Nordhaus Versus the Pope: Why Francis Is Right

The Yale climate economist William Nordhaus goes after Pope Francis in the current New York Review of Books on the question of how best to prevent global warming. But after landing a few solid punches, he collapses in a muddle all his own by obscuring the difference between carbon taxes and cap-and-trade.

Nordhaus zeroes in a number of passages in “On Care for Our Common Home,” the recent papal encyclical dealing with global warming, that, to his mind, show remarkable ignorance about the workings of modern economics. One passage calls on society “to reject a magical conception of the market, which would suggest that problems can be solved simply by an increase in the profits of companies or individuals,”while another takes aim at the profit motive:

The principle of the maximization of profits, frequently isolated from other considerations, reflects a misunderstanding of the very concept of the economy. As long as production is increased, little concern is given to whether it is the cost of future resources or the health of the environment; as long as the clearing of a forest increases production, no one calculates the losses entailed in the desertification of the land, the harm done to biodiversity or the increased pollution. In a word, businesses profit by calculating and paying only a fraction of the costs involved. ¶195.

To be sure, resource losses are chronically under-estimated. But Nordhaus maintains that the pope misses an important point, which is that the problem is not markets per se, but markets that are poorly designed and hence encourage the wrong kinds of activity.

Pope Francis addressing a joint session of Congress, Sept 24, 2015

Pope Francis addressing a joint session of Congress, Sept 24, 2015

“Markets can work miracles when they work properly,”Nordhaus writes, “but that power can be subverted and do the economic equivalent of the devil’s work when price signals are distorted.” The best way to correct such distortions is to see to it that social costs, or “externalities,” are incorporated in the price of a particular commodity or action. Only when economic actors are required to bear the full burden will they then find it profitable to seek out alternatives that are cheaper and cleaner. Otherwise, society finds itself in the strange position of subsidizing waste by allowing manufacturers to emit greenhouse gases and the like for free. As Nordhaus puts it:

Putting a low price on valuable environmental resources is a phenomenon that pervades modern society. Agricultural water is not scarce in California; it is underpriced. Flights are stacked up on runways because takeoffs and landings are underpriced. People wait for hours in traffic jams because road use is underpriced. People die premature deaths from small sulfur particles in the air because air pollution is underpriced. And the most perilous of all environmental problems, climate change, is taking place because virtually every country puts a price of zero on carbon dioxide emissions.

Nordhaus might have mentioned the entrenched political structures that foster such under-pricing in the first place. But let’s not quibble: his logic thus far is impeccable. He then goes off the rails, however, over a passage in the encyclical dealing with carbon-emission permits. According to the pope:

The strategy of buying and selling “carbon credits” can lead to a new form of speculation which would not help reduce the emission of polluting gases worldwide. This system seems to provide a quick and easy solution under the guise of a certain commitment to the environment, but in no way does it allow for the radical change which present circumstances require. Rather, it may simply become a ploy which permits maintaining the excessive consumption of some countries and sectors. ¶171.

Although Francis is probably talking about cap-and-trade, Nordhaus is not so sure since “carbon credits” is not a term that practitioners usually employ with regard to the trade in carbon emissions. So he argues that “this part of the encyclical is clearly a critique of market-based environmental approaches”— all such approaches, that is — a category that in his view includes both cap-and-trade and carbon taxes.

This leads to a fatal error: defending both without delineating the differences between the two. Nordhaus has argued in favor of carbon taxes in the past, and he concedes in his NYR article that such an approach “is simpler and avoids any of the potential corruption, market volatility, and distributional issues that might arise with cap-and-trade systems.” But since carbon taxing also fiddles with markets, he concludes: “It is unfortunate that he [the pope] does not endorse a market-based solution, particularly carbon pricing, as the only practical policy tool we have to bend down the dangerous curves of climate change and the damages they cause.”

Wrong. Cap-and-trade clearly is a market-based solution because it creates new arenas for the buying and selling of emission permits, complete with futures markets and financial derivatives. But a carbon tax is not. Instead of creating new ways of buying and selling, taxing carbon is a form of direct behavior modification not unlike a traffic fine or a golf-course fee. Instead of encouraging speculation, it does the opposite by making it crystal clear that economic actors will have to pay a set premium for every unit of carbon dioxide they emit.

