Each week, we’re compiling the most relevant news stories from diverse sources online, connecting the latest environmental and energy economics research to global current events, real-time public discourse, and policy decisions. Here are some questions we’re asking and addressing with our research chops this week:
Once social distancing ends—and assuming emissions increase again—what policies can we pursue to maintain lower levels of air pollution?
Social distancing orders have protected many Americans from COVID-19—and new research suggests that lockdowns have protected public health in less obvious ways, too. A new study circulated by the National Bureau of Economic Research estimates that restrictions on travel over the course of the pandemic have resulted in 363 fewer premature deaths from air pollution per month across the United States, mostly by reducing typical levels of air pollution from car use. More broadly, the coronavirus pandemic has highlighted some of the long-term health effects of air pollution—given evidence that communities with long-term exposure to particulate matter suffer higher COVID-19 mortality rates—while also illuminating how policies like mandatory social distancing can quickly have a measurable impact on the environment. Nevertheless, air pollution is expected to escalate as economies reopen and as climate change intensifies. Although partially mitigating the public health toll of the pandemic, a temporary contraction in toxic emissions will not be enough to avert future consequences.
One policy solution that could substantially reduce air pollution—and simultaneously protect human health—is carbon pricing. As part of an ongoing explainer series investigating the consequences of carbon pricing policy, RFF Senior Fellow Marc Hafstead assesses in a new explainer the near- and long-term health benefits that could come with implementing a carbon tax or a cap-and-trade program. While the consequences of reducing greenhouse gas emissions would be geographically diffuse and only “realized over many years into the future,” carbon pricing would incentivize alternatives to fossil fuels and consequently prompt decreased concentrations of hazardous air pollutants such as NOₓ and SO₂. Policy design is especially important here, according to Hafstead: “A higher carbon price … would further reduce fuel combustion and provide greater health benefits through cleaner air.”
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As the energy sector confronts economic hardship due to the coronavirus pandemic, are strategies to price “climate risk” in investments financially responsible? Or unfair to fossil fuel companies?
While Democrats float legislation to bar fossil fuel companies from the benefits of coronavirus-related aid, a coalition of Republicans are making clear their own conditions for federal relief. In a letter directed at President Trump, dozens of lawmakers accuse prominent financial institutions of “openly discriminat[ing] against the American energy sector,” despite energy companies’ efforts to reduce emissions and invest in carbon capture technology. As many fossil fuel companies struggle amid the coronavirus pandemic, the lawmakers advocate that any banks that restrict funding for fossil fuel projects be excluded from participating in federal programs like the Paycheck Protection Program. The effort comes as many financial institutions announce ambitious environmental commitments, including the decision by JPMorgan Chase to no longer finance oil projects in the Arctic and BlackRock’s sweeping overhaul of its investment strategy to incorporate “climate risk.” These institutions argue that climate change poses financial dangers that investors are obligated to consider.
One financial advisor who has long advocated for considering climate risks is Robert Litterman, the current chair of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission’s Climate-Related Market Risk Subcommittee and a board member at RFF. A recent profile in the Wall Street Journal contextualizes Litterman’s career—from Goldman Sachs economist to federal regulator—alongside broader shifts in the financial industry toward greater recognition of climate change. While Republican lawmakers skeptical of the salience of “climate risk” argue that the current policy landscape burdens fossil fuel companies, Litterman argues that incentives granted to the fossil fuel industry functionally “increase emissions, causing a growing accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.” Instead, he advocates for a carbon tax that grows increasingly stringent each year, though he acknowledges that such a policy might be infeasible during the coronavirus pandemic. For more on Litterman’s approach to investments and why he contends that “governments are not pricing climate risk appropriately,” listen to a recent episode of the Resources Radio podcast.
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Can solar geoengineering approaches complement emissions reduction efforts, or do the risks outweigh the potential benefits?
The Great Barrier Reef is the world’s largest coral reef system—and it is confronting its third mass bleaching event in just the last five years. As climate change warms waters and threatens the survival of reefs, Australian scientists are testing a novel geoengineering approach in an attempt to prevent future losses. They venture that spraying nano-sized ocean salt crystals into the air will brighten low-altitude clouds, allowing the clouds to reflect more sunlight before it can reach the ocean. While the technology shows promise, researchers are waiting for more evidence before embarking on full-scale deployment and plan to “triple the size of the trial” by next year. Marine cloud brightening is just one of many solar geoengineering approaches that scientists are increasingly considering as options for slowing climate change, especially as the world’s single-minded focus on emissions reductions fails to substantially alter our climate trajectory.
Still, geoengineering approaches—from fertilizing the growth of marine phytoplankton to sending aerosols to the stratosphere—provoke concerns that large-scale manipulation could have far-reaching consequences. Others caution that the lack of a “global governance structure” to oversee geoengineering heightens the risk of disaster. But according to Harvard Professor David Keith on a new episode of the Resources Radio podcast, solar geoengineering is safer and more technologically feasible than its critics allow. He outlines the major approaches that have been generating the most research interest and discusses recent shifts in how governments conceptualize solar geoengineering—from localized efforts in Australia, China, and India to global discussions at the United Nations. Ultimately, Keith argues that solar geoengineering should enter the mainstream of climate discussions: “My most important view is that there's enough potential for these technologies to be used … and enough potential for them to do good, that we should have a much bigger research effort.”
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