How ‘carbon scoring’ can help Congress make real progress on climate change


As Congress moves forward on the budget for fiscal 2024, it does so with the knowledge that the budget lens will be a defining factor in every policy decision it will make. Congress judiciously considers the financial effects of proposed legislation through a process known as “budget scoring.” However, policymakers currently lack the tools to weigh equally important, long-term policy impacts on the great challenge of our generation: climate change.

If, as a nation, we are to meet the emissions reduction goals necessary to stave off the climate crisis, we need to give the same level of care and consideration to our carbon emissions as we do financial impacts. Congress should routinely measure a bill’s expected effects on carbon emissions and put our climate goals at the fore of their decision-making process.

For an idea of how “carbon scoring” would work in practice, we can turn to budget scoring as a model. Whenever Congress has weighed a piece of draft legislation over the past 50 years, it has considered nonpartisan data and a collective score provided by the Congressional Budget Office to inform policy proposals and to consider tradeoffs. There is no reason we can’t use a similar approach for carbon emissions, using emission goals for the U.S. (like the ones laid out in the Paris Agreement — 50-52 percent emissions reductions by 2030, relative to 2005) — as the barometer in the same way we use fiscal surplus/deficit in budget scoring. Carbon scores would tell legislators the effects of a new bill on future greenhouse gas emissions levels in the U.S., providing them with essential information for making decisions that foster a low-carbon economy. This is similar to the way labeling calories next to food menu items helps customers choose low-calorie options. The scores would allow lawmakers to track the contributions of proposed legislation to U.S. progress, or regression, on its climate goals. Congress could use the carbon scores purely as information, or it could bind itself to these targets more formally as it currently does with the federal budget.

The Congressional Budget Office’s budget scores have had such a long track record of success and credibility because it is a nonpartisan, independent, responsive and publicly accountable source. Right now, Congress doesn’t have a similar source for carbon emissions information. The U.S. Energy Information Administration produces trusted analyses at the request of Congress, but it often isn’t speedy enough to publish findings until a bill becomes law. The Department of Energy and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) could also share information on a bill’s emissions, but their research — which would come from within the executive branch — could be viewed as partisan.

In the absence of a federal entity tasked with carbon scoring, the information available for a bill’s carbon emissions impacts is instead provided piecemeal by nongovernmental entities, research institutions and the private sector. As an example, in the days following the introduction of the Inflation Reduction Act, private entities and nongovernmental organizations (including our own) worked quickly to assess the bill’s emissions implications. In comparison, the Department of Energy’s analysis of the legislation wasn’t publicly available until after the act was signed into law, and the EPA only recently finalized its updated expectations for the power sector.

Analyses by nongovernmental organizations have played a vital role in the policy conversation, but they have several shortcomings: They often are not fully transparent, are based on proprietary models, reflect a variety of assumptions, and are available only for certain pieces of legislation. It would be ideal if the government could do this work itself. Analyzing the carbon emission impact of legislation would be more consistent, transparent and weighty if backed by the resources of the federal government. This could take the form of a stand-alone Office of Carbon Scoring, which would be a new entity responsible for providing Congress with information about the climate effects of proposed actions. Alternatively, it could be an additional set of responsibilities given to the Congressional Budget Office, leveraging its nonpartisan reputation and existing infrastructure.

In the meantime, and in anticipation of the federal government’s need for these new tools, researchers at Resources for the Future and the Brookings Institution (where we work) are working together to create a system for assessing the carbon impact of legislation through a pair of complementary projects. Brookings will create a blueprint for a federal Office of Carbon Scoring, including the institutional, analytical and policy foundation. The blueprint will outline where the office should live within the government, which resources it will need, what scores to calculate, what models to use, and all other components necessary for implementation. Resources for the Future will build upon its history of economic modeling to develop feasible carbon scores and how best to calculate them. Over the next few years, our projects will develop the foundation to carbon score climate-related legislative proposals that will, we hope, inform discussions and decision-making on both sides of the aisle in Congress in the near term.

As Congress deliberates over the Biden administration’s budget proposal and warnings about the looming climate crisis become more dire, we anticipate debate around policy actions that could have major impacts — both positive and negative — on emissions, and thus on the severity of future climate impacts. Congress should give itself the tools it needs to inform that debate before decisions are made that cannot be reversed.

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