Climate Change

Getting the Most Out of Copenhagen: Cut Fossil Subsidies

With Friday's revelation from the Director of the White House Office of Energy and Climate Policy Carol Browner that President Obama's signature finding its way onto a climate bill was "not going to happen" prior to Copenhagen, it's time to go to Plan B to get the most out of the international conference. Although the US may not be leading on what many consider the most important piece of limiting climate harming emissions, there are still other areas in which we can show leadership.

One place to start is by building on something the G-20 did: a global agreement on the phase-out of fossil fuel subsidies. Taking the agreement from that smaller group and getting buy-in from additional nations (most of whom were obviously not at the G-20), would be helpful. Additional teeth should be put into such an agreement, such as an actual timeline – the current one is a somewhat laughable “medium term.” America can lead by acknowledging that our subsidies to fossil fuel industries easily outpace those given to clean technology and commit to changing that.

For many developing countries, fuel subsidies are something of a prisoner’s dilemma and policy trap. Governments artificially lower prices via subsidy thereby increasing demand – when, if nation’s acted in concert to eliminate these subsidies – markets would see to diminished demand and a lower world price. (Of course subsidies for low-income and vulnerable populations would remain appropriate.) Copenhagen is the perfect place to agree to such an outcome. 

There are other important ideas, some of which we'll be writing about and advocating in the coming months before Copenhagen. Domestically, a Renewable Electricity Standard and strong clean technology incentives are an achievable necessity. A robust agenda for reforming our electricity markets and slow-moving utilities is also a conversation we can begin.

Internationally, a Global Environmental Organization that adequately represents rising powers and developing nations and that builds and guards the structure and rules for the complicated climate regime, as Ed Gresser advocated in the latest Democracy Journal, is another good idea. And, as you'll be hearing about more in the near future, an agreement to remove the significant barriers to the global deployment of clean technology and environmental services is crucial. 

President Obama will be in a difficult position – he is in the right place on the issue, but the Senate is bogged down with healthcare, and getting to 60 on climate is not a forgone conclusion anyway. His team will therefore have to prepare a robust agenda of demonstrable accomplishments that showcases American leadership and gets the most out of this important conference.

For more on preparing for Copenhagen, check out the Washington Post, where NDN Globalization Initiative Chair Dr. Robert Shapiro continues his advocacy for a carbon tax. 

Getting China to Play Ball on Balanced Growth and More from the G-20

Writing in the Financial Times about the four things that stood out to him about the G-20 Summit, Philip Stephens points first to "China’s, albeit reluctant, embrace of multilateralism:"

Beijing is at last owning up to the fact that it is a leading actor on the global stage. A year or so ago, China was still clinging on to an essentially passive role in international affairs. Western injunctions for it to act as a responsible stakeholder in the multilateral system were met with protestations that such demands were premature: China was still a developing country, and it prized non-interference above western concepts of mutual dependence.

The global economic crisis upended that strategy by showing that Beijing cannot detach its domestic from its international interests. True, China has had a good crisis, demonstrating that it can continue to grow while the west is in recession. But the collapse of its exports has served as a potent reminder of the inextricable ties woven by globalisation.

This interdependence is taken for granted in western capitals. For Beijing it carries the uncomfortable implication that states have a legitimate interest in the framing of others' domestic policies.

This interdependence led to, as Stephens points out, China's headline grabbing climate change announcement, an important marker on the road to Copenhagen. Frankly though, that work by China, in the interplay between domestic and international politics, was a fairly easy calculation. China has already made a strategic decision to develop a home-grown renewable energy industry, this was a logical move.

Rather, the heavy lift for China will come in the commitment to balanced growth from the G-20. China’s consumers are notoriously reticent to, well, consume. And it's virtually entirely due to policy. As Michael Pettis, a professor at Peking University, writes in the New York Times:

The Chinese save such a high fraction of their income largely because of long-standing policies aimed at promoting and subsidizing domestic investment and manufacturing.

These policies inevitably require households to foot the bill, primarily through sluggish wage growth, low interest rates on their bank deposits, an undervalued currency and a weak social safety net. Since total savings is just the difference between what is produced and what is consumed, subsidizing producers at the expense of household consumers necessarily causes savings to rise.

