See how a carbon tax works and why taxing carbon pollution must be the central policy to combat climate change:

Earth’s climate is changing in costly and painful ways. 2014 was the globe’s hottest year on record, and the dozen warmest have all come after 1997, as this graphic shows all too clearly.

Globe not warming? Look again.
Globe not warming? Look again. CO2 from fossil fuel-burning not the cause? Click here.

Yet the transition from climate-damaging fossil fuels to energy efficiency, renewable sunlight and wind energy is slow and halting. The Number One obstacle is that the market prices of coal, oil and gas don’t include the true costs of carbon pollution. A briskly rising U.S. carbon tax will transform energy investment, re-shape consumption, and sharply reduce the carbon emissions that are driving global warming.

  • A carbon tax is an “upstream” tax on the carbon contents 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. Download our spreadsheet (Excel file) to input your own tax levels and see how fast U.S. emissions will fall.
  • 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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Bipartisan Plaudits for Rep. Delaney’s “Tax Pollution, Not Profits Act”

August 12, 2015 by James Handley Comments (0)

If any climate legislation could garner at least nominal bipartisan support, it might be Rep. John Delaney’s Tax Pollution, Not Profits Act. Delaney is in his second term representing Maryland’s 6th CD, which runs from the DC suburbs to the western end of the state. His proposal, introduced on Earth Day at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, would tax carbon dioxide and CO2 equivalents from methane and other sources at a rate of $30 per metric ton, increasing annually at 4% above inflation. The measure includes border tax adjustments to protect energy-intensive domestic industry from unfair competition from nations that haven’t enacted carbon taxes.

Rep. Delaney

Rep. John Delaney (D-MD)

Delaney’s measure offers a sweetener to conservatives: a promise to apply roughly half of carbon tax revenues to reduce the top corporate income tax rate from 35% to 28%. The bill would also provide monthly payments to low- and middle-income households and fund job training, early retirement and health care benefits for coal workers. At least as critically, at the AEI unveiling, Delaney committed near-apostasy by suggesting that his carbon tax could substitute for the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan, final regulations for which EPA issued last month.

The Carbon Tax Center assessed the Delaney proposal’s effectiveness using our 7-sector model. We project that in its third full year the measure’s $30 price would reduce U.S. CO2 emissions to 8% below emissions in the year before enactment. Unfortunately, its schedule of 4% annual real rises is too tepid to continue reducing emissions more than fractionally over the longer term. The low upward price trajectory is a shortcoming shared by the American Opportunity Carbon Fee Act, introduced by Senators Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) and Brian Schatz (D-HI) in June.

In contrast, carbon tax proposals introduced in this Congress by Rep. John Larson (D-CT) and Rep. James McDermott (D-WA) would rise briskly to exceed $100 per metric ton within a decade, which we estimate would reduce U.S. emissions below this year’s levels by more than one-fourth in that time (and by nearly a third below 2005 emissions).

In an online discussion forum hosted by, Rep. Delaney asked for comments on his proposal. Below, we group and summarize those comments.

1) Prominent commenters from both major political parties suggested replacing EPA regulations, existing energy mandates and subsidies with a carbon tax.

In a possible harbinger of bipartisan agreement, both Joe Aldy, former Obama energy adviser and Associate Professor of Public Policy at Harvard and Catrina Rorke, Director of Energy Policy & Senior Fellow for the conservative R Street Institute, expressed strong support for Rep. Delaney’s suggestion to replace EPA’s Clean Power Plan with a carbon tax.

Aldy wrote:

“[A] meaningful, economy wide carbon tax would obviate the need for many if not all greenhouse gas regulatory options. A carbon tax would deliver more cost-effective and efficient emission reductions and promote innovation more effectively than the Clean Air Act regulatory authority, as well as avoid some of the potential legal and political pitfalls and administrative costs of regulations. Exchanging regulatory authority for a carbon tax could also improve the political viability of taxing carbon dioxide emissions.

