Climate 411

Why the American Power Act is Not a Corporate Give-Away

In his insightful post, Rob Stavins makes two key points regarding the allocation of emission allowances under climate legislation like that introduced last week by Senators Kerry and Lieberman.

First, Stavins addresses head-on the concerns that some progressives have toward the allocation provisions in the bill, asking in the title of his post: “Is the Kerry-Lieberman Allowance Allocation a Corporate Give-Away?”  To answer this question, Stavins carries out a careful breakdown of the allowance allocation in the Kerry-Lieberman bill.  He shows that the vast majority of emission allowances (more than 80% over the duration of the bill) — goes to energy consumers and public purposes (including deficit reduction).  That hardly sounds like a windfall to big corporations!  Indeed, if you add it up, the largest fraction of allowance value (43% in total, according to my calculations) goes to households, through an energy refund to low-income consumers, a tax credit to working families, a universal trust fund for all Americans, and allowances that are allocated to local electricity and gas utilities for the benefit of their customers.

As Stavins’s calculations illustrate, what matters most in terms of allocation is not whether the allowances are auctioned or given away for free, but who receives the value.  (For example, of the allowance value that is directed to households, about four-fifths comes as auction revenue, while the remainder is from the allowances allocated for free to local utilities.)

Even so, some progressives worry that free allocation is at odds with cutting emissions.  After all, if you give emitters something for free, doesn’t that eliminate the “price on carbon” that creates an economic incentive to cut carbon emissions?  The answer, actually, is “no.”

Here’s where Stavins’s second point comes in.  As he explains, it is a basic result of economics that even when allowances are distributed for free, they will still have a value (since they can be sold on a market). In economic terms, each time a company uses an allowance, there is an “opportunity cost” involved — the foregone profit they could have gotten from selling the allowance instead.  As a result, companies will still have a strong economic incentive to find cost-effective ways to reduce their carbon emissions — so that the economic performance of the bill is basically unaffected.  (It’s also worth pointing out that the environmental performance of the bill is also unaffected, since that is determined by the cap — not by how allowances are allocated.)

To put the same point a bit differently, the value of allowances doesn’t depend on how they are allocated.  Rather, allowances have value because they are in scarce supply — thanks to the cap on emissions.  The tighter is the cap, the greater is the scarcity, and the higher is the value of allowances, all else equal.

Of course, there are a few nuances worth noting.  First, from a strictly economic point of view, the best use of allowance value would be to use it to lower distortionary taxes on labor and capital, giving the overall economy an added boost.  However, getting such a “double dividend” requires not just auctioning the allowances, but using the revenue in a specific way to cut other taxes — something that has yet to generate significant political momentum.  In other words, acknowledging the possibility of a double dividend doesn’t undermine the main point that what matters is how the value of allowances is allocated, not simply whether allowances are auctioned or freely allocated.

Second, some ways of allocating allowances can affect incentives.  This can cut both ways.  In theory, using allowance value to reduce electricity rates can undermine incentives to conserve energy; this suggests that it would be preferable to compensate households for higher energy costs by sending them a lump-sum rebate rather than cutting their marginal price.  In other contexts, allowance allocation is deliberately designed to affect incentives.  For example, energy-intensive, trade-exposed manufacturers are given allocations that are tied to their output and to the average emissions intensity of their sector.  As research by Carolyn Fischer at Resources for the Future and others has shown, such “output-based rebates” manage to preserve the incentive to reduce emissions, while helping to keep manufacturing in this country and prevent “emissions leakage” to countries without a carbon price.

The bottom line is that the distinction between free allocation and auction makes little difference for the environmental or economic performance of the bill.  That’s a key point well worth keeping in mind in the coming debates over climate legislation.

Posted in Climate Change Legislation, Economics / Read 1 Response

Video: The Facts of Cap and Trade, From an Economist

EDF is known for unconventional tactics. We often experiment with new ideas to find the ways that work. However, this time I had a chance to do something truly off-the-wall.

I was asked to make a video with the coalition Clean Energy Works that explains cap and trade in a way that non-economists could understand, i.e., in English.  (And with clever animation.)

What were they thinking?

Maybe the idea was just crazy enough to work. Here are a couple of reactions so far:

Check it out, let us know what you think, and spread the word.

Posted in Economics / Read 4 Responses

Four Reasons to Use Cap and Trade to Fight Global Warming

Michael Oppenheimer and I have a post up on Huffington Post that explains why cap and trade is more effective than a tax at slowing and eventually halting global warming.