Since, as NDN's Rob Shapiro writes, there is little chance of the U.S. bailing the world out of the great recession, there is, as Pettis says, a scary possible outcome to rebalancing:

As the U.S. rebalances its economy toward higher savings rates, China has no choice but to rebalance toward higher consumption rates. This can happen either because of a sharp pick-up in consumption growth or, more likely, a sharp slowdown in GDP growth. I worry that China will find it difficult to generate the kind of consumption growth that will take up some of the American slack, and we may be locked into a period during which the world adjusts by growing more slowly.

This G-20 seems to have been more successful than many would have thought, but the real crux of the global economic recovery may lie in getting the world's rising powers to connect their people to the global marketplace. As China adjusts to the responsibilities that come with others having a stake in their domestic economic policies, it will inevitably do what everyone else does: balance that responsibility with domestic politics. (Perhaps Chinese leadership will see fit to develop a social safety net in the form of universal healthcare; all the socialists are doing it these days.)

More from the G-20:

20 heads are better than 7 – NYT: Global Economic Forum to Expand Permanently

FT: World Leaders to Expand G20 Powers:

Rich countries will agree to give up 5 per cent of the total voting shares to be distributed to under-represented countries, including rapidly growing emerging economies such as China. The aim is to increase the legitimacy of these institutions. The leaders have agreed to put aside disagreements over the representation in the governing bodies of these institutions.

Lula – Rising powers doing their part (let them do more by concluding Doha):

Policies adopted by countries in the Global South have created tens of millions of new consumers, who will drive the recovery of the global economy.

WSJ Environmental Capital blog - Fossil-fuel subsidies to be phased out in the "medium run."

Developing countries—many of the same ones that are demanding that rich countries underwrite their transition to a clean-energy economy—spent $310 billion in 2007 to subsidize fossil-fuel consumption, the International Energy Agency says.

Stop spending so much to keep gasoline, diesel, and electricity artificially cheap, in other words, and you’ll have the cash to promote clean energy at home.

Is America Surrendering Clean Technology Leadership to China?

Experience shows that an important key to growing a vibrant renewable energy sector is a strong domestic market. Germany’s feed-in tariffs have helped it become a world leader in solar energy production. China has long been focusing on building their domestic renewable energy industries, and just announced they are upping their efforts to build domestic renewable demand. 

From the AP's coverage of the U.N. Summit on Climate Change:

Chinese President Hu Jintao said his nation will continue to take "determined" action. He laid out new plans for extending China's energy-saving programs and targets for reducing "by a notable margin" the "intensity" of its carbon pollution — carbon dioxide emission increases as related to economic growth.

He said China would greatly boost its forest cover, "climate-friendly technologies" and use 15 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2020.

That 15 percent renewable energy by 2020 sounds like a Renewable Electricity Standard. It also sounds similar to the one in the ACES bill that passed the House in June, which mandates 20 percent renewables by 2020, but that generally allows for 5 percent of that to come from energy efficiency (which it undoubtedly will, as efficiency is way cheaper than renewables). In fact, the ACES standard can be weakened even further, all the way down to 12 percent renewables in some cases.

So now China's ahead of the United States, and, even if we pass ACES as is, will have a comparable or slightly stronger RES in an economy whose energy use (and therefore said sector) will grow much faster over the next decade than America's will. We'll have the price signal that cap and trade offers, but it’s not nearly as strong as it could be. (China is unwilling to agree to cap emissions and certainly won't ahead of the U.S.) 

Much of the opposition to domestic climate change regimes comes of the idea that American action on climate without China going along hurts the U.S. economy and does nothing to slow climate change. Now, basically the opposite could play out. With China stepping up on an RES and limited movement from the U.S. Congress toward passing a strong climate bill, some Americans seem willing to let China take a leadership role on perhaps the most pressing global governance challenge of the young century and develop an export-capable renewable energy sector that passes ours, thereby surrendering a high potential economic sector to world's most important rising power.