So while the pope may have gotten a good deal wrong, this is one thing he gets right. Not only does cap-and-trade promote speculation, but Francis is correct in pointing out that, in practice, it has done little to reduce emissions or encourage fundamental technological change. Setting a strict limit on greenhouse gases and then allowing investors to bid on emissions rights up to a certain level is music to the ears of neo-liberal economists for whom there can never be enough markets. But implementing such a program has proved a nightmare.

Due to heavy lobbying by corporations and politicians, the EU’s Emissions Trading System, the largest carbon market in the world, exempts 55 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, according to the Greek economist Andriana Vlachou. Since the system leaves it to individual member states to estimate their emissions, over-reporting has been rife. Offsets, the practice of allowing member states to reap credits by sponsoring carbon-capture projects such as new forests, have been especially problematic. As the Carbon Tax Center’s James Handley has pointed out, estimating savings from such projects is difficult, while verifying that developers are telling the truth about the benefits is even worse. Volatility is another problem. After the EU allocated too many permits, prices plunged so low in 2013 that officials had to take 900 million permits off the market. Since trading is electronic, hackers have meanwhile made off with millions.

It’s the sort of system that only a free-market Chicago economist could love – and, given the opportunities for corruption, maybe an old-school Chicago politician as well. By comparison, a carbon tax is the essence of simplicity. Administrative costs, which involve little more than calculating the carbon content of a given fossil fuel and then levying a charge “upstream,” are minimal. So are enforcement costs. There are no offsets, no complicated negotiations to determine each nation’s emissions quota, no wrestling with entrenched political interests to determine which industries are covered and which are not. While Vlachou reports the EU’s cap-and-trade program weighs especially heavily on poor electricity users, such consequences can be easily mitigated in the case of a carbon tax by earmarking revenues for social programs, investment in poor neighborhoods, or reducing income taxes for lower earners.

Nordhaus is not the only one to blur the difference between a carbon tax and tax-and-trade. Cass R. Sunstein, the Harvard law professor and recent Obama operative, recently made the same blunder in a column defending not only markets but consumerism and economists in general, who, he assures us, are “excellent technicians” and “pretty decent moralists” as well. The pope is not the only one who finds this difficult to swallow. Suspicion of market-based solutions may not be so unjustified after all.


Last modified: September 28, 2015

Pope Francis’s Embrace of Our Environment: Live-Tweeting at the U.N.

The following passages, transmitted by the New York Times via Twitter (@nytimes), capture Pope Francis’s call this morning to world leaders and humanity to place ourselves within, not above, the natural world; to care for Earth rather than destroy it; and to recognize for all living things a “Right of the Environment.”

Francis Screenshot 1

Francis Screenshot 2

Francis Screenshot 3

Francis Screenshot 4

Francis Screenshot 5



Last modified: September 25, 2015

Last modified: September 19, 2015

Will Renewables Tip the U.S. into Taxing Carbon?

“Happy solar voters.” That was the picture caption for the smiling solar-powered family that led David Roberts’ post yesterday, “How inefficient climate policies can build support for efficient ones.”

Roberts, who blogged on energy and climate politics for Grist before moving over to Vox this year, counsels carbon-tax advocates to put “Green Industrial Policy” first. That way, solar and wind assemblers and installers and their happy consumers can develop into constituencies strong enough to prevail over the influence and inertia that will otherwise throttle carbon taxes.

Will this family support carbon tax legislation?

Will these smiles translate into carbon tax legislation?

Roberts’ post is of a piece with his long-standing disdain for carbon tax campaigners, and he lectures us here as well, insisting we “get over [our] obsession with carbon pricing.” But it also builds on a new article in Science (subscription required) by researchers at U-C Berkeley who surveyed worldwide progress, or lack thereof, in adopting carbon taxes or cap-and-trade permit schemes. “Of the 54 countries and subnational entities that adopted a carbon pricing scheme by 2013,” they report, “nearly two-thirds installed a Feed-in Tariff or Renewable Portfolio Standard before setting up the pricing scheme.”

That’s good to know, if a bit skeletal. The fact that FIT’s or RPS’s preceded the pricing measures doesn’t prove they had to, though they surely helped lay the foundations. Moreover, if advocates and policymakers chose to start with clean-energy subsidies, it might have been because they hoped positive incentives would be enough to move quickly from carbon fuels.