Here are just the highlights:

  1. Environmental certainty. Let’s keep our eyes on the prize: avoiding dangerous climate change. A legally binding cap is the only way to assure that this objective will actually be attained.
  2. International opportunity. The atmosphere is indifferent to where carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas, is emitted. The ultimate goal, once countries like China and Brazil have adequate systems for monitoring their emissions, is a global carbon market — benefiting both the developing countries and the industrialized countries.
  3. The market, not the government, sets the price. Cap and trade is a smart division of labor: Congress sets the cap, and the market sets the price on carbon needed to achieve it.
  4. Political viability. In our view, cap and trade is the best policy on the merits. But it is also the politically viable path. A recent survey shows that of all regulatory approaches, the public likes taxes least.

Each of these reasons are explained in more detail on Huffington Post. Take a look and add to the comments!

Posted in Economics, Policy / Read 1 Response

Climate Bill Passes Five Tests on Allocating Allowances

I was invited to testify yesterday in front of the House Energy and Commerce Committee on how allowances are allocated under HR2454, the American Energy and Security Act of 2009 (ACES). You can see my full testimony here.

I started with the broad economic arguments for passing climate legislation now: by doing so, we can harness American innovation, ensure leadership in making the next generation of clean-energy technologies, and unleash investment that will help pull our economy out of the recession.

Then I turned to the allocation provisions of the bill.  The allocation plan will preserve the environmental and economic effectiveness of the legislation, helping move us forward in solving the climate crisis in a way that is affordable, equitable and efficient.

Specifically, I outlined five major principles that any set of allocations should reflect, and illustrated how HR2454 fulfills each.

  • First, the bill protects consumers, particularly low-income consumers.  It does this through three channels: allowance value allocated to local distribution companies, who are required to pass that value on to customers in the form of lower utility bill; direct funding for rebates and energy credits directed specifically at low- and moderate-income households; and broader tax refunds, especially in the later years of the program. In total, nearly half (44 percent) of the total allowance value goes directly to households – amounting to an estimated $700 billion in present value.
  • Second, HR2454 includes provisions that preserve and strengthen the international competitiveness of U.S. businesses and workers during the transition to a clean energy economy, by directing about 12 percent of total allowance value (over the life of the bill) to energy-intensive and trade-exposed industries.
  • Third, the allocation plan respects differences across states and regions by allocating half of the allowances for electricity consumers on the basis of CO2 emissions and half on the basis of electricity generation.
  • Fourth, the integrity and credibility of the program is preserved since the bill ensures that consumers receive the allowance value intended for their benefit due to provisions specifically requiring utility companies to pass on the allowance value they receive.
  • Finally, HR2454 directs some value (26 percent over the life of the bill) to public purposes that are the objectives of the legislation, including clean energy innovation, carbon capture and storage, investments in renewables and energy efficiency, and climate change adaptation.

Overall, HR2454 passes these tests with flying colors.

Posted in Climate Change Legislation, Economics / Read 1 Response

EDF Economist Misquoted in Today’s Washington Post

Nat KeohaneThis post is by Nat Keohane, Ph.D., director of economic policy and analysis at Environmental Defense Fund.

When our media team opened up this morning’s Washington Post, they were delighted to see that Environmental Defense Fund was featured in an article about high energy prices and the connection to climate policy. Delighted, that is, until they read the article – which badly misrepresents our views.

Discussing the potential for perverse incentives from high gas prices in the absence of a cap on carbon, the reporter wrote:

The way to fix that would be a carbon tax or some other mechanism that would reflect the environmental cost of greenhouse gas emissions, Keohane said.

Those of you familiar with climate policy might have just spit out your coffee. EDF calling for a carbon tax? What gives?

In fact, I said nothing of the sort.

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Posted in Economics / Read 1 Response

Leaked EPA Draft: Net $ Benefits from Lowered Emissions

Nat KeohaneThis post is by Nat Keohane, Ph.D., director of economic policy and analysis at Environmental Defense Fund.

A few weeks ago, it came out that the White House is excising major portions of an EPA document on regulating greenhouse gas emissions under the Clean Air Act. The document – a draft Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking – is EPA’s answer to a 2007 Supreme Court ruling that greenhouse gases fall squarely within the act’s definition of “pollutant”.

The 252-page draft document [PDF] was leaked. In it, EPA projects that controlling greenhouse gas emissions from cars and light trucks would result in substantial net savings to Americans – as high as $2 trillion in net present value over the next few decades.

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Posted in Economics / Read 2 Responses