Why taxes on carbon pollution are essential,
what’s happening now, and how you can help
A string of extreme weather events, topped by Superstorm Sandy last fall, bring the message home: Earth’s climate is changing in costly and painful ways. Yet we’ve barely started transitioning from fossil fuels to renewable energy and efficiency. Why not? Because price signals are too weak. The prices of fossil fuels don’t come close to reflecting their true costs, which puts clean efficiency and renewables at a stark disadvantage. A robust and briskly rising U.S. carbon tax will reduce the emissions that are driving global warming and generate revenue to pay for cutting regressive taxes that thwart job-creation.
- A carbon tax is a direct tax on the carbon content of fossil fuels (coal, oil and natural gas).
- A carbon tax is the most economically efficient means to convey crucial price signals that spur carbon-reducing investment. Our spreadsheet shows how fast emissions will fall.
- Carbon taxes should be phased in so businesses and households have time to adapt.
- A carbon tax can be structured to soften the impacts of added costs by distributing tax revenues to households (“dividends”) or reducing other taxes (“tax-shifting”).
- Support for a carbon tax is growing steadily among public officials; economists; scientists; policy experts; business, religious, and environmental leaders; and ordinary citizens.
We invite you to learn more about carbon taxing (a good start is this recent point/counterpoint in Today’s General Counsel magazine between Carbon Tax Center director Charles Komanoff and a top fossil fuel industry lobbyist) and to share your thoughts. Click here to sign a petition and write your Congressmember saying you agree that setting a direct price on carbon pollution is essential to address the climate crisis.
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12/6/2013 by Charles Komanoff
This post, co-written with Alex Matthiessen and published in the Huffington Post over Thanksgiving (2013), is reproduced here with a handful of minor changes. Alex, a CTC board member, is president and founder of Blue Marble Project, Inc., an environmental consulting firm.
Small beer is perhaps too kind a term for the prosaic proposals being batted around by New York Governor Andrew M. Cuomo’s tax reform commission: close loopholes, broaden the base, modernize collection of property taxes, stop taxing retirement income. Little about restructuring taxes to help New York State businesses create new jobs and give hard-pressed working families a break. And nothing about tax reform that could establish New York as a leader in curbing climate change.
Yet one possible reform, a carbon tax swap, can do all of the above — and is already being used successfully in other countries. With whole sections of the Philippines in ruins from Typhoon Haiyan, and the Warsaw global climate talks ending in tatters, the governor’s tax commission needs to go long and put a carbon tax swap at the top of its pending report.
Author Komanoff (foreground) hauling supplies to hurricane-stricken Far Rockaway, Nov. 10, 2012.
What’s a carbon tax swap? It’s revenue-neutral tax reform in which a new fee collected on the carbon content of fossil fuels lets the state slash existing taxes that hamstring businesses and make it hard for middle class New Yorkers to make ends meet.
Albany wouldn’t keep a dime under the swap. Instead, taxes that stifle enterprise would be replaced by a fee on polluting fossil fuels that would motivate businesses and homeowners to accelerate the transition to clean energy.
One obvious candidate for tax relief is the state sales tax, which adds four cents onto each dollar spent on goods and services from Buffalo to Babylon. (Localities tack on another three to five cents.) NY State’s average combined rate, the country’s eighth highest, exerts a double drag on commerce, driving purchases — and businesses — out of state and cutting into households’ buying power.
A statewide carbon tax on oil, gas and coal used in vehicles, buildings, industry and power generation of $20 per ton of carbon dioxide — the equivalent of 19 cents per gallon of gasoline — would net $3.5 billion a year. With this revenue, legislators could reduce the state sales tax from 4 percent to 3 percent. Plus, there would still be $500 million to invest each year to finance storm-related infrastructure and help building-owners finance climate-friendly solar power systems.
Alternatively, the new revenue could pay down business taxes that place New York in the bottom 10 percent of Forbes‘ rankings of state business climates. Abolishing one such tax, the $2.7 billion corporation franchise tax, would give companies much-needed administrative and financial relief, and help attract businesses and jobs to New York.
Yes, the carbon tax will make electricity, gasoline and other fuels more expensive. That’s by design. But less-affluent families use less energy than average and thus will bear less of the burden. Meanwhile, upstate hydropower, which is carbon-free, will be exempt from the tax, offsetting many rural residents’ greater usage of gasoline and heating fuels. (New York City residents have smaller homes and drive less.) A reduction of the sales tax would disproportionately benefit lower-income family, thus mitigating further the impact of the swap on working families.
How much would a $20-per-ton carbon tax reduce New York’s emissions? Around 6 to 8 percent. While that’s barely a tenth of what most climate scientists believe must be the nationwide emissions-reduction target for 2050, it would constitute a strong start toward a 100 percent clean-energy economy for New York. It would also create a template that other states could follow, especially if, as some climate-policy specialists suggest, U.S. EPA lets states use carbon taxes to meet national carbon-pollution reduction standards.
