With the election of Joe Biden, the USA will have a president committed to tackling climate change. This is in stark contrast to Donald Trump, who has been publicly sceptical about the link between human action and climate change and has actively supported the coal, oil and gas industries and has rolled back environmental protection legislation and regulation.
What is more, in June 2017, he announced that the USA would withdraw from the UN Paris Accord, the international agreement to cut greenhouse gas emissions so as to limit global warming to ‘well below’ 2°C above pre-industrial levels with efforts to limit it to 1.5°C. The USA’s withdrawal was finalised on 4 November 2020, a day after the US election. Joe Biden, however, pledged to rejoin the accord.
A growing number of countries are pledging to achieve carbon neutrality by mid-century or earlier. The EU is planning to achieve a 55% cut in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 so as to reach neutrality by 2050. This will involve various taxes, subsidies and public investment. Similar pledges to achieve net zero emissions by 2050 have been made by Japan and South Korea and by 2060 by China. In the UK, legislation was passed requiring the government to reduce the UK’s net emissions 100% relative to 1990 levels by 2050 and thereby achieve net zero emissions.
Constraints on action
Short-termism. One of the problems with setting targets a long time in the future is that they take away the urgency to act now. There are huge time lags between introducing policies to curb carbon emissions and their impact on the climate. The costs of such policies for business and consumers, however, are felt immediately in terms of higher taxes and/or higher prices. Thus politicians may be quick to make long-term pledges but reluctant to take firm measures today. Instead they may prefer to appease various pressure groups, such as motoring organisations, and cut fuel taxes, or, at least, not raise them. Politically, then, it may be easier to focus policy on the short term and just make pledges without action for the future.
Externalities. Various activities that cause carbon emissions, whether directly, such as heavy industry, dairy farming, aviation and shipping, or indirectly, such as oil and coal production, thereby impose environmental costs on society, both at home and abroad. These costs are negative externalities and, by their nature, are not borne by those who produce them. There are often powerful lobbies objecting to any attempt to internalise these externalities through taxes, subsidising green alternatives or regulation. Take the case of the USA. Fossil fuel producers, energy-intensive industries and farmers all claim that green policies will damage their businesses, leading to a loss of profits and jobs. These groups were courted by Donald Trump.
International competition. Countries may well be reluctant to impose green taxes or tough environmental regulation on producers, when competitors abroad do not face such constraints. Indeed, some countries are actively promoting dirty industries as part of their policies to stimulate economic recovery from the Covid-induced recession. Such countries include China, Russia and Turkey. This again was a major argument used in the Trump campaign that US industries should not be hobbled by environmental constraints but should be free to compete.
Misinformation. Politicians, knowing that taking tough environmental measures will be unpopular with large numbers of people, may well downplay the dangers of inaction. Some, such as Trump in America and Bolsonaro in Brazil deliberately appeal to climate change deniers or say that technology will sort things out. This makes it hard for other politicians to promote green policies, knowing that they will face scepticism about the science and the efficacy of their proposed policies.
Biden’s climate change policy
Although it will be difficult to persuade some Americans of the need for tougher policies to tackle climate change, Joe Biden has already made a number of pledges. He has stated that under his administration, the USA will rejoin the Paris Climate Agreement and will play a leading role in the November 2021 UN COP26 climate change conference summit in Glasgow. He has also pledged a Clean Energy Revolution to put the USA on an ‘irreversible path to achieve economy-wide net-zero emissions no later than 2050’.
But readopting the pledges under the Paris Agreement and advocating a clean energy revolution are not enough on their own. Specific measures will need to be taken. So, what can be done that is practical and likely to meet with the approval of the majority of Americans or, at least, of Biden’s supporters?
For a start, he can reintroduce many of the regulations that were overturned by the Trump administration, such as preventing oil and gas companies from flaring methane on public lands. He could introduce funding for the development of green technology. He could require public buildings to use green energy.
According to the Clean Energy Revolution, the US government will develop ‘rigorous new fuel economy standards aimed at ensuring 100% of new sales for light- and medium-duty vehicles will be zero emissions and annual improvements for heavy duty vehicles’.
