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.
- Trump Administration Removes Scientist in Charge of Assessing Climate Change
The New York Times, Christopher Flavelle, Lisa Friedman and Coral Davenport (9/11/20)
- As U.S. leaves Paris accord, climate policy hangs on election outcome
The Washington Post, Brady Dennis, Juliet Eilperin and Dino Grandoni (5/11/20)
- Where next for US action on Climate Change?
British Foreign Policy Group, Evie Aspinall (11/11/20)
- Media reaction: What Joe Biden’s US election victory means for climate change
Carbon Brief, Josh Gabbatiss (10/11/20)
- Joe Biden: How the president-elect plans to tackle climate change
BBC News, Matt McGrath (10/11/20)
- Biden victory ushers in ‘race to the top’ on climate change
Lexology, Baker McKenzie, David P Hackett and Ilona Millar (13/11/20)
- Climate heroes: the countries pioneering a green future
The Guardian, Jonathan Watts (11/11/20)
- ‘Hypocrites and greenwash’: Greta Thunberg blasts leaders over climate crisis
The Guardian, Damian Carrington (9/11/20)
- Five post-Trump obstacles to a global green recovery
The Guardian, Jonathan Watts (11/11/20)
- Biden’s climate change plans can quickly raise the bar, but can they be transformative?
The Conversation, Edward R Carr (10/11/20)
- Jana Shea/Shutterstock Climate change: Joe Biden could ride a wave of international momentum to break deadlock in US
The Conversation, Richard Beardsworth and Olaf Corry (10/11/20)
- Climate change after COVID-19: Harder to defeat politically, easier to tackle economically
VoxEU, Franziska Funke and David Klenert (17/8/20)
- Identify three specific climate change policies of Joe Biden and assess whether each one is likely to succeed.
- Draw a diagram to illustrate why a free market will lead to over production of a good which produces negative externalities.
- To what extent can education internalise the positive externalities of green consumption and production?
- What was agreed at the Paris climate change conference in December 2015 and what mechanisms were put in place to incentivise countries to meet the targets?
- Will the coronavirus pandemic have had any lasting effects on emissions? Explain.
- How may carbon trading lead to a reduction in carbon emissions? What determines the size of such reductions?
There is increasing recognition that the world is facing a climate emergency. Concerns are growing about the damaging effects of global warming on weather patterns, with increasing droughts, forest fires, floods and hurricanes. Ice sheets are melting and glaciers retreating, with consequent rising sea levels. Habitats and livelihoods are being destroyed. And many of the effects seem to be occurring more rapidly than had previously been expected.
Extinction Rebellion has staged protests in many countries; the period from 20 to 27 September saw a worldwide climate strike (see also), with millions of people marching and children leaving school to protest; a Climate Action Summit took place at the United Nations, with a rousing speech by Greta Thunberg, the 16 year-old Swedish activist; the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has just released a report with evidence showing that the melting of ice sheets and rising sea levels is more rapid than previously thought; at its annual party conference in Brighton, the Labour Party pledged that, in government, it would bring forward the UK’s target for zero net carbon emissions from 2050 to 2030.
Increasingly attention is focusing on what can be done. At first sight, it might seem as if the answer lies solely with climate scientists, environmentalists, technologists, politicians and industry. When the matter is discussed in the media, it is often the environment correspondent, the science correspondent, the political correspondent or the business correspondent who reports on developments in policy. But economics has an absolutely central role to play in both the analysis of the problem and in examining the effectiveness of alternative solutions.
One of the key things that economists do is to examine incentives and how they impact on human behaviour. Indeed, understanding the design and effectiveness of incentives is one of the 15 Threshold Concepts we identify in the Sloman books.
One of the most influential studies of the impact of climate change and means of addressing it was the study back in 2006, The Economics of Climate Change: The Stern Review, led by the economist Sir Nicholas Stern. The Review reflected economists’ arguments that climate change represents a massive failure of markets and of governments too. Firms and individuals can emit greenhouse gases into the atmosphere at no charge to themselves, even though it imposes costs on others. These external costs are possible because the atmosphere is a public good, which is free to exploit.
Part of the solution is to ‘internalise’ these externalities by imposing charges on people and firms for their emissions, such as imposing higher taxes on cars with high exhaust emissions or on coal-fired power stations. This can be done through the tax system, with ‘green’ taxes and charges. Economists study the effectiveness of these and how much they are likely to change people’s behaviour.
Another part of the solution is to subsidise green alternatives, such as solar and wind power, that provide positive environmental externalities. But again, just how responsive will demand be? This again is something that economists study.
Of course, changing human behaviour is not just about raising the prices of activities that create negative environmental externalities and lowering the prices of those that create positive ones. Part of the solution lies in education to make people aware of the environmental impacts of their activities and what can be done about it. The problem here is that there is a lack of information – a classic market failure. Making people aware of the consequences of their actions can play a key part in the economic decisions they make. Economists study the extent that imperfect information distorts decision making and how informed decision making can improve outcomes.
Another part of the solution may be direct government investment in green technologies or the use of legislation to prevent or restrict activities that contribute to global warming. But in each case, economists are well placed to examine the efficacy and the costs and benefits of alternative policies. Economists have the tools to make cost–benefit appraisals.
Economists also study the motivations of people and how they affect their decisions, including decisions about whether or not to take part in activities with high emissions, such air travel, and decisions on ‘green’ activities, such as eating less meat and more vegetables.
If you are starting out on an economics degree, you will soon see that economists are at the centre of the analysis of some of the biggest issues of the day, such as climate change and the environment generally, inequality and poverty, working conditions, the work–life balance, the price of accommodation, the effects of populism and the retreat from global responsibility and, in the UK especially, the effects of Brexit, of whatever form.
