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  • Author: Justin Gundlach, Ron Minsk, Noah Kaufman
  • Publication Date: 03-2019
  • Content Type: Working Paper
  • Institution: Center on Global Energy Policy (CGEP), Columbia University
  • Abstract: Putting a price on carbon is a critical part of a low-cost strategy for reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, and a national carbon tax is a rare example of a climate change policy that has found bipartisan support in the United States. In 2018, legislation establishing a carbon tax was proposed by Democrats, Republicans, and bipartisan groups of US congressmen. However, while passing a carbon tax would certainly prove a significant step toward slashing emissions, simply adding a carbon tax to current policies is unlikely to achieve an emissions target at the lowest cost. Designing a carbon tax that contributes to achieving greenhouse gas reduction targets effectively and efficiently will require an examination of whether other new policies are also needed and whether existing policies can or should be changed or eliminated. With more proposals expected in 2019, such an examination is critical to ensuring both sufficient emissions reductions and an efficient set of policies that keep costs in check for taxpayers. As part of a broader carbon tax research program at the School of International and Public Affairs Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University, we have developed a framework for considering the interactions between a federal carbon tax and other policies that influence greenhouse gas emissions. Toward the goal of helping to design better policies, we identify policies and programs that are “complementary” to a carbon tax or “redundant.” A policy is defined as complementary if it: enables more cost-effective reductions of carbon dioxide emissions than a carbon tax would achieve on its own; or reduces GHG emissions and achieves a separate policy objective more cost-effectively than a federal carbon tax would on its own. Conversely, a policy is defined as redundant with a federal carbon tax if it leads to additional costs to society without achieving additional emissions reduction. In developing this framework, we recognize that real-world policies often do not fall cleanly into either category and that neither specifying the framework nor making the categorizations is an exact science. It is often difficult to identify a policy’s objective or evaluate its cost-effectiveness. In addition, the extent to which a policy complements a carbon tax depends on the nature of the carbon tax. Most obviously, with a lower carbon tax rate, fewer emission reductions would be achieved, and additional policies may be needed to make up the difference between the outcome and a science-based emissions reduction target. The results of the work, highlighted in the following table, indicate a relatively large number of policies can complement a carbon tax, such as those that support innovation in low-carbon technologies, tackle behavioral barriers to more efficient energy use, or improve public infrastructure and address barriers to reducing emissions unrelated to the price-related barriers addressed by a carbon tax. Conversely, the paper identifies regulations that force entities that pay the carbon tax to take specific actions to reduce their emissions, such as Environmental Protection Agency regulations of stationary sources of carbon dioxide emissions under section 111 of the Clean Air Act, as redundant with the carbon tax. The paper does not recommend which policies should be eliminated, changed, or added but intends to provide policy makers with information that will help them make these decisions.
  • Topic: Climate Change, Science and Technology, Green Technology, Carbon Tax
  • Political Geography: United States
  • Author: Adele Morris, Noah Kaufman, Siddhi Doshi
  • Publication Date: 07-2019
  • Content Type: Working Paper
  • Institution: Center on Global Energy Policy (CGEP), Columbia University
  • Abstract: If the United States undertakes actions to address the risks of climate change, the use of coal in the power sector will decline rapidly. This presents major risks to the 53,000 US workers employed by the industry and their communities. 