A Busy Week for Climate

New York City - With President Obama's speech today before the UN meeting on climate change, convened by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, the release of excerpts from an IEA report on the climate Sunday and climate on the agenda at the G-20 meeting in Pittsburgh, this week has shaped up as a remarkable one in climate discussions.  On Sunday, the IEA released sections from its forth coming Energy Outlook  that are remarkably optimistic about the climate.  Today, President Obama gave a forceful--if thematic--speech to the UN--notable more than anything else for the reversal of US policy on the climate that his presidency brings relative to his predecessor.  And later in the week, the G-20 will take up the issue anew after failing to make major progress in London.  All of this is happening with Copenhagen now just around the corner.  At this point, it is worth taking stock of where the world is on what Sir David King has dubbed the hot topic.

First, the IEA report in its suprisingly positive findings shows above all, that action on climate change is within our reach.  The IEA found that the EU effort on climate has succeded more than previously thought.  It also praises China for its efforts and the US for improving fuel economy  Most notable, however, is the huge decline in emissions that has evidently accompanied the current recession.  The sharp dropoff in emissions shows that the word can cut emissions dramatically over a period of months and still survive.  In effect, it sets a boundary.  Obviousy, we don't want to see unemployment at 10% in the US in order to lower emissions.  But it shows that a lower emissions world is attainable. In fact, we are living it right now. 

The President's speech, though criticized by some environmentalists for lacking specifics, in my mind hit the right notes and reverses one of the troubling elements of much of the discussion before.  While noting that the developed world needs to do more, the President also called the developing world to account.  This strikes a slightly different note than many dicussions up to now that have reprised the poverty debate with the developing world asking for aid and the developed world expressing guilt over previous sins.  Climate change discussions--though they touch on issues of development--are not about equity between North and South but rather the survival of the planet.  Progress on saving the climate cannot be about apologizing for the last century of industrialization.  That was a necessary phase of economic development that although it raised living standards first in the developed world, in effect, paved the way for industrialization everywhere.  Nor was industrialization in the west a free ride for the workers who toiled in factories or even those who enjoyed its fruit as the high mortality of the indsutrial wage and bloody 20th Century attest.  The developing world although slower to industrialize in many ways inherits the technology, transportation network and markets created by the developed world's industrialization.  And developing countries have an even greater stake in addressing climate change because they stand to suffer disproportionately from rising sea levels, disruption of food supplies, extreme weather and other potential consequences of a hotter planet.  The President was right to call on the developing countries to be as serious as the developed ones about facing this issue.

The discussions underway at the UN and those that will be part of the G20 process, however, are not moving at the pace that anyone would like.  Although President Obama took pains to mention the passage of climate change legislation in the House, he could not point to a unifed American position as our basis for international negotiation.  The simple fact is that there is a very real possibility that a comprehensive global agreement on global greenhouse gas emissions will not be ready by Copenhagen.

If that is the case, however, as the IEA repot makes clear, that does not mean all is lost.  Rather, the US like China and, indeed, all countries needs to move forward on the many other fronts available to address the problem of greenhouse gas emissions.  Since the recent interruption of growth was, we all hope, temporary, as I have written before the answer ultimately must be technology.  In order to incent the private sector to accelerate the rollout of low carbon technologies, government needs to put the right policies in place.  That means improving fuel economy, building more efficient buildings and creating a new, smarter, more open electricity network to spur a renewable revolution. 

Regardless of what happens this week in New York and Pittsburgh, or what happens in Copenhagen the problem of climate change will not be solved in a day a month or a year, but only through the consistent application of private industry and government in all their actions to introducing that technology.  That is the real imperative underlying this week's focus on climate change.  And it must be the real goal of a wide range of policy efforts going forward whether the world secures a comprehensive agreement or not.

Getting to Clean

As the New York Times reports today in an editorial, the decision of Senators Kerry and Boxer to put off introduction of their climate bill until the end of the month is likely to push Congressional action on climate change that much further into the future.  With the fate of health care legislation in doubt, there is little appetite for moving climate change legislation to the floor.  However, as the Times also points out, that does not mean all is lost.  The EPA is moving forward on rules to regulate carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas.  Perhaps even more importantly, however, the Senate has already passed legislation to create a renewable electricity standard.  Indeed both the Senate and House have passed numerous provisions--that while not as dramatic as putting a price on carbon--attack the climate problem in important ways.