The more pertinent question, though, is whether the U.S. is now at the political take-off point where carbon-pricing can make it into policy. Wind turbines will account for 5 percent of U.S. electricity this year (and more than 15% in seven states last year), and solar-photovoltaic power is growing like gangbusters, thanks largely to Green Industrial Policy galore: state Renewable Portfolio Standards and federal production tax credits (for wind) and accelerated depreciation (for solar). Are the “demonstration” effect and jobs base from renewables strong enough to make the “winning coalition for climate policy” (that’s the Science article title) the U-C Berkeley authors are calling for?

Let’s hope so. Without a robust carbon tax, zillions of electrons in millions of backyard PV arrays are going to be consumed in-house instead of helping the grid back out fossil-fuel electricity. Without a carbon tax, gas-guzzlers and long commutes will keep “extreme” fossil fuels in business, along with their emissions. Granted, a carbon tax isn’t visually arresting like backyard panels. But the innovation and system changes it will catalyze will be at least as instrumental in getting us off carbon.

Photo: Shutterstock, via Vox.


Last modified: September 21, 2015

What an Energy-Efficiency Hero Gets Wrong about Carbon Taxes

It’s rare that critiques of carbon taxing are as quantitative as the post last month by David Goldstein on the Natural Resource Defense Council’s Searchlight blog.

Goldstein qualifies as a genuine energy-efficiency hero, in my book. He has spearheaded NRDC’s pioneering analyses of appliance engineering, manufacture and marketing since the 1970s and guided the council’s strategic interventions in utility governance and energy standard-setting in California and at the federal level. This in-the-trenches work has slashed power consumption and carbon emissions from refrigerators, air conditioners, light bulbs and building envelopes in all 50 states. Goldstein’s 2002 MacArthur Foundation “genius award” was richly deserved. (The Washington DC-based American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, ACEEE, merits a shout-out as well.)

Befitting his analytical bent, Goldstein’s critique sticks to the high road. No self-fulfilling taunts about carbon taxers’ naivete or the tax’s political infeasibility. His post does drag out a straw man, though, insisting up-front that “carbon emissions fees alone cannot solve the climate problem” — a position held by few carbon tax advocates. (We ourselves “recommend carbon taxes in addition to energy–efficiency standards.”) His criticism sharpens at the end: “In summary, carbon pollution fees, as a stand-alone policy, are incapable of doing much to solve the climate problem.”

Goldstein has certainly thrown down the gauntlet. He has four main arguments, which I’ll treat in order. Some math is involved, but it’s central to the issue.

Argument #1: Carbon Taxes Must Raise U.S. Energy Prices 44-Fold to Meet Our Carbon Targets

Let’s start with an assertion by Goldstein that is startling but accurate — mathematically:

If we wanted energy demand to drop by 85 percent [the minimum required for the U.S. to meet IPCC temperature-rise targets] due to price, the math behind elasticities shows that we would require a price increase of 44 times. This is an impossibility condition. (emphasis added)

Price-elasticity is how economists denote the extent to which a rise in price causes demand or usage of a good or service to diminish. Assuming, as Goldstein does for argument’s sake (and as we do in modeling carbon taxes), that the price-elasticities of the various forms in which energy is used in the U.S. have an average value of minus 0.5, then a doubling of energy prices, whether effected through a carbon tax or market fluctuations, will cause energy use over time to shrink by 29 percent. (See sidebar for calculations.) With two doublings in price, the shrinkage would be 50 percent.

Elasticity math. You can do it.

Elasticity math. You can do it.

Note that the second doubling in price produces less of a decrease in usage than the first, reflecting the famed Law of Diminishing Returns. Indeed, three doublings, increasing the price 8-fold, would only bring about an overall 65 percent drop in usage. To hit the 85 percent reduction target requires a 44-fold energy-price rise. Goldstein’s math is spot-on.

