefits of Clean, Distributed Energy: Why Time, Location, and Compensation Matter

solar-panels-new-yorkNew York is preparing for a future in which clean, distributed energy resources – such as energy efficiency, electric vehicles, rooftop solar panels, and other types of local, on-site power generation – form an integral part of a more decentralized electric grid. This is the future the New York Public Service Commission (PSC) wants to see realized through its signature initiative, Reforming the Energy Vision (REV).

This vision means the role of the customer is changing: from recipient to both user and provider of electricity and other grid services. By investing in clean, distributed energy resources, customers can make the electric system more efficient and contribute to a cleaner environment, while gaining greater control over their energy bills. Read More »

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Transforming the Electric System to Reduce Costs and Pollution

electrical-power-linesBy: Beia Spiller and Kristina Mohlin

Electricity markets around the world are transforming from a model where electricity flows one way (from electricity-generating power plants to the customer) to one where customers actively participate as providers of electric services. But to speed this transformation and maximize its environmental and cost benefits, we need to understand how customer actions affect the three distinct parts of our electric system: generation, transmission, and distribution. Read More »

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The Atlantic's year-end feature "Hope & Despair"

Lucy Nicholson / Reuters / Zak Bickel / The Atlantic

Lucy Nicholson / Reuters / Zak Bickel / The Atlantic

Reason for despair: Climate change. It’s the perfect problem: more global, more long-term, more irreversible, and more uncertain that virtually any other public-policy problem facing us. Climate change is a lot worse than most of us realize. Almost regardless of what we do on the mitigation front, we are in for a whole lot of hurt.

On the policy front, we have now talked for more than 20 years about how we need to turn this ship around “within a decade.” Not unlike the ever-elusive fusion technology, that hasn’t happened yet. Global carbon emissions declined slightly this year—for the first time ever without a global recession—but the trends are still pointing in the wrong direction. Worse, turning around emissions is only the very first step. It’s not enough to stabilize the flow of water going into the bathtub when the goal is to prevent the tub from overflowing. We need to turn around atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases. That means turning off the flow of water into the tub—getting net emissions to zero and below. It doesn’t help our efforts that many people seem to confuse the two. A study involving over 200 MIT graduate students faced with this same question revealed that even they confuse emissions and concentrations—water flowing into the tub and water levels there. If MIT graduate students can’t get this one right, what hope is there for the rest of us?

Reason for hope: Climate change. Many signs point to some real momentum to finally tackle this momentous challenge.

The Paris Climate Accord builds an important foundation. It enables transparency, accountability, and markets to help solve the problem. Many governments are moving forward with pricing carbon: from California to China, from Sweden to South Africa, we see ambitious action to reign in emissions in some 50 jurisdictions. Meanwhile, lots is happening on the clean-energy front. That’s particularly true for solar photovoltaic power, which has climbed up the learning curve—and down the cost curve—faster than most would have expected only five years ago. That has also provided an important jolt for sensible climate policy. Then there’s R&D for entirely new technologies. Bill Gates leading an investment coalition with $1 billion of his own money is only one important sign of movement in that direction. The excitement for self-driving, electric vehicles is palpable up and down Silicon Valley, to name just one potentially significant example. In the end, it’s precisely this mix of Silicon Valley, Wall Street, and, of course, Washington that will lead—and, in part, is already leading—to the necessary revolution in a number of important sectors, energy and transportation chief among them.

Excerpt from The Atlantic's year-end feature on Hope and Despair: "Can the Planet Be Saved?"

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When it comes to developing natural gas – not all impacts are created equal

Over the past decade, Pennsylvania has seen a huge increase in natural gas production due to technology advancements. Horizontal drilling combined with hydraulic fracturing, the process of cracking rock open deep underground to release the gas trapped inside, has made Pennsylvania the nation’s second largest natural gas producer. While a thriving natural gas industry is a boon for the state’s economy, well-documented accounts of air and water pollution have been associated with its development.

But do the benefits and risks of natural gas production impact Pennsylvania’s communities equally? In particular, while the broad economic benefits (more jobs, cheaper gas prices, etc…) may accrue to all members in the community, the local environmental impacts may only affect those living in close proximity to a shale gas well.

A recent paper published this month in the American Economic Review examines the impact of increased drilling activity on the property values of homes located in close proximity to a well, and in particular, estimates whether this impact differs for homes dependent on groundwater for drinking compared to those with publicly supplied water. To determine how property values for these different types of homes may be affected, EDF, working with economists from the University of Calgary and Duke University, utilized transaction level data across the state to conduct comparisons in three different dimensions simultaneously:

  • properties very near a well to those further away;
  • properties dependent on groundwater for drinking to those with access to piped water;
  • and properties sold prior to a shale gas well being drilled with those sold after the well was drilled.

Furthermore, to account for the fact that many groundwater-dependent properties may be located further away from urban centers, the data were restricted to homes located near the piped water boundary. This helps eliminate differences in neighborhood characteristics that could affect both the price of the home and its proximity to a shale gas well.

The analysis determined that property values are impacted by proximity to a shale gas well, though results differ depending on the property’s drinking water source. Those with piped water can economically benefit from being very near a well (a value increase of 3 percent for properties within 1.5km of a well), potentially due to royalties and bonuses companies pay to develop on a homeowners land. However, the property values of homes that are dependent on groundwater and located within 1.5km of a shale gas well declined by an average of 13 percent. Importantly, the impact on both types fades with distance; showing that both the benefits (increased royalty payments) and costs (increased groundwater contamination risk) of proximity diminish as one moves further from shale gas development.

This analysis does not draw information from observed air or water contamination. Instead, the data reflects public perception and brings to focus two important observations.

The first is that oil and gas communities are becoming more aware of the environmental risks posed by development. Managing these risks is critically important, as nearly 10 million Americans live within one mile of a hydraulically-fractured oil or gas well.  Smart policies that improve operations and create more opportunities for public transparency are necessary to ensuring communities in close proximity to drilling feel adequately protected from the inherent risks of oil and gas development.

But the study also highlights another key issue – the economic and environmental consequences of oil and gas development (both positive and negative) do not impact communities evenly. There is a clear detriment to some populations – as there often is with any industrial activity.  And rigorous, economic and scientific analyses are important tools for helping policy leaders understand these discrepancies to respond effectively.

Economic research can provide insights into how markets internalize the environmental costs of economic activities, even if these costs do not have a monetary value associated with them (for example, you can’t buy greenhouse gases, but economic research has demonstrated that the social cost of a ton of carbon is around $40). This analysis demonstrates that the threat of drilling activity causing groundwater contamination – which has no market value – still has true costs. Rigorous economic analysis allows us to quantify these costs, leading to more informed policy decisions and better outcomes for both the environment and the local community.

 

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