Category Archives: environment

The Paris Agreement on Climate Change, C’est Bon

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How should one evaluate the agreement reached in Paris December 12 by the 21st Conference of Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC)?   Some avid environmentalists may have been disappointed in the outcome.  The reason is that the negotiators did not commit to limiting global warming to 1 ½ degrees centigrade by 2050, nor will the new agreement directly achieve the 2 degree limit.

But such commitments would not have been credible.  What came out of Paris was in fact better, because the negotiators were able to agree on meaningful practical near-term steps. Virtually all countries agreed concretely to limit their emissions in the near term, with provisions for future monitoring and periodic checkup and renewal. This is a more important achievement than setting lofty goals for the distant future while giving little reason to think that they would be met.  The important thing is to get started.

In four key respects, the agreement is a good one, for those who see global climate change as an important problem and who want down-to-earth steps to address it.

First, and most salient, is comprehensive participation.  More than 186 countries offered individual commitments, called Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs), to go into effect in 2020. These countries account for 96% of global emissions, compared with the current coverage of the Kyoto Protocol which is only 14% of global emissions.  In the past, only advanced countries were expected to agree to commitments to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases.  Developing countries were explicitly spared that within the UNFCCC.  One reason it is so important for them to make explicit commitments is that the growth in emissions is now taking place exclusively in developing countries, not among the advanced countries.  Furthermore, countries like the United States would not agree to limit their emissions if they feared that the effect might simply be a migration of carbon-emitting industry to developing countries.

Second is the agreed process of future assessment and revision of targets.  The decision was to take stock and renew the commitments every five years. (Some negotiators had been arguing for ten-year intervals.)  Future steps can adjust targets to be either more aggressive or less, in light of future developments.  Probably more aggressive, if the scientists’ predictions are borne out.  The second set of INDCs is to be decided in 2018.

Third is transparency in monitoring, reporting and verifying each country’s progress.  Countries are to report every five years, starting in 2023, how well they have done compared to what they had said they would do.  The United States and Europe had to push hard on China and India to get agreement on this.  But without it, the INDCs would not have been credible.

Fourth are mechanisms to facilitate international linkage, including scope for firms operating in rich countries to finance emission reductions in poor countries.  This is important in order to achieve the environmental goals in an economically efficient way:  it is cheaper to pay a poor country to refrain from building new coal-fired power plants than to shut down plants that are already operating in rich countries.  Achieving the first period’s INDCs at low cost will in turn be important for willingness to take further steps in future periods.

Some may be disappointed that the Paris Agreement did not explicitly commit to more aggressive environmental goals, particularly limiting warming to 1 ½  degrees centigrade (above pre-industrial levels) or zero greenhouse gas emissions in the second half of the century, leaving these as aspirations.  And in truth the INDCs are nowhere near enough in themselves even to limit warming to 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit), the long-term global goal that was agreed at an earlier Conference of the Parties in Cancun in 2010.

Actually achieving such environmental goals would of course be desirable, in order to minimize risk of disaster scenarios.  But proclaiming ambitious collective numbers is very different from achieving them.  It is almost beside the point that, by now, a goal of 1 ½ degrees would be very high-cost economically. The plan needs to be credible if it is to determine myriad business decisions made today.   But collective goals are not credible without assignment of individual responsibility; and leaders in any case can’t make credible commitments 35 years into the future.

Others, from developing countries, are disappointed for another reason:  the figure of $100 billion in finance from rich countries does not appear in the legally binding body of the agreement.  They did get an admission of moral responsibility to help small island states, for example, cope with “loss and damages” from sea level rise.  But the rich countries rejected demands for concession of legal liability.  I judge this a reasonable outcome in a difficult situation.

Rich countries can’t deny that their past emissions have inflicted harm on the world.  The entity whose land was flooded would have a claim to compensation from the entity that had caused the damage, if they were operating within a domestic legal system.  But sovereign countries are not operating in such a legal system.  The $100 billion in finance has always seemed to me problematic.  The developing countries fear that the rich countries won’t in the end deliver it, not in cash; and they are right.  The rich countries fear that if they did send “reparations,” much of it would disappear into the pockets of local elites; and they are right.  Better, then, not to make promises in the first place.