Rorke remarked:

[Rep. Delaney’s proposal] could open the way for conservatives to enact a host of policies they already support… [W]ith a carbon tax, we can remove EPA’s regulatory authority to use the CAA for climate policy and eliminate the expensive, invasive and sprawling CPP… The Renewable Fuel Standard is an enormous market intrusion that does a better job of supporting corn prices than reducing greenhouse gas emissions. CAFE standards for the automotive fleet are prescriptive intrusions into the automotive market that limit consumers’ ability to purchase larger, less-efficient vehicles; a carbon price could achieve those same emissions reductions without eliminating consumer choice.

Tax incentives and subsidies also should be on the table. We spend tens of billions of dollars a year subsidizing energy sources across the board. If our aim is a diverse, lower-carbon electric supply, we can eliminate those expenditures. Loan guarantees intended to help companies commercialize technology… would be inexcusable under a carbon-tax regime. The research and development juggernaut at DOE can be pointed to significant and meaningful advancement in energy technology, not incremental improvements in proven and commercialized technologies.

Read more…


“Clean Fuels” vs. Carbon Tax in the Pacific Northwest

August 5, 2015 by Matt Gordon Comments (1)

Even in ecologically-minded Washington and Oregon, states where voters want government action on climate change, a divide among environmentalists threatens to undermine progress on the issue. A Carbon Washington ballot initiative to create a statewide carbon tax is gaining momentum, as we wrote last month. Yet several environmental groups are attacking the proposal as politically infeasible and socially regressive.

Instead, state and regional groups like Climate Solutions and the Alliance for Jobs and Clean Energy are pushing “clean” fuels standards. Their proposal, patterned on regulations in California and British Columbia, would mandate a mere 10% drop in the carbon intensity of transportation fuels over 10 years ― a small fraction of the deep reductions needed.

The carbon tax sought by Carbon Washington would cut emissions 4-5 times as much as the proposed WA Clean Fuels Standard (Source: CTAM).

The carbon tax sought by Carbon Washington would cut CO2 4-5 times as much as the proposed WA Clean Fuels Standard (Source: CTAM).

Their course is difficult to fathom. Carbon taxes would cut emissions more and cost less than clean fuels regulations. And dividing environmentalists in order to pursue a lesser policy makes no sense strategically. Here are three reasons why a clean fuels standard doesn’t stack up:

1. Clean fuels standards won’t be effective

A model used by the Washington State Department of Commerce allows us to compare projected emissions reductions from the clean fuels standard with the carbon tax proposed by Carbon Washington in a measure known as I-732. (The tax would start at $10/ton of CO2, rise to $25 in year two, then increase 3.5% annually plus inflation.)

The 10% clean fuels standard would lower overall Washington CO2 emissions only 4% by 2040, not even a quarter as much as the 18% reduction projected from the I-732 carbon tax.

The reason is simple: a clean fuels standard only attacks emissions from the supply side of one sector, albeit an important one, transportation. In contrast, a carbon tax works across the entire economy, influencing every carbon-related decision about both supply and demand in every sector ― manufacturing, heating, electricity, etc. This means that, while a clean fuels standard only affects the carbon content of liquid fuels, a carbon tax also incentivizes less fuel usage, period. This transforms economies, cutting pollution and congestion through a vast array of actions encompassing urban density, freight logistics, walking, cycling, transit, and more mindful decision making.

clean fuels transport graph _ snippedIn short, the difference in emissions between a carbon tax and a clean fuels standard is the difference between a society that takes current levels of automobile dependence as a given, and one that seeks to support a myriad of ways to transition to something different.

2. Clean fuels standards are more expensive

The Oregon Environmental Council writes:

The Clean Fuels Program costs the state virtually nothing. The burden of responsibility for reducing pollution is placed on the oil industry.

This conspicuously ignores how the oil industry passes down its costs of compliance to consumers in the form of higher prices. The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) has said gas prices will rise between 4 and 19 cents per gallon. An industry lobby group, the Western States Petroleum Association, is garnering support to repeal clean fuels by highlighting this not-so-hidden price increase.

