Moving beyond the easy stuff: Mandates or pricing carbon?

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Meredith Fowlie at the Energy Institute at Haas posted a thought provoking (for economists) blog on whether economists should continue promoting pricing carbon emissions.

I see, however, that this question should be answered in the context of an evolving regulatory and technological process.

Originally, I argued for a broader role for cap & trade in the 2008 CARB AB32 Scoping Plan on behalf of EDF. Since then, I’ve come to believe that a carbon tax is probably preferable over cap & trade when we turn to economy wide strategies for administrative reasons. (California’s CATP is burdensome and loophole ridden.) That said, one of my prime objections at the time to the Scoping Plan was the high expense of mandated measures, and that it left the most expensive tasks to be solved by “the market” without giving the market the opportunity to gain the more efficient reductions.

Fast forward to today, and we face an interesting situation because the cost of renewables and supporting technologies have plummeted. It is possible that within the next five years solar, wind and storage will be less expensive than new fossil generation. (The rest of the nation is benefiting from California initial, if mismanaged, investment.) That makes the effective carbon price negative in the electricity sector. In this situation, I view RPS mandates as correcting a market failure where short term and long term prices do not and cannot converge due to a combination of capital investment requirements and regulatory interventions. The mandates will accelerate the retirement of fossil generation that is not being retired currently due to mispricing in the market. As it is, many areas of the country are on their way to nearly 100% renewable (or GHG-free) by 2040 or earlier.

But this and other mandates to date have not been consumer-facing. Renewables are filtered through the electric utility. Building and vehicle efficiency standards are imposed only on new products and the price changes get lost in all of the other features. Other measures are focused on industry-specific technologies and practices. The direct costs are all well hidden and consumers generally haven’t yet been asked to change their behavior or substantially change what they buy.

But that all would seem to change if we are to take the next step of gaining the much deeper GHG reductions that are required to achieve the more ambitious goals. Consumers will be asked to get out of their gas-fueled cars and choose either EVs or other transportation alternatives. And even more importantly, the heating, cooling, water heating and cooking in the existing building stock will have to be changed out and electrified. (Even the most optimistic forecasts for biogas supplies are only 40% of current fossil gas use.) Consumers will be presented more directly with the costs for those measures. Will they prefer to be told to take specific actions, to receive subsidies in return for higher taxes, or to be given more choice in return for higher direct energy use prices?

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