26 US counties are classified as “coal-mining dependent,” meaning the coal industry is a major employer. In these areas, the industry is also an important contributor to local government finances through a complex system of property, severance, sales, and income taxes; royalties and lease bonuses for production on state and federal lands; and intergovernmental transfers. While climate-related risks to corporations have received scrutiny in recent years, local governments—including coal-reliant counties—have yet to grapple with the implications of climate policies for their financial conditions. Importantly, the risks from the financial decline of coal-reliant counties extend beyond their borders, as these counties also have significant outstanding debts to the US municipal bond market that they may struggle to repay. To be sure, national climate policy in the United States is uncertain. Experts have long recommended strong policy action to reduce emissions, and for years, policy makers have largely ignored their advice. Nevertheless, with growing support by the public and policy makers, meaningful climate policy in the United States may be on the horizon, and those dependent on coal should be looking ahead to manage their risks. This paper examines the implications of a carbon-constrained future on coal-dependent local governments in the United States. It considers the outlook for US coal production over the next decade under such conditions and explores the risk this will pose for county finances. The paper also considers the responsibilities of jurisdictions to disclose these risks, particularly when they issue bonds, and the actions leaders can take to mitigate the risks. In short, the paper finds the following: ● Coal production in the United States fell by one-third between 2007 and 2017. Projections of the US energy system show this decline continuing gradually under current policies. However, even a moderately stringent climate policy could create existential risks for the coal industry, with potential declines in production of around 75 percent in the 2020s. ● A careful look at three illustrative counties shows that coal-related revenue may fund a third or more of their budgets. The exposure is compounded because school districts and other special districts within the counties also receive coal-dependent revenue. The complex system of local revenue instruments and intergovernmental transfers plus a lack of sufficiently detailed budget data makes it difficult to parse out just how reliant jurisdictions are on the coal industry. ● Estimates of the direct linkages between the coal industry and county budgets will almost certainly understate the risks because lost economic activity and jobs will have ripple effects across the economy. Case studies show that the rapid decline of a dominant industry has led to downward spirals and eventual collapses of local governments’ fiscal conditions, including the inability to raise revenue, repay debt, and/ or provide basic public services. ● Coal-dependent communities have a variety of outstanding bonds, and the risk of collapse of the coal industry threatens their ability to repay them. Despite regulations requiring disclosures to reflect risks to the financial health of municipalities, our review of the outstanding bonds indicates that municipalities are at best uneven and at worst misleading (by omission) in their characterizations of climate-related risks. Ratings reports are not much better than official statements in describing the risks associated with the exposure of some local governments to the coal industry. ● Climate policies can be combined with investments in coal-dependent communities to support their financial health. A logical source of funding for such investments would be the revenues from a price on carbon dioxide emissions, a necessary element of any cost-effective strategy for addressing the risks of climate change. A small fraction of revenue from a federal carbon price in the United States could fund billions of dollars in annual investments in the economic development of coal-dependent communities and direct assistance to coal industry workers. ● In considering reforms, several questions emerge for stakeholders. These include whether regulators should develop additional requirements for the disclosure of risks from future climate policies; whether ratings agencies should increase attention to the risks to local governments of climate policies; and whether stakeholders in the municipal bond market, such as borrowers, insurers, and underwriters, are appropriately accounting for risks to the coal industry.
  • Topic: Climate Change, Energy Policy, Coal, Domestic Policy
  • Political Geography: United States
  • Author: John Macwilliams, Sarah Lamonaca, James Kobus
  • Publication Date: 08-2019
  • Content Type: Working Paper
  • Institution: Center on Global Energy Policy (CGEP), Columbia University