Consumers aren’t stupid, they generally realize more regulations mean higher prices. A carbon tax raises fossil fuel prices too, of course ― that’s the point; but the revenue it generates can be disbursed to consumers as income or sales tax cuts, or via a straight-up “dividend” check, as Oregon Climate has proposed. Read more…


Transformational It’s Not: Running the Numbers on Obama’s Latest Climate Regs

August 3, 2015 by Charles Komanoff Comments (3)

Notwithstanding the hype in the New York Times — “the strongest action ever taken in the United States to combat climate change,” “an aggressive plan to sharply limit greenhouse gases” — the final version of the US EPA “Clean Power Plan” being released today at the White House by President Obama actually constitutes a marked slowdown in reductions in electricity-sector emissions.

According to published reports, the administration plan calls for a 32% reduction in U.S. power-sector CO2 emissions in 2030, relative to actual 2005 power-sector emissions. That’s slightly more ambitious than the 30% reduction envisioned in the initial Clean Power Plan released in June 2014. Since 2005 power-sector emissions were 2,413 million metric tons (MMT), the targeted 32% reduction would be 772 MMT, or 7% of total projected U.S. emissions (from all sectors) of 5,684 MMT (projected by CTC in the absence of a U.S. carbon pollution price).

Emissions will fall 40% more slowly, under the Clean Power Plan rules released today.

Emissions will fall 40% more slowly, under the Clean Power Plan rules released today.

Nearly half of that reduction has already been achieved, however. Actual 2014 U.S. power-sector emissions were 2,038 MMT, or 375 MMT less than the 2005 baseline level of 2,413 MMT. Expressed on an annual average basis, power-sector emissions of CO2 fell during 2005-2014 by 42 million metric tons a year.

To fulfill the total 772 MMT 2005-2030 reduction target, the “remaining” 2014-2030 reduction in power-sector emissions need only be 397 MMT. The implied annual rate of reduction over the next 16 years is just 25 million metric tons a year. That’s 40% less than the actual annual 2005-2014 reduction rate in power-sector emissions of 42 MMT per year.

It is probably true that we’re not likely to see a repeat of two factors that contributed to the 2005-2014 reduction in power-sector emissions — the long and deep recession that began in 2007-2008, and the advent of cheap fracked methane that grabbed market share from higher-polluting coal-fired generation. But two other emissions-reducing phenomena remain in full swing: ongoing cost reductions in carbon-free wind and solar photovoltaic power, and the harnessing of both digital tech and new business models to boost energy efficiency in buildings, appliances and businesses.

In this light, it seems premature, if not downright bizarre, to bestow “legacy status” on a plan that targets just one sector (albeit a key one), and that settles for cutting emissions in that sector at a lesser pace than the rate at which they’ve already been falling for a decade.


Feeling the Heat: A Carbon Tax Gains Grassroots Momentum in Washington State

July 16, 2015 by Matt Gordon Comments (1)

Seattle on the summer solstice. Crowds line Fremont Avenue in anticipation of the annual parade of naked bicyclists. Carbon Washington co-director Kyle Murphy is giving a pep talk to a group of volunteers that includes idealistic college students, veteran environmentalists, and former Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn.

“You’re simply offering them the opportunity to participate in the democratic process. You don’t need to persuade anyone, just give them a chance to say yes.”

Seattle, June 2015: Petitioning for Carbon Washington.

Seattle, June 2015: Petitioning for Carbon Washington.

I’m helping Carbon Washington (CW) collect signatures for Measure I-732, which would put a carbon tax on the state ballot in 2016. In general, people want to participate. Almost no one turns me down. I pass out multiple signature sheets as parade-goers fumble for pens. I’m talking to eight people at once, even while competing with the naked bikers for attention. A record-breaking drought is setting the stage for a long wildfire season, and climate change is already on everyone’s mind. In a single afternoon we collect more than 1,500 signatures.

The appeal of CW’s proposal is rooted in its overarching simplicity. Polluters pay, everyone else benefits. The measure would put a price on carbon emissions, forcing fossil fuel companies to internalize some of the social and environmental externalities of their business. The tax starts at $15 per ton of CO2, rises to $25 in year two, and then increases at 3.5% plus inflation annually. This long and steady increase will drive down CO2 emissions in the state.