One of the biggest commitments is to tackle external costs directly by enacting ‘legislation requiring polluters to bear the full cost of their climate pollution’. This may be met with considerable resistance from US corporations. It is thus politically important for Biden to stress the short-term benefits of his policies, not just the long-term ones.
Given the damage done to the economy by the spread of the pandemic, perhaps the main thing that Biden can do to persuade people of the benefits to them of his policies is to focus on green investment and green jobs. Building a green energy infrastructure of wind, solar and hydro and investing in zero-emissions vehicles and charging infrastructure will provide jobs and lead to multiplier effects throughout the economy.
At the annual World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, Switzerland, world political and business leaders are meeting to discuss pressing economic issues of the day. This year, one of the key themes is climate change and “how to save the planet”.
The approaches of leaders to the climate crisis, however, differ enormously. At the one extreme there are those who deny that emissions have caused climate change, or who reluctantly acknowledge climate change but think that governments need to do nothing and that technological advances in green energy and transport will be sufficient to curb global warming. This has been the approach of President Trump, President Bolsonaro of Brazil and Prime Minister Scott Morrison of Australia. They may claim to support the general goals of reducing greenhouse gases, but are keen to protect their coal and oil industries and, in the case of Brazil, to continue cutting down the Amazon rain forest to support mining, ranching and the growing of crops.
At his speech at the WEF, President Trump said that he supported the initiative to plant one trillion trees worldwide to act as a carbon sink. However, he gave no details of just what the nature of the support would be. Would there be subsidies or tax breaks, for example, for landowners to plant trees? In the meantime, his administration has relaxed regulations to curb air and water pollution. And he has withdrawn the USA from the Paris climate agreement.
Other leaders, urged on by activists, such as Greta Thunberg, have talked about tougher action to tackle emissions. Countries such as Canada, Norway and the EU countries have adopted a number of initiatives. Policies range from taxing emissions, capping/regulating emissions with penalities for those breaching the limits, tradable permits, subsidising green alternatives, setting local emissions targets with incentives for meeting them, investing in green infrastructure such as roadside charging points for electric vehicles, making environmental education part of a national curriculum, investing in public transport, and so on. But, say, activists, only large-scale measures that truly recognise the scale of the climate emergency will be sufficient.
The year starts with climate being addressed at Davos; it ends with the annual Conference of the Parties (COP26) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). This year it will be in Glasgow. There is much hope pinned on this conference, given the growing realisation of the effects of climate change, from bush fires in Australia, to floods in Indonesia and other parts of southeast Asia, to more extreme hurricanes/typhoons, to rapidly melting glaciers and retreating sea ice, to rising sea levels, to crop failures and the displacement of humans and the destruction of wildlife and habitat.
COP25 in Madrid made little progress; it is hoped that COP26 will be much more successful. Sir David Attenborough has warned that the world faces a ‘climate crisis moment’. He hopes that the world will be ready to take much stronger action at COP26.
But there remains the fundamental economic problem of the tragedy of the commons. As long as the atmosphere and other parts of the environment are free to ‘use’ to pollute, and as long as the costs of doing so are borne largely by people other than the direct polluters, the market will fail to provide a solution. Australia’s bush fires can be directly attributed to climate change and climate change is exacerbated by coal-fired power stations. But Australia’s use of coal as a power source is only a tiny contributor to global climate change. Presumably, the Australian government would rather get a ‘free ride’ off other countries’ policies to cut emissions rather than bearing the economic cost of reducing coal-fired generation itself for little gain in terms of reduced global emissions.
However, people are not entirely selfish. Many are willing to make personal sacrifices to lead a more environmentally sustainable life. Many people, for example, are choosing electricity tariffs that are slightly higher but where the electricity is generated with zero carbon emissions. Firms have shown a readiness to respond to demands from their consumers for more sustainable products.
Donald Trump has suggested that the Fed should cut interest rates by 1 percentage point and engage in a further round of quantitative easing. He wants to see monetary policy used to give a substantial boost to US economic growth at a time when inflation is below target. In a pair of tweets just before the meeting of the Fed to decide on interest rates, he said:
China is adding great stimulus to its economy while at the same time keeping interest rates low. Our Federal Reserve has incessantly lifted interest rates, even though inflation is very low, and instituted a very big dose of quantitative tightening. We have the potential to go up like a rocket if we did some lowering of rates, like one point, and some quantitative easing. Yes, we are doing very well at 3.2% GDP, but with our wonderfully low inflation, we could be setting major records &, at the same time, make our National Debt start to look small!
