Next to Nothing for Climate in Obama Plan

The Environmental Protection Agency will unveil a draft proposal on Monday to cut carbon pollution from the nation’s power plants 30 percent from 2005 levels by 2030, according to people briefed on the plan. The proposed rule amounts to one of the strongest actions ever taken by the United States government to fight climate change. (emphasis added)

That’s this morning’s breaking news on President Obama’s climate action plan, from NY Times national energy-climate correspondent Coral Davenport. Yet peel back the numbers and the plan turns out to be precious little.

Relative to 2030 emissions projected from current trends, the drop in that year’s U.S. CO2 emissions sought by the President is a painfully modest 355 million tonnes (metric tons). That equates to just 7% of total actual emissions from all sources last year (5313 million tonnes).

White House’s 2030 CO2 Reduction Target: Just 7 Percent.

To be sure, the business-as-usual (no action) trajectory producing that 355 million tonne figure is mine, not the administration’s. (At the time I wrote this the White House hadn’t translated its percentage target into metric tons of CO2.) [Read more...]

Last modified: June 8, 2014

The Thin Reed Supporting the White House’s “Legacy” Climate Plan

Post hoc, ergo propter hoc

I took Latin in high school, and I loved unraveling classic phrases like After this, therefore because of this ― a common logical fallacy that attributes event B to event A because A preceded B.

Okay, so that’s not quite what Politico and the New York Times did this week when they linked the sharp drop in power plant emissions in the Northeast U.S. from 2005 to 2012 (“B”) with the regional CO2 trading system known as RGGI (“A”). But they came pretty close:

Politico: Nine Northeastern states already take part in a regional trading network that puts an economic price on their power plants’ carbon output . . . The Northeastern states saw their power plants’ carbon emissions drop more than 40 percent from 2005 to 2012, the trading network told EPA in December — without any of cap-and-trade critics’ apocalyptic expectations for such a system.

The Times: The regional program [RGGI] has proved fairly effective: Between 2005-12, according to program officials, power-plant pollution in the northeastern states it covered dropped 40 percent. [Read more...]

Last modified: June 4, 2014

Is The New York Times Missing The Decade’s Most Affirmative Climate-and-Energy Story?

Alone among the major economies, Germany is moving purposefully to phase out fossil fuels while also shuttering nuclear power. Germany’s energy makeover, or “energiewende,” appears to be thriving, as evidenced by the country’s humming economy, low unemployment, robust exports, stable or declining CO2 emissions, and rapid uptake of renewables. Yet the world’s most influential newspaper casts this ambitious program as an incipient failure, even as elsewhere it decries the climate stalemate in Washington.

Here are ten packets of information worth bearing in mind as you sift through coverage in “the paper of record” of Germany’s transformative energy agenda.

1. The German economy is the world’s fourth largest ― after the United States, China and Japan. Of the three dozen highest-population countries, Germany boasts the highest per capita GDP, save for the U.S.

2. Germany has embarked upon a concerted program to transform its energy system from fossil fuels to renewable sources ― wind power, electricity from sunlight, and biological-based fuels. This energy makeover — energiewende, in German — is not an overnight phenomenon but the accumulation of a dozen synergistic laws and policy directives instituted over several decades. The energiewende is now reaching critical mass, such that last year over 20% of German-produced electricity was generated from renewable sources, not even counting traditional hydro-electricity: wind, 8.4%; biomass, 6.7%; photovoltaics, 4.7%; municipal waste, 0.8% (an additional 3.2% was from water power) ― more than triple the comparable percentage for the U.S. (see table), and the highest share by far of any major economy. Perhaps most notably, Germany, with cloudier skies, a more northerly location, and 1/27th the land area, produces more than three times as much photovoltaic electricity as the United States. PV’s share in Germany’s electricity generation mix is 20 times as large as that in the U.S. [Read more...]

Last modified: June 19, 2014

All We Are Saying: Making An Energy Revolution Where It Matters Most

Ev’rybody’s talkin’ ’bout Revolution, Evolution, Masturbation, Flagellation, Regulation, Integrations, Mediations, United Nations, Congratulations — John Lennon, “Give Peace a Chance”

The number-one energy meme of late is “fracking changes everything,” with fracked oil and methane (gas) having turned the United States almost overnight into the world’s leading extractor of hydrocarbons and, perhaps soon, even a net exporter. And that was before Russia annexed the Crimea and muscled in on the rest of Ukraine. Now the chorus of voices calling on Congress and the White House to neutralize Vladmir Putin’s use of natural gas as a geopolitical weapon by making America the “arsenal of energy” for Eastern Europe, as a former Bush NSC official urged in the New York Times, has moved into the higher decibels.

In the past week, the Times’ editorial board and the director of the Geopolitics of Energy Project at Harvard University’s Kennedy School have been among those urging stepped-up U.S. oil and gas exports (and, hence, more fracking). And that’s just on the center-lib part of the spectrum. Kentucky Senator Rand Paul is demanding approval of the Keystone XL Pipeline, and pretty much the entire U.S. Right wants our oil-and-gas spigot on full bore as well.