The poor countries do have a strong case.  The average American still emits ten times as much greenhouse gases as a citizen of India.  India cannot be deprived of the right to develop economically.  But the best place to take account of these fairness concerns is in the agreed emissions targets.  The efforts that the richer countries promise in these agreements should be – and generally are — greater than the efforts of poor countries.  The richer a country is, the earlier the date at which its emission targets should peak.  The richer it is, the more sharply its target should cut relative to emissions baseline.  With targets that take into account countries’ stage of development, i.e., that continue to grow in the short term, the poor countries can get paid for additional emissions cuts under the international linkage mechanisms.  This fulfills the important principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities” that was and is a key feature of the UNFCCC under which the Paris Agreement has been reached.

The Paris Agreement incorporates both fairness and efficiency.  In light of the very big obstacles and long odds that they faced, the negotiators were surprisingly successful in converging on a plan that offers hope of practical progress.

[A shorter version was published by Project Syndicate. Comments can be posted there or at EconBrowser.]

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TPP Critics’ Nighttime Fears Fade by Light of Day

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The TPP (Trans Pacific Partnership) that was finally agreed among trade negotiators of 12 Pacific countries on October 5 came as a triumph over long odds.  Tremendous political obstacles, domestic and international, had to be overcome over the last five years.  Now each country has to decide whether to ratify the agreement.

Many of the issues are commonly framed as “Left” versus “Right.”  The unremitting hostility to the negotiations up until now from the Left – often in protest at being kept in the dark regarding the text of the agreement — has carried two dangers.  One danger was that opponents would succeed in blocking negotiations altogether.  Indeed, when Democrats in Congress voted against giving President Obama the necessary authority in June, the entire negotiations were widely declared to be dead. This would have been a shame — at least in the view of most economists — because the resulting trade liberalization was very likely in the end to turn out beneficial overall.

The second danger was that the Administration would be forced at the margin to move to the “Right” in order to pick up votes from Congressmen who said they would support the outcome if (and only if) it contained provisions that were sufficiently generous to American corporations.  Those concerned about labor and the environment risked hurting their own cause by seeming to say that they would oppose the agreement no matter how well it did at including provisions to their liking, which could have undermined the White House incentive to pursue their issues.

In this light, this month’s outcome is a pleasant surprise.  In the first place, the agreement gives the pharmaceutical firms, tobacco companies, and other corporations substantially less than they had asked for — so much so that Senator Orrin Hatch (Utah) and some other Republicans now threaten to oppose ratification in the final up-or-down vote.   In the second place, the agreement gives the environmentalists more than most of them had bothered to ask for.  I don’t know the extent to which what we are seeing was the result of hard bargaining by other trading partners such as Australia.  Regardless, it is a good outcome.  The domestic critics might consider now taking a fresh look with an open mind.

The issues that are the most controversial in the US are sometimes classified as “deep integration,” because they go beyond the traditional negotiated liberalization in trade tariffs and quotas.  Two categories are of positive interest to the Left: labor and the environment. Two categories are of “negative interest” to the Left in the sense that it has feared excessive benefits for corporations:  protection of the intellectual property of pharmaceutical and other corporations and mechanisms to settle disputes between investors and states.

Now that the long-delayed agreement is completed, what turns out to be in it?  Two good things in the TPP’s environment chapter are especially noteworthy.  First, it takes substantial steps to enforce prohibition of trade in endangered wildlife — banned under CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) but insufficiently enforced.  Second, it also takes substantial steps to limit subsidies for fishing fleets — which in many countries waste taxpayer money in pursuit of the overfishing of our oceans.  For the first time, apparently, these environmental measures will be backed up by trade sanctions.

I wish that certain environmental groups had spent half as much time ascertaining the specific possibility of good outcomes like these as they spent in sweeping condemnations of the process.  The agreement on fishing subsidies was reached in Maui in July; but critics were too busy to take notice.   Fortunately it is not too late for them to climb on board now.

Some NGOs might still worry that these provisions will not be enforced strongly enough.  But trade penalties are among the most powerful tools for enforcement of international agreements that exist; for that reason environmental groups in the past have asked that such measures be placed in the service of environmental goals.   There is no denying that the TPP provisions on endangered species and fishing are steps forward.

A variety of provisions in the area of labor practices, particularly in Southeast Asia, should also be of interest. They include steps to promote union rights in Vietnam and steps to crack down on human trafficking in Malaysia.