  • Abstract: The Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) bankruptcy, which was caused by liabilities resulting from massive wildfires, has widely been called the first climate change bankruptcy. It will likely not be the last, as climate change exacerbates natural disasters, leading to more frequent and intense wildfires, storms, and flooding. Wildfires alone could become up to 900 percent more destructive in certain regions by midcentury, and utility assets will also be increasingly exposed to threats stemming from hurricanes, rising sea levels, and other climate-related events. These extreme weather events will increase costs to utility-sector stakeholders, including investor-owned utilities, state and local governments, ratepayers, and taxpayers. These risks could place financial stress on utility companies, drive up electricity rates, crowd out essential investment in renewable energy and grid upgrades, and disrupt service. In this paper, Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy reviews and analyzes the PG&E bankruptcy, assesses how capital markets have reacted to the bankruptcy through the lens of valuations in the US utility sector, and discusses policy implications of California’s recent legislative response to wildfire risk. This paper examines market indicators to assess investor expectations of climate risk exposure and likely cost allocation. Neither debt nor equity markets suggest widespread concern about climate risk in the utility sector. In the absence of strong market signals to encourage climate risk mitigation, the authors find that policy frameworks are needed to ensure that companies make necessary preventative investments and to define how costs will be allocated among stakeholders. This paper also reviews a recently passed California bill aimed at achieving these objectives and the lessons and best practices it offers for other policy makers. In short, the paper finds the following: Market indicators suggest that the California wildfires and subsequent PG&E bankruptcy have not caused imminent concern about climate risks in the utility sector. Equity valuations for the sector remain strong, with a utility stock index trading at a higher-than-average premium to the market benchmark. In credit markets, regulated utilities in the United States have raised more than $50 billion of corporate debt in 2019 to date, and borrowing spreads are currently below historical averages. There are several reasons why markets may not reflect widespread climate risk to utilities, despite the scientific evidence around likely future damage. Investors may believe that cost increases from climate change will occur too far in the future to materially impact the present value of their investments. Even if investors believe that climate change risks are material to valuation, they may also believe that such risks will not be considered by other investors for some time. Investors may be viewing wildfires as a California-specific risk, though the regional skew of wildfires is likely to shift significantly in coming years. They may lack the information or modeling tools for assessing the likelihood and geographic dispersion of high-impact tail events, such as the wildfires that PG&E faced. Financial markets may also reflect the belief that the costs of climate change in the utility sector will fall predominantly on ratepayers, insurance companies, and/or taxpayers rather than investors, and therefore investors may not view themselves as materially exposed. California’s recent creation of a wildfire insurance fund with contributions from both ratepayers and companies provides important policy lessons for designing comprehensive frameworks to allocate climate damage costs. These include the strengthening of both regulatory and corporate climate resilience expertise, mandating preventative investment as a prerequisite for cost-recovery mechanisms, defining utility financial exposure for climate damage situations, and providing cash for utilities to provide essential services when facing large disasters. The policy also presents some potential pitfalls that may be instructive for other state policy makers. The legislation sets aside large reserves for future damage, a necessary measure, but one that will result in higher electric bills. The bill does not allow utilities to earn a return on safety-related spending, which broadly diminishes incentives for proactive climate mitigation investment. The potential insufficiency of the wildfire fund also creates uncertainty about future cost allocation. Finally, failing to reform the California legal framework that allows utilities to be held liable for damages they did not cause perpetuates risks for companies and ratepayers. If the first climate change bankruptcy is indicative of a new reality, it is not that utilities are going to go bankrupt overnight. Rather, climate disasters will increasingly add financial stress to utility-sector stakeholders, as costs accumulate from both acute events and damaging extreme weather impacts. Adapting the regulatory bargain for a climate-exposed future will require lawmakers, regulators, and shareholders to develop new approaches and new incentive structures to ensure an accountable, robust utility sector. Moreover, while climate change is already presenting real financial challenges to utilities, it will not be the only sector to face large climate-driven costs. Other corporate actors can look to the utility experience to better understand how policy makers, investors, and companies will respond to the growing financial threat from climate change.
