Debate continues in the United States, Europe and throughout the world about whether the forces of the marketplace can be harnessed in the interest of environmental protection, in particular, to address the threat of global climate change. In an essay that appears in the Spring 2012 issue of Daedalus, the journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, my colleague, Joseph Aldy, and I take on this question. In the article — "Using the Market to Address Climate Change: Insights from Theory & Experience" — we investigate the technical, economic, and political feasibility of market-based climate policies, and examine alternative designs of carbon taxes, cap-and-trade, and clean energy standards.
Virtually all aspects of economic activity — individual consumption, business investment, and government spending — affect greenhouse gas emissions and, therefore, the global climate. In essence, an effective climate change policy must change the nature of decisions regarding these activities in order to promote more efficient generation and use of energy, lower carbon-intensity of energy, and a more carbon-lean economy.
Basically, there are three possible ways to accomplish this: (1) mandate that businesses and individuals change their behavior; (2) subsidize business and individual investment; or (3) price the greenhouse gas externality proportional to the harms that these emissions cause.
Harnessing Market Forces by Pricing Externalities
The pricing of externalities can promote cost-effective abatement, deliver efficient innovation incentives, avoid picking technology winners, and ameliorate, not exacerbate, government fiscal conditions.
By pricing carbon emissions (or, equivalently, the carbon content of the three fossil fuels -- coal, petroleum and natural gas), the government provides incentives for firms and individuals to identify and exploit the lowest-cost ways to reduce emissions and to invest in the development of new technologies, processes, and ideas that can mitigate future emissions. A fairly wide variety of policy approaches fall within the concept of externality pricing in the climate-policy context, including carbon taxes, cap-and-trade, and clean energy standards.
What About Conventional Regulatory Approaches?
In contrast, conventional approaches to environmental protection typically employ uniform mandates to protect environmental quality. Although uniform technology and performance standards have been effective in achieving some established environmental goals and standards, they tend to lead to non-cost-effective outcomes in which some firms use unduly expensive means to control pollution.
In addition, conventional technology or performance standards do not provide dynamic incentives for the development, adoption, and diffusion of environmentally and economically superior control technologies. Once a firm satisfies a performance standard, it has little incentive to develop or adopt cleaner technology. Indeed, regulated firms may fear that if they adopt a superior technology, the government will tighten the standard.
Given the ubiquitous nature of greenhouse gas emissions from diverse sources, it is virtually inconceivable that a standards-based approach could form the centerpiece of a truly meaningful climate policy. The substantially higher cost of a standards-based policy may undermine support for such an approach, and securing political support may require weakening standards and lowering environmental benefits.
How About Technology Subsidies?
Government support for lower-emitting technologies often takes the form of investment or performance subsidies. Providing subsidies for targeting climate-friendly technologies entails revenues raised by taxing other economic activities. Given the tight fiscal environment throughout the developed world, it is difficult to justify increasing (or even continuing) the subsidies that would be necessary to change significantly the emissions intensity of economic activity.
Furthermore, by lowering the cost of energy, climate-oriented technology subsidies can actually lead to excessive levels of energy supply and consumption. Thus, subsidies can undermine incentives for efficiency and conservation, and impose higher costs per ton abated than cost-effective policy alternatives.
In practice, subsidies are typically designed to be technology specific. By designating technology winners, such approaches yield special-interest constituencies focused on maintaining subsidies beyond what would be socially desirable. They also provide little incentive for the development of novel, game-changing technologies.
That said, there is still a role for direct technology policies in combination with externality pricing, as I have argued in a previous essay. This is because in addition to the environmental market failure (appropriately addressed by externality pricing) there exists another market failure in the climate change context, namely, the public-good nature of information produced by research and development. I addressed this in my essay, "Both Are Necessary, But Neither is Sufficient: Carbon-Pricing and Technology R&D Initiatives in a Meaningful National Climate Policy."
Back to Markets, and Some Real-World Experience
Empirical analysis drawing on actual experience has demonstrated the power of markets to drive profound changes in the investment and use of emission-intensive technologies.
The run-up in gasoline prices in 2008 increased consumer demand for more fuel-efficient new cars and trucks, while also reducing vehicle miles traveled by the existing fleet. Likewise, electricity generators responded to the dramatic decline in natural gas prices in 2009 and 2010 by dispatching more electricity from gas plants, resulting in lower CO2 emissions.
