The Political History of Cap and Trade

How an unlikely mix of environmentalists and free-market conservatives hammered out the strategy known as cap-and-trade

In the '80s, the challenge was to limit acid rain from power plants; now, it's to cut carbon emissions. (Walter Bibkow / Photo Library)
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John B. Henry was hiking in Maine's Acadia National Park one August in the 1980s when he first heard his friend C. Boyden Gray talk about cleaning up the environment by letting people buy and sell the right to pollute. Gray, a tall, lanky heir to a tobacco fortune, was then working as a lawyer in the Reagan White House, where environmental ideas were only slightly more popular than godless Communism. "I thought he was smoking dope," recalls Henry, a Washington, D.C. entrepreneur. But if the system Gray had in mind now looks like a politically acceptable way to slow climate change—an approach being hotly debated in Congress—you could say that it got its start on the global stage on that hike up Acadia's Cadillac Mountain.

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People now call that system "cap-and-trade." But back then the term of art was "emissions trading," though some people called it "morally bankrupt" or even "a license to kill." For a strange alliance of free-market Republicans and renegade environmentalists, it represented a novel approach to cleaning up the world—by working with human nature instead of against it.

Despite powerful resistance, these allies got the system adopted as national law in 1990, to control the power-plant pollutants that cause acid rain. With the help of federal bureaucrats willing to violate the cardinal rule of bureaucracy—by surrendering regulatory power to the marketplace—emissions trading would become one of the most spectacular success stories in the history of the green movement. Congress is now considering whether to expand the system to cover the carbon dioxide emissions implicated in climate change—a move that would touch the lives of almost every American. So it's worth looking back at how such a radical idea first got translated into action, and what made it work.

The problem in the 1980s was that American power plants were sending up vast clouds of sulfur dioxide, which was falling back to earth in the form of acid rain, damaging lakes, forests and buildings across eastern Canada and the United States. The squabble about how to fix this problem had dragged on for years. Most environmentalists were pushing a "command-and-control" approach, with federal officials requiring utilities to install scrubbers capable of removing the sulfur dioxide from power-plant exhausts. The utility companies countered that the cost of such an approach would send them back to the Dark Ages. By the end of the Reagan administration, Congress had put forward and slapped down 70 different acid rain bills, and frustration ran so deep that Canada's prime minister bleakly joked about declaring war on the United States.

At about the same time, the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) had begun to question its own approach to cleaning up pollution, summed up in its unofficial motto: "Sue the bastards." During the early years of command-and-control environmental regulation, EDF had also noticed something fundamental about human nature, which is that people hate being told what to do. So a few iconoclasts in the group had started to flirt with marketplace solutions: give people a chance to turn a profit by being smarter than the next person, they reasoned, and they would achieve things that no command-and-control bureaucrat would ever suggest.

The theory had been brewing for decades, beginning with early 20th-century British economist Arthur Cecil Pigou. He argued that transactions can have effects that don't show up in the price of a product. A careless manufacturer spewing noxious chemicals into the air, for instance, did not have to pay when the paint peeled off houses downwind—and neither did the consumer of the resulting product. Pigou proposed making the manufacturer and customer foot the bill for these unacknowledged costs—"internalizing the externalities," in the cryptic language of the dismal science. But nobody much liked Pigou's means of doing it, by having regulators impose taxes and fees. In 1968, while studying pollution control in the Great Lakes, University of Toronto economist John Dales hit on a way for the costs to be paid with minimal government intervention, by using tradable permits or allowances.

The basic premise of cap-and-trade is that government doesn't tell polluters how to clean up their act. Instead, it simply imposes a cap on emissions. Each company starts the year with a certain number of tons allowed—a so-called right to pollute. The company decides how to use its allowance; it might restrict output, or switch to a cleaner fuel, or buy a scrubber to cut emissions. If it doesn't use up its allowance, it might then sell what it no longer needs. Then again, it might have to buy extra allowances on the open market. Each year, the cap ratchets down, and the shrinking pool of allowances gets costlier. As in a game of musical chairs, polluters must scramble to match allowances to emissions.

Getting all this to work in the real world required a leap of faith. The opportunity came with the 1988 election of George H.W. Bush. EDF president Fred Krupp phoned Bush's new White House counsel—Boyden Gray—and suggested that the best way for Bush to make good on his pledge to become the "environmental president" was to fix the acid rain problem, and the best way to do that was by using the new tool of emissions trading. Gray liked the marketplace approach, and even before the Reagan administration expired, he put EDF staffers to work drafting legislation to make it happen. The immediate aim was to break the impasse over acid rain. But global warming had also registered as front-page news for the first time that sweltering summer of 1988; according to Krupp, EDF and the Bush White House both felt from the start that emissions trading would ultimately be the best way to address this much larger challenge.

About Richard Conniff
Richard Conniff

Richard Conniff, a Smithsonian contributor since 1982, is the author of seven books about human and animal behavior.

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