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Monday, February 08, 2010

"Any Hope for Meaningful U.S. Climate Policy?"

Robert Stavins is more upbeat than I am about the prospects for "meaningful U.S. Climate policy":

Any Hope for Meaningful U.S. Climate Policy? A Somewhat Positive View, by Robert Stavins: The current conventional wisdom ­– broadly echoed by the news media and the blogosphere – is that comprehensive, economy-wide CO2 cap-and-trade legislation is dead in the current U.S. Congress, and perhaps for the next several years.
Watch out for conventional wisdoms! They inevitably appear to be the collective judgment of numerous well-informed observers and sources, but frequently they are little more than the massive repetition of a few sample points of opinion across the echo-chamber of the professional news media and the blogosphere. ...
What is the Likely Legislative Outcome?
In addition to ongoing consideration of an economy-wide cap-and-trade system, another possibility now receiving attention is a utility-only cap-and-trade system, which some members of the Congress inexplicably find more attractive than an economy-wide approach. The result of such a system would be much less accomplished..., and at much greater cost. ...
Even more likely is that the Congress would develop a so-called energy-only bill, which would – to a large degree – consist of killing the one part of Waxman-Markey worth saving (the comprehensive CO2 cap-and-trade system), and moving forward with the worst parts of that legislation – the smorgasbord of regulatory initiatives. As I’ve written previously, those additional elements of the legislation are highly problematic. When implemented under the cap-and-trade umbrella, many of those conventional standards and subsidies would have no net greenhouse-gas-reducing benefits, would limit flexibility, and would thereby have the unintended consequence of driving up compliance costs. That’s the soft under‑belly of the House legislation.
Without the cap-and-trade umbrella, that same set of standards and subsidies will accomplish very little, and do so at exceedingly high cost. ...
If those other, regulatory parts of the climate legislation are so ineffective and so costly, why are they so popular with politicians? The reason is simple. The costs are hidden. The government simply mandates that electric utilities or manufacturers take particular actions, employing the best technology available. Where’s the cost? Unlike a cap-and-trade system, there’s no analysis and debate about the cost of allowances (and the marginal abatement costs they represent); and unlike a carbon tax, there’s no analysis and no focus on the dollar amount of the tax and the aggregate cost. That is the unfortunate but fundamental political economy behind much of U.S. environmental policy since the first Earth Day in 1970.
What about Court-Ordered Regulation?
Whether “best-available-control technology standards” are crafted by the Congress or put in place by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)..., such an approach will be relatively ineffective and terribly costly for what is accomplished. The EPA route would essentially apply the mechanisms of the Clean Air Act, intended for localized, “criteria air pollutants,” to CO2, resulting in ineffective and costly regulations.
The White House (and most member of Congress) recognize that this is an inappropriate way to address climate change, but they seem determined to go forward, claiming that this threat will force the hand of Congress to do something more sensible instead. Unfortunately, this is akin to my telling you that if you don’t do what I want, I will shoot myself in the foot – not a very credible or intelligent threat. What I am referring to is that costly Clean Air Act regulation of CO2 will play into the hands of right-wing opponents of climate action, creating a poster-child of excessive regulatory intervention that will bring about a backlash against sensible climate policies. ...
So Is There No Hope for Good Climate Policy?
Here is where it gets interesting, because as much as the current political environment in Washington may seem increasingly unreceptive to an economy-wide cap-and-trade system or some other meaningful and sensible climate policy, there is one promising approach that could actually benefit from the national political climate.
In these pages, I have expressed support for cap-and-trade mechanisms..., including ... Waxman-Markey legislation... Although that approach is scientifically sound, economically sensible, and may still turn out to be politically acceptable, there’s a modified version of cap-and-trade that could be much more attractive in this era of rampant expressions of populism, coming both from the right (“no new taxes”) and the left (“bash the corporations”). Neither of those views, of course, is consistent with sound economic thinking on the environment, but it’s nevertheless possible to recognize their national appeal and build upon them.