The greatest uncertainties were over the extent to which big US corporations would get what they wanted in the areas of investor-government dispute settlement and intellectual property protection.   On the one hand, critics often neglected to acknowledge that international dispute settlement mechanisms could ever serve a valid useful purpose.  Similarly, they often neglected to acknowledge that some degree of patent protection is indeed needed if pharmaceutical companies are to have an adequate incentive to invest in research and development of new drugs.  But, on the other hand, there was indeed a possible danger that such protections for corporations could have gone too far.

The dispute settlement provisions might have interfered unreasonably with member countries’ anti-smoking campaigns, for example.  In the end, the tobacco companies did not get what they had been demanding.  Australia is now free to ban brand name logos on cigarette packets.  TPP sets a number of other new safeguards against misuse of the investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS) mechanism as well.  For example there is a provision for rapid dismissal of frivolous suits.  The rest of the details are publically available in clear bullet point form, from USTR, if one takes the trouble to read them.

The intellectual property protections might have extended to other TPP member markets a 12-year period of protection for the data that US pharmaceutical and bio-technology companies compile on new drugs (biologic medical products, in particular), and might have made it too hard for generics to eventually bring the benefits to the public at lower costs.  In the end, these companies too did not get much of what they had wanted. The TPP agreement assures protection of their data for only 8 years in some places and 5 years in others and instead relies on the latter countries to use other measures to constrain the appropriation of the firms’ intellectual property.

The focus on new areas of deep integration should not obscure the old-fashioned free-trade benefits that are also part of TPP: reducing thousands of existing tariff and non-tariff barriers that inhibit trade.  Many of these reductions benefit US exports.   (Most US barriers against imports were already very low.)  Liberalization in manufacturing includes the auto industry, for example. Liberalization in services includes the internet.

The liberalization of agriculture is noteworthy; this sector has long been a stubborn holdout in international trade negotiations.   Countries like Japan have agreed to let in more sugar, beef, pork, rice and dairy products, from more efficient producer countries like Australia and New Zealand. In all these areas and more, traditional textbook arguments about the gains from trade apply: new export opportunities, higher wages, and a lower cost of living.

Many citizens and politicians made up their minds about TPP some time ago, based on having read seemingly devastating critiques of what was feared would emerge from the trade negotiations.   When the text of the agreement is released is the time for the critics to read the specifics that they have so long hungered to see and to decide whether they can support it after all.  They just might discover that their nighttime fears are much diminished by the light of day.

[A shorter version appeared at Project SyndicateComments can be posted there or at Econbrowser.]

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Gas Taxes and Oil Subsidies: Time for Reform

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World oil prices have been highly volatile during the last decade.   Over the past year they have fallen more than 50%.

Should we root for prices to go up, down, or stay the same?   The economic effects of falling oil prices are negative overall for oil-exporting countries, of course, and positive for oil-importing countries.  The US is now surprisingly close to energy self-sufficiency, so that the macroeconomic effects roughly net out to zero.  But what about effects that are not directly economic?   If we care about environmental and other externalities, should we want oil prices to go up or down?  Up, because that will discourage oil consumption?  Or down because that will discourage oil production?

The answer is that countries should seek to do both: lower the price paid to oil producers and raise the price paid by oil consumers.  How?   By cutting subsidies to oil and refined products or raising taxes on them.   Many emerging market countries have taken advantage of the last year of falling oil prices to implement such reforms.  The US should do it too.

Congress continues to shamefully evade its responsibility to fund the Federal Highway Trust Fund.  On July 30 it punted with a 3-month stop-gap measure, the 35th time since 2009 that it has kicked the gas-can down the road!  There is little disagreement that the nation’s roads and bridges are crumbling and that the national transportation infrastructure requires a renewal of spending on investment and maintenance.  The reason for the repeated failure to put the highway fund on a sound basis for the longer term is the question of how to pay for it.  The obvious answer is, in part, an increase in America’s gasoline taxes, as economists have long urged.  The federal gas tax has been stuck at 18.4 cents a gallon since 1993, the lowest among advanced countries.  Ideally the tax rate would be put on a gradually rising future path.

