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Biden raises social cost of carbon, restoring key climate policy tool slashed by Trump

U.S. rejoins Paris climate accord
U.S. rejoins Paris climate accord 06:45

President Biden on Friday raised the social cost of carbon, a little-known but important number that informs a wide range of policies regulating industry and energy production. Mr. Biden's action restores the number to its Obama-era price-tag, and reestablishes a working group that calculates the economic impact of pollution. 

The social cost of carbon is an estimate of the long-term damage, in dollars, of carbon on our environment. Former President Trump disbanded the interagency working group (IWG) that determined the number in 2017, and directed agencies to drastically devalue the social cost of carbon. Biden's announcement restores the IWG, and brings the cost of carbon back up to $51 per ton of carbon dioxide.

That number, however, was settled on by the IWG prior to the group being disbanded in 2017, and does not reflect "recent developments in the science and economics" of climate change, according to a technical support document released by the working group on Friday. The IWG has now been tasked with recalculating the social cost of carbon — as well as the social cost of other greenhouse gases — and providing an updated number by January 2022.

"A more complete update that follows the best science takes time. This is why we are quickly restoring the prior estimates as an interim step," Heather Boushey, a member of the president's Council of Economic Advisers, said in a White House statement on behalf of the IWG co-chairs. "With these estimates temporarily in place, the Interagency Working Group will continue its critical work to evaluate and incorporate the latest climate science and economic research and respond to the National Academies' recommendations as we develop a more complete revision of the estimates for release within a year."

Activists and experts say the number needs to be significantly higher if the United States is to meet commitments made under the Paris Agreement, a climate treaty dedicated to lowering greenhouse gas emissions in more than 180 countries around the world. Mr. Trump withdrew from the agreement in 2020, and Mr. Biden reentered it on his first day in office.

Professor Joe Stiglitz of Columbia University and Professor Lord Nicholas Stern of the London School of Economics and Political Science said in a statement earlier this month that Mr. Biden's decision to quickly get rid of the Trump administration's "risible estimate" was "understandable," but "flawed." Stiglitz and Stern say the U.S. needs to double the Obama-era figure to $100 per ton of carbon dioxide "in order to ensure that policies and regulations are in line with the goals of the Paris Agreement."

"The low value adopted by the Obama Administration was based on the output of economic models that are known to be inadequate and ignore the largest potential impacts of climate change," they wrote. "We trust that the Biden Administration will carry out a thorough evaluation of the social cost of carbon before publishing its final assessment of the value next year."

Other experts believe the cost should be as high as $125 per ton, as New York state estimated last year

"As this process proceeds, we are committed to engaging with the public and diverse stakeholders, seeking the advice of ethics experts, and working to ensure that the social cost of greenhouse gases consider climate risk, environmental justice, and intergenerational equity," reads the White House's statement. "The result will be even stronger science-based estimates developed through a transparent and robust process."

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