Richard Tol’s 2013 article, “Targets for global climate policy: An overview,” has been taken by some as a definitive summary of what economics has to say about climate change. It became a central building block of Chapter 10 of the recent IPCC Working Group 2 report (Fifth Assessment Report, 2014), with some of its numbers appearing in the Working Group 2 Summary for Policymakers.
After extensive analysis of multiple results from a number of authors, Tol reaches strong and surprising conclusions:
Despite, in the end, almost acknowledging the peculiarity of these conclusions, Tol continues to claim that no compelling argument to the contrary has been made: “A convincing alternative to the intuitively incorrect conclusion that continued warming is optimum, is still elusive.”
Tol’s conclusions in this article do not follow logically from his data and analysis. Though claiming an authoritative and objective stance, he offers, in fact, a controversial reading of climate economics.
As he sees it (with my numbering)
Each of these points is founded on faulty selection of data and analyses, and contains interpretive flaws that make Tol’s facile conclusions unsupportable. First, it highlights 16 studies, some of them very old, from a handful of authors, as if they represented all we know about climate damages. Second, it identifies a larger number of studies of the social cost of carbon, more than half from the same handful of authors, and then focuses almost entirely on the subset of results with a high discount rate. Where it reports on my own work, the survey clearly misrepresents the original published source. Third, it purports to prove that low-carbon stabilization targets are expensive by ignoring models and analyses that reach these targets, but making ad hoc adjustments to other analyses that fail to describe a path to a stable climate.
The field of economic analysis of climate change is a work in progress, with many interesting, sometimes contradictory, developments and approaches appearing in recent years. Most of the field, and most of what economists are writing about climate change, cannot be seen through the narrow, distorting lens of Tol’s review article.
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Frank Ackerman is the coauthor, with Joseph Daniel, of (Mis)understanding Climate Policy: The role of economic modeling, prepared for Friends of the Earth (England, Wales & Northern Ireland) and WWF-UK.
Under the Climate Change Act 2008, the UK government sets “legally binding” carbon budgets, which cap the country’s total emissions for five-year periods.
The size of the fourth carbon budget, covering 2023-2027, is topic of debate. The budget was set by Government back in 2011 but Chancellor George Obsorne secured a commitment to review it in 2014 and discussions are currently taking place in government regarding its new level. One important aspect of that debate is estimating the economic cost of reducing carbon emissions in the middle of the next decade.
The approach taken by the UK government to estimate the effects of the carbon budgets on economic growth uses the HMRC CGE (“computable general equilibrium”) model. (See the 2011 carbon plan, p.181). This model has proved controversial for its use in assessing tax cuts but its use in climate change policy also warrants scrutiny.Full text
Rhode Island has recently learned that its renewable energy standards could be ruinously expensive. But they’re in good company: more than a dozen states have “learned” the same thing, from reports from the same economists at the Beacon Hill Institute (BHI).
Housed at Boston’s Suffolk University, BHI turns out study after study for right-wing, anti-government groups. Funding for BHI’s relentless efforts has come from Charles and David Koch (leading tea party funders) and others on the same wavelength. For the Rhode Island study, BHI teamed up with the Rhode Island Center for Freedom & Prosperity, a member of the Koch’s State Policy Network.
While BHI’s name and location place it close to the Massachusetts state government, it is philosophically a different beacon on a different hill. Last year BHI requested a grant from the Searle Freedom Trust, aimed at undermining the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), a multi-state effort that Massachusetts participates in. The grant application said, “Success will take the form of media recognition … and legislative activity that will pare back or repeal RGGI.” Suffolk vice-president Greg Gatlin said that BHI had not gone through the university’s required grant approval process, and “the University would not have authorized this grant proposal as written.” As it turned out, the proposal was not funded.Full text
It sounds like a rare piece of good news about climate change: emissions of carbon dioxide, the principal cause of global warming, grew at a slower rate after 2000 in the United States, and have actually dropped since 2007. In Europe the story sounds even better, as overall emissions dropped from 1990 to 2008, often roughly matching, or in some cases exceeding, the reductions promised under the Kyoto Protocol.