The current situation highlights the fact that while putting a price on carbon through a cap and trade system or carbon tax--as France just announced it will do next year--has achieved symbolic status as a litmus test for seriously addressing climate problem, it is only one policy tool.  Indeed, as the EU's experience with cap and trade (and carbon taxes in Finland, Sweden and Denmark) shows, there is no silver bullet for reducing emissions.  There are policies.  And all of these policies ultimately must accomplish the same thing: accelerate the development and use of new, cleaner technologies.

Assuming continuing growth of human civilization, only new low emissions technologies that replace carbon intensive ones can sustain growth without warming the planet.  Conservation--getting by with less--is helpful in the short term.  So is reforestation.  Over the long term, however, as population grows and living standards rise, forests will be cut and emmissions rise, leaving new technologies as the only long term answer. 

The appeal of putting a price on carbon is that by internalizing the social costs of emissions, it lets the market select the best way to reduce them.  The difficulty, as the EU has discovered, is that allocating the right to pollute or even crafting a fair and harmonized carbon tax is an inherently political process that provides a golden opportunity to free ride on the reductions of others.  Since climate change is something taking place over decades, governments have an even greater opportunity than usual to postpone pain.  To date, Europe's success in reducing emissions through cap and trade has been real but modest and its efforts offset by exploding emissions from India and China. 

This does not mean that cap and trade is not a good idea: only that is just one tool in the shed.  Which brings us to alternative approaches. 

Europe has had success with a feed in tarriff to encourage deployment of renewable energy.  The US equivalent of tax credits has been useful though less transformative.  A renewable electricity standard such as that in the EU and those already passed in separate bills in the House and Senate will also help replace carbon intensive energy with renewable energy. 
However, there is an additional problem.  While building is going green--most new large commercial buildings are seeking Leeds certification, power generation is changing far more slowly.  The reason is its regulated status.  While the telecom industry is now turning over its entire network infrastructure every five years at a cost of billions and consumer businesses must continually invest in new products and technologies to stay in place, heavily regulated power utilities face no real competition and, instead, major barriers to innovation.

True, regulated utilities normally earn a guaranteed rate of return on investment which, all things being equal, should incent them to make new investments.  However, they also require the approval of regulators whose mission, above all, is to contain costs to consumers.  A consumer preference for renewable energy rarely expresses itself in the market since consumers don't get to choose their source of power. In  short, the structure of the utility industry is currently blocking the renewable revolution.

I support prompt action on cap and trade as one tool to address the climate problem. However, as valuable as it is, it is one tool of many.  Regardless of how quickly this tool becomes available, it is important to take all of the other steps available to accelerate investments in clean technologies.

Health Care Lessons for Energy

Last night's speech by President Obama in support of health care legislation, fiery yet thoughtful, and designed, as E.J. Dionne remarks today, to seize the autumn after a summer dominated by his opponents, increases the chances of passage of a health care bill this year.  By engaging directly and forcefully with Congress and the American people, last night the President injected himself into a debate including all of its details that until now he has largely tried to steer clear of.  The strongest parts of the speech were those where steeped in detail he argued for the overall package on the basis of its component parts.  The speech was significant not only for the prospects of health care legislation this year, but also for the President's entire agenda, including the next large legislative item on tap: energy and climate change legislation.

As with health care legislation, the President's strategy on energy and climate has been to set broad goals and encourage Congress to tackle the details.  As a former Senator himself, it is not surprising that he would have confidence in the ability of Congress to write law.  In the case of climate, the House did pass a bill this year and though the cap and trade component was weakened in drafting, the bill contains a meaningful Renewable Electricity Standard and other provisions critical to stimulating the growth of renewable electricity. 

While that strategy worked in the House, the Senate chose to postpone action this summer until after healthcare.  One rationale for postponement was to use the momentum created by health care to move energy as well.  Now, however, it appears less likely that health care will grease the skids for energy legislation.  Instead, the mobilization of Republicans against health care may carry over to energy.  Nonetheless, the health care debate suggests some important lessons for moving energy legislation.

