Why taxes on carbon pollution are essential, what’s happening now, and how you can help

[P.S. See our special Climate March essay, Blueprint for Saving the World, on Salon.com!]


McDermott economy-wide charge eliminates 6x as much CO2 in 2030 as EPA power plant rule.

McDermott economy-wide charge eliminates 6x as much CO2 in 2030 as EPA power plant rule.

Earth’s climate is changing in costly and painful ways. Yet the transition from climate-damaging fossil fuels to energy efficiency renewable sunlight and wind energy is slow and halting. The biggest obstacle to clean energy is that the market prices of coal, oil and gas don’t include the true costs of carbon pollution. A robust and briskly rising U.S. carbon tax will transform energy investment and consumption and sharply reduce the carbon emissions that are driving global warming.

  • A carbon tax is an “upstream” tax on the carbon content of fossil fuels (coal, oil and natural gas) and biofuels.
  • A carbon tax is the most efficient means to instill crucial price signals that spur carbon-reducing investment. View our spreadsheet to see how fast emissions will fall at different tax levels.
  • A carbon tax will raise fossil fuel prices — that’s the point. The impact on households can be softened through “dividends” (revenue distributions) and/or reducing other taxes that discourage hiring and investing (“tax-shifting or swapping”).
  • Carbon taxing is an antidote to rigged energy pricing that helps fossil fuels destabilize earth’s climate. Unlike cap-and-trade, carbon taxes don’t create complex and easily-gamed “carbon markets” with allowances, trading and offsets.

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New EU Emission Target Outpaces U.S. — And Then Some

October 30, 2014 by Charles Komanoff Comments (1)

The European Union announced last week its intention to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases by 40% from 1990 levels by 2030. Meanwhile, the U.S. goal remains a 17% emissions cut from 2005 levels, by 2020.

Two different percentages over two different time periods. How do the EU and U.S. trajectories compare? Is the EU’s use of a 1990 baseline cheapening its goal, as some have suggested?

EU target is nearly twice as ambitious as US goal.

EU target is nearly twice as ambitious as US goal.

No, it turns out. As the graphic shows, the 27 countries making up the European Union generated slightly less CO2 in the EU’s baseline year of 1990 than in the 2005 baseline chosen by United States authorities. More importantly, after running a few numbers, we can safely report that the EU emissions objective embodies nearly twice as high a reduction rate to 2030 from 2012 (the most recent year with comparable data) as the US target: an average annual decline in emissions of 1.87% for the EU, vs. 1.02% for the United States.

To be sure, both 2030 figures are targets, nothing more. (Because the U.S. has not established a 2030 target, we extended to 2030 the annual U.S. 2005-2020 reduction rate implied by the objective of cutting emissions by 17%. Note also that all figures are carbon dioxide emissions from energy consumption only, i.e., CO2 from forestation changes or cement manufacture are excluded, as are emissions of methane and other greenhouse gases. All historical data are from a terrific on-line database compiled by the U.S. Energy Information Administration, which shows CO2 emissions for virtually every country and major region each year from 1990 through 2012.)

As for getting to those targets: The current U.S. strategy relies primarily on two elements: the EPA Clean Power Plan to cut electricity-sector emissions 30% from the 2005 level, and mandated increases in automobile fleet economy of around 60% for 2025 new vehicles vs. 2012 (though much less for bigger light trucks). While there is no single EU strategy, most if not all European eyes are on Germany, whose Energiewende (energy transition) is rapidly making over the physical and energy landscape of Europe’s powerhouse economy.

How big a carbon tax would enable the U.S. to meet its 2030 target? Assuming a linear ramp-up with annual increases equal to the starting tax rate, a national tax starting in 2015 at $5.35 per (short) ton of CO2 and rising by $5.35/ton each year would do the job, according to CTC’s carbon tax spreadsheet model. Alternatively, to accelerate the reductions to match the EU’s target trajectory, the starting and rising per-ton rates would need to be around $11.20 — coincidentally a tad less than the $11.34 per short ton (or $12.50 per metric ton) starting and annual rampup rates embodied in the McDermott Managed Carbon Price Act of 2014, and not much more than the $10 rates in Rep. John Larson’s America’s Energy Security Trust Fund Act of 2014.

Finally, consider the hassles of comparing different percentage reductions from different baseline as yet another reason to move policy discussions toward a structure that reinforces rising national carbon prices — calibrated to meet global climate stabilization goals. That’s what we hope the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP 21) will do late next year in Paris as the Kyoto Accords finally expire.