A year ago, Hurricane Sandy made the devastating reality of climate change painfully clear to 20 million New Yorkers from Gov. Cuomo on down, as well as other Americans. Yet Congress has proven incapable of enacting even a single meaningful measure to mitigate it. On climate, as with marriage equality, the states will have to show the way.
Now the governor’s tax-reform push gives him the chance to provide national leadership on how states, with a single policy instrument, can start delivering both tax and climate relief to their people.
Click here for a 6-page brief backing up most of the tax-swap figures in this post. Go to CTC’s “States” Web page for info on how advocates in Oregon, Washington and elsewhere are working to advance state-level carbon taxes.
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10/20/2013 by James Handley
A new paper, “Deficit Reduction and Carbon Taxes: Budgetary, Economic, and Distributional Impacts” by economists at the Washington, DC think-tank Resources for the Future, finds that a $30/ton tax on CO2 pollution would reduce U.S. emissions 16% by 2025. The report concludes that dedicating the carbon tax revenues, estimated at $200 billion each year, to “down payment” of the federal budget deficit offers greater economic-efficiency benefits than other revenue-return options. Moreover, according to RFF, using the carbon tax revenues to pay down the deficit would especially benefit the young, by curbing global warming and its associated future costs, and by reducing tax burdens of today’s young people far into the future.
Using a new intergenerational economic model, RFF economists examined different ways to use revenue generated by carbon taxes, revealing the impacts of those choices across the age spectrum of the U.S. population. They modeled four scenarios: three in which the carbon tax revenues are used to reduce taxes on 1) capital, 2) labor, and 3) sales of goods, and a fourth in which the revenues are returned in lump sum “dividends.” RFF found the differences in annual aggregate welfare among the four options to be relative small ― less than 3 percent. Interestingly, returning revenue as lump-sum dividends offers a slightly more progressive income distribution than a labor tax shift.
More striking differences are revealed across the age spectrum: people who are now too young to vote would benefit most from a carbon tax used to fund deficit reduction, according to RFF. The authors conclude: “[E]nacting such a policy [a carbon tax used to pay down the deficit] will be politically difficult unless current generations are altruistic” enough to act now to curb global warming and to pay down deficits, both of whose impacts will be greatest on the young. That’s an understatement.
07/7/2013 by James Handley
Not all carbon tax proposals are equal. Some would raise the level of the tax robustly enough over time to transform the energy supply and the ways everyone uses energy. Others envision miniature carbon taxes meant to generate revenue targeted for specific purposes. The Breakthrough Institute (BTI) advocates a miniature version: a $5/T CO2 tax to fund energy R&D that they insist will unleash cheap new sources of low-carbon energy to undercut fossil fuels. In contrast, the Carbon Tax Center finds that a briskly-rising economy-wide carbon price is needed for energy efficiency and renewable energy to displace the vast bulk of fossil fuels by mid-century. An excellent example is the measure proposed by Rep. John B. Larson (D-CT) in 2009 for a CO2 tax starting at $15/T, rising to more than $100/T over a decade, which we estimate would reduce U.S. CO2 emissions by one-third in that time.
The “robust” carbon tax met the “miniature” carbon tax at the BTI meeting last month in Sausalito, CA. James Handley, the Carbon Tax Center’s Washington DC representative, discussed his paper, “Reaffirming the Case for a Briskly Rising Carbon Tax,” which responded to BTI’s draft (and not yet citable) paper, “Costs and Complexities of Carbon Pricing.” The BTI paper asserts that only a fully revenue-neutral carbon tax set at a socially-optimal price with full participation by other nations would be more effective than subsidies and regulations at reducing CO2 emissions. The paper points to the ineffectiveness of the low carbon prices induced by the European Union’s Emissions Trading Scheme and argues that the public won’t tolerate carbon prices rising to levels high enough to reduce emissions substantially. Because modest carbon taxes can’t deliver the needed emissions reductions, BTI argues that the carbon tax to shoot for is a small one funding targeted R&D that will unleash a technology breakthrough leading to abundant, cheap energy. (BTI supports “fourth generation” nuclear power, using fast breeder reactors as touted in the film “Pandora’s Promise.”)
In rebuttal, Handley argued that taxing CO2 pollution instead of productive activity such as work and investment is a climate policy offering enormous climate benefits at little or no cost. Successful carbon taxes in British Columbia and Sweden are proof that voters can be persuaded to embrace carbon taxes that reduce taxes on individual and business income, retail sales and payrolls. These taxes, along with Australia’s new carbon tax, demonstrate that well-designed carbon taxes can effectively reduce emissions quickly, at minimal cost, without stunting economic growth.