But not the use to which it is put. While an 85 percent reduction in energy use would indeed cure the United States’ carbon obligations (not to mention protect and conserve air, water and land), it far exceeds what’s required, thanks to the ongoing and parallel reduction in the carbon intensity of energy supply. This decarbonization of supply is prominent in energy and climate discourse, and has been evident in the electricity sector over the past decade. Measured as pounds of CO2 emitted per kWh generated, the emission rate for all electricity generated in the U.S. last year was 16 percent less than the rate in 2005. For that we can thank increased generation from lower-carbon natural gas and zero-carbon wind. (Solar electric generation, though growing very fast, started from a tiny base and wasn’t a notable factor in the decarbonization to date.) Energy efficiency has helped as well by reducing the need to fire up high-carbon coal plants.

A carbon emissions tax, which by its nature favors wind and solar over gas, and gas over coal, will help sustain and accelerate this encouraging supply-side trend. [Read more…]


Last modified: September 25, 2015

Bipartisan Plaudits for Rep. Delaney’s “Tax Pollution, Not Profits Act”

If any climate legislation could garner at least nominal bipartisan support, it might be Rep. John Delaney’s Tax Pollution, Not Profits Act. Delaney is in his second term representing Maryland’s 6th CD, which runs from the DC suburbs to the western end of the state. His proposal, introduced on Earth Day at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, would tax carbon dioxide and CO2 equivalents from methane and other sources at a rate of $30 per metric ton, increasing annually at 4% above inflation. The measure includes border tax adjustments to protect energy-intensive domestic industry from unfair competition from nations that haven’t enacted carbon taxes.

Rep. Delaney

Rep. John Delaney (D-MD)

Delaney’s measure offers a sweetener to conservatives: a promise to apply roughly half of carbon tax revenues to reduce the top corporate income tax rate from 35% to 28%. The bill would also provide monthly payments to low- and middle-income households and fund job training, early retirement and health care benefits for coal workers. At least as critically, at the AEI unveiling, Delaney committed near-apostasy by suggesting that his carbon tax could substitute for the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan, final regulations for which EPA issued last month.

The Carbon Tax Center assessed the Delaney proposal’s effectiveness using our 7-sector model. We project that in its third full year the measure’s $30 price would reduce U.S. CO2 emissions to 8% below emissions in the year before enactment. Unfortunately, its schedule of 4% annual real rises is too tepid to continue reducing emissions more than fractionally over the longer term. The low upward price trajectory is a shortcoming shared by the American Opportunity Carbon Fee Act, introduced by Senators Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) and Brian Schatz (D-HI) in June.

In contrast, carbon tax proposals introduced in this Congress by Rep. John Larson (D-CT) and Rep. James McDermott (D-WA) would rise briskly to exceed $100 per metric ton within a decade, which we estimate would reduce U.S. emissions below this year’s levels by more than one-fourth in that time (and by nearly a third below 2005 emissions).

In an online discussion forum hosted by, Rep. Delaney asked for comments on his proposal. Below, we group and summarize those comments. [Read more…]


Last modified: September 2, 2015

Last modified: August 10, 2015

“Clean Fuels” vs. Carbon Tax in the Pacific Northwest

Even in ecologically-minded Washington and Oregon, states where voters want government action on climate change, a divide among environmentalists threatens to undermine progress on the issue. A Carbon Washington ballot initiative to create a statewide carbon tax is gaining momentum, as we wrote last month. Yet several environmental groups are attacking the proposal as politically infeasible and socially regressive.

Instead, state and regional groups like Climate Solutions and the Alliance for Jobs and Clean Energy are pushing “clean” fuels standards. Their proposal, patterned on regulations in California and British Columbia, would mandate a mere 10% drop in the carbon intensity of transportation fuels over 10 years ― a small fraction of the deep reductions needed.

The carbon tax sought by Carbon Washington would cut emissions 4-5 times as much as the proposed WA Clean Fuels Standard (Source: CTAM).

The carbon tax sought by Carbon Washington would cut CO2 4-5 times as much as the proposed WA Clean Fuels Standard (Source: CTAM).

Their course is difficult to fathom. Carbon taxes would cut emissions more and cost less than clean fuels regulations. And dividing environmentalists in order to pursue a lesser policy makes no sense strategically. Here are three reasons why a clean fuels standard doesn’t stack up:

1. Clean fuels standards won’t be effective

A model used by the Washington State Department of Commerce allows us to compare projected emissions reductions from the clean fuels standard with the carbon tax proposed by Carbon Washington in a measure known as I-732. (The tax would start at $10/ton of CO2, rise to $25 in year two, then increase 3.5% annually plus inflation.)

