THE BLOG

National Climate Change Policy: A Quick Look Back at Waxman-Markey and the Road Ahead

07/30/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Like any legislation, the Waxman‑Markey bill has its share of flaws, but its cap-and-trade system has medium and long‑term targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions that are sensible, and the cap‑and‑trade system is -- for the most part -- well designed. With some exceptions, the bill's cap‑and‑trade system will achieve meaningful reductions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions at minimal cost to the economy.

There has been much lamenting about the corporate give-away in the bill, but this is unfounded, as I explained in detail in my May 27th post on The Wonderful Politics of Cap-and-Trade: A Closer Look at Waxman-Markey. Concerns have also been expressed -- such as by a number of Republican members of Congress during last Friday's floor debate in the House of Representatives -- about negative impacts on the international competitiveness of U.S. firms. The only real solution to the international competitiveness issue in the long term is to bring non‑participating countries within an international climate regime in meaningful ways. (On this, please see the work of the Harvard Project on International Climate Agreements.) But that solution is fundamentally outside of the scope of the domestic policy action of any individual nation, including the United States.

In the meantime, the Waxman‑Markey approach of combining output‑based updating allocations in the short term for select sectors with the option in the long term of a Presidential determination (under stringent conditions) for import allowance requirements for specific countries and sectors was sensible and pragmatic (see my June 18th post on Worried About International Competitiveness? Another Look at the Waxman-Markey Cap-and-Trade Proposal).

That's the good news. But the bad news is that last-minute changes in the bill changed what was a Presidential option regarding long-term back-up border adjustments (tariffs) to a requirement that the President put such tariffs in place under specified conditions. This moved the legislation considerably closer to risky protectionism, as President Obama rightly noted in comments to the press on Sunday.

Also, the compromise amendments with the House agriculture committee that provide for generous numbers of potential offsets from the agricultural sector (regulated not by EPA, but by USDA!) are troubling -- not in terms of driving up compliance costs, but in terms of reducing the real environmental performance of the system. This is because of the general problem of limited additionality of claimed reductions under offset (or emission-reduction-credit) systems, as opposed to cap-and-trade systems, plus the well-known difficulties of measuring non-point emissions, let alone emissions reductions, from agriculture.

These and other design issues will be important topics when the Senate takes up its own climate legislation, although the debate in that body on some of these issues will likely be quite different. For example, there is likely to be more interest in the Senate in the use of a "price collar," a mechanism to constrain both the maximum and the minimum market price of allowances over time. This would be a move beyond the safety-valve mechanism that is provided in the House legislation.

When the action moves to the Senate, the greatest attention and the greatest skepticism should be directed not to the cap‑and‑trade mechanism, which is -- for the most part -- well designed in Waxman‑Markey, but rather to other elements of the legislation, some of which are highly problematic. While the titles of Waxman‑Markey that create the cap‑and‑trade system are ‑‑ on balance ‑‑ sensible, and will result in meaningful emissions reductions cost effectively, the other titles of the bill include a host of conventional standards, many of which (under the cap‑and‑trade umbrella) will have minimal or no environmental benefits, but will limit flexibility and thereby have the unintended consequence of driving up compliance costs. That's the soft under‑belly of this legislation that needs to be selectively, surgically repaired.

It is the fault of economists -- myself included -- that we have given so much attention to the cap-and-trade system that we have ignored these other important elements of the legislation, elements that unfortunately can degrade significantly the cost-effectiveness of the package while providing little if any incremental benefits to the environment. Even the Congressional Budget Office, in its excellent economic analysis of HR 2454, focused exclusively on the bill's cap-and-trade program. Going forward, CBO, EPA, and independent analysts need to examine the bill's other elements, and assess what those elements provide at what incremental cost.

A broader question -- also raised by House Republicans in the floor debate -- is whether the United States should be moving towards the enactment of a domestic climate policy before a sensible, post‑Kyoto international agreement has been negotiated and ratified. Such an international agreement should include not only the countries of the industrialized world, but also the key, rapidly‑growing economies of the developing world ‑‑ China, India, Brazil, Korea, Mexico, South Africa, and Indonesia ‑‑ which are and will increasingly be major contributors to emissions.

It's natural for such a question to be raised about the very notion of the U.S. adopting a policy to help address what is fundamentally a global problem. The environmental benefits of any single nation's reductions in greenhouse gas emissions are spread worldwide, unlike the costs. This means that for any single country, the costs of action will inevitably exceed its direct benefits, despite the fact that the global costs of action will be less than global benefits. This is the nature of a global commons problem, and this is the very reason why international cooperation is required.

The U.S. is now engaged in international negotiations, and the credibility of the U.S. as a participant, let alone as a leader, in shaping the international regime is dependent upon our demonstrated willingness to take actions at home.

Europe has put its climate policy in place, and Australia, New Zealand, and Japan are moving to have their policies in place within a year. If the United States is to play a leadership role in international negotiations for a sensible post‑Kyoto international climate regime, the country must begin to move towards an effective domestic policy ‑ with legislation that is timed and structured to coordinate with the emerging post‑Kyoto climate regime.

Without evidence of serious action by the U.S., there will be no meaningful international agreement, and certainly not one that includes the key, rapidly‑growing developing countries. U.S. policy developments can and should move in parallel with international negotiations.

So, the Waxman‑Markey bill has its share of flaws, but it represents a reasonable starting point for Senate deliberation on what can become a national climate policy that will place the United States where it ought to be -‑ in a position of international leadership to help develop a global climate agreement that is scientifically sound, economically rational, and politically acceptable to the key nations of the world.