The first lesson is that moving a bill--particularly one with a climate change component--is likely to require direct presidential engagement.  Currently the Administration does not have positions on many of the specifics of the energy bill.  It should develop positions and thorough arguments to back them up.  Absent direct engagement, it will be to easy for opponents of the legislation to suggest postponement.  While health care is the topic now at the top of the agenda, the Administration should begin laying the groundwork now for engagement when energy comes up later in the fall.

Second, the Administration has to decide whether to pursue a partisan or non partisan strategy.  Either way, it is critical that the Administration win over moderate Democrats.  Without them, it cannot pursue a partisan strategy.  And without them even a non partisan strategy becomes that much more difficult.  This too will require direct presidential engagement to determine which Senators require which changes to the law to feel comfortable supporting the overall package.  The key argument to be made to moderate Democrats is the economic one: that the US needs to take leadership in developing new energy technologies lest leadership of this vital sector pass to other countries.  The second most important argument is energy security.  What could be more absurd, after all, than fighting two wars in the Middle East and sparring with Iran over politics, while continuing to import large quantities of oil from that region.  The time to begin reaching out to the Democratic moderates is now.

Many commentators have correclty observed that the current Administration, at times seems to have learned too well the lessons of the early Clinton years of not trying to be overly prescriptive with respect to legislation.  However, the opposite is also true: the Administration cannot stay out of the fray.

To pass energy legislation as with health care, the Administration will need to engage and, yes, sweat the details.

The Key to the Fall Debate: Staying Focused on the Economy

The last few months have not been particularly good ones for Democrats.  That's the bad news.  The good news is there a clear roadmap for how they can use the coming months to get back on track, and it revolves around staying relentlessly focused on the economy and the struggle of every day people.  

1) The Lack of Income Growth for Average Families is the Greatest Domestic Challenge Facing America Today.   Depending on how you cut the data, American families have not seen their incomes rise in at least eight, and perhaps, ten years.  Even in the Bush recovery, which was by many measures, robust, median incomes declined, poverty levels increased, debt loads exploded.  The typical American family ended the Bush era making $1,000 less than at the beginning. 

Basic economics tells us when productivity increases wages and incomes rise.  When GDP expands, jobs are created at a certain rate.  Neither of these events took place in the Bush era, leading us here at NDN to argue that there is a large structural change being brought about by globalization that is making it harder for the American economy to create jobs and raise the standard of living of every day people.

That median incomes dropped during a robust economic recovery made the Bush recovery different from any other recovery in American history, and has made the current Great Recession different from other recessions.  The American consumer was already in a very weakened state before the current recession, which is why the recession has been more virulent than many predicted, and why the coming "recovery" might be so anemic.  The economy seems to be going through profound, structural change, making old economic models anachronistic.  We are literally in a "new economy" now, one that is not well understood, and one that is confusing even the President's top advisers. 

Simply put, getting people's incomes up is the most important domestic challenge facing those in power today.  It is not surprising that other issues like health care, energy policy and climate change are being seen through a prism of "will this make my life, my economic struggle better today?" because so many families have been down so long, and things have gotten an awful lot worse this year.   Regardless of what they hope to be graded on by the public, the basket of issues that will do more to determine the success of the President and his Party is both the belief that things are getting better, and the reality that they are for most people. 

2) The Public Believes the Economy Is By Far and Away the Most Important Issue Facing the Nation Today.   In poll after poll this year, the public has made it clear that the economy is their most important issue, with really nothing coming in a strong number two.  The new Pew poll out this week maintains the basic ratio we have seen for months: mid 50s say the economy is number one; 20 percent of the American people say health care is their number one concern; and literally "zero" pick energy (see the chart to the right).

While one could mount an argument that one should not govern by polls, one can also ignore them at their own peril.  The country wants their leaders focusing on what is their number one concern - their ability to make a living and provide for their families in a time of economic transformation - which also happens to be, in this case, the most important domestic issue facing the country. 

My own belief is that one of the reasons the President and the Democrats have seen their poll numbers drop is that they have spent too much time talking about issues of lesser concern to people while the economy has gotten worse.   There is a strong argument to be made that the President and the Democrats have taken their eye of the economic ball, and are paying a price for it.  This doesn't mean the President shouldn't be talking about health care, climate change, education, immigration reform, but they must be addressed in ways that reflects both their perceived and actual importance; and as much as possible discussed in the context of long term and short term benefit for every day people and not abstract concepts like "recovery," "growth," "prosperity," which in this decade are things that have happened to other people. 

