The time has not yet come to throw in the towel regarding the possible enactment in 2010 of meaningful economy-wide climate change policy (such as that found in the Waxman-Markey legislation passed by the U.S. House of Representatives in June, 2009, or the more recent Kerry-Lieberman proposal in the Senate). Meaningful action of some kind is still possible, or at least conceivable. But with debates regarding national climate change policy becoming more acrimonious in Washington as midterm elections approach, it is important to ask, what are the real options for climate policy in the United States — not only in 2010, but in 2011 and beyond.

Federal policy options

Let’s begin my considering federal policy options under two distinct categories: pricing instruments and other approaches. Carbon-pricing instruments could take the form of caps on the quantity of emissions (cap-and-trade, cap-and-dividend, or baseline-and-credit), or approaches that directly put carbon prices in place (carbon taxes or subsidies). Beyond pricing instruments, the other approaches include regulation under the Clean Air Act, energy policies not targeted exclusively at climate change, public nuisance litigation, and NIMBY and other public interventions to block permits for new fossil-fuel related investments. I will discuss each of these in turn.

Quantity-based carbon pricing

I’ve frequently written about cap-and-trade in the past and so I will be very brief on this instrument in this essay.

A quick reminder about cap-and-trade

In brief, there are four principal merits of the cap-and-trade approach to achieving significant reductions of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. First, this approach achieves overall targets at minimum aggregate cost, that is, it is cost-effective, both in the short term by allocating responsibility among sources, and in the long term, by providing price signals that will drive technological innovation and diffusion of carbon-friendly technologies. Second, the allowance allocation under a cap-and-trade system can be used to build a constituency of political support across sectors and geographic areas without driving up the cost of the program or reducing its environmental performance. Third, we have significant experience in the United States with the use of this approach, including during the 1980s to phase out leaded gasoline from the marketplace, and since the 1990s to cut acid rain by 50 percent. Fourth, and of great importance, a domestic cap-and-trade system can be linked directly and cost-effectively with cap-and-trade systems and emission-reduction-credit systems in other parts of the world to keep costs down domestically.

Three principal concerns have been voiced about cap-and-trade systems in U.S. debates. First, while a cap-and-trade system constrains the quantity of emissions, the costs of control are left uncertain (although such cost uncertainty can be limited — if not eliminated — through the use of safety valves, price collars, or related mechanisms). Second, in the wake of concerns regarding the roll that financial markets played in the global recession, there have been many fears about the possibilities of market manipulation in a cap-and-trade system. A third concern — in a political context — is that this cost-effective approach to environmental protection, pioneered by the Republican administration of President George H. W. Bush, has — ironically — been demonized by conservatives in current debates.

That said, a variety of pending design issues will need to be addressed in the development of any cap-and-trade system, including: ambition, scope, point of regulation in the economy, allowance allocation, the role of offsets, cost-containment mechanisms, international competition protection, and regulatory oversight. (I’ve written about all of these design issues in previous essays at this blog and elsewhere.)

A design-change for cap-and-trade?

Does the current political climate call for a design change — or at least a name change — for cap-and-trade? Both stepwise and sectoral approaches are being considered. A stepwise approach of beginning with one or a few sectors of the economy and subsequently expanding gradually to an economy-wide program was embodied in both the Waxman-Markey legislation and in the Kerry-Lieberman proposal. Under a sectoral approach, cap-and-trade would be used for some sectors, but other approaches would be used for other parts of the economy. To some degree, the Kerry-Lieberman proposal embodies this approach. The current focus in Washington is on the possibility of using cap-and-trade for the electricity sector only.

Although the politics may argue for a stepwise or sectoral approach, it should be recognized that neither is likely to be cost-effective, because it is highly unlikely that marginal abatement costs will be equated across all sectors of the economy without the use of a single (implicit) price on carbon.

A populist approach?

Populism has emerged as a major theme in recent electoral politics in the United States, both from the left and from the right. What might be characterized as a populist approach would be a cap-and-trade system with 100 percent of the allowances auctioned and the auction revenue returned directly “to the people.” Although this is a standard variant of cap-and-trade design, contemporary politics — with its demonization of the phrase “cap-and-trade” — might well argue for a name change: how about cap-and-dividend?”

This approach is embodied in the CLEAR Act of Sens. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine). The merits of this approach include its simplicity, appearance of fairness, and related appeal to the populist mood. Concerns, however, include the proposal’s relatively modest environmental achievements (according to an analysis by the World Resources Institute), its overall cost due to restrictions on trading, and its apparent political infeasibility, given its lack of visible support in the Congress.

Other trading mechanisms