Yet the apparent progress on emission reductions in rich countries has occurred at a time of widespread outsourcing of manufacturing to China and other developing countries. In the process, we have effectively outsourced our carbon emissions as well. If consumers are responsible for the emissions from making the consumer goods they buy, then we have not solved the problem. We have just made it harder to see - and much harder to measure.
Here's the problem: if a Chinese steel mill sells steel to Toyota in Japan, which uses it to make cars sold to Americans, which country is responsible for the steel mill's emissions? America seems like the logical answer; the Chinese emissions happened in order to make something that was bought and used in the United States. Those emissions, however, belong to China in all standard statistics, and in most discussion of climate targets and responsibilities for emission reduction.Full text
One day in May, climate change got a lot more expensive. The price tag on emissions – the value of the damages done by one more ton of CO2in the air – used to be a mere $25 or so, in today’s dollars, according to an anonymous government task force that met in secret in 2009-2010. Now it’s $40, according to an anonymous government task force that met in secret in early 2013.
Anyone who cares about combating climate change would have to applaud the result: a higher carbon price means that cost-benefit analyses will place a greater value on policies that reduce emissions.
And anyone who cares about democracy should be appalled at the process: are we entering an era in which major regulatory decisions are made anonymously, in secret, with no opportunity for review?
The work of the anonymous task force is a mixture of sophisticated analysis and really bad, arbitrary choices. Three climate-economic models were each applied to five scenarios (derived from other models), and the 15 results were averaged. No persuasive arguments were presented for the controversial choices of models or scenarios; that’s just how the anonymous task force wanted to do it.
Lots of people had comments and criticisms after the first round – and in response, the anonymous task force redux changed nothing whatsoever in its methodology. The increase in the estimated cost of emissions is entirely due to revisions in the three chosen models. Most of this year’s increase in the U.S. government’s social cost of carbon comes from decisions by one modeler, who recently made particularly large changes in his model.
Three years later, it was time for a new episode. Back in 2010, Congress listened to some climate-denial rants, counted votes, and decided to do absolutely nothing about climate change; this year on Capitol Hill, the magic continues.
Also in 2010, the Obama administration released an estimate of “the social cost of carbon”` (SCC) – that is, the value of the damages done by emission of one more ton of carbon dioxide. Calculated by an anonymous task force that held no public hearings and had no office, website, or named participants, the SCC was released without fanfare as, literally, Appendix 15A to a Department of Energy regulation on energy efficiency standards for small motors.
This year, the Obama administration updated the SCC calculation. The update was done by an anonymous task force that held no public hearings, and had no office, website, or named participants. It first appeared as – yes! – Appendix 16A to a Department of Energy regulation on energy efficiency standards for microwave ovens.
Something has to change in a sequel (unless it’s in Congress); this year’s SCC number is bigger. For a ton of CO2 emitted this year, the estimated damages were bumped up from $25 in the 2010 calculation to about $40 in the revised version (all in today’s dollars). Since the SCC is used in the administration’s cost-benefit evaluations of new regulations, a bigger number means stronger arguments for energy efficiency and conservation standards. That’s the good news.Full text
Cross-posted from Triple Crisis.
Renewable energy is clean, sustainable, non-polluting, reduces our dependence on fossil fuels, improves the health of communities surrounding power plants, and protects the natural environment. Who could be against it?
Answer: The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a lobbying group that is active in drafting and advocating controversial state legislation. They’re not just interested in energy: in recent years ALEC has supported Arizona’s restrictive immigration legislation, the “Stand Your Ground” gun laws associated with the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, and voter identification laws proposed in many states. ALEC’s priorities for 2013 include making it harder to bring product liability suits against manufacturers of defective products, ending traditional pension plans for public employees, promoting the diversion of public education funds into private schools and on-line education schemes, and supporting resistance to “Obamacare” health policies.
