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:

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…

A Breatkthrough in Polling on a U.S. Carbon Tax

July 22, 2014 by Charles Komanoff Comments (0)

A surprising but frustrating obstacle to carbon tax progress has been opinion polling. It took years for pollsters to even *ask* about a carbon tax rather than (or in addition to) cap-and-trade proposals. Even when that changed, little or no context was provided about possible uses of the revenues. Asking “do you support a carbon tax?” without at least hinting at possible revenue uses was akin to asking “Where should we land this punch?”

A revenue-neutral carbon tax, in which all tax revenue would be returned to the public as a rebate check ["dividend"], receives 56% support. The largest gains in support [relative to opinion on a carbon tax w/o revenue mention] come from Republicans.

A revenue-neutral carbon tax, in which all tax revenue would be returned to the public as a rebate check ["dividend"], receives 56% support. The largest gains in support [relative to opinion on a carbon tax w/o revenue mention] come from Republicans.

Happily, a poll released yesterday by researchers at the University of Michigan breaks the mold. Here’s their abstract:

Conventional wisdom holds that a carbon tax is a political non-starter. However, results from the latest version of the National Surveys on Energy and Environment (NSEE) provide evidence of substantial public support for a tax on the carbon content of different fossil fuels when specific uses of tax revenue are attached. A majority of respondents support a revenue-neutral carbon tax, and an even larger majority support a carbon tax with revenues used to fund research and development for renewable energy programs. The carbon tax coupled with renewable energy research earns majority support across all political categories, including a narrow majority of Republicans. These findings generally confirm previous NSEE results when revenue use options are linked to carbon taxation. These are among the latest findings from the Spring 2014 NSEE [National Survey on Energy and Environment] from the Center for Local, State, and Urban Policy at the University of Michigan and the Muhlenberg College Institute of Public Opinion. (Click here for source; emphases added.)

The Center’s press release on the new survey follows, printed in full.

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE — Public Views on a Carbon Tax Depend on the Proposed Use of Revenue, from the National Surveys on Energy and Environment (NSEE) / Press Release /July 21, 2014
Read more…

On the Latest Distraction from Carbon-Taxing: “Carbon Budgets”

July 8, 2014 by Charles Komanoff Comments (3)

Over the Fourth of July holiday, Lorna Salzman forwarded me half-a-dozen emails about “global carbon budgets” that had been posted to an informal list-serve of U.S. and U.K. climate advotes. Lorna and I have been friends and colleagues since 1974; she may have been the first person to take seriously my interest in carbon taxing, circa 2003, and her encouragement had a lot to do with my starting the Carbon Tax Center several years later and more recently to my ramping up my involvement in CTC. This morning I posted the following response.

I have four points:

1. I’m flat-out befuddled by the interest from some in this group in “carbon budgets,” whether national, global or whatnot. I think they’re a dead end politically as well as a dodge scientifically.

The author, 40 miles from his lower-Manhattan home (2012 photo).

The author, 40 miles from his lower-Manhattan home (2012 photo).

Why a dead end? Because nations cannot and will not agree on who should be allowed to consume and emit how much carbon pollution. Because devilish “details” like offshoring will inevitably confound any negotiations. Ditto, population growth, which will require continual dynamic adjustments to national shares.

Why a dodge? Because every link in the emissions-to-catastrophe chain is riven with uncertainty. We don’t know with great precision what level of emissions will lead to any level of warming. We don’t know what level of warming will be catastrophic. There isn’t even agreement on what “catastrophe” is.

What we can agree on is that (i) any feasible level of emission reduction is insufficient, and (ii) deeper reductions are better than shallow ones. These facts are irreconcilable with carbon budgets.

2. A carbon tax must be at the center of any effective policy to rein in emissions. It’s folly to think that regulations (even enlightened ones) and/or clean-energy subsidies (even efficient ones) and/or public-sector mobilization such as by the Allies to win World War II can ever push back comprehensively against the massive tide of cheap fossil fuels (that is: cheap sans a price for their climate damage). Read more…