Fuel pricing is a striking exception to the general rule that if the government has only one policy instrument it can achieve only one policy objective.   A reduction in subsidies or increase in taxes in the oil sector could help accomplish objectives in at least six areas at the same time:

  1. The budget. It is estimated that energy subsidy reform globally (including coal and natural gas along with oil) would offer a fiscal dividend of $3 trillion per year. The money that is saved can either be used to reduce budget deficits or recycled to fund desirable spending, such as US highway construction and maintenance, or cuts in distortionary taxes, e.g., on wages of lower-income workers.
  2. Pollution and its adverse health effects.   Outdoor air-pollution causes an estimated annual 3.2 million premature deaths worldwide.  A gas tax is a more efficient way to address the environmental impact of the automobile than alternatives such as CAFÉ standards which mandate fuel economy for classes of cars.
  3. Greenhouse gas emissions, which lead to global climate change.
  4. Traffic congestion and traffic accidents.
  5. National security.   If the retail price of fuel is low, domestic consumption will be high.  High oil consumption leaves a country vulnerable to oil market disruptions arising, for example, from instability in the Middle East.  If gas taxes are high and consumption low, as in Europe, then fluctuations in the world price of oil have a smaller effect domestically.   It is ironic that U.S. subsidies to oil production have often been sold on nationalsecurity grounds; in fact a policy to “drain Americafirst” reduces self-sufficiency in the longer run.
  6. Income distribution.  Fuel subsidies are often misleadingly sold in the name of improving income distribution.  The reality is more nearly the opposite.  Worldwide, fossil-fuel subsidies are regressive: far less than 20%  of them benefit the poorest 20% of the population.  Poor people aren’t the ones who do most of the driving; rather they tend to take public transportation (or walk).   As to producer subsidies, owners of US oil companies don’t need the money as much as construction workers do.

The conventional wisdom in American politics is that it is impossible to increase the gas tax or even to discuss the proposal.   But other countries have political constraints too.  Indeed some governments in developing countries in the past faced civil unrest or even overthrow unless they kept prices of fuel and food artificially low.  Yet some of them have managed to overcome these political obstacles over the last year.  The list of those that have recently reduced or ended fuel subsidies includes Egypt, Ghana, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Mexico, Morocco, and the United Arab Emirates which abolished subsidies to transportation fuel subsidies effective August 1.

Besides raising taxes on fuel consumption, the US should also stop some of its subsidies to oil production.  Oil companies can “expense” (immediately deduct from their tax liability) a high percentage of their drilling costs, which other industries cannot do with their investments.  Most politicians know that sound economics would call for this benefit to be eliminated.  But they haven’t been ab le to summon the political will.  Among the other benefits given to the oil industry, it has often been able to drill on federal land and offshore without paying the full market rate for the leases.

Those politicians who complain the loudest about the evils of government handouts are often the biggest supporters of handouts in the oil sector. Political contributions and lobbying from the industry must be part of the explanation.  Even so, it is surprising that self-described fiscal conservatives see more political mileage in closing the Export-Import Bank – which earns a profit for the US Treasury while it supports exports – than in ending oil subsidies, which cost the Treasury a great deal.   ‘

A recent study from the IMF estimated that global energy subsidies at either the producer or consumer end are running more than $5 trillion per year.  (Petroleum subsidies account for about $1 ½ trillion of that. A lot also goes to coal, which does even more environmental damage than oil.)  US fossil fuel subsidies have been conservatively estimated at $37 billion per year, not including the cost of environmental externalities.

Leaders in emerging market countries have now recognized something that American politicians have apparently missed, that this is the best time to implement such reforms.  Oil prices have recently fallen to around $50 a barrel – down from a level well over $100 a barrel in the summer of 2014. So governments that act now can reduce energy subsidies or increase taxes without consumers seeing an increase in the retail price from one year to the next.

For the US and other advanced countries it is also a good time for fuel price reform from the standpoint of macroeconomic policy.  In the past, countries had to worry that a rising fuel tax could become built into uncomfortably high inflation rates.  Currently, however, central bankers are not worried about inflation except in the sense that they are trying to get it to be a little higher.

Congress will have to come back to highway funding in September. If other countries have found that the “politically impossible” has suddenly turned out to be possible, why not the United States?

[A shorter version of this column was published at Project Syndicate.  Comments can be posted there.]

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