The 10% clean fuels standard would lower overall Washington CO2 emissions only 4% by 2040, not even a quarter as much as the 18% reduction projected from the I-732 carbon tax.

The reason is simple: a clean fuels standard only attacks emissions from the supply side of one sector, albeit an important one, transportation. In contrast, a carbon tax works across the entire economy, influencing every carbon-related decision about both supply and demand in every sector ― manufacturing, heating, electricity, etc. This means that, while a clean fuels standard only affects the carbon content of liquid fuels, a carbon tax also incentivizes less fuel usage, period. This transforms economies, cutting pollution and congestion through a vast array of actions encompassing urban density, freight logistics, walking, cycling, transit, and more mindful decision making.

clean fuels transport graph _ snippedIn short, the difference in emissions between a carbon tax and a clean fuels standard is the difference between a society that takes current levels of automobile dependence as a given, and one that seeks to support a myriad of ways to transition to something different.

2. Clean fuels standards are more expensive

The Oregon Environmental Council writes:

The Clean Fuels Program costs the state virtually nothing. The burden of responsibility for reducing pollution is placed on the oil industry.

This conspicuously ignores how the oil industry passes down its costs of compliance to consumers in the form of higher prices. The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) has said gas prices will rise between 4 and 19 cents per gallon. An industry lobby group, the Western States Petroleum Association, is garnering support to repeal clean fuels by highlighting this not-so-hidden price increase.

Consumers aren’t stupid, they generally realize more regulations mean higher prices. A carbon tax raises fossil fuel prices too, of course ― that’s the point; but the revenue it generates can be disbursed to consumers as income or sales tax cuts, or via a straight-up “dividend” check, as Oregon Climate has proposed. [Read more…]


Last modified: August 18, 2015

Transformational It’s Not: Running the Numbers on Obama’s Latest Climate Regs

Notwithstanding the hype in the New York Times — “the strongest action ever taken in the United States to combat climate change,” “an aggressive plan to sharply limit greenhouse gases” — the final version of the US EPA “Clean Power Plan” being released today at the White House by President Obama actually constitutes a marked slowdown in reductions in electricity-sector emissions.

According to published reports, the administration plan calls for a 32% reduction in U.S. power-sector CO2 emissions in 2030, relative to actual 2005 power-sector emissions. That’s slightly more ambitious than the 30% reduction envisioned in the initial Clean Power Plan released in June 2014. Since 2005 power-sector emissions were 2,413 million metric tons (MMT), the targeted 32% reduction would be 772 MMT, or 7% of total projected U.S. emissions (from all sectors) of 5,684 MMT (projected by CTC in the absence of a U.S. carbon pollution price).

Emissions will fall 40% more slowly, under the Clean Power Plan rules released today.

Emissions will fall 40% more slowly, under the Clean Power Plan rules released today.

Nearly half of that reduction has already been achieved, however. Actual 2014 U.S. power-sector emissions were 2,038 MMT, or 375 MMT less than the 2005 baseline level of 2,413 MMT. Expressed on an annual average basis, power-sector emissions of CO2 fell during 2005-2014 by 42 million metric tons a year.

To fulfill the total 772 MMT 2005-2030 reduction target, the “remaining” 2014-2030 reduction in power-sector emissions need only be 397 MMT. The implied annual rate of reduction over the next 16 years is just 25 million metric tons a year. That’s 40% less than the actual annual 2005-2014 reduction rate in power-sector emissions of 42 MMT per year.

It is probably true that we’re not likely to see a repeat of two factors that contributed to the 2005-2014 reduction in power-sector emissions — the long and deep recession that began in 2007-2008, and the advent of cheap fracked methane that grabbed market share from higher-polluting coal-fired generation. But two other emissions-reducing phenomena remain in full swing: ongoing cost reductions in carbon-free wind and solar photovoltaic power, and the harnessing of both digital tech and new business models to boost energy efficiency in buildings, appliances and businesses.

In this light, it seems premature, if not downright bizarre, to bestow “legacy status” on a plan that targets just one sector (albeit a key one), and that settles for cutting emissions in that sector at a lesser pace than the rate at which they’ve already been falling for a decade.


