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The Climate Policy Realists Speak… “optimistic at best and unachievable at worst”

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Well I have been a one armed economist for some time now, courtesy of a skiing accident, but am now on the mend and ready to get back at posting. And what got my thoughts flowing this morning is a number of articles in response to this piece from Nature (here):

The article is co-authored by Chris Green, a Canadian economist from McGill who has some quirky thoughts on climate policy that just so happen to be insightful (see my post here on an earlier response to Chris’s article in the Globe “that wacky economist”).

What I really like about the article is it’s focus on technology deployment and what is really required to get the job done. Yes we need broad-based carbon pricing and yes we need technology standards, but those are just the start. The sheer scale of the technology roll-out to hit deep and medium-term targets is truly astounding and will need a whole host of policies and programmes to enable the transition. The article quotes:

Enormous advances in energy technology will be needed to stabilize atmospheric carbon-dioxide concentrations at acceptable levels. If much of these advances occur spontaneously, as suggested by the scenarios used by the IPCC, then the challenge of stabilization might be less complicated and costly. However, if most decarbonization does not occur automatically, then the challenge to stabilization could in fact be much larger than presented by the IPCC.

Now some folks see demons in this sort of analysis, and some provide rather visceral responses (see here).

I am not so cynical to think that the authors of “Dangerous Assumptions” are climate skeptics using the techno-boondoggle argument to delay action. Quit the contrary, they are advocating a real wake-up call for policy to respond to the challenge. So the conclusions of the Nature piece seem to make sense:

There is no question about whether technological innovation is necessary — it is. The question is, to what degree should policy focus directly on motivating such innovation? The IPCC plays a risky game in assuming that spontaneous advances in technological innovation will carry most of the burden of achieving future emissions reductions, rather than focusing on creating the conditions for such innovations to occur.

In looking Canadian climate policy, what is the value of this sort of article? Well, a lot actually. It reminds us of the sheer scale of the challenge ahead. A recent CCS Taskforce called for $2 billion in federal funding and the same from the private sector to gain about 5 MT of CCS (see article here). But, modelling suggests that under Turning the Corner (-20% below 2006 in 2020) CCS deployment will need to be upwards of 75MT and under the Bali targets 150 MT (-25% below 1990). And this investment and deployment will need to occur in the Alberta capital projects world characterized by labour and materials shortages with rising costs. Yikes.

So, once again a little more climate policy reality is revealed. I know, the truth hurts.

Written by Dave Sawyer

April 3rd, 2008 at 3:52 pm

The Rise of the Safety Value — Cost Containment and Rising Emissions

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While academic economists have long argued for a carbon tax, the political realities have driven policy to cap and trade. In response, those smart folks thinking of good policy design came up with the “safety valve” to allow for cost containment. The safety value concept has political appeal since it essentially caps the upside costs of a cap and trade system and so takes away the uncertainty of what cap and trade may end up costing emitters. It also has had appeal in the past since the climate fight was thought to be a marathon and not a sprint where cost containment seemed more important than short term action. But this has changed as new climate science points to the need for deeper action sooner. And so the rise of the safety valve is worth considering and needs a closer look.

The safely value is a significant component of Canada’s current climate policy in the form of the technology fund (payments to the feds for technology development and deployment) and the recently refined pre-certified projects mechanisms (i.e. payments for CCS). Both of these allow for some share of emissions to be paid into the two compliance mechanisms on a declining balance to 2018. They are in effect a tax that is accessed 100% up to 2018 if compliance costs or permit prices rise above the access price of these compliance mechanisms, capped at about $23 in 2017 (see thumb below). How the 65$ per tonne cost announced recently by the feds interacts with the pre-certified projects list is not yet clear to me, but still it is well below the costs of CCS for the reductions required under the government’s 2020 target of -20% below current emissions.

