Painting ourselves into a green corner

At the Green California Summit & Expo this week, I saw a strange sight: a group of greentech manufacturers hanging out in the halls, griping about environmental regulations. Their point? That a surfeit of command-and-control measures makes compliance such a lengthy and costly process that it’s hard to bring innovations to market. That’s a nice self-defeating outcome!

Consider this situation:

I was thinking of lighting, but it could be anything. Letters a-e represent technologies with different properties. The red area is banned as too toxic. The blue area is banned as too inefficient. That leaves only technology a. Maybe that’s OK, but what if a is made in Cuba, or emits harmful radiation, or doesn’t work in cold weather? That’s how regulations get really complicated and laden with exceptions. Also, if we revise our understanding of toxics, how should we update this to reflect the tradeoffs between toxics in the bulb and toxics from power generation, or using less toxic material per bulb vs. using fewer bulbs? Notice that the only feasible option here – a – is not even on the efficient frontier; a mix of e and b could provide the same light with slightly less power and toxics.

Proliferation of standards creates a situation with high compliance costs, both for manufacturers and the bureaucracy that has to administer them. That discourages small startups, leaving the market for large firms, which in turn creates the temptation for the incumbents to influence the regulations in self-serving ways. There are also big coverage issues: standards have to be defined clearly, which usually means that there are fringe applications that escape regulation. Refrigerators get covered by Energy Star, but undercounter icemakers and other cold energy hogs don’t. Even when the standards work, lack of a price signal means that some of their gains get eaten up by rebound effects. When technology moves on, today’s seemingly sensible standard becomes part of tomorrow’s “dumb laws” chain email.

The solution is obviously not total laissez faire; then the environmental goals just don’t get met. There probably are some things that are most efficient to ban outright (but not the bulb), but for most things it would be better to impose upstream prices on the problems – mercury, bisphenol A, carbon, or whatever – and let the market sort it out. Then providers can make tradeoffs the way they usually do – which package of options makes the cheapest product? -without a bunch of compliance risk involved in bringing their product to market.

Here’s the alternative scheme:


The green and orange lines represent isocost curves for two different sets of energy and toxic prices. If the unit prices of a-e were otherwise the same, you’d choose b with the green pricing scheme (cheap toxics, expensive energy) and e in the opposite circumstance (orange). If some of the technologies are uniquely valuable in some situations, pricing also permits that tradeoff – perhaps c is not especially efficient or clean, but has important medical applications.

With a system driven by prices and values, we could have very simple conversations about adaptive environmental control. Are NOx levels acceptable? If not, raise the price of emitting NOx until it is. End of discussion.

Two related tidbits:

Fed green buildings guru Kevin Kampschroer gave an interesting talk on the GSA’s greening efforts. He expressed hope that we could move from LEED (checklists) to LEEP (performance-based ratings).

I heard from a lighting manufacturer that the cost of making a CFL is under a buck, but running a recycling program (for mercury recapture) costs $1.50/bulb. There must be a lot of markup in the distribution channels to get them up to retail prices.

California Punting on Cap & Trade

Bloomberg reports that California’s cap and trade program may still be some way off:

[CARB chair] Nichols told venture capitalists and clean-energy executives last week in Mountain View, California, that she was “thinking of punting,” saying the specifics of the emissions-trading program may not be ready for 1-2 more years.

“I think the cap-and-trade system needs to be thought through and I don’t think that has been done yet,” said Jerry Hill, a member of the Air Resources Board. “It would be a good idea to take our time to be sure what we do create is successful.”

Greentech VCs aren’t thrilled, but I think this is wise, and applaud CARB for recognizing the scale of the design task rather than launching a half-baked program. Still, delay is costly, and design complexity contributes to delay. California has a lot of balls in the air, with a hybrid design involving a dozen or so sectoral initiatives, a low-carbon fuel standard, and cap & trade. As I said a while ago,

My fear is that the analysis of GHG initiatives will ultimately prove overconstrained and underpowered, and that as a result implementation will ultimately crumble when called upon to make real changes (like California’s ambitious executive order targeting 2050 emissions 80% below 1990 levels). California’s electric power market restructuring debacle jumps to mind. I think underpowered analysis is partly a function of history. Other programs, like emissions markets for SOx, energy efficiency programs, and local regulation of criteria air pollutants have all worked OK in the past. However, these activities have all been marginal, in the sense that they affect only a small fraction of energy costs and a tinier fraction of GDP. Thus they had limited potential to create noticeable unwanted side effects that might lead to damaging economic ripple effects or the undoing of the policy. Given that, it was feasible to proceed by cautious experimentation. Greenhouse gas regulation, if it is to meet ambitious goals, will not be marginal; it will be pervasive and obvious. Analysis budgets of a few million dollars (much less in most regions) seem out of proportion with the multibillion $/year scale of the problem.

One result of the omission of a true top-down design process is that there has been no serious comparison of proposed emissions trading schemes with carbon taxes, though there are many strong substantive arguments in favor of the latter. In California, for example, the CPUC Interim Opinion on Greenhouse Gas Regulatory Strategies states, ‘We did not seriously consider the carbon tax option in the course of this proceeding, due to the fact that, if such a policy were implemented, it would most likely be imposed on the economy as a whole by ARB.’ It’s hard for CARB to consider a tax, because legislation does not authorize it. It’s hard for legislators to enable a tax, because a supermajority is required and it’s generally considered poor form to say the word ‘tax’ out loud. Thus, for better or for worse, a major option is foreclosed at the outset.

At the risk of repeating myself,

The BC tax demonstrates a huge advantage of a carbon tax over cap & trade: it can be implemented quickly. The tax was introduced in the Feb. 19 budget, and switched on July 1st. By contrast, the WCI and California cap & trade systems have been underway much longer, and still are no where near going live.

My preferred approach to GHG regulation would be, in a nutshell: (a) get a price on emissions ASAP, in as simple and stable a way as possible; if you can’t have a tax, design cap & trade to look like a tax (b) get other regions to harmonize (c) then do all that other stuff: removing institutional barriers to change, R&D, efficiency and renewable incentives, in roughly that order (c) dispense with portfolio standards and other mandates unless (a) through (c) aren’t doing the job.

WCI Design Recommendations

Yesterday the WCI announced its design recommendations.

Update 9/26: WorldChanging has another take on the WCI here.
I haven’t read the whole thing, but here’s my initial impression based on the executive summary:


Major gases, including CO2, methane, nitrous oxide, hydrofluorocarbons, perfluorocarbons and sulfur hexafluoride.

What? In scope? How/where?
Large Industrial & Commercial, >25,000 MTCO2eq/yr

Combustion Emissions

Yes Point of emission

Process Emissions

Yes Point of emission
Electricity Yes “First Jurisdictional Deliverer” – includes power generated outside WCI
Small Industrial, Commercial, Residential Second Compliance Period (2015-2017) Upstream (“where fuels enter commerce in the WCI Partner jurisdictions, generally at a distributor. The precise point is TBD and may vary by jurisdiction”)

Gasoline & Diesel

Second Compliance Period (2015-2017) Upstream (“where fuels enter commerce in the WCI Partner jurisdictions, generally at a terminal rack, final blender, or distributor. The precise point is TBD and may vary by jurisdiction”)

Biofuel combustion

Biofuel & fossil fuel upstream To be determined ?
Biomass combustion No, if determined to be carbon neutral  
Agriculture & Forestry No  

(See an earlier Midwestern Accord matrix here.)

Continue reading “WCI Design Recommendations”