Handley further noted that the effectiveness of BTI’s proposal hinges on the ability (and willingness) of Congress and federal agencies to identify and fund nascent low-carbon energy technologies capable of breaking fossil fuels’ economic dominance. Yet a steadily-rising economy-wide carbon price can perform this task far more broadly and effectively, Handley argued, by encouraging every energy supplier and every energy user to look for ways to reduce emissions, spurring innovation across the entire spectrum of energy supply and use. He noted that diverting carbon tax revenues to R&D would preclude using carbon tax revenue to reduce other taxes, thus undercutting political support.
03/15/2013 by James Handley
“Viva Emissions Trading!” could have been the title for the World Bank’s oddly anachronistic, “Pricing Carbon To Achieve Mitigation” event at the bank’s Washington, DC headquarters Wednesday. Fortunately, after nearly two hours of genuflection at the altar of emissions-trading, Min Zhu, Deputy Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund, took to the podium to commit the apostasy of calling for simple carbon taxes.
The opening panel featured officials from South Africa, South Korea, and China extolling “market mechanisms,” especially trading. In almost apologetic terms, the South African official described his nation’s carbon tax, assuring the audience that South Africa doesn’t intend to be left out of carbon markets. The South Korean official’s presentation indicated that the country has allocated 100% of carbon allowances in the first phase of its trading system but hopes to begin auctioning a small percentage of allowances in later phases, which will garner revenue. The Chinese official deflected a question about news reports that his country plans a carbon tax, emphasizing that China is establishing emissions trading so it can link with the European Union’s Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS). But, he said, carbon taxes are an “interesting alternative” that could play a role in the future in some sectors.
In a later panel, an EU official trotted out the oft-repeated ETS “success story” that always seems to overlook its problematic volatility followed by extreme price decline. She admitted the ETS might need “some adjustments.” Finally, after three panels of babble about linked carbon markets, offsets, monitoring, reporting, verification, etc., it was Min Zhu’s turn to deliver the closing remarks.
The IMF Deputy Managing Director struck a welcome new note, suggesting that the EU’s “collapsing carbon price” might be “cause for concern” and calling instead for a “crystal-clear, stable, credible carbon price” across sectors. Zhu recommended adding price ceilings and floors to emissions trading systems in order dampen volatility. He praised the IMF’s new compilation by Ian Parry et al., “Fiscal Policy to Mitigate Climate Change,” which emphasizes the revenue potential of simple, direct carbon taxes.
Zhu also urged policy-makers to pursue broad, inclusive carbon pricing with consistent price signals and to refrain from allocating allowances, effectively giving away revenue. Continuing his revenue theme, Zhu closed by suggesting systematic review and overhaul of national tax policies to add environmental taxes, especially carbon taxes.
Thank goodness someone near the top of global financial governance recognizes the importance of simplicity and transparency in climate policy.
01/29/2013 by James Handley
Two new autopsies of the failed 2008-10 effort to pass comprehensive climate legislation are deservedly generating buzz: the commentary includes posts in Grist by David Roberts (3 posts), Bill McKibben, Eric Pooley, and Joe Romm, in Time by Michael Grunwald and a Washington Post interview by Brad Plumer.
Hiding The Price Allowed Heritage Foundation To Exaggerate the Cost of Cap & Trade
The heftier of the two reports, weighing in at 145 pages, is by Harvard Poli Sci Professor Theda Skocpol. Her exhaustive but riveting narrative, “Countering Extremism, Engaging Americans in the Fight against Global Warming,” is a pointed rebuke to complaints by Big Green leaders like EDF’s Fred Krupp and NRDC’s Dan Lashof that President Obama’s decision to tee up health care reform first spelled doom for cap-and-trade legislation.
Skocpol contrasts the extensive grassroots network built to educate the public and support health care reform with green groups’ obsessive insider-dealing to win backing for cap-and-trade from fossil fuel interests. She cites a May 2009 Rasmussen poll conducted on the eve of the House vote on the 1400-page Waxman-Markey cap-and-trade bill showing that more than three-quarters of respondents had no idea what cap-and-trade meant. [Skocpol, p 53].
Skocpol concludes that:
[G]lobal warming reformers must mobilize broad, popularly rooted support for carbon-capping measures that have something concrete to offer not just to big corporate players, but also to ordinary American citizens and to local and state groups. Another legislative effort based on insider bargains and pay-offs is not likely to be successful – given conservative capacities to mobilize grassroots opposition, plus the level of distrust that most Americans now have about complex insider bargains in Washington DC. [p 113]
The other post-mortem, “The Too Polite Revolution, Why the Recent Campaign to Pass Comprehensive Climate Legislation in the United States Failed,” is by journalists Petra Bartosiewicz and Marissa Miley. Their report offers juicy details from the months of heated back-room negotiations by the Big Green-led US Climate Action Partnership (USCAP) to win support from the polluters whose emissions would be “capped” by Waxman-Markey. Like Skocpol, who relied heavily on Bartosiewicz and Miley’s interviews and research, they urge greens who want effective climate policy to start by building, or tapping into, a strong grassroots movement.