Given its prominence in Canadian climate policy and indeed worldwide, it is useful to better understand the safety value. An excellent article emerged recently on the history and development of the safety value (see here),

What started as an obscure, almost monastic dispute among economists three decades ago has now emerged as a potential make-or-break point for the proposed legislation. Tracking its tangled history may now be essential to outsiders who want to understand this issue — and the huge economic stakes involved — as champions on both sides of the political arena saddle up to do battle over it.

As well as a good post at Common Tragedies (see here),

The key issue with the safety value will be the tension between those that want it to be very high, and so ensure emission reductions and those who define cost containment as no cost at all and so want a low value. In the Canadian case, the safety value has been set very low, and so emission reductions during to 2012 to 2018 period will be correspondingly low. This is not pure conjecture but rather based on modelling, where Canadian compliance costs indicate that the technology fund will be fully subscribed at the current price caps.

And so, we are left with a tax layered on a cap and trade system. While the policy skeptics decry that a tax will not work, by extension neither will cap and trade, at least not how it is being implemented in Canada. And with the science arguing for more reductions, the current design of the safety value will leave Canada with a growing stock of high emitting technology that will be costly to alter in future years. That is, if politicians eventually decide to take action, future compliance costs will be higher due to short-term inaction. Canada’s use of the safety valve, it seems, is about shifting the cost and therefore political burden in time.

tech_fund.JPG

Written by Dave Sawyer

March 21st, 2008 at 3:25 pm

Canadian Climate Policy — An Emerging Jungle of Taxes and Regulations

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Jack Mintz provides an nice overview of the key issues facing Canada with respect to carbon taxation (see here). I like the article because it is somewhat boring…it reveals some key issues, nestles carbon taxation within existing tax structures in Canada and generally points to why a carbon tax is likely the way to go – it works within existing structures.

Assignment of taxing powers in a federation is an old question that Canadians have endlessly debated. …As a rule, the taxes best assigned to the provinces are those that do not interfere much with the free flow of goods and services within Canada, are relatively easy for provinces to collect and are related to their spending powers, such as regarding health, education and infrastructure. Gasoline excise taxes, for example, have been viewed as a relatively good tax to assign to provinces since their payment is (albeit imperfectly) related to the use of roads and highways, and does not disrupt much the integration of the Canadian economy…A carbon tax, such as the one recently imposed in British Columbia, is a typical excise tax, as it is applied to carbon emissions generated by fossil fuels consumed by consumers and businesses within the province.

Broadly, economic instruments can be transitional, that is work within existing structures such as taxation or resource (water) pricing or transformational, which requires a wholesale change in how governments manage, say to a cap and trade system with new administrative functions.

Administrative simplicity is important since governments have limited budgets, and well adding new administrative functions generally means that other priorities such as toxics or water management are left cannibalized. This is particularly the case for municipalities and provinces, but if one speaks with folks managing the environment at the national level, and designing climate policy in particular, it is clear that there is a real lack of resources to get the job done.

So, with Canada’s new soft cap and rule program, the transformation required for implementation can’t be overstated – it will continue to chew up resources from Environment Canada and other priorities will suffer. Toxics management, species at risk and water issues all come to mind. In all policy there are trade-offs, and it is important that we recognize these. In Canada’s emerging jungle of carbon pricing and regulations, many will get eaten.

Written by Dave Sawyer

March 20th, 2008 at 1:25 pm

Posted in carbon tax

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“We need to do that for our economy,” …add unnecessary costs that is

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The federal Minister of Finance again needs to be commended for his statements that Canada needs some sort of climate policy consistency at the federal and provincial levels (here),

“It’s probably inevitable we have some different approaches now that don’t fit together,” Mr. Flaherty told reporters at a news conference, after a speech to the Vancouver Board of Trade…But he said it will be in Canada’s interest to eventually reconcile the various approaches. “We need to do that for our economy,”

The problem is that Canada does not have leadership on this issue,

Mr. Flaherty did not speak to the question of who would lead this convergence.

