Is the Gulf of Mexico disaster a reason to pass climate legislation – or is that legislation largely irrelevant to curbing our oil use? A Greenwire article Tuesday quoted a number of economists arguing that the leading proposals in Congress wouldn’t do much to change our dependence on petroleum.

The only reasonable response is “yes, of course.” Climate proposals such as Kerry-Lieberman, Cantwell-Collins, or Waxman-Markey will have limited effects on oil consumption for two reasons: first, they are market mechanisms; second, they are weak market mechanisms.

To start with the good news, reducing carbon emissions from electric utilities is cheaper than reducing oil use. Any market mechanism is supposed to prompt us to do the cheapest things first; that’s the whole point. There are many ways to make electricity with lower carbon emissions than a coal plant; putting a price on carbon makes those alternatives cheaper relative to coal. There are also many ways to promote energy efficiency, incrementally reducing electricity use.

For most Americans, on the other hand, there is only one way to make transportation, and it runs on oil. In the short run, with all of us driving the cars we now own, there is very little chance to change our gasoline use. In the closing words of one of the best satirical videos about the oil spill, “BP: You’re not mad enough to not drive your car.” (more…)

Despite talk of a moratorium, the Interior Department’s Minerals and Management Service is still granting waivers from environmental review for oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, including wells in very deep water. Until last month, most of us never thought about the risk that one of those huge offshore rigs would explode in flames and then sink, causing oil to gush out uncontrollably and befoul the oceans. The odds seemed low, and still do: Aren’t there lots of drilling rigs in use, year after year? Twenty years ago, your elected representatives thought that you’d be happy to have them adopt a very low cap on industry’s liability for oil spill damages.

Nuclear power was never quite free of fears; it was too clearly a spin-off of nuclear weapons to ignore the risk of a very big bang. Yet as its advocates point out, we have had hundreds of reactor-years of experience, with only a few accidents. (And someday when Nevada’s politicians aren’t looking, maybe we can slip all of our nuclear waste into a cave in the desert.) Again, the risks are so low that you’d be happy to learn about a law limiting industry’s liability for accidents, wouldn’t you?

Environmentalists have long warned that the world could run out of energy and resources, from the “limits to growth” theories of the 1970s to the more recently popular notion of “peak oil.” The response from economists has been that prices for energy and raw materials are still moderate, and declined over the course of the 20th century; if we are running out of something, why doesn’t its price skyrocket?

The problem is that what we’re running out of is low-risk conventional energy supplies. Because our economy conceals and socializes energy risks, prices remain deceptively low for an increasingly risky energy supply. (more…)

Our team at SEI-U.S., led by Frank Ackerman, has just released a new model for climate change, mitigation investment, and development that highlights a major dilemma for industrialized countries. The model, Climate and Regional Economics of Development (CRED), is designed to analyze the economic consequences of various climate and development choices, based on what we know about different regions’ current economies and their vulnerability to climate change.

What the model shows is that the most cost-effective way to reduce global emissions and maximize the yield of “green” investment is to target developing countries: Because the impact of every dollar is bigger in a lower-income economy, shifting capital from rich to poor regions has the best payoff.

Developing nations have advocated this approach for years, but industrialized nations have resisted, not wanting climate mitigation to become a vehicle for the redistribution of wealth. In fact, widely used economic models specifically correct for this “problem,” and focus on climate solutions that leave global inequality untouched by design.

Read our working paper to learn more.

My colleague (and blog contributor) Frank Ackerman has a new article on Grist that explains why the United States can’t afford to settle for the “social cost of carbon” estimate used in the fuel-efficiency and tailpipe emissions standards unveiled April 1.

As we outlined in our recent white paper, “The Social Cost of Carbon” (available on the E3 Network website), the $21-per-ton figure being used by the government as a “central estimate” of the damages caused by carbon dioxide emissions is based on flawed economics and questionable value judgments.