But would this be an appropriate policy? The first issue concerns the independence of the Fed.
It is supposed to take decisions removed from the political arena. This means sticking to its inflation target of 2 per cent over the medium term – the target it has officially had since January 2012. To do this, it adjusts the federal funds interest rate and the magnitude of any bond buying programme (quantitative easing) or bond selling programme (quantitative tightening).
The Fed is supposed to assess the evidence concerning the pressures on inflation (e.g. changes in aggregate demand) and what inflation is likely to be over the medium term in the absence of any changes in monetary policy. If the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) expects inflation to exceed 2 per cent over the medium term, it will probably raise the federal funds rate; if it expects inflation to be below the target it will probably lower the federal funds rate.
In the case of the economy being in recession, and thus probably considerably undershooting the target, it may also engage in quantitative easing (QE). If the economy is growing strongly, it may sell some of its portfolio of bonds and thus engage in quantitative tightening (QT).
Since December 2015 the Fed has been raising interest rates by 0.25 percentage points at a time in a series of steps, so that the federal funds rate stands at between 2.25% and 2.5% (see chart). And since October 2017, it has also been engaged in quantitative tightening. In recent months it has been selling up to $50 billion of assets per month from its holdings of around $4000 billion and so far has reduced them by around £500 billion. It has, however, announced that the programme of QT will end in the second half of 2019.
This does raise the question of whether the FOMC is succumbing to political pressure to cease QT and put interest rate rises on hold. If so, it is going against its remit to base its policy purely on evidence. The Fed, however, maintains that its caution reflects uncertainty about the global economy.
The second issue is whether Trump’s proposed policy is a wise one.
Caution about further rises in interest rates and further QT is very different from the strongly expansionary monetary policy that President Trump proposes. The economy is already growing at 3.2%, which is above the rate of growth in potential output, of around 1.8% to 2.0%. The output gap (the percentage amount that actual GDP exceeds potential GDP) is positive. The IMF forecasts that the gap will be 1.4% in 2019 and 1.3% in 2020 and 2021. This means that the economy is operating at above normal capacity working and this will eventually start to drive up inflation. Any further stimulus will exacerbate the problem of excess demand. And a large stimulus, as proposed by Donald Trump, will cause serious overheating in the medium term, even if it does stimulate growth in the short term.
For these reasons, the Fed resisted calls for a large cut in interest rates and a return to quantitative easing. Instead it chose to keep interest rates on hold at its meeting on 1 May 2019.
But if the Fed had done as Donald Trump would have liked, the economy would probably be growing very strongly at the time of the next US election in November next year. It would be a good example of the start of a political business cycle – something that is rarer nowadays with the independence of central banks.
Back in October, we examined the rise in oil prices. We said that, ‘With Brent crude currently at around $85 per barrel, some commentators are predicting the price could reach $100. At the beginning of the year, the price was $67 per barrel; in June last year it was $44. In January 2016, it reached a low of $26.’ In that blog we looked at the causes on both the demand and supply sides of the oil market. On the demand side, the world economy had been growing relatively strongly. On the supply side there had been increasing constraints, such as sanctions on Iran, the turmoil in Venezuela and the failure of shale oil output to expand as much as had been anticipated.
But what a difference a few weeks can make!
Brent crude prices have fallen from $86 per barrel in early October to just over $50 by the end of the year – a fall of 41 per cent. (Click here for a PowerPoint of the chart.) Explanations can again be found on both the demand and supply sides.
On the demand side, global growth is falling and there is concern about a possible recession (see the blog: Is the USA heading for recession?). The Bloomberg article below reports that all three main agencies concerned with the oil market – the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the Paris-based International Energy Agency and OPEC – have trimmed their oil demand growth forecasts for 2019. With lower expected demand, oil companies are beginning to run down stocks and thus require to purchase less crude oil.