  • Topic: Climate Change, Economics, Gas, Electricity
  • Political Geography: United States, California
  • Author: Noah Kaufman, John Larsen, Peter Marsters, Hannah Kolus, Shashank Mohan
  • Publication Date: 11-2019
  • Content Type: Working Paper
  • Institution: Center on Global Energy Policy (CGEP), Columbia University
  • Abstract: Growing public concern about the social, economic, and environmental impacts of climate change, along with pressure for lawmakers to introduce policy proposals that reduce emissions, have brought carbon taxes to the center of policy discussions on Capitol Hill. Thus far in 2019, seven different carbon tax legislative proposals have been introduced in Congress. The proposal with the most cosponsors, totaling 64 Democrats and 1 Republican as of the end of September 2019, is the Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act (EICDA), introduced in February 2019 by lead sponsor Ted Deutch (D-FL). This study assesses the potential impacts of EICDA on the US energy system, environment, and economy. EICDA establishes a fee on each ton of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. It covers over 80 percent of gross national emissions. The fee starts at $15 per metric ton and increases by $10 or $15 each year, depending on future emissions levels. Revenue raised by the carbon fee is used for “carbon dividends,” a rebate to every eligible US citizen or lawful resident. The bill also includes measures to protect US competitiveness and to reduce the risk that companies will relocate their operations to a different country with laxer climate laws. Through the carbon fee and additional regulations if necessary, EICDA targets 90 percent emissions reductions by 2050 compared to 2016 levels. This study is part of a joint effort by Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy (CGEP) and Rhodium Group to help policymakers, journalists, and other stakeholders understand the important decisions associated with the design of carbon tax policies and the implications of these decisions. This analysis uses a version of the National Energy Modeling System maintained by the Rhodium Group (RHG-NEMS) to quantify the energy and environmental implications of EICDA, focusing on outcomes through 2030. Supplemental analyses provide insights on how EICDA would affect households, the economy, and government budgets. The following are key results: GHG emissions decline substantially. Compared to 2005 levels, implementing EICDA as a stand-alone policy leads to economy-wide net GHG emissions reductions of 32–33 percent by 2025 and 36–38 percent by 2030. These emissions reductions exceed the targets in the EICDA proposal through 2030 and exceed the US commitments to the Paris Agreement over this period. Most of the near-term emission reductions occur in the power sector, where emissions fall 82–84 percent by 2030. Air pollution also declines. EICDA reduces local air pollution from power plants. Sulfur dioxide (SO2) and mercury emissions from the power sector decline by more than 95 percent and emissions of oxides of nitrogen (NOx) decline by about 75 percent by 2030 relative to a current policy scenario. Electricity generation shifts to cleaner sources. The price on carbon causes the US economy to shift from carbon-intensive energy sources to low- and zero-carbon energy sources. Coal is nearly eliminated from the power sector by 2030, with solar, wind, nuclear, and natural gas with carbon capture and storage all providing significantly larger generation shares compared to a current policy scenario. Energy prices rise but do not skyrocket. The price on carbon causes energy prices to increase for all carbon-emitting fuels, which leads to significantly higher overall energy expenditures, though within the range of recent historical variation. Taking two prominent examples, results show EICDA causing national average gasoline prices to increase by about 12 cents per gallon in 2020 and 90 cents per gallon in 2030 and causing national average electricity prices to increase by about 1 and 3 cents per kilowatt hour in 2020 and 2030, respectively. EICDA causes per capita energy expenditures to increase by $200-$210 in 2020 and $1,160-$1,170 in 2030 compared to a current policy scenario. In all years, annual per capita energy expenditures remain below the recent historical peak during the commodities crisis in 2008. The carbon dividend cushions energy price impacts. EICDA generates substantial revenue that is distributed in the form of equal dividend payments. EICDA generates $72–$75 billion in carbon tax revenues in 2020 and $403–$422 billion in 2030. This translates into an annual dividend for eligible adults of $250-$260 in 2020 and $1,410-$1,470 in 2030, with half those amounts also paid to eligible children. On average, the carbon dividend payments are comparable to the changes in energy expenditures caused by EICDA. Because higher-income households purchase far more carbon-intensive goods and services, distributing dividends equally implies that average low- and middle-income households receive more in dividends than they pay in increased economy-wide prices for goods and services resulting from the carbon tax. Net government revenue declines slightly, at least initially. Carbon tax-and-dividend policies are often described as “revenue neutral,” but the impacts of EICDA on government revenue are uncertain and likely negative in the near term. We estimate that the net government revenues under EICDA decline by roughly 10 percent of the annual carbon tax revenue in the early years of the policy. This estimate considers government revenue gains from taxing emissions and dividends, dividend payouts, and government revenue losses from reduced income and payroll taxes from those who pay the carbon tax. However, the proposal will also affect government revenue in other ways that are beyond the scope of our analysis, so the overall impacts on net government revenue is uncertain.
