Protesters block the road leading to the Frontignan oil depot in the South of France, as they demonstrate against the rise in fuel prices and the cost of living on Dec. 3. The protester’s vest reads, “Macron traitor, the people are hungry.” (Pascal Guyot/AFP/Getty Images)

Last month, voters in Washington state rejected a ballot proposal to introduce a carbon tax by a vote of about 57 percent to 43 percent — despite the governor’s strong support for the policy. The defeat is not surprising — proponents of the carbon tax were outspent by oil companies — but it reflects the broader problems that politicians have faced when introducing measures to address climate change. The French protests against President Emmanuel Macron’s efforts to introduce a fuel tax and the disagreements being aired at this week’s U.N. climate meeting in Poland show just how challenging it is to move from ambitious climate goals to actual climate policy.

Many of the challenges come from the business community: Lobbying campaigns by fossil-fuel and energy-intensive manufacturing industries can water down or completely stop far-reaching policies. The extent to which business can capture climate policymaking depends on who gets to make climate policies: voters, legislators or bureaucrats.

As our research shows, activist policymakers face a trade-off between securing broad political buy-in on the one hand and preventing industry opponents from capturing climate policy on the other. Delegating policymaking to voters or legislators can increase political support, but it opens the door to lobbyists. Delegating policy to bureaucrats can in principle make the policy more effective, but it comes at the cost of broad political buy-in.

The different approaches taken in Washington state, Germany and California — all jurisdictions with ambitious climate goals — help explain this dynamic.

The Washington model: Policymaking by voters 

In Washington state, voters decided directly on a specific type of carbon tax. This opened the door to a public debate and campaign. In principle, this could have led to a tax with high public legitimacy. In practice, it allowed oil and gas companies to mobilize voters against the carbon tax. Voters rejected the initiative even though 73 percent of the state’s citizens believed that climate change is happening and 78 percent thought carbon dioxide should be regulated as a pollutant. It is unlikely that Washington state will be able to meet its legal mandate of reducing greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020. 

The German model: Policymaking by legislators

In 2007, Germany adopted its “Integrated Energy and Climate Programme,” which also laid out an emission reduction goal for 2020. This year, the German government has admitted it will probably miss this target despite a boom in domestic renewable energy installations.

In Germany, the federal bureaucracy set ambitious climate goals and suggested 29 individual policy measures to achieve them. These policies were then submitted to the legislature, which designed how the policies would be implemented. This meant that only those policies that had sufficient support among politicians helped reach emission reductions. Renewable energy was implemented because it had the support of the renewable energy industry, environmentalists and citizen groups. However, there was no coalition to reduce transport emissions, allowing business opposition to stymie measures.

The California model: Policymaking by bureaucrats

In 2006, California adopted the Global Warming Solutions Act (Assembly Bill 32), its signature climate legislation, which set an emission reduction target for 2020. In contrast to Washington state and Germany, California is on track to meet its goal.

In California, the legislature initiated the policymaking process and focused only on setting broad policy goals. Legislators were keenly aware of the fact that policy design would raise controversial distributional questions and long-winded lobbying battles. They decided to delegate policy design to the California Air Resources Board (CARB), a bureaucratic agency that could better fend off lobbyists. The agency has a long-standing tradition of autonomous policymaking on air pollution and is staffed with capable bureaucrats who do not have to run for reelection.

CARB took the short AB 32 document and turned it into a comprehensive set of policies to ensure the state would meet the goal set by the legislature. Although the process provided opportunities for the public to weigh in on the proposed climate policies, it shielded these policies from the kinds of industrial influence that prevented effective policies in Germany. Not surprisingly, California repeated this model when it passed a bill in 2017 to adopt climate goals for 2030 and to extend its cap-and-trade system.

Lessons for climate policymaking

These outcomes reflect policymakers’ dilemma: the need to trade off between securing broad political support for policies and also ensuring that actual climate policies deliver on policy goals. The risk of regulatory capture by polluting industries is very real. Voters and legislators can be influenced by business lobbies, making it likely that policies will be weaker.

The California approach suggests that delegating to bureaucrats insulated from that public pressure will lead to stronger policy. However, the California Air Resources Board is an unusually independent agency and often will have no comparable agencies in other jurisdictions. Activist politicians may also be subject to institutional and legal constraints on delegating, as well as concerns about accountability. Even where voters are in favor of climate action, implementation will probably be complex.

Jonas Meckling is assistant professor of energy and environmental policy at the University of California at Berkeley.

Jonas Nahm is assistant professor of energy, resources and environment at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.