Christopher Knittel has held a number of titles at MIT. Among them: Professor of Applied Economics at the Sloan School of Management … George P. Shultz Professor of Energy Economics … Director of the Center for Energy and Environmental Policy Research (CEEPR) … Co-Director of the Low-Carbon Energy Center for Electric Power Systems at the MIT Energy Initiative (MITEI). Now he adds another: Deputy Director for Policy at MITEI.
This is a new position at MITEI, MIT’s hub for energy research, education, and outreach. “This is a big step for a place like MIT, which has the word ‘technology’ in its title,” says Knittel. “The focus of solutions in a technology school like MIT is often on technology. But policy has to play a big role, if not a bigger role, in the solution to climate change.”
Knittel assumed the policy role at MITEI in summer 2021, and he has embraced it. “What has me excited about working on policy at MITEI is to think about how all the great technologies being researched and developed at MIT might play a role in solving climate change—if the right incentive structure through policy is in place.”
“As the urgency of the climate crisis grows, we need every tool at our disposal to help make the energy transition and ease the warming of our planet,” says MITEI Director and Chevron Professor of Chemical Engineering Robert C. Armstrong. “Chris Knittel is such an important policy voice—who can help us craft the new and innovative climate and energy policies we need to pursue rapidly to protect our planet.”
Knittel arrived at MIT in 2011 from the University of California (UC), Davis, where he was associate professor of economics. He is a product of the California state university system. He earned his BA in economics and political science from the California State University, Stanislaus; his MA in economics from UC Davis; and his PhD in economics from UC Berkeley. He maintains a strong California connection: He co-directs the E2e Project, a research initiative founded by UC Berkeley and MIT to undertake rigorous evaluation of energy efficiency investments.
A central focus of Knittel’s research is carbon pricing. “Fundamentally,” he says, “solving climate change and all other environmental issues is a policy problem—in that it is often free to put pollution in the air. While economists focus on pricing pollution directly, we also admit that pricing might not be the outcome of the political process. So, a lot of economics research and policy research wants to understand what those trade-offs are. How much more expensive will it be to do it through some other means, such as a clean energy standard? And, how can we design these alternatives in such a way to limit their unintended consequences? It’s not my job necessarily to advocate for any policy. It’s my job to tell policy makers if you do a pollution tax, this will happen. If you do policy X instead, that will happen.”
Knittel sees his role as policy researcher and analyst. That doesn’t mean he can’t see the value in one solution over another. “Sometimes I have to catch myself,” he says. “I try not to advocate for a carbon tax. I try to educate policy makers that that’s necessary if we want to reduce greenhouse gases in the cheapest way possible. But I’m also happy if a policy maker comes to me and says, ‘I’m thinking about this policy, but I want to understand all the trade-offs and all the advantages and disadvantages and who the winners and losers will be. Can you help me analyze that policy?’ And I’m game to do that.”
Knittel is not a dispassionate economist. He exudes purposeful devotion to MITEI and its mission to help the planet achieve net-zero carbon emissions. He is an advocate for diversity, equity, and inclusion in his work; for environmental justice; and for solving the world’s energy poverty issues. “I worry constantly about how we’re going to decarbonize and not leave people behind based on social or economic status or racial identity,” he says. “How do places like India, China, and the countries of Africa decarbonize and still grow their economies? So many people don’t have the luxury we do to worry about decarbonization. So many are worried about the next meal on their plate. The right solution in the U.S. might be very different from the right solution in countries with developing economies.”
Knittel’s concerns about equity are borne out in the body of his research. A major study in 2020, Distributed Effects of Climate Policy: A Machine Learning Approach, written with Tomas W. Green of the nonprofit Energy Futures Initiative, highlighted the regressivity of climate standards and articulated a pathway to allow a carbon-tax-and-dividend program to have a positive policy and climate impact without punishing the lower income groups. Knittel and Green wrote that “allowing household dividends to depend on certain readily observable features of the household allows policy makers to protect certain vulnerable populations.” Knittel’s policy work seeks to reduce carbon emissions, address climate change, and protect the incomes of families.
“Policy has always played an important role in our work at MITEI,” says MITEI Executive Director Martha Broad. “Never more so than now. As local, national, and international efforts grow in urgency and scope to address climate change, the importance of well-crafted policies—to harness new energy technologies—grows as well. MITEI’s new deputy director for policy—Chris Knittel—is helping us advance policies to strategically address the climate crisis.”
This article appears in the Autumn 2021 issue of Energy Futures.
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