We have long believed that the lack of a sufficient governmental response to the increasing struggle of every day people has been the central driver of the volatility in the American electorate in recent years (see here and here).  Given the poll and economic data of recent months it is possible that the conditions which have created this volatility remains, and simply cannot be ignored for too long.

3) The Way Forward - Make The Struggle of Every Day People The Central Focus Of the National Debate.    The great domestic challenge facing President Obama is to ensure that, in this new age of globalization and the "rise of the rest," the country sees not "growth" or "recovery" but prosperity that is broadly shared.  Until incomes and wages are rising again, fostering broad-based prosperity has to be the central organizing principle of center-left politics.  It is a job we should be anxious to take on given our philosophical heritage, and one that we simply must admit is a little harder and more complex than many have led us to believe.  

Luckily, the President has been given three significant events in September to begin to make this rhetorical and governing turn - Labor Day next week, and the G20 and UN General Assembly meetings in late September.  He can use this events to re-knit together his argument, weaving in health reform and energy/climate change (and we believe immigration reform too) along the way.  For there is no broad-based prosperity in 21st century America without health care costs coming down (which has to happen to allow us to cover more people), and a successful transition to a low-carbon economy.  Even though the Congressional committee and legislative process requires these to be separate conversations, in fact they are one conversation, one strategy for 21st century American success, one path forward for this mighty and great nation. 

Vice President Biden's speech about the economy today is a very good start in this needed repositioning.  But much more must be done.  In a recent essay I wrote:

There have been calls from some quarters for a 2nd stimulus plan, an acknowledgment that what the first stimulus has not done enough to stop the current economic deterioration.  This may be necessary, but I think what will need to be done is much more comprehensive than just a new stimulus plan.  Future action could include a much more aggressive action against foreclosures, a more honest assessment of the health of our financial sector, an immediate capping of credit card rates and a rollback of actions taken by credit card issuers in the last few months, a speeding up of the 2010 stimulus spending, a completion of the Doha trade round and a much more aggressive G20 effort to produce a more successful global approach to the global recession, the quick passage of the President's community college proposal, enacting comprehensive immigration reform which will bring new revenues into the federal and state governments while removing some of the downward pressure on wages at the low end of the workforce, and recasting both the President's climate and health care initiatives as efforts which will help stop our downward slide and create future growth.

These are some thoughts on how to re-engage the economic conversation but many other people also have great ideas on what to do now that the specter of a true global depression has been averted, and we have the luxury of talking about what to do next.  Which is why NDN is launching a new series of discussions on the global and American economies.  We begin next week with Dr Jagdish Bhagwati and Dr. Rob Shapiro.  Keep checking back on our site for the next events in this important new series based in Washington, DC but also webcast for anyone to watch no matter where they are.

The bottom line - the recent decline in the President's poll numbers are reversible.  The key is for he and his Party to make the struggle of every day people their number one rhetorical and governing concern.  A "new economy" is emerging in America, and it is not has been kind to most Americans.  Getting incomes and wages up in this new economy of the 21st century is in fact the most important dmoestic challenge facing the country, and one the American people are demanding a new national strategy for.  This fall is the time for the President to make it clear to the American people that he understands their concerns, has a strategy to ensure their success in this new economy, and will make their success the central organizing principle of his Administration until prosperity is once again broadly shared.

Removing Roadblocks to the Growth of Renewables

New York City - On Friday, the US Energy Information released new monthly statistics for renewable energy output as well as output of traditional forms of power.  The good news is that renewable energy in May, the latest month for which statistics have been compiled, is at its all time highest level, accounting for 13% of total power.  The bad news, however, is that the vast majority of this, about 9.4% comes from traditional hydropower.  The other renewables, wind, solar, biomass and geothermal accounted for just 3.6%.   Wind accounts for 1.8, biomass, 1.3%, geothermal 0.4% and solar 0.3% of the total. 