This could be done with a simple upstream cap-and-trade system in which all of the needed allowances are sold (auctioned) – not given freely – to fossil-fuel producers and importers, and a very large share – say 75% – of the revenue is rebated directly to American households through monthly checks in a progressive scheme through which all individuals receive identical payments.
Such an approach could appeal to the populist sentiments that are increasingly dominating political discourse and judgments in this mid-term election year. Such a system – which would have direct and visible positive financial consequences (i.e., rebate checks larger than energy price increases) for 80% of American households – might not only not be difficult for politicians to support, but it might actually be difficult for politicians to oppose!
Importantly, even though this is a specific type of cap-and-trade design (which has been known, studied, and proposed for decades), for better political optics, it should be called something else. How about “cap-and-dividend?”
A CLEAR Answer?
What I’ve described bears a close resemblance to the “Carbon Limits and Energy for America’s Renewal (CLEAR) Act,” sponsored by Senators Maria Cantwell (D-Washington) and Susan Collins (R-Maine). So, the politics of their proposal looks appealing, and the substance of it looks promising – a simple upstream cap-and-trade system (called something else), with 100% of the allowances auctioned (with a “price collar” on allowance prices to reduce cost uncertainty), 75% of the revenue refunded to all legal U.S. residents, each month, on an equal per capita basis as non-taxable income, the other 25% of the revenue dedicated to specified purposes, including “transition assistance,” and some built-in measures of protection for particularly energy-intensive, trade-sensitive sectors (not unlike Waxman-Markey).
That’s the good news. The bad news, however, is that the proposal needs to be changed before it can promise to be not only politically attractive, but economically sensible. In particular, as it is currently structured, only producers and importers of fossil fuels can buy the carbon allowances. In an up-stream system – an approach I have endorsed for years – it is producers and importers that are subject to compliance, that is, must eventually hold the allowances. That’s fine. But there is no sound reason to exclude other entities from participating in the auction markets; and doing so will greatly reduce market liquidity. ...
These and other important problems with the CLEAR proposal can – in principle – be addressed while maintaining its basic structure and political attraction.
An Economic Perspective
It is interesting to note that many – perhaps most – economists have long favored the variant of cap-and-trade whereby allowances are auctioned and the auction revenue is used to cut distortionary taxes (on capital and/or labor), thereby reducing the net social cost of the policy. Cap-and-Dividend moves in another direction. This system ... has some merits compared with the economist’s favorite approach of tax cuts, namely that the Cap-and-Dividend scheme addresses some of the distributional issues that would be raised by using the auction revenue to fund tax cuts (which could favor higher income households). ...
In general, there are sound reasons to seek to compensate consumers for the energy price increases that will be brought about by a cap-and-trade system, or any meaningful climate change policy. But it is important not to insulate consumers from those price increases, as diluting the price signal reduces the effectiveness and drives up the cost of the overall policy. Thus, “compensation” as in Cap-and-Dividend is fine, but “insulation” is not.
The most politically salient question with the Waxman-Markey approach of freely allocating a significant portion of the allowances to the private sector is how to distribute (that is, who gets) those allowances which are freely allocated. In this regard, contrary to much of the hand-wringing in the press, the deal-making that took place in the House and may still take place in the Senate for shares of free allowances is an example of the useful and important mechanism through which a cap-and-trade system provides the means for a political constituency of support and action to be assembled without reducing the policy’s effectiveness or driving up its cost.
The ultimate political question seems to be whether there is greater (geographic and sectoral) political support for the Waxman-Markey (H.R. 2454) approach of substantial free allocations and targeted use of auction revenue, or if there is greater (populist) political support for the full auction combined with lump-sum rebate which characterizes the “cap-and-dividend” approach. Alas, the textbook economics preference — full auction combined with cuts of distortionary taxes — appears to be a political, if not, academic orphan.

    Posted by on Monday, February 8, 2010 at 11:37 AM in Economics, Environment, Politics | Permalink  Comments (17)


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