Fast Facts

When assessing the costs and benefits of proposed environmental regulations, federal agencies use estimates of the “social cost of carbon”—economic damages from increases in greenhouse gas emissions.

According to EPA, these gases stay in the atmosphere long enough to become “well mixed”—contributing to global damages regardless of their origin. Current national estimates are based on domestic damages and are about 7 times lower than prior estimates based on global damages.

In 2017, the National Academies recommended updating the estimating methods. We recommended that the Office of Management and Budget choose a federal entity to take the lead.

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Highlights

What GAO Found

According to documents reviewed and interviews with officials from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Bureau of Land Management (BLM), and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), the federal government's current social cost of carbon estimates used in conducting regulatory impact analyses are lower than its prior estimates. Although both the prior and current estimates were calculated using the same economic models, two key assumptions used to calculate the current estimates were changed: using (1) domestic rather than global climate change damages (see table) and (2) different discount rates (3 and 7 percent rather than 2.5, 3, and 5 percent). As a result, the current federal estimates, based on domestic climate damages, are about 7 times lower than the prior federal estimates that were based on global damages (when both prior and current estimates are expressed in 2018 U.S. dollars and calculated using a 3 percent discount rate).

Prior and Current Federal Estimates of the Social Cost of Carbon, per Metric Ton, at a 3 Percent Discount Rate in 2018 U.S. Dollars

Year of emissions

Prior estimates (based on global climate change damages)

Current estimates (based on domestic climate change damages)

2020

$50

$7

2030

$60

$8

2040

$72

$9

2050

$82

$11

Source: GAO analysis of data from the Interagency Working Group on Social Cost of Greenhouse Gases, EPA, and the United States Gross Domestic Product Price Index from the U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of Economic Analysis. | GAO-20-254

The federal government has no plans to address the recommendations of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine for updating the methodologies used to develop the federal estimates of the social cost of carbon. In a January 2017 report, the National Academies made recommendations for updating the methodologies used to estimate the social cost of carbon to ensure federal estimates reflect the best available science. The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) in Circular A-4 provided guidance to federal agencies on how to conduct regulatory analyses, and in 2017 Executive Order 13783 directed agencies to use that guidance when estimating the social cost of carbon; both direct agencies to use the best available science. OMB staff GAO interviewed said the agency does not have specific plans for implementing the recommendations and that no federal agency has responsibility for addressing them. OMB staff told GAO that nonfederal entities are leading research efforts that are responsive to the recommendations, but no federal entity has responsibility for monitoring developments in scientific research or ensuring updated federal estimates consider such developments. However, OMB continues to play a leading role in the federal government's use of the social cost of carbon by having responsibility for the guidance in Circular A-4, which Executive Order 13783 directs agencies to be consistent with in developing their social cost of carbon estimates. By identifying a federal entity to be responsible for addressing the National Academies' recommendations, OMB would have better assurance that agencies use the best available science in their regulatory impact analyses.

Why GAO Did This Study

To address climate change, some countries develop monetary estimates to assess the costs and benefits of government actions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, including carbon dioxide. In the United States, in 2009, OMB convened an interagency working group to estimate the social cost of carbon—the dollar value of the effects of an incremental increase in carbon dioxide emissions in a given year—for assessing regulatory costs and benefits. In 2017, the National Academies recommended updates to the methods used to develop the estimates. Later that year, Executive Order 13783 disbanded the working group, withdrew its guidance, and directed agencies to ensure that, to the extent permitted by law, estimates are consistent with Circular A-4, OMB's general guidance for regulatory analysis. GAO was asked to review approaches for developing and using the estimates.

This report examines, among other objectives: (1) how the federal government's current estimates compare to its prior estimates and (2) how the federal government plans to address the recommendations of the National Academies. GAO reviewed executive orders, OMB guidance, and regulatory impact analyses and interviewed OMB, EPA, NHTSA, and BLM officials and staff who had conducted such analyses.

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Recommendations

GAO recommends that OMB identify a federal entity responsible for addressing the National Academies' recommendations. OMB did not comment on the recommendation.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Office of Management and Budget The Director of OMB should identify a federal entity or entities to be responsible for addressing the National Academies' recommendations for updating the methodologies used to estimate the federal social cost of carbon, including monitoring scientific research and ensuring that updates to the federal estimates consider such research as appropriate. (Recommendation 1)
Closed - Implemented
In January 2021, Executive Order 13990 established an Interagency Working Group on the Social Cost of Greenhouse Gases to be co-chaired by the Director of OMB, the Chair of the Council of Economic Advisers, and the Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy. The executive order directed the working group to publish interim social cost of carbon estimates (as well as estimates for the social cost of nitrous oxide and social cost of methane) within 30 days of issuance of the executive order and final estimates no later than January 2022. Also, the executive order directed the working group to provide recommendations no later than June 1, 2022, to revise methodologies for calculating the social cost of carbon (as well as the social cost of nitrous oxide and social cost of methane), to the extent that current methodologies do not adequately take account of climate risk, environmental justice, and intergenerational equity. The executive order directed the working group to, in carrying out its activities, consider the 2017 recommendations of the National Academies and other pertinent scientific literature, seek the advice of ethics experts, solicit public comment, engage with the public and stakeholders, and ensure that the estimates reflect the interests of future generations in avoiding threats posed by climate change. This meets the intent of our recommendation, and we consider it implemented.

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