Bailout without Representation

The NYT has the draft text and an explanation of the Bush administration’s $700 billion bailout proposal. It audaciously creates a budget authority almost as big as the federal government’s total discretionary spending and bigger than every on-budget agency, seven times the California state budget, without any checks and balances at all:

Sec. 8. Review.

Decisions by the Secretary pursuant to the authority of this Act are non-reviewable and committed to agency discretion, and may not be reviewed by any court of law or any administrative agency.

We used to dump tea in harbors for things like this.

A New Method of Macarony Making, As Practiced at Boston

Continue reading “Bailout without Representation”

How To Fix A Carbon Tax

Imagine that you and I live in a place that has just implemented a carbon tax. I, being a little greener than you, complain that the tax isn’t high enough, in that it’s not causing emissions to stabilize or fall. As a remedy, I propose the following:

  • At intervals, a board will set targets for emissions, and announce them in advance for the next three years.
  • On a daily basis, the board will review current emissions to see if they’re on track to meet the annual target.
  • The daily review will take account of such things as expectations about growth, the business cycle, weather (as it affects electric power and heating demand), and changing fuel prices.
  • Based on its review, the board will post a daily value for the carbon tax, to ensure that the target is met.

Sound crazy? Welcome to cap and trade. The only difference is that the board’s daily review is distributed via a market. The presence of a market doesn’t change the fact that emissions trading has its gains backwards: rapid adjustment of prices to achieve an emissions target that can only be modified infrequently (the latter due to the need to set stable quantity expectations). Willingness to set a cap at a level below whatever a tax achieves is equivalent to accepting a higher price of carbon. Why not just raise the tax, and have lower transaction costs, broader sector coverage, and less volatility to boot?

Certainly cap and trade is a viable second-best policy, especially if augmented with a safety valve or a variable-quantity auction providing some supply-side elasticity. However, I find the scenario playing out in BC quite bizarre.

Update: more detailed thoughts on taxes and trading in this article.

The GAO's Panel of Economists on Climate

I just ran across a May 2008 GAO report, detailing the findings of a panel of economists convened to consider US climate policy. The panel used a modified Delphi method, which can be good or evil. The eighteen panelists are fairly neoclassical, with the exception of Richard Howarth, who speaks the language but doesn’t drink the Kool-aid.

First, it’s interesting what the panelists agree on. All of the panelists supported establishing a price on greenhouse gas emissions, and a majority were fairly certain that there would be a net benefit from doing so. A majority also favored immediate action, regardless of the participation of other countries. The favored immediate action is rather fainthearted, though. One-third favored an initial price range under $10/tonCO2, and only three favored exceeding $20/tonCO. One panelist specified a safety valve price at 55 cents. Maybe the low prices are intended to rise rapidly (or at the interest rate, per Hotelling); otherwise I have a hard time seeing why one would bother with the whole endeavor. It’s quite interesting that panelists generally accept unilateral action, which by itself wouldn’t solve the climate problem. Clearly they are counting on setting an example, with imitation bringing more emissions under control, and perhaps also on first-mover advantages in innovation.

Continue reading “The GAO's Panel of Economists on Climate”


Nature had a nice article on a new tool that uses a diffusion algorithm to produce cartograms, maps rescaled in proportion to spatial variables. I know a bit about diffusion algorithms for image processing, and I can’t resist cool, free GIS software, so I downloaded a copy of the tool, ScapeToad, and tried it myself. First I grabbed a shapefile for US states from the Census’ TIGER/Line product. I clipped that to just the lower 48 states, using MapWindow. Also in MapWindow, I added a column to the shapefile’s attribute table to contain state emissions. In Excel, I used a lookup to insert state emissions from the Vulcan project into my emissions column in the attribute dbf. After a minute or two of chugging in ScapeToad (much more if you want higher resolution), I had this cartogram of state CO2 emissions:

State CO2 emissions cartogram

Endogenous Energy Technology

I just created an annotated list of links on learning/experience curves, deliberate R&D, and other forms of endogenous energy technology, including a few models and empirical estimates. See for details. Comments with more references will be greatly appreciated!

Regional Climate Initiatives – Model Roll Call – Part III

It seems like a good time for another installment to the regional climate initiative roll call.


Alaska signed on as a WCI observer in 2007.

