Sunday, September 27, 2009

Cap and Trade Basics

If you care to be informed about the impact of cap and trade, read this. Here are the important points:
1. Think of the benefits to the private sector from pollution. ... it’s cheaper ... to produce goods if you don’t worry about whatever emissions result as a byproduct.
2. A cap-and-trade system puts a limit on overall emissions, so that emitters have to pay a price for emitting.
3. The cost to the economy of this limit is the benefit the private sector would have gotten by emitting more than is allowed under the cap.
4. The creation of cap and trade means that emission permits command a market price, and the value of these permits ... (a growing fraction over time) would be captured by the government through auctions, and ... in effect, recycled to consumers.
A couple of notes for those who don't want to read the original: 1. the costs in (3) are not very big - they are a deadweight loss triangle, not the total market value of the permits (which is what some guesstimates of the costs say); 2. the current and future environmental benefits of the cap may or may not outweigh the losses to firms; 3. assuming that the "cap" does a good job of balancing firms' losses with environmental gains, an auction is more efficient than a Pigouvian carbon tax which is more efficient than the current system of "cap and regulate," which is in turn more efficient than subsidizing emission-reducing investments (*see below); and 3. the effectiveness or fairness of how the government is able or willing to "recycle to consumers" the revenues generated is something we can have a fair debate about.
* Note on policy options: Cap and trade and a carbon tax both have the advantage of allowing the firms for whom it is most expensive to cut emissions to emit more if they are willing to pay, whereas those for whom it is least expensive have an incentive to make more cuts. Firm-by-firm regulations do not achieve this, and subsidies have the unintended long run side-effect of leading to higher consumption of the very things whose production results in emissions. In theory, an auction does a better job of "getting the price right" for a given desired quantity. One thing that might tilt in favor of a tax over an auction would be setup costs - designing an auction that gets the price right is a difficult problem in theory and in practice.

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