All of the sources of renewables grew, but the growth rates were modest.  Wind grew year-on-year by 12.5% and solar by only 3.5%.  These growth rates might be passable for mature technologies with a huge starting base.  However, for comparatively new technologies with a tiny denominator, these growth rates are not impressive.  True, the data do not reflect the full force of the Investment Tax Credit (for solar installations) extended last fall and the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act passed this winter--because of the lag in the data.  Still they tell at best a story of an industry surviving the recession.  They do not tell a story of economic rebirth based on the promise of a low carbon future.

There are reasons to hope clean energy would be growing much faster than these rates--the goal of lowering greenhouse gas emissions--essential to addressing climate change--and the goal of creating a new wave of clean technology-driven growth.  (The goal of energy security is less dependent on renewable technologies since coal is present in the United States but is nonetheless also served by replacing oil in our nation's energy mix.) 

However, there are also reasons to expect clean energy to be growing far faster than it is: the declining cost curves of renewables relative to fossil fuels, the large subisidies the government has put in place and the huge push America is making, from the President's speeches to the T.Boone Pickens Plan for energy independence on down.  In many states, renewable energy is even mandated through a Renewable Electricity Standard.  Looking abroad, Germany produces 7% of its power from wind, about four times what the US does and Spain's solar power capacity grew 364% in 2008.  Now that is the type of growth needed to have a real effect!  The fact is US growth rates in renewable industry are not meeting reasonable expectations for clean energy growth, let alone desirable targets.

I have been studying the question of why clean technology is moving so slowly into the marketplace in the United States and my research suggests that adoption of clean technology and renewable energy must be about more than pricing and incentives.  It is about decisionmaking and removing obstacles to the deployment of clean energy.  These obstacles are present, once you peer into the complex world of the electricity industry,in a host of non economic barriers to implementation.

To understand why clean energy is not--even with large incentives in place--displacing dirtier forms of energy, it is important to recall the extraordinarily complex nature of the industry.  Like all large industries, the electricity industry has incumbents.  These incumbents--unlike say car manufacturers or computer companies, are protected by regulation.  During the 1990s, the industry was partially deregulated so that market forces were introduced in some parts of the industry in some regions.  However, the work of regulatory reform proceeded only part way leaving the industry in a sort of limbo  Today, some regions of the country have wholesale competition.  Others have limited retail competition.  Still others have wholly vertically integrated companies supplying their customers with soup to nuts service unchanged from a half century ago.  And there is limited trade in electricity, this in an era, when frozen dinners served in the United States are made in Thailand and fresh flowers cut in Bolivia.

Indeed the electricity industry is quite rare today in remaining geographically divided.  With some exceptions it is illegal for a utility in one region to sell to customers in another.  There is effectively no such thing as national competition. There are, of course, many precedents for these legalized restraints on trade.  Banking used to be organized this way prior to reforms in the 1980s and 1990s.  Telecommunications after the breakup of Ma Bell but before the 1996 Telecom bill and development of national communications services was similarly organized by region.  In the case of electricity, besides the legal restraints on trade there are major physical restraints in the form of lack of capacity on the grid to move power where it is needed.

The absence of universal market allocation of power, means that decisionmaking--of what types of power to buy, what types of clean technology to implement and what types of infrastructure to build--is left, frequently to a small group of decisionmakers who are also incumbents and have a rational bias towards decisions supporting their incumbent position.  A transformative technology, for example, could reduce the value of their legacy assets.  Building a new transmission line to connect wind power to the grid, may make a plant they own obsolete.  It may therefore be entirely rational for them to discourage rather than encourage the deployment of new technology. 

It would be one thing if the decisionmakers were acting on their own.  However, typically they make decisions under the rate base system that provides a guaranteed rate of return on anything they can place in the rate base.  This would ordinarily incent them toward overinvestment.  However, since regulators oversee these rate cases and generally try to lower costs, the decisionmakers at utilities have a conflicting mandate to gain a high rate of return but also keep costs down.  This can lead to a bias toward investments that pay off immediately and against investments that pay off longer term.

The upshot is that getting the type of growth rates of renewables needed to unlock the economic and social potential of clean energy is likely to take more than economic incentives and mandates.  It may well require reform to remove obstacles to the deployment of new technology.

