Climate Policy Without Cap and Trade

This week, environmental analysts from left and right came together to offer a “post-partisan” approach to climate change.  In Post-Partisan Power: How a Limited and Direct Approach to Energy Innovation Can Deliver Cheap Energy, Economic Productivity, and National Prosperity, Steven Hayward (American Enterprise Institute), Mark Muro (Brookings Institution), and Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger (Breakthrough Institute) argues that the best path to a clean energy future is to make alternatives to fossil fuels much less expensive, and that this can be best achieved by increased support for technological innovation.  Specifically, the paper calls for a dramatic increase in federal support for clean energy R&D, an overhaul of the energy innovation system, and greater use of military procurement to drive the diffusion of clean energy technologies (including next generation nuclear power).  While not without flaws, the proposal represents a serious alternative to politically-moribund cap-and-trade proposals and the regulate-everything mindset that produced the Waxman-Markey bill.

The proposal has sparked a range of reactions.  Doctrinaire environmentalists are concerned, but some thoughtful progressives seem to realize this sort of non-regulatory approach to climate policy may be the only game in town.  (See also here.) Those truly concerned about the accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere should see this as a good thing.  As David Leonhardt notes, even some supporters of cap-and-trade have acknowledged that Waxman-Markey was oversold.  Despite its tremendous costs, the bill would not have driven down U.S. emissions all that much, and it would have done nothing to prevent massive emission increases in China, India and the rest of the developing world.  The reality is that unless it becomes cheap to power the world in a low-carbon way, it will not happen, and regulatory mandates are no way to achieve this goal.

The biggest question about Post-Partisan Power is how to pay for the proposals.  As a general matter, it’s much easier to increase spending than to impose wide-ranging regulatory controls on energy (and, I would argue, it’s would  also be easier to adopt a revenue-neutral carbon tax than Waxman-Markey-style cap-and-trade, but that’s the subject for another post).   Nonetheless, in the current political environment, it will be difficult to find the $25 billion or so necessary to fund the “post-partisan” plan.  Eliminating energy subsidies could get us only part way there, and a carbon tax to fund additional federal spending would be DOA in the new Congress.

Fortunately there are other options.  If the goal is to increase economic investment in clean energy innovation, not all of the money has to come from the federal government.  Indeed, if the goal is to induce $25 billion in investment, this does not require $25 billion in federal funding.  As I discuss in this paper, technology-inducement prizes can greatly leverage R&D investments.  The Ansari X-Prize offered $10 million for reusable, manned spacecraft but induced an estimated $100 million in investments in pursuing the prize.  Equally important, the resulting innovation sowed the seeds of a fledgling space travel industry, showing how properly designed prizes can lead to commercially viable technologies.  A ten-to-one multiplier is not guaranteed for all prizes, but with prizes the federal government need not put up $25 billion to spur that level of investment.  Federal procurement can also be used to increase the incentive for private sector investment in clean energy R&D  without greatly increasing costs to the taxpayer.

If there’s “post-partisan” support for increased investment in clean energy technology, there should also be such support for prizes.  John McCain proposed a battery prize in the 2008 presidential campaign and the Obama Administration has endorsed greater reliance on prizes in technology funding.  The authors of Post-Partisan Power are correct that there is no solution to climate change without substantial breakthroughs in clean energy technologies.  If their vision of increased clean energy R&D is to become a reality, technology-inducement prizes would be a great place to start.