- Explain what is meant by environmental externalities.
- Compare the relative merits of carbon taxes and legislation as means of reducing carbon emissions.
- If there is a climate emergency, why are most governments unwilling to take the necessary measures to make their countries net carbon neutral within the next few years?
- In what ways would you suggest incentivising (a) individuals and (b) firms to reduce carbon emissions? Explain your reasoning.
- For what reasons are the burdens of climate changed shared unequally between people across the globe?
The Governor of California, Jerry Brown, has issued an executive order to cut greenhouse gas emissions 40% from 1990 levels by 2030 (a 44% cut on 2012 levels). This matches the target set by the EU. It is tougher than that of the US administration, which has set a target of reducing emissions in the range of 26 to 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025.
The former Governor of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger, had previously set a target of reducing emissions 80% below 1990 levels by 2050. Brown’s new target can be seen as an interim step toward meeting that longer-term goal.
There are several means by which it is planned to meet the Californian targets. These include:
a focus on zero- and near-zero technologies for moving freight, continued investment in renewables including solar roofs and distributed generation, greater use of low-carbon fuels including electricity and hydrogen, stronger efforts to reduce emissions of short-lived climate pollutants (methane, black carbon and fluorinated gases), and further efforts to create liveable, walkable communities and expansion of mass transit and other alternatives to travelling by car.
Some of these will be achieved through legislation, after consultations with various stakeholders. But a crucial element in driving down emissions is the California’s carbon trading scheme. This is a cap-and-trade system, similar to the EU’s Emissions Trading Scheme.
The cap-and-trade rules came into effect on January 1, 2013 and apply to large electric power plants and large industrial plants. In 2015, they will extend to fuel distributors (including distributors of heating and transportation fuels). At that stage, the program will encompass around 360 businesses throughout California and nearly 85 percent of the state’s total greenhouse gas emissions.
Under a cap-and-trade system, companies must hold enough emission allowances to cover their emissions, and are free to buy and sell allowances on the open market. California held its first auction of greenhouse gas allowances on November 14, 2012. This marked the beginning of the first greenhouse gas cap-and-trade program in the United States since the group of nine Northeastern states in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), a greenhouse gas cap-and-trade program for power plants, held its first auction in 2008.
Since January 2014, the Californian cap-and-trade scheme has been linked to that of Quebec in Canada and discussions are under way to link it with Ontario too. Also California is working with other west-coast states/provinces, Oregon, Washington and British Columbia, to develop a co-ordinated approach to greenhouse gas reductions
To achieve sufficient reductions in emissions, it is not enough merely to have a cap-and-trade system which, through trading, encourages an efficient reduction in emissions. It is important to set the cap tight enough to achieve the targeted reductions and to ensure that the cap is enforced.
In California, emissions allowances are distributed by a mix of free allocation and quarterly auctions. Free allocations account for around 90% of the allocations, but this percentage will decrease over time. The total allowances will decline (i.e. the cap will be tightened) by 3% per year from 2015 to 2020.
At present the system applies to electric power plants, industrial plants and fuel distributors that emit, or are responsible for emissions of, 25,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) per year or more. The greenhouse gases covered are the six covered by the Kyoto Protocol ((CO2, CH4, N2O, HFCs, PFCs, SF6), plus NF3 and other fluoridated greenhouse gases.
California governor orders aggressive greenhouse gas cuts by 2030 Reuters. Rory Carroll (29/4/15)
California’s greenhouse gas emission targets are getting tougher Los Angeles Times, Chris Megerian and Michael Finnegan (29/4/15)
Jerry Brown sets aggressive California climate goal The Desert Sun, Sammy Roth (29/4/15)
California’s Brown Seeks Nation-Leading Greenhouse Gas Cuts Bloomberg, Michael B Marois (29/4/15)
California sets tough new targets to cut emissions BBC News, (29/4/15)
California’s New Greenhouse Gas Emissions Target Puts Obama’s To Shame New Republic, Rebecca Leber (29/4/15)
Governor Brown Announces New Statewide Climate Pollution Limit in 2030 Switchboard, Alex Jackson (29/4/15)
Cap-and-trade comes to Orego Watchdog, Chana Cox (29/4/15)
Cap and trade explained: What Ontario’s shift on emissions will mean The Globe and Mail, Adrian Morrow (13/4/15)
California’s Forests Have Become Climate Polluters Climate Central, John Upton (29/4/15)
States Can Learn from Each Other On Carbon Pricing The Energy Collective, Kyle Aarons (28/4/15)
Governor Brown Establishes Most Ambitious Greenhouse Gas Reduction Target in North America Office of Edmund G. Brown Jr. (29/4/15)
Frequently Asked Questions about Executive Order B-30-15: 2030 Carbon Target and Adaptation California Environmental Protection Agency: Air Resources Board (29/4/15)
Californian cap-and-trade scheme
Cap-and-Trade Program California Environmental Protection Agency: Air Resources Board (29/4/15)
California Cap and Trade Center for Climate and Energy Solutions (January 2014)
- Explain how a system of cap-and-trade, such as the Californian system and the ETS in the EU, works.
- Why does a cap-and-trade system lead to an efficient level of emissions reduction?
- How can a joint system, such as that between California and Quebec, work? Is it important to achieve the same percentage pollution reduction in both countries?
- What are countries coming to the United Nations Climate Change conference in Paris in November 2015 required to have communicated in advance?
- How might game theory be relevant to the negotiations in Paris? Are the pre-requirements on countries a good idea to tackle some of the ‘gaming’ problems that could occur?
- Why is a cap-and-trade system insufficient to tackle climate change? What other measures are required?