Conservatives: Unpriced Carbon Pollution is Theft — Milton Friedman Would Tax It

October 9, 2014 by James Handley Comments (3)

Free dumping of CO2 pollution into the atmosphere is nothing less than “theft” from future generations who stand to suffer from unabated global warming, declared University of Chicago economist Steve Cicala at a symposium last week in honor of the conservative icon Milton Friedman. “It is theft,” said Cicala. “That’s a loaded term, but if someone else has a better term for taking something from someone without their consent and without compensating them, I’d be happy to hear it.”

E&E News reports that Cicala and former Obama White House adviser Michael Greenstone, who holds the Friedman chair at the U. of Chicago and directs its Energy Policy Institute, asserted that “if the late free-market economist Milton Friedman were alive today, he’d probably support pricing carbon.”

Free-Market Economist Milton Friedman
Free-Market Economist Milton Friedman

According to E&E, Cicala and Greenstone argued that,

Friedman… would have viewed climate change as a negative externality associated with burning fossil fuels and would have believed that society was entitled to recover its losses from those who emit carbon to advance their economic interests… While there is a market for the products that are associated with greenhouse gas emissions — like electricity, fuel and steel — there is no market for the pollution inflicted by their manufacturers on the public.

E&E reported that,

[t]he panel was moderated by former Rep. Bob Inglis (R-S.C.), whose stance on climate change contributed to his 2010 loss in the Republican primary. He now heads the Energy and Enterprise Initiative at George Mason University. Inglis, who still describes himself as a conservative, argues that his colleagues on the right would be more receptive to the issue of climate change if there were a conservative policy model to address it. His initiative proposes a revenue-neutral carbon tax, which would return all the revenue from a levy on emissions to the public in the form of other tax cuts.

Panelists at the Oct. 8 symposium, held at the university where Friedman taught for more than three decades, stressed the importance of U.S. leadership on climate policy. They also recommended that a carbon tax include border adjustments to create incentives for other nations to adopt their own carbon pricing systems and to protect domestic energy-intensive industry from unfair competition.

Inglis isn’t the only Republican recommending carbon taxes. According to E&E,

Four U.S. EPA administrators who served under Republican presidents, former Secretary of State for President Reagan George Shultz, and Treasury Secretary for President George W. Bush Henry Paulson have all expressed support for a revenue-neutral model.

In a June 21 New York Times op-ed, Paulson urged revenue-neutral carbon taxes to address what he described as an emerging “carbon bubble”of fossil fuel assets that, he argued, are over-valued because the dire consequences of burning them may lead to restrictions on their extraction and use.

Photo: Wikipedia

Climate Advocates Need to Embrace Carbon Tax

September 22, 2014 by Charles Komanoff Comments (0)

InsideClimate News just posted this piece as a guest editorial — today’s entry in a series leading to and during Climate Week in New York City.

By Charles Komanoff • Charles Komanoff directs the Carbon Tax Center in New York.

Which is mightier—the obstacles to enacting a U.S. carbon tax, or the tax’s unique capacity to drive down global-warming emissions quickly, massively and equitably?

At the Carbon Tax Center we’ve bet on the latter. And our bet will only get better if the climate movement coalesces its advocacy and organizing around a carbon tax.

Making polluters pay to emit carbon isn’t just textbook economics and basic fairness—though it is those things. A carbon tax is the only way for the climate damage caused by burning fossil fuels to be brought inside the arc of individual and societal decision-making that determines how much of those fuels society uses and, thus, how much carbon it emits.

Our banner sagged a bit during the People's Climate March. Our message couldn't be more clear.

Our banner sagged a bit during the People’s Climate March. Our message couldn’t be more clear.

These decisions range from the immediate and quotidian: take transit vs. car, refill at the tap vs. buy bottled water; to institutional and far-reaching: build airplane frames with ultralight composites vs. aluminum, locate in town vs. on the outskirts, contract with a wind farm vs. a coal generator.

Without a tax on carbon emissions, every choice like these―and billions are made daily―will remain so rigged that fossil fuels will never yield their central position in world energy supply—or at least not fast enough to keep climate change from spiraling out of control. But a tax gives us a fighting chance to keep climate tipping points at bay and stave off global warming’s most dire effects.

