This is the first installment of a five-part series on climate policy by regular Triple Crisis contributor James K. Boyce, professor of economics at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst and director of the Program on Development, Peacebuilding, and the Environment at the Political Economy Research Institute (PERI).
The series is adapted from Prof. Boyce’s March 31 lecture, part of the Climate Change Series at the Honors College of the University of Pittsburgh. The lecture explores how to turn the atmosphere (heretofore treated as an “open access” resource, into which greenhouse gases can be dumped at no cost to the emitter) into a common-property resource. This requires the establishment of a set of public property rights over the atmosphere’s capacity to absorb and recycle carbon, the imposition of costs (as through a carbon tax or sale of carbon permits) on those who use this finite resource, and a determination of how the rents will be distributed.
The remaining parts of the series will appear once a week for the next four weeks. The full lecture and subsequent discussion are available, as streaming video, through the University of Pittsburgh website. Click here or on the image below.
Demand and Supply
Broadly speaking, there are two types of policies to reduce carbon emissions from fossil-fuel combustion. One set of policies operates on the demand side of the picture, on the need for fossil fuels. These are policies that include investments in energy efficiency, investments in alternative sources of energy, public investment in mass transit, etc.—investments that reduce our demand for fossil fuels at any given price. Even if the prices of fossil fuels were to remain unchanged, people would consume less of them, thanks to these investments in efficiency, alternative energy, alternative modes of transportation, etc. That’s an important set of policies, but it’s not the only one that is relevant.
I’m going to focus on the complementary set of policies that operate not on the demand side of the equation, but the supply side—policies that raise the price of fossil fuels at any given level of demand. Those policies operate by raising the price in either of two ways which are more or less equivalent, either by instituting a tax on carbon emissions or, alternatively, by putting a cap on emissions and thereby restricting supply. In the same way, OPEC restricts supply when it wishes to increase the price of oil and increase profits—it raises the price. Well, that’s how a cap works to raise the price, too.