Longer-term evaluations of the impacts of energy prices on markets have found that higher prices have induced more innovation — measured by frequency and importance of patents — and increased the commercial availability of more energy-efficient products, especially among energy-intensive goods such as air conditioners and water heaters.
Experience with Externality Pricing
Real-world experience with policies that price externalities has illustrated the effectiveness of market-based instruments. Congestion charges in London, Singapore, and Stockholm have reduced traffic congestion in busy urban centers, lowered air pollution, and delivered net social benefits. Likewise, the British Columbia carbon tax has reduced carbon dioxide emissions since 2008.
More prominently, the U.S. sulfur dioxide (SO2) cap-and-trade program has cut SO2 emissions from U.S. power plants by more than 50 percent since 1990, resulting in compliance costs one-half of what they would have been under conventional regulatory mandates.
The success of the SO2 allowance trading program motivated the design and implementation of the European Union's Emissions Trading Scheme (EU ETS), the world's largest cap-and-trade program, focused on cutting CO2 emissions from power plants and large manufacturing facilities throughout Europe.
And the 1980s phasedown of lead in gasoline, which reduced the lead content per gallon of fuel, served as an early, effective example of a tradable performance standard.
These positive experiences have provided ample reason to consider market-based instruments — carbon taxes, cap-and-trade, and clean energy standards — as potential approaches to mitigating greenhouse gas emissions.
The Rubber Hits the Road
The U.S. political response to possible market-based approaches to climate policy has been and will continue to be largely a function of issues and structural factors that transcend the scope of environmental and climate policy. Because a truly meaningful climate policy — whether market-based or conventional in design — will have significant impacts on economic activity in a wide variety of sectors and in every region of the country, it is not surprising that proposals for such policies bring forth significant opposition, particularly during difficult economic times.
In addition, U.S. political polarization — which began some four decades ago and accelerated during the economic downturn — has decimated what had long been the key political constituency in Congress for environmental (and energy) action: namely, the middle, including both moderate Republicans and moderate Democrats. Whereas congressional debates about environmental and energy policy have long featured regional politics, they are now largely partisan. In this political maelstrom, the failure of cap-and-trade climate policy in the Senate in 2010 was collateral damage in a much larger political war.
Better economic times may reduce the pace — if not the direction — of political polarization. And the ongoing challenge of large federal budgetary deficits may at some point increase the political feasibility of new sources of revenue. When and if this happens, consumption taxes — as opposed to traditional taxes on income and investment — could receive heightened attention; primary among these might be energy taxes, which, depending on their design, can function as significant climate policy instruments.
Many environmental advocates would respond that a mobilizing event will surely precipitate U.S. climate policy action. But the nature of the climate change problem itself helps explain much of the relative apathy among the U.S. public and suggests that any such mobilizing events may come "too late."
Nearly all our major environmental laws have been passed in the wake of highly publicized environmental events or "disasters," including the spontaneous combustion of the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1969, and the discovery of toxic substances at Love Canal in Niagara Falls, New York, in the mid-1970s. But note that the day after the Cuyahoga River caught on fire, no article in the Cleveland Plain Dealer commented that the cause was uncertain, that rivers periodically catch on fire from natural causes. On the contrary, it was immediately apparent that the cause was waste dumped into the river by adjacent industries. A direct consequence of the observed "disaster" was, of course, the Clean Water Act of 1972.
But climate change is distinctly different. Unlike the environmental threats addressed successfully in past U.S. legislation, climate change is essentially unobservable to the general population. We observe the weather, not the climate. Until there is an obvious and sudden event — such as a loss of part of the Antarctic ice sheet leading to a dramatic sea-level rise — it is unlikely that public opinion in the United States will provide the bottom-up demand for action that inspired previous congressional action on the environment over the past forty years.
A Half-Full Glass of Water?
Despite this rather bleak assessment of the politics of climate change policy in the United States, it is really much too soon to speculate on what the future will hold for the use of market-based policy instruments, whether for climate change or other environmental problems.
On the one hand, it is conceivable that two decades (1988–2008) of high receptivity in U.S. politics to cap-and-trade and offset mechanisms will turn out to be no more than a relatively brief departure from a long-term trend of reliance on conventional means of regulation.
On the other hand, it is also possible that the recent tarnishing of cap-and-trade in national political dialogue will itself turn out to be a temporary departure from a long-term trend of increasing reliance on market-based environmental policy instruments. Perhaps the ongoing interest in these policy mechanisms in California (Assembly Bill 32), the Northeast (Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative), Europe, and other countries will eventually provide a bridge to a changed political climate in Washington.