On the supply side, US shale output has grown rapidly in recent weeks and US output has now reached a record level of 11.7 million barrels per day (mbpd), up from 10.0 mbpd in January 2018, 8.8 mbpd in January 2017 and 5.4 mbpd in January 2010. The USA is now the world’s biggest oil producer, with Russia producing around 11.4 mpbd and Saudi Arabia around 11.1 mpbd.
Total world supply by the end of 2018 of around 102 mbpd is some 2.5 mbpd higher than expected at the beginning of 2018 and around 0.5 mbpd greater than consumption at current prices (the remainder going into storage).
So will oil prices continue to fall? Most analysts expect them to rise somewhat in the near future. Markets may have overcorrected to the gloomy news about global growth. On the supply side, global oil production fell in December by 0.53 mbpd. In addition OPEC and Russia have signed an accord to reduce their joint production by 1.2 mbpd starting this month (January). What is more, US sanctions on Iran have continued to curb its oil exports.
But whatever happens to global growth and oil production, the future price will continue to reflect demand and supply. The difficulty for forecasters is in predicting just what the levels of demand and supply will be in these uncertain times.
An agreement in principle was reached on September 30 between the USA, Canada and Mexico over a new trade deal to replace the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). President Trump had described NAFTA as ‘the worst trade deal maybe ever signed anywhere, but certainly ever signed in this country.’ The new deal, named the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, or USMCA, is the result of 14 months of negotiations, which have often been fractious. A provisional bilateral agreement was made between the USA and Mexico in August. At the same time, President Trump threatened a trade war with Canada if it did not reach a trade agreement with the USA (and Mexico). The new USMCA must be ratified by lawmakers in all three countries before it can come into force. This could take a few months.
So is USMCA a radical departure from NAFTA? Does the USA stand to gain substantially, as President Trump claims? In fact, USMCA is little different from NAFTA. It could best be described as a relatively modest reworking of NAFTA. So what are the changes?
The first change affects the car industry. From 2020, 75% of the components of any vehicle crossing between the USA and Canada or Mexico must be made within one or more of the three countries to qualify for tariff-free treatment. The aim is to boost production within the region. But the main change here is merely an increase in the proportion from the current 62.5%.
A more significant change affecting the car industry concerns wages. Between 40% and 45% of a vehicle’s components must be made by workers earning at least US$16 per hour. This is some three times more than the average wage currently earned by Mexican car workers. Although it will benefit such workers, it will reduce Mexico’s competitive advantage and could hence lead to some diversion of production away from Mexico. Also, it could push up the price of cars.
The agreement has also strengthened various standards inadequately covered in NAFTA. According to The Conversation article:
The new agreement includes stronger protections for patents and trademarks in areas such as biotech, financial services and domain names – all of which have advanced considerably over the past quarter century. It also contains new provisions governing the expansion of digital trade and investment in innovative products and services.
Separately, negotiators agreed to update labor and environmental standards, which were not central to the 1994 accord and are now typical in modern trade agreements. Examples include enforcing a minimum wage for autoworkers, stricter environmental standards for Mexican trucks and lots of new rules on fishing to protect marine life.
Another area where the USMCA agreement has made changes concerns trade in dairy products. This particularly affects Canada, which has agreed to allow more US dairy products tariff-free into Canada (see the CNN article at the end of the list of articles below). New higher quotas will give US dairy farmers access to 3.6% of Canada’s dairy market. They will still pay tariffs on dairy exports to Canada that exceed the quotas, ranging from 200% to 300%.
The other significant change for consumers in Mexico and Canada is a rise in the value of duty-free imports they can bring in from the USA, including online transactions. As the first BBC article listed below states:
The new agreement raises duty-free shopping limits to $100 to enter Mexico and C$150 ($115) to enter Canada without facing import duties – well above the $50 previously allowed in Mexico and C$20 permitted by Canada. That’s good news for online shoppers in Mexico and Canada – as well as shipping firms and e-commerce companies, especially giants like Amazon.
Despite these changes, USMCA is very similar to NAFTA. It is still a preferential trade deal between the three countries, but certainly not a completely free trade deal – but nor was NAFTA.
And for the time being, US tariffs on Mexican and Canadian steel and aluminium imports remain in place. Perhaps, with the conclusion of the USMCA agreement, the Trump administration will now, as promised, consider lifting these tariffs.