UC Berkeley researchers propose changes to climate policy

Nina Kelsey/Courtesy

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An interdisciplinary group of UC Berkeley researchers suggested a new strategy for building effective coalitions to mitigate climate change, in a study presented in Science earlier this month.

The team of researchers, headed by assistant professor Jonas Meckling, analyzed how various regions — such as Denmark and California — engendered effective decarbonization regulations in domestic economies. Their findings suggest that providing green industries with benefits, including tax rebates, proves more effective than penalizing polluting industries.

According to Nina Kelsey, a researcher on the team and UC Berkeley postdoctoral scholar, what sets the study apart is its claim that the most successful emissions-reduction policies begin with such incentives.

Yet economists typically favor the cap-and-trade system, in which legislators set an annual “cap” on the amount of carbon a company can produce in billions of tons per year.

If a company reduces its carbon emissions below its cap level, it can sell the allowances it saves to offset the cost of more energy-efficient equipment. Governments can also invest in energy-efficient companies and a range of sustainable technologies.

“I would hope that our study might help open up the debate by showing that other approaches may be equally or more effective in getting things started,” Kelsey said in an email.

The team of UC Berkeley researchers argues that though the cap-and-trade system is considered more efficient by many economists, there are many political barriers that obstruct its purpose.

For example, the study suggests that the cap-and-trade system imposes the costs on a few wealthy companies and gives dispersed benefits to the broader public, motivating large corporations to politically organize and oppose the policy.

The researchers propose three ways to strengthen coalitions supporting decarbonization, including targeting “sector-specific” policies and direct policies over broad ones. The study also stresses the importance of the sequence of implementation. Essentially, initial green industry policies will build constituencies of support for later climate change policies.

Despite the study’s recommendations, John Andrew, the assistant deputy director of the state Department of Water Resources, doesn’t see cap-and-trade policies losing any popularity in the reauthorization of California Assembly Bill 32, which mandates the state’s reduction of greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020.

Additionally, not all economists agree on the specific recommendations offered by the report.

Daniel Kammen, a professor in the campus’s Goldman School of Public Policy, said there is evidence that punitive policies can be effective in implementing change. He also doubted the government’s ability to pick which renewable energy startup companies will be successful.

Other academics point to the political nature of climate change and the importance of coalition building.

“(You) need a lot of cooperation to get far,” said Solomon Hsiang, a professor in the Goldman School.

Staff writer Ivana Saric contributed to this report.

Ivana Saric covers higher education. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @ivanas26.