Borenstein, Severin “Markets for Anthropogenic Carbon Within the Larger Carbon Cycle” (June 2010) (Revised version published in The Design and Implementation of U.S. Climate Policy, edited by Don Fullerton and Catherine Wolfram, National Bureau of Economic Research and University of Chicago Press, 2012) | WP-206
Human activity has disrupted the natural balance of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and is causing climate change. Burning fossil fuels and deforestation result directly in about 9 gigatons of carbon (GtC) emissions per year against the backdrop of the natural carbon flux — emission and uptake — of about 210 GtC per year to and from oceans, vegetation, soils and the atmosphere. But scientific research now indicates that humans are also impacting the natural carbon cycle through less-direct, but very important, mechanisms that are more difficult to monitor and control. I explore the challenges this presents to market or regulatory mechanisms that might be used to reduce greenhouse gases: scientific uncertainty about these indirect processes, pricing heterogeneous impacts of similar human behaviors, and the difficulty of assigning property rights to a far larger set of activities than has previously been contemplated. While this does not undermine arguments for market mechanisms to control direct anthropogenic release of greenhouse gases, it suggests that more research is needed to determine how and whether these mechanisms can be extended to address indirect human impacts.