Both reports applaud legislation proposed in 2009 by Senators Cantwell (D-WA) and Collins (R-ME) to “cap” U.S. CO2 emissions by requiring polluters to bid on a declining supply of pollution allowances. But unlike Waxman-Markey’s attempt to pay off polluters, Cantwell-Collins would initially return 75% of auction revenue to households in the form of pro rata monthly “dividend” payments. (The fraction of revenue returned to households would decline as the “cap” tightened.) Skocpol concludes that, in contrast to cap-and-trade, “Citizens could understand and trust this policy.” [p 125]
Skocpol acknowledges the overwhelming preference of economists for an even more transparent and straightforward approach: a straight tax on carbon pollution. Yet she nevertheless dismisses efforts to include a carbon tax in fiscal and tax reform as the “latest quixotic DC quest for an insider bargain on climate change.” [p 113] She points out that, immediately following Obama’s re-election, the entire House GOP leadership signed the “no climate tax pledge” of the Koch brothers-backed Americans for Prosperity. She concedes that a carbon tax might find its way into fiscal or tax reform legislation; but citing Congress’ failure in 1993 to enact a “BTU tax” (which broke down in squabbling over exemptions), she concludes that a carbon tax would pass only if:
a lot of moderate Congressional Democrats got exceptions for their favorite regional fossil-fuel industries and were convinced that revenues from this tax are vital to reducing the deficit without eliminating or squeezing other federal programs they want to preserve… [I]f a carbon tax happens this way, it will look corrupt and not be very understandable to most ordinary American citizens – and so it will be easily ridiculed and demonized by rightwing advocates and media figures who have already demonstrated their ability to rouse populist opposition and stoke public fears about complex, opaque insider measures. [p 112]
At this point, you may be tempted to tear up Skocpol’s paper in frustration. We certainly were. In dismissing prospects for building a carbon tax into comprehensive tax reform, Skocpol has rejected the possibility that a transparent, understandable proposal can spark the public education and movement-building that she herself forcefully advocates. In contrast to the opacity and complexity of cap-and-trade – a policy practically built for back-room dealing – a simple, transparent economy-wide tax on carbon pollution can be explained as a way to offset fossil fuels’ artificial advantage over energy efficiency and renewable energy. Moreover, if the alternative to a carbon tax is higher taxes on productive activity such as work and investment, might not the public, and even some Republicans, be supportive?
Skocpol is also critical of efforts (by NRDC and others) to bypass Congress via EPA regulation of greenhouse gases. While we at the Carbon Tax Center have pointed out the limited effectiveness of such regulatory steps, she points out that they also face substantial political obstacles:
Some anti-global warming reformers fantasize that the second Obama administration can act freely through the EPA without worrying about Congress or national popular support… Even bold regulatory steps by the EPA – such as using its authority under the Clean Air Act to crack down on existing coal-fired electric-generating plants – are likely to be blocked or undercut as long as GOP radicals have major leverage in Congress.
Where do these bleak diagnoses leave us? Still reeling from Hurricane Sandy, the not-too-distant memory of Hurricane Katrina, 332 consecutive months of above-average global temperatures, and a worldwide pattern of chaotic, extreme weather, voters seem to be refocusing on global warming. President Obama placed climate high on his inaugural agenda, but within days press secretary Jay Carney repeated his post-election disclaimer: the Administration has no intention of proposing a carbon tax. The Sierra Club and 350.org are organizing (yet another) climate demonstration in Washington DC on February 17 to demand Obama disapprove the Keystone XL pipeline. Yet they don’t demand a tax on carbon pollution but instead resort to the fuzzy euphemism for cap-and-trade, “put a price on carbon.”
Both Skocpol’s and Bartosiewicz & Miley’s post-mortems conclude that cap-and-trade was killed by a collision with intransigent Republicans, abetted by the folly of Big Green’s attempt to buy off polluters. They call for a broad movement to support a cap on greenhouse gas emissions and suggest it could be built on distribution of auction revenue to the public via a “dividend.” But their autopsies overlook another insidious poison: the duplicity inherent in advocating an emissions “cap” while denying that unless revenue return is included in the legislation, cap-and-trade is a hidden, volatile and regressive tax collected and securitized by Wall Street traders.
The real lesson of the Waxman-Markey debacle is that cutting deals with polluters while hiding the price doesn’t work. How about, instead, a genuine public education and organizing effort with a full-throated call from the environmental community for a substantial, briskly-rising tax on carbon pollution, with no exemptions?