But perhaps even more troubling is the shots at Ontario, the praise for BC, and the incongruence between economic policy and climate policy in the federal government’s mind

“It’s not helpful for Ontario to be the jurisdiction in Canada with the highest business taxes and I am going to continue to say to the government of Ontario that, ‘You’re discouraging business investment,’ ” he said, calling those policies “unhealthy” for Ontario’s economy and the Canadian economy as a whole.
He praised B.C. for its move to cut the corporate income tax rate from 12 per cent to 11 en route to 10 per cent by 2011.
“Congratulations to the government of the province of British Columbia for doing that. It will help brand Canada. It will help attract investment to Canada, but the province of Ontario has shown no indication of going in that direction to reduce their business tax.”

The current federal plan provides no mechanism to raise revenue and therefore there is no chance for further drops in federal corporate income tax. Add to this the observation of many that the federal cupboard is bar due to unproductive tax relief such as the GST cut and unchecked federal spending and well, there is no room for the Ministers prized policy – that of further reducing corporate taxes.

So, not only is the current federal plan likely to be high cost, due to its focus on regulatory approaches, subsides and offsets, but there is no opportunity to further reduce unproductive taxes on corporations and personal income. Simply, climate policy is not being integrated with economic policy, a shortcoming that will necessarily lead to higher costs.

Perhaps when the minister asks “ Mirror, mirror on the wall, who has the lowest climate policy cost of all” the minister will be surprised to find that he has the urge to send poison apples to more folks than just Premier McGuinty.

Written by Dave Sawyer

March 6th, 2008 at 1:39 pm

“Provinces free to tackle climate”…cause the Federal Policy is Priceless

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Carolyn Fischer sent me a news story that went on something like this,

“Cap and trade is a charade to continue business as usual,” said Angela Johnson Meszaros, director of the California Environmental Rights Alliance.

Environmental justice groups instead favor carbon fees on polluting industries, a strategy endorsed by many economists as simpler and more transparent, although politically tough to enact.

Her hilarious response was this,

Buying your way out of pollution reductions with permits = bad.
Buying your way out with taxes = good.
Logic = priceless.

Once I stopped laughing I started crying, cause this, unfortunately sums up the federal government’s position, although their logic is reversed and slightly more distorted,

Taxes = bad
Permits = good
Regulations > good
Logic = priceless

BC has demonstrated that a carbon tax shift is politically feasible. The reactions in the press are not bad, and are actually downright supportive (when the only complaint is that ferry tickets will go up, BC has hit a home run). Why? I suspect the carbon tax shift. In Canada the reason is simply, I think, that folks despise income taxes more than carbon taxes. So, if you throw a few dollars my way though a tax credit, and then reduce my income tax, well, that sounds rather nice. And people start to think, “hey, this BC carbon tax thingy is not a money grab after all”. Kewl stuff.

And it makes economic sense. Nic Rivers and I have just finished a revenue recycling assessment of a national carbon tax and found that GDP impacts could be considerably reduced with smart tax shifting. This is the main thrust of a David Suzuki Foundation paper to be released this Monday (keep an eye out, and check back, I will post it here).

So, carbon tax with recycling is economically efficient, results in real reductions and can be politically acceptable. So, why are the provinces going it alone (see article here). Well cause the federal logic is priceless. But don’t let me sway you, let’s let minister Baird speak,

“We have a different focus, our approach is on industrial regulation”

You can’t script this stuff. We have a left leaning province implementing a carbon tax shift, a perceived left leaning organization, the David Suzuki Foundation, supporting a national carbon tax shift and a conservative government preferring regulations. Only in Canada, Eh. Priceless.

