Resources for the Future is launching its Carbon Scoring Project, an effort to provide policymakers with quantitative and qualitative climate information about their bills, reported in a standardized and accessible format. The project is taking steps to make sure that legislators always have the information they need to incorporate climate change in their decisions.
For decades, every major bill that has gone through Congress has received what’s referred to as a “budget score” from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office. A budget score is an estimate of a bill’s effect on the federal budget and serves as an essential part of the debate around almost any piece of legislation. It was a smart move by Congress years ago to establish both this budget-scoring procedure and a trusted entity like the Congressional Budget Office to keep Congress informed and accountable to its budget over the short and long term.
Now, in 2023, with adverse climate change impacts looming ever greater, the federal budget is not the only consequential budget that lawmakers need to be mindful of. Lawmakers also must consider how major bills will affect our progress in staying within our “carbon budget,” as set by our national goals for carbon emissions. If Congress wants to keep the US economy on track with its long-term climate goals, it will need information about the effects of its policies on the carbon budget that is similar to information it receives for effects on the federal budget. For the United States to decarbonize on a relevant timescale, Congress will need to put “carbon scores” front and center in the debate, just as it does with budget scores.
So, what needs to be part of such a carbon score for it to meet the needs of Congress and the public? We’ve spent the past several months interviewing staff and policymakers of both political parties throughout the federal government to answer this question. The responses varied considerably, but a few clear insights emerged. One was that effects on greenhouse gas emissions should be the primary focus, and reductions should be tracked clearly against long-term progress on climate goals, such as the US nationally determined contribution. Another theme was that cost estimates and other secondary metrics beyond carbon would aid in policy deliberations, including effects on consumer prices, air quality, and employment. Most of the people we interviewed noted that carbon scores, to be truly useful, need to be responsive to the rapid and iterative process of developing legislation, and not just be provided at the end of the legislative process. Full transparency in the analysis also was viewed as a key element to gain public trust.
Unfortunately, Congress currently does not have an entity or agency within the federal government that can generate carbon scores that meet these criteria. For example, the US Energy Information Administration has produced widely trusted analyses at the request of Congress, but often at a more deliberative pace than is needed for rapid policy iteration. Deep expertise on carbon emissions is available from other parts of the Department of Energy or the Environmental Protection Agency, but the presence of these agencies within the executive branch can lead to a perception of bias among lawmakers. Nongovernmental organizations and the private sector have filled this gap to a significant degree over time, but such analyses often are not transparent, are based on proprietary models, reflect a variety of assumptions, and are available only for certain pieces of legislation.
With the Carbon Scoring Project, launching today, Resources for the Future (RFF) is hoping to change this conversation.
Building on existing RFF models and through expanded partnerships, our research team will provide policymakers with quantitative and qualitative climate information about their bills, reported in a standardized and accessible format. This effort will include outlining the carbon impacts of legislation and assessing progress toward our long-term goal of reducing carbon emissions. The project also will provide additional details like changes in electricity generation, consumer prices, adoption of electric cars, and many other variables. Our analyses will assess the effects of proposed policies on other types of air pollution, such as ozone and particulate matter, which have major implications for environmental justice and public health. We’ll also track the economic effects across different income levels. All of our work under the project will maintain RFF’s hallmarks of rigor and impartiality, will be fully transparent through the public availability of all model assumptions and source code, and will be provided on the rapid timescale that’s needed to support policy development.
We will have the capacity to understand how ... policies impact the environment and the economy, not only through their effects on the energy sector but also through their effects on the natural landscape.
Our first step on this path will be to provide a baseline that can serve as a comparison point for future analyses. This baseline will include the economy-wide effects on carbon emissions of the Inflation Reduction Act, which has significantly changed the projected emissions trajectory of the United States. As the Carbon Scoring Project continues, we will move beyond energy and climate bills to examine legislation such as farm bills, highway bills, and even the National Defense Authorization Act, all of which can affect carbon emissions. We also will look to evaluate other major policy proposals before they become bills. As our suite of models develops, we will have the capacity to understand how such policies impact the environment and the economy, not only through their effects on the energy sector but also through their effects on the natural landscape.
As we develop and use our tools and methodologies for carbon scoring, we are doing so with an eye toward ensuring that not only are the project’s results relevant to policy, but that the models and methodologies themselves are ready for adoption by the government in the future. Our approach in this regard is similar to our work under RFF’s Social Cost of Carbon Initiative, which has developed and published open tools and methods that now serve as the foundation for the Environmental Protection Agency’s draft estimates of the social cost of carbon.
In many ways, the formal launch of RFF’s Carbon Scoring Project represents a continuation of the role that RFF has played for decades in the policymaking process. But it also marks the start of a new chapter in RFF’s engagement, formalizing the role that we’ve always played informally and ensuring that our analysis is available to all in a transparent, easy-to-digest manner.
Climate change is a central issue facing our country, and too often, the implications of any given piece of legislation are unknown. We want RFF’s Carbon Scoring Project to be the first step in making sure that legislators always have the information they need to incorporate climate change in their decisionmaking. Watch this space over the coming months—we’re excited to get started.