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.

Latest from the Blog:

New Senate Bill Would Build “Polluter Pays” Principle into Climate Action

November 19, 2014 by Charles Komanoff Comments (3)

(co-authored with CTC senior policy analyst James Handley)

Sheldon Whitehouse gained renown last year for his series of weekly “Time To Wake Up” speeches on the Senate floor addressing the climate crisis. Today, the Democratic Senator from Rhode Island took his climate leadership further as he introduced a comprehensive bill intended to end free dumping of climate pollution into the atmosphere. (Click here for video of the senator’s 80th speech, introducing his bill.)

Whitehouse calls his 30-page measure, which is co-sponsored by Democratic Senator Brian Schatz of Hawaii, the “American Opportunity Carbon Fee Act.” It builds squarely on the growing consensus that clean energy will rapidly and fully displace fossil fuels only when polluters are made to pay for causing climate damage. AOCFA would impose fees on both CO2 and non-CO2 greenhouse gases including fugitive methane from shale gas wells and coal mines. AOCFA also includes a border tax adjustment to impose equivalent climate pollution fees on imported goods from nations that have not enacted their own climate pollution fees. (Click here for background on border tax adjustments.)

AOCFA pegs its pollution fee to U.S. EPA’s estimate of the “social cost of carbon.” The fee would start at EPA’s current estimate of that cost, now $42 for each ton of carbon dioxide, and would rise by 2% annually in real terms. Emissions of methane and other greenhouse gases would be charged in proportion to their estimated per-unit global warming impacts relative to carbon dioxide.

The Senator’s office estimates that AOCFA would raise $2 billion in revenue in its first ten years, money that would fund an “American Opportunity Trust Fund” to be returned to the American people in as many as nine different ways including tax cuts, dividends, infrastructure investments and debt relief. E&E News reporter Jean Chemnick wrote today that the bill “leaves open the question of how those revenues would be spent as an invitation for would-be Republican collaborators to negotiate.”

Sen. Whitehouse’s decision to link his bill’s climate pollution fees to the social cost of carbon could be problematic, however. Published estimates of the social cost of carbon vary from as little as $10 per equivalent ton of CO2 to over $300, depending on what is counted as climate damage, what discount rate is assumed to convert future losses to present terms, and how heavily if at all catastrophic risk scenarios are factored in. And while hitching the pollution fee to the EPA social-cost estimate may resonate with some stakeholders, it could limit the level of the carbon tax and, thus, its ability to drive down U.S. emissions rapidly enough, let alone global emissions.

After a rapid drop due to the bill's aggressive starting price, emissions would stabilize instead of declining further, on account of the low price trajectory.

After a rapid drop due to the bill’s aggressive starting price, emissions would stabilize instead of declining further, on account of the low price trajectory.

Indeed, we ran the Whitehouse bill through the Carbon Tax Center’s 7-sector price-elasticity spreadsheet model and found both good news and bad. The proposed starting price of $42 per ton of CO2 would quickly reduce US emissions by about 15%. (Though our graph shows the full drop occurring immediately, the decline would actually materialize over several years due to lags in behavioral and equipment changes.) But the bill’s subsequent 2% annual real price increases would serve only to offset the rising emission tide due to increased affluence, resulting in essentially flat emissions rather than a declining curve. Read more…

25% by 2025 Can’t Happen Without a Carbon Price

November 12, 2014 by Charles Komanoff Comments (1)

Today’s welcome announcement of a surprise U.S.-China agreement to curb greenhouse gas emissions almost certainly commits the United States to a national carbon price. Non-pricing measures, such as the EPA Clean Power Plan to cut power plant emissions and the ramp-up of auto fuel economy standards now underway, won’t be nearly enough by themselves to meet the new U.S. target of 25% lower emissions by 2025 vis-a-vis a 2005 baseline, according to calculations by the Carbon Tax Center.

This could be terrific news for carbon tax proponents, since it would finally require climate-concerned organizations and officials to put carbon pricing — preferably in the form of a revenue-neutral carbon tax — at the heart of their climate agenda. On the other hand, given the new Congressional ascendancy of the climate-deaf Republican Party, the 25% target could prove to be just another climate goal scuttled by U.S. political resistance.

Let’s start with the carbon emission numbers, which we’ve broken down between emissions from electricity generation, which account for around 40% of U.S. CO2 pollution, and emissions from the various “non-electric” sectors like automobiles, goods movement, air travel, industry and heating, which account for the other 60%. This division is useful for at least two reasons: there’s much greater maneuverability in electricity due to the relative ease of substituting clean sources like solar and wind for dirty coal and gas, and the U.S. already has an emissions goal for the electricity sector: the 30% reduction by 2030 (from 2005) embodied in the Clean Power Plan announced by President Obama this past June.

Non-electric-sector emissions will need to drop sharply to meet the 25% 2005-2025 reduction goal.

Non-electric-sector emissions will need to drop sharply to meet the 25% 2005-2025 reduction goal.

The key numbers are shown in the graphic. A 2025 target equaling 75% of actual 2005 CO2 emissions of 5,855 million tonnes (metric tons) from all U.S. sources equates to 4,391 million tonnes. With that figure established, let’s switch our reference frame to current (2013) emissions, which were 5,317 million tonnes. (All figures are from CTC’s carbon tax model, and some may differ from recently released official U.S. emission figures, but only slightly.)

The difference between 2013 emissions (5,317 million tonnes) and 2025-targeted emissions (4,391 million tonnes) is 926 million tonnes. That’s a 17.4% drop over just a dozen years. The questions are: where in the U.S. economy will these reductions take place, and how will they come about? Read more…

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

October 30, 2014 by Charles Komanoff Comments (3)

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. Read more…

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.