  • Topic: Climate Change, Energy Policy, Green Technology, Carbon Tax
  • Political Geography: United States
  • Author: Noah Kaufman, David Sandlow, Clotilde Rossi de Schino
  • Publication Date: 12-2019
  • Content Type: Working Paper
  • Institution: Center on Global Energy Policy (CGEP), Columbia University
  • Abstract: In the United States, commercial and residential buildings produce roughly 12 percent of greenhouse gas emissions. Most of these emissions come from burning fossil fuels for space heating. These emissions must be significantly reduced or eliminated for the US to achieve deep decarbonization goals, including net zero emissions by midcentury. Air source heat pumps (ASHPs) are powered by electricity, using well-established technology to move heat from outdoor air to indoor air. When powered by zero-carbon electricity, ASHPs provide space heating with almost no greenhouse gas emissions. ASHPs are especially effective for space heating in mild climates. In 2015, roughly 10 percent of US households (mostly in the Southeast) used air source heat pumps as their primary heating source.[1] ASHPs account for roughly one-third of residential space heating in Japan. The world’s largest ASHP market is in China, where sales are growing rapidly. Prominent studies on decarbonization of the US energy system focus on deployment of air source heat pumps as the primary strategy for reducing emissions from space heating. Some studies show near-universal electrification of space heating, suggesting that ASHPs (with some backup from electric resistance heaters) can be almost a silver bullet solution for decarbonizing space heating. These studies start with the assumption that fossil fuel furnaces and boilers will be gradually phased out. Other studies assume that electric heating technologies such as ASHPs will continue to compete against fossil fuel burning furnaces and boilers in the decades ahead. These studies conclude that furnaces and boilers will retain a significant share in space heating markets, even with technological progress and strong policy support for ASHPs, but often fail to explain why. Do high costs or inferior performance limit market penetration in these studies? Or do other barriers limit ASHP deployment? The answer has important implications for policy makers shaping decarbonization strategies. To help answer these questions, we built a simple model of ASHP adoption that estimates the lifetime costs of space heating and cooling configurations in three US cities with markedly different climates and energy costs: Atlanta, Georgia; San Diego, California; and Fargo, North Dakota. The model analyzes the choices facing hypothetical consumers installing new heating and cooling equipment in residential buildings. The consumers have the option to purchase an ASHP for heating and cooling (with backup if needed) or a natural gas furnace and air conditioner. Based on the model results and related research, we conclude: Air source heat pumps are cost competitive today in places where electricity is cheap and the climate is mild. With climate policies consistent with rapid decarbonization and reasonably foreseeable technological progress, air source heat pumps are the low-cost option for typical residential buildings across much of the US by the mid-2030s. Even in the very cold climate of Fargo, North Dakota, the combination of a price on carbon emissions and steady innovation in ASHPs causes ASHPs (with an electric resistance heater as a backup) to be cost competitive with new natural gas furnaces and air conditioners by the 2030s. If the United States commits to the rapid decarbonization of space heating by midcentury, the costs and performance of ASHPs are unlikely to be major barriers to deployment. However, other important barriers may persist, including contractors’ and homeowners’ greater familiarity with incumbent fossil fuel technologies and the slow turnover of the building stock. As a result of these additional barriers, emissions pricing and technological progress alone may not lead to deployment of air source heat pumps in the United States sufficient to achieve deep decarbonization by midcentury. That would likely require additional policy instruments such as technology standards, emissions caps, or mandates. Other technologies can also contribute to decarbonizing space heating, including renewable natural gas, hydrogen produced with carbon capture and storage (CCS) or electrolysis, and centralized or district heating. Each of these options comes with challenges that will require policy support to overcome. This study does not point to a proper balance between ASHPs and other space heating decarbonization technologies. More research is needed to compare different approaches and strategies. In the meantime, our analysis suggests little if any downside to pursuing ambitious policies to promote deployment of ASHPs, prioritizing regions where heat pumps are currently most cost effective. A large-scale increase in ASHP deployments is likely to be an important part of any space heating decarbonization scenario.
  • Topic: Climate Change, Energy Policy, Green Technology, Renewable Energy, Fossil Fuels
  • Political Geography: United States