Notice I said carbon tax, not “price on carbon.” Forget cap-and-trade. It’s too complicated to resonate with the public, and too prone to manipulation and gaming. Moreover, the “revealed” prices from markets in carbon permits will always be too volatile for low-carbon entrepreneurs to bank on and for treasury departments to count on.

For a carbon price to be revenue-neutral—as I believe it must to command broad and bipartisan support—the revenue it will generate from one year to the next must be reasonably predictable. That means a knowable price, which only a carbon tax provides.

Why not pursue the politically easier path of subsidizing clean energy? Empirical evidence, for one thing. As we demonstrated in a report to the Senate Finance Committee earlier this year, even a perfectly tailored subsidies regime won’t deliver half as much carbon reduction as an equivalently priced carbon tax. Not to mention that subsidies require taxpayer dollars.

What about the EPA Clean Power Plan? Ingenious and well-meaning, to be sure. But too little, too late. The cuts apply only to electricity, they’re measured against a high (2005) baseline, and the states have until 2030 to comply. These concessions, while defensible on political grounds, have whittled down the plan’s target to a mere 7 percent cut in total U.S. CO2 emissions. And even that will necessitate navigating a minefield of litigation.

Why not simply mandate ever-decreasing carbon contents in every sector of use? Standards have helped make autos and appliances far more efficient, but making them the central climate strategy would require thousands of efficiency standards, each one bitterly contested. Moreover, standards by nature are reactive and binary, which leaves huge savings untapped. Not so for a carbon tax, which incentivizes each and every investment and behavior that cuts emissions.

The “gold standard” for a carbon tax is the Managed Carbon Price Act introduced in May by Rep. Jim McDermott (D-Wash.). The tax starts modestly, at $15 per ton of carbon dioxide, but rises stepwise to pass $100 within a decade. By effectively raising the prices of every BTU of natural gas, oil and, especially, coal burned in the United States, the McDermott bill will, by our estimates, cut U.S. carbon emissions by 30 percent by its 10th year―a pace nearly seven times faster than the EPA plan.

Not only that, the McDermott bill taxes the carbon content of imports from non-taxing countries, protecting U.S. manufacturers from unfair competition while motivating other nations to tax their climate pollution. It taxes methane and other greenhouse gases at their CO2 climate-change equivalents. And it returns every dollar of tax revenues to individuals as pro rata dividends—a simple but profound design that just might placate conservatives and other fiscal hawks. This “fee and dividend” revenue treatment will buffer two-thirds of U.S. households, including most low-income families, from the energy price increases the tax will entail. (Rep. John Larson’s America’s Energy Security Trust Fund Act of 2014 also specifies a robustly rising, revenue-neutral emissions tax.)

If the biggest block to game-changing climate legislation has been the fossil fuel-funded denialist movement, the timidity of climate advocates about carbon taxing may qualify as the runner-up. But as yesterday’s big march in New York City showed, the climate movement is rising and the American public may finally be stirring. Time is dreadfully short. Whatever qualms we’ve had about the t-a-x word must yield to opportunity and reality.

Is the rift between Nordhaus and Stern evaporating with rising temperatures?

August 21, 2014 by Charles Komanoff Comments (1)

Lead author of this joint post is Peter Howard, Economic Fellow at the Institute for Policy Integrity at New York University School of Law.

The political task of enacting carbon taxes ­― and maintaining those in place ― has proven so daunting that questions of the tax’s appropriate level have gotten short shrift. Carbon tax advocates do not often discuss: How high is the optimal carbon tax? Along what trajectory should it increase over time? What, if anything, can climate science tell us about the right carbon tax to aim for?

Prof. William D. Nordhaus, Yale University

Prof. William D. Nordhaus, Yale University

In the academic realm, the distinguished Yale economist and public intellectual William Nordhaus has taken a leading role in the discussion. Nordhaus first modeled energy-economy interactions in the 1970s, and since the early 1990s successive versions of his Dynamic Integrated model of Climate and the Economy, or DICE model, have been used to estimate costs and benefits of carbon mitigation strategies in one prestigious report after another ― most recently in the Fifth Assessment Report by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

Given Nordhaus’s concerns over global warming, reflected in his ongoing repudiations of climate change denialists as well as his impatience with cap-and-trade schemes, it has been jarring for some to see him advocate for a relatively low carbon tax. In his 2008 book, A Question of Balance, which relied on the 2007 version of DICE, Nordhaus proposed a year-2005 starting price of just $8 (U.S.) per short ton of CO2 (from his Table 5-4, adjusted to 2012 dollars and recalibrated from metric to short tons and from C to CO2), which would then take two decades to double and another 30 years to double again.

