Thursday, 18 September 2014

Solving Climate Change Will Cost Nothing, Sort Of

On Tuesday the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate launched its report, Better Growth, Better Climate, in which it makes the bold-sounding pronouncement that major steps can be taken to address climate change that cost nothing. Over the next 15 years we will spend some $90 trillion in infrastructure investment. "Our argument is that it would be smart to invest the $90 trillion in a good way," said Jeremy Oppenheim on APM Marketplace on Tuesday.

In a way, we have always known this. The question has always been, can you measure and quantify the risks and the known harms from climate change? Even if there remain uncertainties, it is increasingly incredible to deny that the balance of climate risks and mitigation costs tilts in favor of deep emissions reductions. So why do we still debate it? Why does it still seem as though reducing emissions is costly?

The answer goes back to my previous post, in which we do not explicitly grapple with the "losers" from climate policy, coal-related industries and states, petroleum industries, states, and countries, and all of the related industries. There is a lot of capital, physical, human, and social wrapped up in a lot of industries and places, and they may not be able to do much other than what they're doing, which is to continue to service a greenhouse gas-intensive economy. In theory, we could buy them out with the cost savings of avoiding all those climate harms. But in practice, we just don't have the money.

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Wind and Sun Conquerors of Fossil Fuels and Fossil

The New York Times ran an article Sunday about how Germany is rapidly expanding its wind energy capacity, and realizing unexpectedly lower costs because of economies of scale never before seen in any non-hydro renewable energy industry. Large demand from Germany, Denmark, and a hanful of climate-conscious countries has helped induce the entry into the sector from Chinese businesses, which of course benefit from government support.

The question that hangs over environmentally-focused groups is why don't American utilities seem to be so intransigently wedded to fossil generation? This article seemed to point to the unease of utility executives. My theory is that in addition to a lot of physical capital in the industry, there is a lot of human capital tied up on fossil fuel extraction, transmission, and combustion. Economist and former Enron official John Palmisano used to talk about how he went around the country talking to utility executives, and made what he thought was a pretty strong case for switching to natural gas away from coal. The objection that seemed most heartfelt was that "[Utility Company X] was a company that is the coal-burning business, not the natural gas-burning business. Assuming we could retrofit coal plants to accept natural gas, what would do with all the people that know how to handle coal but not gas?" Add to that the infrastructure demands (gas pipelines, e.g.), it starts to look very difficult to switch from coal to natrual gas, or anything else. If it is that hard to get utility execs to think hard about another fossil alternative, it becomes even harder to think about non-hydro renewable energy sources. But it is not narrow-mindedness per se; it is form of capital that is specific to one way of doing things, and is not easily transferable to another way of doing things. That difficulty may be illusory, but it at least appears to those embedded in the fossil industries as very difficult.

Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Formality and Informality in Cost-Benefit Analysis

Professor Amy Sinden at Temple has posted a paper titled Formality and Informality in Cost-Benefit Analysis. This is an important paper that seeks to transcend a debate about cost-benefit analysis that has gotten intellectually (though not politically) stale in recent years. Professor Sinden points out that there are many levels of cost-benefit analysis, formal and informal, precise and imprecise, analyzing many alternatives and few. The mistake that is made according to Professor Sinden, (who is a critic of how CBA is used in environmental law and related fields) is that the case for CBA is often made by appealing to the intuitive usefulness of informal CBAs, while the formal but falsely precise formal CBAs actually bend public policy. I wonder if this is just a variant of the "false formalism" critique of CBA, but even if it is, it deserves some attention because of the nuance with which it treats different CBAs. Here is the abstract:

Cost-benefit analysis (CBA) is usually treated as a monolith. In fact, the term can refer to a broad variety of decision-making practices, ranging from a qualitative comparison of pros and cons to a highly formalized and technical method grounded in economic theory that monetizes both costs and benefits, discounts to present net value, and locates the point at which the marginal benefits curve crosses the marginal costs curve. This article develops a typology that helps to conceptualize and analyze the multiple varieties of CBA along the formality-informality spectrum. It then uses this typology to analyze the treatment of CBA by the academic community and the three branches of the federal government. In academic and policy circles, the formal end of this spectrum generates far more controversy than the informal end. Additionally, the law (federal environmental statutes and federal case law) seems to favor informal over formal varieties of CBA. Nonetheless, the executive branch appears to be moving toward the formal end of the spectrum. Executive Orders and guidance documents direct agencies to conduct a highly formal mode of CBA. And anecdotal evidence suggests that agencies often go out of their way to give their CBAs the trappings of formality, sometimes in ways that lead to irrational results. I argue that 1) failing to distinguish between formal and informal CBA, and the many varieties in between, has led to muddled thinking and to misuses of CBA; and 2) the trend toward formality in the executive branch is a bad development, in part because it can, and often does, lead to what I call "failed formalism" — a corruption of CBA that can occur when agencies fail to clearly and consistently define where on the formality-informality spectrum a particular CBA falls.