Frank’s article describes how the government came up with that number, and why the SCC is so important: It’s like a “volume dial” that determines how strict environmental standards should be. Even worse, as Congress considers a climate bill, the $21 SCC could be taken as the recommended level for a carbon tax or permit price:

If that happens, there is no way the United States could reach the widely discussed, science-based goal of cutting emissions by 80 percent by 2050, which would require a much higher price on carbon. Given how cost-benefit analyses dominate U.S. policymaking, a $21 SCC could have a devastating impact on environmental legislation.

It’s easy to think of the fuel-efficiency standards as yesterday’s news, and not discuss the SCC again until it comes up in Congress. But in fact, now is the time to do our homework and figure out what the true price of carbon should be – before that, too, is a done deal.

Paul Krugman’s excellent article in the New York Times Magazine this weekend contrasts a slow, incremental approach to greenhouse gas mitigation (such as William Nordhaus’ “climate-policy ramp”) to more rapid measures better fitting the urgency suggested by the climate science literature. Krugman dubs the latter the “climate-policy big bang.”

Krugman has done a nice job of describing some of the major points of disagreement within the field of climate economics. Here’s his view:

[T]he policy-ramp prescriptions seem far too much like conducting a very risky experiment with the whole planet. Nordhaus’s preferred policy, for example, would stabilize the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere at a level about twice its preindustrial average. In his model, this would have only modest effects on global welfare; but how confident can we be of that? How sure are we that this kind of change in the environment would not lead to catastrophe? Not sure enough, I’d say, particularly because, as noted above, climate modelers have sharply raised their estimates of future warming in just the last couple of years.

Krugman concludes that the “nonnegligible probability of utter disaster” should guide our climate policy, and that this “argues for aggressive moves to curb emissions, soon.”

Anyone who has been reading this blog will know already that I feel that the evidence of both the climate science and climate economics literatures overwhelmingly supports a big-bang climate-policy approach. It’s nice to know that Paul Krugman is a supporter of these views, and it’s even nicer to have his clear and influential thoughts on this reach such a wide audience.

Why would the Obama administration allow new drilling in U.S. coastal areas, and what will it mean for greenhouse gas reductions? My colleague Frank Ackerman has a posting on the TripleCrisis blog today on off-shore drilling, peak oil, and how they relate to a carbon tax:

Solving our energy problems, without a change in direction, will lead to increasingly costly and environmentally destructive production – either deep offshore, or deep in the rocks below existing communities and watersheds. We need a tax (or a fee resulting from an allowance system) on energy, to keep the cost to consumers high enough to encourage conservation, while holding the price for producers low enough to discourage the pursuit of the worst fossil fuel deposits.

This is another way in which the distributional consequences of carbon permit giveaways (i.e., who gets the revenue – see Alejandro Reuss’ Public Goods posting from earlier this week) differ from those of permit auctions. A cap and trade system will increase the price of oil exploration only if businesses have to pay for their permits; if permits are given to the largest polluters for free, there will be no incentive to limit fossil fuel extraction from areas where underground reserves are not very rich and the environmental consequences of extraction are enormous.

Most economic analyses of “cap-and-trade” policies – under which the government sets a target amount of emissions and then issues tradable permits totaling that amount – take it for granted that it would not make any difference, in the reduction of emissions, if the government were to sell the permits or give them away. A 2008 report on cap-and-trade climate policies from the MIT Center for Energy and Environmental Policy Research puts it like this: “Economic theory suggests that the method of distributing emission allowances, i.e., through grandfathering or auctioning, will not affect an individual source’s output decisions or emissions.”

If firms always make optimal decisions, maximizing their profits, as mainstream “neoclassical” economists assume they do, this conclusion should be correct. It shouldn’t make any difference to a profit-maximizing firm whether, by reducing its emissions, it avoids the cost of buying emissions permits or reaps the benefit of selling permits. Either way, it will reduce emissions as long as the cost of doing so is less than the price of the permit.

But are real-life firms really the perfectly rational profit maximizers of the neoclassical economists’ imagination? Some insights from behavioral economics suggest they may not be, and therefore that they may react differently to a policy that makes them buy emissions permits compared to one that gives them permits for free.

(more…)

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