Like many states, Alaska has completed inventories of GHG emissions and potential climate impacts and identified early action items. Impacts are addressed in a joint commission report. I’ve read or skimmed a number of similar efforts from other states, and I have to say that this is the least coherent. It summarizes,

As has been often repeated, the State of Alaska is at the leading edge of impacts resulting from a warming climate. The Commission has recognized many negative and expensive effects of anticipated climate change. There are potential, positive eventualities, as well. The Commission’s concern over a reduction in federal spending implies an increased level of state spending may be in demand.

The report then scrupulously focuses on the positives, and stuffs the negatives to the back of each section. Unlike some states’ efforts, early actions identified by Governor Palin’s climate subcabinet focus exclusively on adaptation.

A mitigation working group is just getting started on a catalog of policies. The group’s first meeting notes contain a statement of purpose from commissioner Hartig:

The Governor appointed this committee because:

  • No debate on climate change, it’s now
  • Relatively small changes in atmosphere have significant effect on the environment.
  • Warming will have effects on habitats
    o Less sea ice
    o More intense forest fires, more insects
    o Change in distribution of species
    o Appearance of new species.
  • Our world shares one atmosphere ’“ there’s no opting out
  • We can build strategy from ground up, without unintended consequences
  • We all must take responsibility
  • The inventory shows the effects Alaska can have are unique and shows opportunities
  • Emissions reductions may not be difficult and there could be many ancillary benefits
  • If we fail to act there could be repercussions in the market
  • State lead-by-example will be an important part of state government leadership
  • Governor wants info and analysis of cap-and-trade, how it affects residents of Alaska

Among other things, I think Alaska’s efforts illustrate a common difficulty in climate policy: complex instruments like a cap & trade system require a major market design effort, which is hard for a state of 670,000 inhabitants to sustain. Small states either need to pursue simpler instruments (like a carbon tax) or pool their resources.


Near and dear to me is another state, small in population and big in resources. Montana has followed the CCS framework, preparing a GHG inventory and action plan. As elsewhere, there’s lots of detailed analysis, but not much evidence of models to glue it all together.

The appendices of the action plan cite:

  • EPA’s WaRM model, for tracking and reporting GHG emissions from waste management practices.
  • EPA’s MOBILE6 model, for GHG and other pollutant emissions from vehicles.
  • Lifecycle analyses, including GREET, examining the implications of a transition to coal-to-liquids transport fuel (CTL) – particularly relevant given Montana’s huge coal reserves (120 gigatons) and synfuel aspirations. The basic message, nicely discussed by Brandt & Farrell, is that use of CTL and other low-grade petroleum resources could lead to significant recarbonization of energy use, even with CCS.


I took a brief look at RGGI in the first installment. Now trading is about to launch, with an initial auction on September 25. Individuals can bid if they have an account on the allowance tracking system (felons need not apply though). New York DEC has a useful brief explanation of the market. Significantly, NY is auctioning nearly 100% of allowances. However, it’s also one of four states that didn’t get their act together in time for the initial auction.

RGGI futures are now trading on the CCX, barely above minimums because the market is overallocated, with allowances above historic levels through 2014. As of yesterday, CCFE RGGI futures for ’08 to ’12 settled at $4.48 to $5.01 on low volume. Evidently RGGI can retire allowances that fail to meet the auction reserve price, but changing underlying allocations could take up to three years.

Will the Chinese Miracle End Soon?

Just after writing my last post on China, I found this remarkably candid SpiegelOnline interview with Pan Yue, China’s Deputy Minister of Environment. A few excerpts:

Pan: Of course I am pleased with the success of China’s economy. But at the same time I am worried. We are using too many raw materials to sustain this growth. To produce goods worth $10,000, for example, we need seven times more resources than Japan, nearly six times more than the United States and, perhaps most embarrassing, nearly three times more than India. Things can’t, nor should they be allowed to go on like that.

Pan: This miracle will end soon because the environment can no longer keep pace. Acid rain is falling on one third of the Chinese territory, half of the water in our seven largest rivers is completely useless, while one fourth of our citizens does not have access to clean drinking water. One third of the urban population is breathing polluted air, and less than 20 percent of the trash in cities is treated and processed in an environmentally sustainable manner. Finally, five of the ten most polluted cities worldwide are in China.

Pan: …Because air and water are polluted, we are losing between 8 and 15 percent of our gross domestic product. And that doesn’t include the costs for health. …

While I was building an electric power model for China in 2005, I saw estimates of 7% GDP losses from health impacts of air pollution, so this strikes me as plausible. One could argue that even 20% of GDP lost to pollution would not be a big deal, because it represents less than three years of growth. But that is to ignore a fundamental valuation problem: that increased material consumption is probably a poor substitute for lost environmental services and especially health problems. In a utopian world where China’s development path reflected individual preferences, are these the choices we would see?