Nicholas Stern (Baron Stern of Brentford)

Nicholas Stern (Baron Stern of Brentford)

In contrast, the Carbon Tax Center and its allies at the Citizens Climate Lobby have long advocated a steeper, stepwise ramp-up, with an initial price of around $10 per ton of CO2 followed by annual increases of the same magnitude for at least a decade and perhaps much longer. This policy recommendation is more in line with the views of Nicholas Stern ― lead author of the Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change (2006) ― who argues that strong climate policies are necessary immediately to forestall large future damages from global warming. In the past, Nordhaus (along with several other economists) disregarded these findings based on the low discount rate assumed in the report.

Recently, however, this difference in opinion between the Nordhaus and Stern camps with regards to policy (though not discount rate assumptions) has lessened. Using the latest version of the Nordhaus model, DICE-2013, Nordhaus finds an optimal initial (2015) carbon price of approximately $21 per short ton of CO2 in 2012 U.S. dollars (a near tripling from DICE-2007). Moreover, the optimal tax according to Nordhaus rises more rapidly over time as compared to DICE-2007.[1] A tax of this amount would restrict the average global temperature increase to approximately 3 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.[2]

As economist and NY Times columnist Paul Krugman noted in his review of Nordhaus’s 2013 book, The Climate Casino,even Nordhaus seems surprised by his finding that both the international consensus of a 2 °C limit and the carbon tax necessary to achieve it are nearly economically rational.[3] And given that DICE-2013 fails to account for climate tipping points (as Nordhaus himself notes), an even lower temperature limit and higher carbon tax are justifiable.

Stern has now taken this recent scholarship a step further. In a June paper co-authored with economist Simon Dietz, Stern demonstrates that the DICE framework can support an even stronger mitigation effort than the latest Nordhaus specification of the model.Their paper, “Endogenous growth, convexity of damages and climate risk: how Nordhaus’ framework supports deep cuts in carbon emissions” (co-published by the Centre for Climate Change Economics and Policy as Working Paper No. 180, and by the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment as Working Paper No. 159), is not a rehash of the Stern-Nordhaus dispute over discounting. Rather, the paper accepts Nordhaus’s choice of discount rate for argument’s sake but modifies the 2010 edition of Nordhaus’s model in three critical ways. Read more…

One Cheer for a New “Cap-and-Dividend” Bill

July 30, 2014 by Charles Komanoff Comments (12)

If you believe that the best policy for cutting U.S. carbon emissions — and the easiest political sell — is “cap-and-dividend,” you’re loving a NY Times op-ed keyed to a bill being introduced today by Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD).

Van Hollen’s Healthy Climate and Family Security Act of 2014 would (i) create a permit system covering CO2 emissions for all fossil fuels extracted or brought into the U.S., (ii) auction off permits equaling U.S. emissions in 2005, (iii) ratchet down the number of permits by 80% by 2050, and (iv) distribute all of the proceeds “to the American people as equal dividends for every woman, man and child,” according to the op-ed, entitled The Carbon Dividend.

CTC finds that a 100% carbon-dividend will improve finances for 65% of U.S. households, not for 80%.

CTC finds that a 100% carbon-dividend will improve finances for 65% of U.S. households, not for 80%.

A bill structured like that is fairly ambitious, and it’s good to see it submitted to Congress alongside the McDermott Managed Carbon Price Act of 2014 introduced two months ago on May 28. (Our write-up of the McDermott bill is here.) And the Times op-ed, by U-Mass economics professor James Boyce, is written with unusual grace and persuasiveness, especially at the start:

From the scorched earth of climate debates a bold idea is rising — one that just might succeed in breaking the nation’s current political impasse on reducing carbon emissions. That’s because it would bring tangible gains for American families here and now.

A major obstacle to climate policy in the United States has been the perception that the government is telling us how to live today in the name of those who will live tomorrow. Present-day pain for future gain is never an easy sell. And many Americans have a deep aversion to anything that smells like bigger government.

What if we could find a way to put more money in the pockets of families and less carbon in the atmosphere without expanding government? If the combination sounds too good to be true, read on.

That’s terrific writing, and smartly keyed to the compelling theme that climate policy need not be sacrificial or a greased path to so-called big government. Read more…