Written by Dave Sawyer

February 21st, 2008 at 2:13 pm

Carbon tax or cap and trade? Bad economics is muddling the debate

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There are two articles in the Globe today that perpetuate bad thoughts on carbon policy and carbon costs. The first article (see here) pegs costs way too high by assuming that every single molecule of carbon results in a uniform costs at the highest carbon price, say $50,

At $15 a tonne, if Keephills were to fail to cut 12 per cent of its emissions, or 360,000 tonnes, the price tag on the facility’s emissions would be a mere $5-million…But at $50 a tonne, the price for Keephills would rise to $18-million. For all of TransAlta’s Canadian operations, the total penalty at $50 a tonne would rise to about $170-million.

But, there will be lower cost opportunities at the facility. So they will take abatement action and make carbon reducing investments up to the point where they can either get cheaper reductions elsewhere through trading or pay some sort of fee like that enabled under the Technology Fund or a carbon tax. And if there is recycling even this cost would be reduced on remaining emissions.

As a very general rule of thumb, since the marginal cost curve is rising (that is more reductions are more expensive), the total cost of reductions is total emissions times the carbon price divided by 2 or

Total costs = ~(Qemissions * Pcarbon)/2

This is essentially the area under the marginal abatement cost curve fixed by the price (tax) or quantity (cap/allocation) constraint. So, in the example cited, the costs are more like $8 million for the facility and $85 million for all TransAlta’s operations. And most likely there is a facility target and therefore no cost for remaining emissions of if the target emissions are achieved the fee on remaining emissions is returned (as in the case of Sweden). Suppose there is a 25% reduction required from 360,000 tonnes. This then lowers actual costs of about $2.25 million. Not trivial but not nearly as high as reported.

And where to start on the second article (see here). Here are a few samples from the article,

A much better, more effective route is a cap-and-trade system with auctioned allowances, under which government sets the future target for emissions – the cap – and turns to free market mechanisms to achieve those targets… government then has to make a guess as to where to allocate all of the carbon-tax revenues, hopefully avoiding the appearance of pork barrel politics and special interests.

With auctioning of permits, the firm must buy their allocations, which transfers cash to the regulator, and thus the cap and trade behaves a lot like a taxes. Government still has to deal with the revenue.

And then this,

A tax is simply not the best way to create effective incentives to cut emissions, and it’s not the right mechanism for promoting innovation that will abate human-caused climate change.

This argues that taxes will not result in continuous improvement, that is an ongoing incentive to reduce emissions. Not likely, since the firm will continue to see the tax and thus seek ways to avoid paying it though making investments that lower emission while minimizing the tax burden.

And perhaps most challenging,

…That’s because a carbon tax puts the government into a nearly impossible Goldilocks scenario: It must set the price of carbon just right. Not too high, meaning everyone overpays and the economy is damaged. And not too low, in which case emissions reductions are not maximized. Additionally, as we move forward, we cannot afford a system where carbon prices remained static in such a dynamic environment.

But if we set a cap too high and there is no cost constraint (i.e. price cap), costs emerge that are unanticipated. Government then has to release more permits to reduce compliance costs, which dilutes the cap (more emissions) and reduces the real value of permits (like printing money and causing inflation). In practice, the regulator will have to adjust either the cap or the tax rate as new information on climate science, cost and abatement responses emerge.

Both cap and trade and a carbon tax have challenges that need to be sorted out. But we need better reporting on this stuff. Otherwise we will continue to muddled and mired in debate…but then again that suits some folks just fine.

Written by Dave Sawyer

February 11th, 2008 at 3:22 pm

If “Cap and trade isn’t the solution” decreasing abatement flexibility is certainly worse.

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I am not sure what this writer was thinking when this article was published in the Globe and Mail. Essentially the author argues that cap and trade will necessarily result in freeriders and hot air and therefore should be scrapped. While the case on freeriders and offsets may be a good one, railing against cap and trade seems dubious,

“with the shutdown of numerous uncompetitive industrial facilities following the demise of the Soviet Union, Russia has enormous carbon credits for sale. With little that can be done to reduce emissions from their already state-of-the-art facilities, economically struggling European manufacturers end up sending billions of dollars to Russia.”