8 to 15 percent is quite a bit more than the 3% in China’s Green GDP accounts, which in any case have been put on hold due to lack of support. On other measures, China’s HDI (a measure of life expectancy, literacy, educational attainment, and GDP per capita) is going up, but its GPI peaked in 2002. The World Bank shows adjustments shaving 16 percentage points off China’s national savings, but the net remains positive. China’s ecological footprint is in deficit territory.

SPIEGEL: But the economic growth fanatics in Beijing will still likely carry on just as before.

Pan: They’re still playing the lead role — for now. For them, the gross domestic product is the only yardstick by which to gauge the government’s performance. But we are also making another mistake: We are convinced that a prospering economy automatically goes hand in hand with political stability. And I think that’s a major blunder. The faster the economy grows, the more quickly we will run the risk of a political crisis if the political reforms cannot keep pace. If the gap between the poor and the rich widens, then regions within China and the society as a whole will become unstable. If our democracy and our legal system lag behind the overall economic development, various groups in the population won’t be able to protect their own interests.

This is crucial. Even communities in the developed world that experience rapid growth go through substantial pain. In part, that’s because growth puts pressure on resources (like open space, freedom from noise and pollution) previously regarded as free, for which property rights or other control mechanisms must be established. If institutions don’t keep up, conflict ensues.

And there’s yet another mistake in this thinking…..

SPIEGEL: Which one?

Pan: It’s the assumption that the economic growth will give us the financial resources to cope with the crises surrounding the environment, raw materials, and population growth.

SPIEGEL: Why can’t that work?

Pan: There won’t be enough money, and we are simply running out of time. Developed countries with a per capita gross national product of $8,000 to $10,000 can afford that, but we cannot. Before we reach $4,000 per person, different crises in all shapes and forms will hit us. Economically we won’t be strong enough to overcome them.

Counting on future growth to solve the problems of past growth is a classic escalation trap – Herman Daly’s “Hair of the Dog that Bit You” from the Catechism of Growth Fallacies in Steady State Economics. Daly cites Wallich, “Growth is a substitute for equality of income. So long as there is growth there is hope, and that makes large income differentials tolerable.” When the growth engine sputters, the social repercussions will be serious.

Backing Off on Ethanol

ST. PAUL (Reuters) –

U.S. Republicans called on Monday for an end to a controversial requirement that gasoline contain a set amount of ethanol, a policy backed by the Bush administration that critics say has helped drive up world food prices.

In their 2008 platform detailing policy positions, Republicans said markets — not government — should determine how much ethanol is blended into gasoline, and pushed for development of a cellulosic version, which could be made from grasses rather than corn.

It will be interesting to see what this implies for California’s LCFS design.


Corn belt Republicans are not pleased.

Contrast the new platform with the situation in 2005.

McCain seems to have done a double-flip-flop, reversing his 2006 reversal of his 2000 campaign position: Continue reading “Backing Off on Ethanol”

China's Energy Policy Comes at a Price

That’s the title of a letter in the latest edition of Science. It nicely expands on some of my earlier concerns about China’s energy policy in the Clout & Climate Change war game and in reality. The author, Quiang Wang of the Guangzhou Institute of Geochemistry, writes,

China’s energy prices are mainly decided and controlled by the government. Because the government emphasizes social stability over scarcity of resources or environmental cost, it sets the energy prices very low. For example, Chinese gasoline and diesel prices rose by less than 10% in 2007, when global oil price nearly doubled. Moreover, in January 2008, the Chinese government decided to freeze energy prices in the near term, even as international crude oil futures have continued to surge.

Energy conservation and efficiency are hard to achieve because government-set prices encourage excessive energy consumption and waste. The low energy prices send a distorted market signal to consumers that there is no shortage of natural resources, indicating that enhancing energy efficiency is unnecessary and waste is justified.

A market-oriented energy-pricing mechanism is an inevitable requirement for China to address climate change, although the reform of the energy pricing mechanism means increased energy prices, which will bring public dissatisfaction and possibly social instability.

In 2005, I built a simple model of the Chinese electric power system, focused on coal-fired generation. One of the most beneficial strategies in the model is to make plant dispatch and power pricing more market-oriented, strengthening the incentive to install cleaner generation and retire or retrofit old dirties. That’s tough to implement as long as utilities wield more power than their regulators.