Last modified: August 3, 2015

Feeling the Heat: A Carbon Tax Gains Grassroots Momentum in Washington State

Seattle on the summer solstice. Crowds line Fremont Avenue in anticipation of the annual parade of naked bicyclists. Carbon Washington co-director Kyle Murphy is giving a pep talk to a group of volunteers that includes idealistic college students, veteran environmentalists, and former Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn.

“You’re simply offering them the opportunity to participate in the democratic process. You don’t need to persuade anyone, just give them a chance to say yes.”

Seattle, June 2015: Petitioning for Carbon Washington.

Seattle, June 2015: Petitioning for Carbon Washington.

I’m helping Carbon Washington (CW) collect signatures for Measure I-732, which would put a carbon tax on the state ballot in 2016. In general, people want to participate. Almost no one turns me down. I pass out multiple signature sheets as parade-goers fumble for pens. I’m talking to eight people at once, even while competing with the naked bikers for attention. A record-breaking drought is setting the stage for a long wildfire season, and climate change is already on everyone’s mind. In a single afternoon we collect more than 1,500 signatures.

The appeal of CW’s proposal is rooted in its overarching simplicity. Polluters pay, everyone else benefits. The measure would put a price on carbon emissions, forcing fossil fuel companies to internalize some of the social and environmental externalities of their business. The tax starts at $15 per ton of CO2, rises to $25 in year two, and then increases at 3.5% plus inflation annually. This long and steady increase will drive down CO2 emissions in the state.

Emissions would fall more if Washington's power wasn't nearly all hydro. (Source: CTAM model)

Emissions would fall more if Washington’s power wasn’t nearly all hydro. (Source: CTAM model)

The tax is revenue neutral to appeal to conservatives. It uses the expected $1.7 billion in annual revenue to overhaul Washington State’s notoriously regressive tax code. Most of the money goes to lower the state sales tax from 6.5% to 5.5%. The 3.5% annual increase in the carbon tax is designed to carefully offset the rising value of the sales tax reduction, so that the measure stays revenue-neutral for 40 years. Another $200 million a year is used to fund the Working Families Rebate – an extension of the federal Earned Income Tax Credit. These two pieces make I-732 the state’s most progressive tax legislation since groceries were exempted from sales taxes in 1977.

The third element of CW’s plan takes $200M to eliminate the state’s Business & Occupation tax on manufacturers. The intent is to make the state’s businesses more competitive and cushion any job losses due to the tax. The average manufacturer will pay in carbon taxes close to what it will gain from the elimination of the B&O tax. Unlike the B&O tax, however, carbon taxes do not increase as the business grows – as long as it can grow without increasing its carbon emissions.

Still, Carbon Washington faces high hurdles. A ballot initiative requires 246,372 signatures – 8% of the votes cast for governor in the most recent election. Since up to one-quarter of signatures fail the verification process, CW is aiming for 315,000. Successful initiatives, like a Michael Bloomberg-financed gun-control measure that passed in 2014, have needed to raise around a million dollars to reach that threshold. Carbon Washington is hoping to rely on an extensive volunteer network to do it for less than half the price. Still, more funding and volunteers are needed.

Measure I-732 steers revenues to households and manufacturers.

Measure I-732 steers revenues to households and manufacturers.

Assuming CW succeeds, it’ll have to defend its proposal on the ballot against the inevitable onslaught of Koch-funded interest groups. Some other environmental groups are skeptical that Washingtonians will vote for a proposal that openly uses the dreaded ‘T’ word. Climate Solutions, a regional organization, threw its weight behind Governor Jay Inslee’s cap-and-trade proposal. Despite attempts to appeal to Republicans, including a carve-out for the state’s only coal plant, that proposal failed to gain traction in the legislature. Climate Solutions isn’t backing CW’s proposal, afraid to lose what will surely be a big fight.

Yet if the conversations I had were any indication, Washingtonians are receptive. They have an example to their north, in British Columbia, of a successful and popular carbon tax, so oil industry scare tactics may prove less effective with voters. In polls, support varies between 30% and 60%, depending on how the issue is framed. Victory will be determined by whether enough voters can be educated about the proposal. By talking to voters and collecting signatures one at a time, Carbon Washington is getting a head start.


Last modified: July 16, 2015