Russian hot air was created because Russia was over allocated. Simply, there was no adaptive capacity in the cap setting to allow for the collapse of the soviet economy and the subsequent creation of fake emission reduction credits that could theoretically be used for Kyoto compliance by other Annex I countries. Most well designed cap and trade systems have closure provisions, where there are “use of loss” rules that require credits from closure to essentially be clawed back. So, design could have dealt with the hot air, and it was not an inherent flaw in cap and trade that led to this particular outcome but rather poor policy design.

The article then goes on to say that instead of cap and trade, a series of performance based regulations should be set for individual plants. A provision for a technology type fund is then mentioned, which is good for cost containment (i.e. a price cap that mimics a carbon tax),

The first step is to implement predictable, long-term, progressive targets for emissions reduction tied to each unit of a plant’s output. … Canadian businesses who fail to meet their targets could pay a set price per excess tonne to a federally administered emissions fund. This pool of cash would be designated to specific national environmental objectives; for example global warming adaptation and mitigation studies, energy-efficient city design including densification and public transit, or programs to encourage personal emissions reduction such as home energy efficiency improvements.

But, this is essentially a transfer to government and not between industry, which has obvious political and frankly economic efficiency questions. Adopting the freerider argument one can see a technology fund leading to all kinds of weird and whacky calls on revenue (see post here on carbon tax for Toronto) and high cost and low effectiveness investments. A technology type fund is good, but we are talking billions and billions of dollars in revenue.

Perhaps of bigger concern in this article is the rallying against abatement flexibility. The central premise of cap and trade is to allow emitters to smooth marginal costs. One emitter over complies, one under complies, the latter compensates the former and both are better off. This flexibility leads to innovation and continuous improvement and other good stuff. Stifle this flexibility and higher costs are inevitable.

So, if Canada is to achieve the reductions laid down by the federal governments or the provinces, flexibility is required. Flexibility in policy, flexibility in access to cheap reductions either domestically or internationally and flexibility to adapt to changing circumstances. And domestic reductions at increasingly stringent targets are really really expensive. So before we collectively dis those foreigners, perhaps we should shake their hand and see if there are credible and cheap reductions to trade.

Written by Dave Sawyer

February 5th, 2008 at 4:15 am

Kicking a Climate Change Solution….CCS has warts but it also has legs

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Quietly, the ecoENERGY Carbon Capture and Storage Task Force released its report on the viability and prospects for Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) (see coverage here download report here: EcoEneregy CCS Report ). But, there is a continued notion out there that CCS should not be supported,

The Sierra Club of Canada has also criticized the technology as an excuse for industry to increase production rather than efficiency….”It’s in Canada’s best interest to be more efficient,”

This kind of thinking is not helpful. As part of a comprehensive strategy to tackle GHG emissions, CCS has a place along with conservation, efficiency, renewables, and lots more (see my previous post here). CCS therefore needs to be viewed as such, and supported as one way to work ourselves out of the carbon mess we now face. The CCS report released yesterday pegs public cost of CCS at $2 billion, with that much or more coming from industry:

The cash is needed to close “a financial gap” between Tory good intentions and energy firms’ ability to build a carbon capture and storage network….Industry would respond by kicking in $2 billion to $4 billion towards waste-gas cleanup equipment, pipelines and disposal sites if the taxpayers’ money is made available for an array of potential projects,

A 50% subsidy may on face value seem like a lot, but in the grand scheme of things it is not so bad, especially if it reduces carbon and other nasty emissions. With CCS, we see local and immediate air quality benefits, which are important. And it is not just the oil industry that benefits. CCS in Alberta will benefit a whack of emitters including refiners that make our gas and heating oil. And the price, at about $100/tonne (4 billion annualized at 12% capital recovery factor and 5 MT annually) seems to be about where we need to go if large national reductions are to be achieved.