When it comes to energy, ALEC wants to speed up the permitting process for mines, oil and gas wells, and power plants – and to eliminate all state requirements for the use of renewable energy. The latter goal is packaged as the “Electricity Freedom Act.” In numerous states, ALEC has used studies by Suffolk University’s Beacon Hill Institute (BHI) to claim that the “Electricity Freedom Act” will free ratepayers from the allegedly immense costs and job losses of renewable energy standards.
In a recent study for the Civil Society Institute, my colleagues and I at Synapse Energy Economics analyzed the ALEC studies of the costs of renewable energy. Our report found fundamental flaws in both the energy data and the economic modeling used by BHI.Full text
Cross-posted from Triple Crisis.
Climate science paints an ever-more-detailed picture: irreversible, catastrophic events are becoming increasingly likely as greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise. Climate economics, particularly in its policy applications, lags behind: leading models and analyses frequently ignore the extreme risks and the intergenerational aspect of the problem – and rely on simplistic and dated interpretations of the underlying science. Yet the state of the art has progressed rapidly, in the research literature on climate economics as well as science.
To address this problem, Liz Stanton and I wrote Climate Economics: The State of the Art, which has just been published by Routledge. Our book grew out of a request from the World Wildlife Fund for an update on climate economics since the Stern Review. In that 2006 review, commissioned by the British government, Nicholas Stern argued persuasively for a new approach to the economics of climate change, emphasizing arguments for a very low discount rate and a focus on catastrophic risks.
As we explain, both science and economics have continued to advance since Stern’s path-breaking work. After a review of “climate science for economists,” we examine three major areas: the treatment of climate damages in economics; new developments in economic theory; and the economics of mitigation and adaptation. Here are a few highlights from our book:
Recent studies suggest that peak temperatures, once reached, will persist for centuries, if not millenia. Mitigation scenarios have often assumed that the world can “overshoot” a target such as 2°C of warming and then come back to it through later emission reductions; since this option is not available, much more stringent reductions are needed for climate stabilization.Full text
Cross-posted from Triple Crisis.
Can we protect the earth’s climate without talking about it – by pursuing more popular policy goals such as cheap, clean energy, which also happen to reduce carbon emissions? It doesn’t make sense for the long run, and won’t carry us through the necessary decades of technological change and redirected investment. But in the current context of climate policy fatigue, it may be the least-bad short-run strategy available.
You may have lost interest in climate change, but the climate hasn’t lost interest in you. Once-extraordinary heat waves are becoming the new normal. Recent research demonstrates that by now someone “old enough to remember the climate of 1951–1980 should recognize the existence of climate change, especially in summer.”
Despite evidence of a worsening climate, the repeated failure of climate negotiations is sadly predictable. Real climate solutions require international cooperation, but inaction can be guaranteed by one country acting alone: No one else will accept significant costs for emission reduction unless the United States does. The world waited breathlessly for the first post-Bush climate meeting at Copenhagen in 2009; removing W. from the White House was necessary, but not, alas, sufficient for progress. Another breathless moment occurred as environmental advocates went all-out to pass a climate bill in Congress in 2010, accepted a series of dreadful compromises, and still failed miserably.Full text
Cross-posted from Real Climate Economics.
Economic analysis has become increasingly central to the climate policy debate, but the models and assumptions of climate economics often lag far behind the latest developments in this fast-moving field. That’s why Elizabeth Stanton and I have written Climate Economics: The State of the Art, an in-depth review of new developments in climate economics and science since the Stern Review (2006) and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Fourth Assessment Report (2007), with more than 500 citations to the recent research literature.
We begin with a survey of climate science that is potentially relevant to economic analysis, including uncertainties in climate dynamics, the role of black carbon, temperature thresholds for irreversible losses, a new understanding of climate impacts on agriculture, and projections that temperatures could remain near their historical peak for centuries or millennia after greenhouse gas concentrations start declining.
We then focus on innovations in the economic theory and analysis of climate change, including new approaches to uncertainty that build on Weitzman’s “dismal theorem,” which shows the marginal benefit of emission reduction can be infinite. We also cover new developments in the longstanding debate about discount rates and intergenerational economic analysis, and the problems of international equity, which are central to climate negotiations but barely visible in the economics literature.Full text