The energy bills now working their way through Congress contain some measures to address these problems.  But my research suggests more work needs to be done.

Obama, Calderon, and Harper Sound Cooperative Note on Trade, IP, Climate in Guadalajara

President Obama, President Calderon of Mexico, and Prime Minister Harper of Canada met in Guadalajara, Mexico, and, as is the standard procedure, yesterday released a joint statement. The leaders affirmed their commitments to trade, intellectual property, and a solution to climate change:

On IP:

We will cooperate in the protection of intellectual property rights to facilitate the development of innovative economies. We commend the progress achieved on reducing unnecessary regulatory differences and have instructed our respective Ministers to continue this work by building on the previous efforts, developing focused priorities and a specific timeline.

On trade:

North American trade is a vital component of our economic well-being and we pledge to abide by our international responsibilities and avoid protectionist measures. We reiterate our commitment to reinvigorate our trading relationship and to ensure that the benefits of our economic relationship are widely shared and sustainable. We will seek to promote respect for labour rights and protection of the environment with a continuing dialogue to address the functioning of the Labor and Environmental side agreements. This dialogue must result in mutually agreeable and cooperative activities with the aim to enhance the well-being and prosperity of our citizens and the economic recovery of our countries.

On Climate Change:

We recognize climate change as one of the most daunting and pressing challenges of our time and a solution requires ambitious and coordinated efforts by all nations. Building on our respective national efforts, we will show leadership by working swiftly and responsibly to combat climate change as a region and to achieve a successful outcome at the 15th Conference of the Parties of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. We also recognize that the competitiveness of our region and our sustainable growth requires a greater reliance on clean energy technologies and secure and reliable energy supplies across North America. Today, in agreeing to the "North American Leaders’ Declaration on Climate Change and Clean Energy", we reaffirm our political commitment to work collaboratively to combat climate change.

The aforementioned agreement on climate can be found here. For more on trade policy, take a look at yesterday's GAO report on recent Free Trade Agreements.

Auctioning vs. Granting Carbon Credits

In this weekend's Sunday New York Times Greg Mankiw, the Harvard professor of economics, criticizes the cap and trade bill working its way through Congress for giving out instead of auctioning off many allowances.  Mankiw who in the past has supported a tax on carbon as a simpler alternative to a cap and trade system, correctly points out, quoting President Obama, that a cap and trade system that auctions allowances can resemble a carbon tax.  If the auction revenues are used to offset other taxes, as with a carbon tax, any negative effect of the regime on the economy can be minimized. 

He goes on, however, to make an oddly flawed argument that should not go uncorrected. 

Criticizing the House bill that gives away allowances to utilities in lieu of auctioning them off, he says this will harm the economy by requiring consumers to pay more without recapturing revenues that could be used to offset taxes. The current bill by encouraging "lower real take home wages, reduced work incentives and depressed economic activity", he argues, will harm the economy.

Not true.

To the degree allowances are handed out at the beginning, consumers as well as utilities are given a pass and do not have to pay more for energy.  Some inefficient producers who need to buy credits on the exchange may raise prices to consumers or earn less profits.  However, other efficient producers will receive income from selling credits, letting them lower prices or increase profits. The overall impact on the economy of a cap depends on the level of the cap.  If sufficiently low, everyone will have to invest in new technology to cut emissions.  If sufficiently high, no one will. 

The real difference between auctioning off and handing out allowances is the first sends a stronger, immediate price signal, while the latter sends a weaker one likely to kick in later. 

Auctioning the allowances, like a tax, is a transfer away from industry and consumers to the government.  At best, the government can return the money by, for example, cutting a different tax.  If it keeps the money, the auctions act like a fiscal drag.  In contrast, granting allowances postpones the economic impact.  (For the record, there are reasons one might want to put off pain: first the current economic slump and second, the fact that low carbon alterantives to current fuels are growing steadily cheaper, meaning the cost of cutting emissions may be lower in the future.)

I have argued that with a new president in office and Cophenhagen coming up next year, this is the year to pass climate change legislation.  The bill can be strengthened later.  Others may disagree.  However, while auctioning credits may make for a stronger signal than granting them, it will not reduce the impact on the economy. 

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