Lets face it, oil sands emissions are large, the industry is growing and international demand has strong long-term prospects. CCS is a viable solution, along with efficiency, but even if we tap all the efficiency in the oil and gas sector emissions will continue to climb and international demand will remain unchecked. Is then nuclear the answer? Do we ban production and lose all those public royalties and jobs? Good luck with movement in either of those directions. So, like it or not we are stuck with CCS.

And yes it is a nascent technology, with uncertain cost and benefits (permanence being one and intergenerational transfers of risk being another), but it is at the top of the mitigation opportunity ladder. And so, it needs pubic support to get it going, to set the rules of the game and to ensure it proceeds with the public interest in mind.

And importantly the sector is willing to make investments, which is more than can be said for the majority of emissions in Canada (that is, you, me and our cars).

Written by Dave Sawyer

February 1st, 2008 at 5:03 pm

“We need emission reduction actions, not targets”…or a little of both in Canada

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Chris Green, that quirky economist, has a good article in the Globe today on why the focus on targets is bad, and a focus on action is needed. His basic premise is that targets, especially long-term ones, are set in a political arena, which operates in the absence of clear information on the doable. Targets are then set beyond what is technically or economically achievable, and thus set to fail. The setting of targets also detracts considerably from the focus on action, and the inevitable failure influences implementation. Both of these observations are borne out in Canada’s Kyoto experience.

Chris makes some good sense, but I also think the long-term targets provide a focus for action. A well balanced climate policy would have one track that looks forward to vision where we need to go and how we need to organize and transform ourselves to transition to a lower carbon future. Another parallel tract would focus on short-term action and on setting the stage for longer term strategies to move towards the targets.

So Chris is bang on when he states:

Someone has to lead. Another round of climate target-setting would be a prescription for another decade wasted. While it may be politically difficult to chart a new course, there is no alternative if we wish to cope with climate change. Canada could at least get out in front with projects and policies — putting a price on carbon, strengthening energy efficiency standards, and increasing carbon capture and storage — that have a strong probability of encouraging development of the green technologies that will be essential to reducing greenhouse-gas emissions, even if the timing and magnitude of these reductions is inherently uncertain

I just think part of that leadership also involves rallying around a vision of the future. And that vision has to be anchored in where we need to be. So, we are stuck with targets. But as Chris points out, if we channel some of that energy used to argue over targets into action, we would be one our way.

Written by Dave Sawyer

December 13th, 2007 at 3:03 pm

“it would be better to be at 95%” than to have done nothing….

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Like him or not, former Prime Minister Chrétien was a competent manager, and he is right on the current state of climate policy in Canada (see here):

“I signed Kyoto and I knew it was going to be tough to meet the goals of 2012. When I left, we were close to having a deal with the oil industry, but it was not implemented,” he said at a gathering of Liberal heavyweights in Toronto.
Mr. Chretien’s government agreed to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 6% below 1990 levels by 2012. By 2004, however, emissions had risen 27% over the 1990 level.
Mr. Chretien acknowledged the gap, but said “it would be better to be at 95%” than to have done nothing.

With a wholesale scrapping of the previous governments attempts (albeit weak) to move forward, Canada ended up further behind. As emissions grew primarily from oil sands and will continue to grow (see thumb below), this delay has been and will be costly. The post below discusses why delay has risks, but in a nutshell, emissions are higher, high emitting technology becomes locked-in, future reductions become more costly, and technology, innovation and learning by doing aren’t incented to lower costs in time.

A simple carbon tax phased-in a number of years ago would have gone virtually unnoticed from an economic perspective, but of course was DOA politically. And now, looking out to the future we will have carbon constants, and these constraints will be more costly because of political delay. While political blustering seems to be the centre piece of Canada’s climate policy, sometimes I long for a good old fashioned manager who gets things done….even at half measures.

upstream-oil-emissions.JPG

Written by Dave Sawyer

December 12th, 2007 at 3:33 pm