Emissions would fall more if Washington's power wasn't nearly all hydro. (Source: CTAM model)

Emissions would fall more if Washington’s power wasn’t nearly all hydro. (Source: CTAM model)

The tax is revenue neutral to appeal to conservatives. It uses the expected $1.7 billion in annual revenue to overhaul Washington State’s notoriously regressive tax code. Most of the money goes to lower the state sales tax from 6.5% to 5.5%. The 3.5% annual increase in the carbon tax is designed to carefully offset the rising value of the sales tax reduction, so that the measure stays revenue-neutral for 40 years. Another $200 million a year is used to fund the Working Families Rebate – an extension of the federal Earned Income Tax Credit. These two pieces make I-732 the state’s most progressive tax legislation since groceries were exempted from sales taxes in 1977.

The third element of CW’s plan takes $200M to eliminate the state’s Business & Occupation tax on manufacturers. The intent is to make the state’s businesses more competitive and cushion any job losses due to the tax. The average manufacturer will pay in carbon taxes close to what it will gain from the elimination of the B&O tax. Unlike the B&O tax, however, carbon taxes do not increase as the business grows – as long as it can grow without increasing its carbon emissions.

Still, Carbon Washington faces high hurdles. A ballot initiative requires 246,372 signatures – 8% of the votes cast for governor in the most recent election. Since up to one-quarter of signatures fail the verification process, CW is aiming for 315,000. Successful initiatives, like a Michael Bloomberg-financed gun-control measure that passed in 2014, have needed to raise around a million dollars to reach that threshold. Carbon Washington is hoping to rely on an extensive volunteer network to do it for less than half the price. Still, more funding and volunteers are needed.

Measure I-732 steers revenues to households and manufacturers.

Measure I-732 steers revenues to households and manufacturers.

Assuming CW succeeds, it’ll have to defend its proposal on the ballot against the inevitable onslaught of Koch-funded interest groups. Some other environmental groups are skeptical that Washingtonians will vote for a proposal that openly uses the dreaded ‘T’ word. Climate Solutions, a regional organization, threw its weight behind Governor Jay Inslee’s cap-and-trade proposal. Despite attempts to appeal to Republicans, including a carve-out for the state’s only coal plant, that proposal failed to gain traction in the legislature. Climate Solutions isn’t backing CW’s proposal, afraid to lose what will surely be a big fight.

Yet if the conversations I had were any indication, Washingtonians are receptive. They have an example to their north, in British Columbia, of a successful and popular carbon tax, so oil industry scare tactics may prove less effective with voters. In polls, support varies between 30% and 60%, depending on how the issue is framed. Victory will be determined by whether enough voters can be educated about the proposal. By talking to voters and collecting signatures one at a time, Carbon Washington is getting a head start.


Here’s What’s New in CTC’s Carbon Tax Spreadsheet Model

June 27, 2015 by Charles Komanoff Comments (0)

We’ve just posted an update to our spreadsheet model — our powerful but easy-to-use tool for predicting future emissions and revenues from possible U.S. carbon taxes. We say taxes, plural, because the model accepts any carbon tax trajectory you feed it and spits out estimated nationwide emission reductions and revenue generation, year by year. Here’s a rundown of what’s new in the update.

1. A year of new data: The most obvious change is the addition of 2014 baseline data on energy use, CO2 emissions and emission intensity for each of the model’s seven sectors.

Our spreadsheet model lets you compare different carbon tax trajectories.

Our spreadsheet model lets you compare different carbon tax trajectories.

2. Smoothing the carbon tax impact: A new feature lets users smooth the impact of the tax to reflect real-world lags in households’ and businesses’ adaptation to more-expensive fossil fuels. (You get to set the adaptation “ceiling” rate; any excess gets carried over to future years.) This feature is helpful for trajectories like the Whitehouse-Schatz bill, whose rate starts with a bang at $45 per ton of carbon dioxide but then rises only slowly. Under our default setting, the reductions from the $45/ton initial charge are spread over four years rather than, unrealistically, assigned to the first year.

3. Future baseline is calibrated to official forecast: We tweaked a few model parameters to make our 2040 emissions forecast without a carbon tax match the analogous forecast in the Energy Information Administration’s “Annual Energy Outlook.” This allows for apples-to-apples comparisons with other models that are explicitly calibrated to the EIA/AEO forecast.

Read more…