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The Social Cost of Carbon Redux

Robert Stavins's picture
Professor & Director John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University

Robert N. Stavins is the A.J. Meyer Professor of Energy & Economic Development, Director of Graduate Studies for the Doctoral Programs in Public Policy and in Political Economy and...

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  • Mar 17, 2022
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We find ourselves in a period when concerns about climate change impacts are increasing (see the report just released of the IPCC’s AR6 WG3 Summary for Policymakers), federal climate legislation seems less and less likely, the U.S. Supreme Court may significantly restrict EPA’s authority to regulate greenhouse gases, and other U.S. courts are at least temporarily preventing the administration from using the Social Cost of Carbon.  In the midst of all this, it’s worthwhile thinking critically and dispassionately about the benefits and costs of environmental protection.  There is no one better to reflect on this than my podcast guest, Maureen Cropper, Distinguished University Professor of Economics at the University of Maryland.  You can listen to our conversation in the latest episode of my podcast, “Environmental Insights: Discussions on Policy and Practice from the Harvard Environmental Economics Program.”  Our full conversation is here.

In these podcasts, I converse with leading experts from academia, government, industry, and NGOs.  Maureen Cropper fits well in this group.  In addition to her professorship at the University of Maryland, she is a Senior Fellow with Resources for the Future, a (very active) member of the National Academy of Sciences, and a Fellow of the Association of Environmental and Resource Economists

She has long focused her research on valuing environmental amenities (particularly in regard to environmental health effects), the discounting of future health benefits, and the tradeoffs implicit in environmental regulations. Her current research focuses primarily on the costs and benefits of air pollution control efforts in India, and on the valuation of climate amenities.  

When I ask Maureen Cropper to assess the Biden Administration’s environmental and resource policies, she remarks that it seems to be heading in the right direction, at least on one important component.

“I do think that there has been momentum to further the cause of estimating and using the social cost of carbon. After all, on Biden’s first day [in office], he actually reinstated the Interagency Working Group, which had been disbanded by President Trump and … announced that we were going to make progress in revising the social cost of carbon. I do think that a lot has been done along those lines,” she says. “Although … what we see and how it’s used may be affected, is likely to be affected … by recent [court] rulings.”

Current estimates of the social cost of carbon range between 50 and 60 dollars a ton, but Cropper notes that it could be increased to 100 dollars per ton or more if the discount rate is changed from three percent to two percent.

She goes on to express some doubt about the effectiveness of current U.S. climate policies, noting that she is “not particularly optimistic about the rate at which greenhouse gas emissions are being reduced.” But she also expresses her admiration for recent youth movements of climate activism.

“I actually do see the attitudes that they have which really are very encouraging to me in terms of what’s happening in the country as a whole,” she says.  “It does seem like a very good indicator perhaps, or bellwether one hopes of things to come.”

For this and much more, I hope you will listen to my compete conversation with Maureen Cropper, the 33rd episode in the Environmental Insights series, with future episodes scheduled to drop each month.  You can find a transcript of our conversation at the website of the Harvard Environmental Economics Program.  Previous episodes have featured conversations with:

“Environmental Insights” is hosted on SoundCloud, and is also available on iTunes, Pocket Casts, Spotify, and Stitcher.

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