- Working Paper
In recent years, emissions trading has become an important element of programs to control air pollution. Experience indicates that an emissions trading program, if designed and implemented effectively, can achieve environmental goals faster and at lower costs than traditional command-and-control alternatives. Under such a program, emissions are capped but sources have the flexibility to find and apply the lowest-cost methods for reducing pollution. A cap-and-trade program is especially attractive for controlling global pollutants such as greenhouse gases because their warming effects are the same regardless of where they are emitted, the costs of reducing emissions vary widely by source, and the cap ensures that the environmental goal is attained.
Report authors Denny Ellerman and Paul Joskow of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and David Harrison of National Economic Research Associates, Inc. review six diverse U.S. emissions trading programs, drawing general lessons for future applications and discussing considerations for controlling greenhouse gas emissions. The authors derive five key lessons from this experience. First, emissions trading has been successful in its major objective of lowering the cost of meeting emission reduction goals. Second, the use of emissions trading has enhanced—not compromised—the achievement of environmental goals. Third, emissions trading has worked best when the allowances or credits being traded are clearly defined and tradable without case-by-case certification. Fourth, banking has played an important role in improving the economic and environmental performance of emissions trading programs. Finally, while the initial allocation of allowances in cap-and-trade programs is important from a distributional perspective, the method of allocation generally does not impair the program’s potential cost savings or environmental performance.
With growing Congressional interest in programs to address climate change—including the recent introduction of economy-wide cap-and-trade legislation controlling greenhouse gas emissions—the application of lessons learned from previous emissions trading programs is timely. In addition to this review, the Pew Center is simultaneously releasing a complementary report, Designing a Mandatory Greenhouse Gas Reduction Program for the U.S., which examines additional options for designing a domestic climate change program.