To paraphrase John Lennon, everybody’s talking about gas fracking, well drilling, hydrocarbing, tar sands spilling (well, not spilling). But no one, it seems, is talking about exporting a different brand of energy to gas-dependent Eastern Europe: energy efficiency and renewables. Yet therm for therm, both would be just as effective as U.S. hydrocarbons at reducing the need for Russian gas. And, it almost goes without saying, efficiency and renewable could be in place a lot faster — and in a fashion that could allow Ukrainians, Czechs, Hungarians and Poles to be active participants in their liberation. [Read more...]

Last modified: June 4, 2014

More Nuke Amnesia — This Time At The Top

“After Fukushima, Utilities Prepare for Worst,” announced the New York Times in a story timed to this week’s third anniversary of the Japanese triple reactor meltdown. The story described measures ranging from keeping earth-moving machines at the ready (to maintain plant access after disabling earthquakes) to stocking regional depots with tractor-trailers able to deliver emergency gear to stop reactor disasters from spinning out of control.

But the story also pointed, inadvertently, to a striking lapse in institutional memory at the top echelon of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Here’s the quote (with emphasis added):

“Fukushima woke up the world nuclear industry, not just the U.S.,” said the chairwoman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Allison M. Macfarlane, in an interview. “It woke everybody up and said: ‘Hey, you didn’t even think about these different issues happening. You never thought about an earthquake that could create a tsunami that would swamp your emergency diesel generators and leave you without power for an extended period. You . . . have to think about that now.’ “

Never? Really? The record says otherwise. [Read more...]

Last modified: June 4, 2014

CTC Tells Senate Finance Committee: Carbon Tax Beats Clean-Energy Subsidies, Hands Down

The Carbon Tax Center told the U.S. Senate Finance Committee today that an economy-wide tax on the carbon content of coal, oil and gas will cut U.S. CO2 emissions more than twice as fast as proposed clean-energy subsidies delivered as tax credits.

This finding leads a new 22-page analysis, “Design of Economic Instruments for Reducing U.S. Carbon Emissions,” that we submitted today to Senate Finance Committee Chair Max Baucus. Our analysis is in the form of “Comments” on a Committee “Discussion Draft” that proposes replacing 42 federal energy tax subsidies with either credits for “clean (low-carbon) electricity” production and “clean fuels,” but also asks for input on the merits of a tax on carbon pollution instead.

Our comments can be boiled down to this ringing conclusion: A carbon tax will do everything the clean-energy credits will do, and much more. While simplifying and rationalizing the current hodgepodge of energy subsidies is all to the good, only a carbon tax can course through our entire economy and reward energy efficiencies and conservation along with low-carbon production.

Moreover, with the right design, a carbon tax can protect lower-income families and energy-intensive U.S. industries alike, at no cost to the Treasury. In contrast, even the proposed streamlined clean-energy subsidies could cost taxpayers more than $30 billion a year.

Estimated CO2 reductions from a carbon tax are 2.4 times as great as those from clean-energy subsidies.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We performed our analysis using the Carbon Tax Center’s carbon tax spreadsheet model, which may be downloaded via this link. With the model, we estimated that the proposed subsidies would reduce U.S. carbon dioxide emissions by roughly 400 million metric tons a year, whereas an economy-wide carbon tax set at the same level as the subsidies would eliminate 960 million metric tons of emissions. (For comparison purposes, U.S. carbon dioxide emissions from burning fossil fuels totaled 5,221 million metric tons in 2012, the last year for which data are available.)

The Senate Finance Committee’s Dec. 18 statement, Baucus Unveils Proposal for Energy Tax Reform,” is available by clicking here. That two-page letter contains a link to the Committee staff’s 8-page discussion draft, which solicited comments on both the proposed subsidies realignment and on alternatives that would tax carbon emissions directly.

Our comments were submitted on behalf of the Citizens Climate Lobby and the Citizens Climate Education Corp. CCL/CCEC are the most visible and vociferous grassroots organizations advocating for a revenue-neutral U.S. carbon tax, and we are proud to stand with them. CCL chapters and members across the U.S. submitted their own comments backing a carbon tax as well.

Our hope is that the Senate Finance Committee’s discussion draft signals a new interest in carbon taxing among the tax-writing committees on Capitol Hill . . . and that CTC’s comments along with those from others will persuade incoming Committee Chair Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) to convene informational and/or legislative hearings this year on the optimal choice of economic instruments to reduce U.S. carbon emissions. (Longtime Committee Chair Baucus is leaving the Senate to serve as U.S. Ambassador to China.)

In the interim, we believe that our comments stand as the first broad quantification of the relative efficacy of a carbon tax vs. energy subsidies (even rationalized ones) to reduce emissions. As the figures in the table indicate, a carbon tax wins hands down.

CTC’s comments were researched and written by CTC director Charles Komanoff and CTC senior policy analyst James Handley. Support for their preparation and submittal was provided by the Alex C. Walker Educational and Charitable Foundation. We are grateful for their support.

Last modified: January 31, 2014

Help Accelerate the Climate Solution: Donate to the Carbon Tax Center

Two weeks ago, I caught a tantalizing glimpse of a possible carbon tax in China.

I was part of an international delegation brought to Hangzhou to meet with 200 officials from 11 provinces, 30 cities, and at least a dozen universities at China’s first-ever “International Forum on Economic Policies for Traffic Congestion and Tailpipe Emissions.”

CTC director Charles Komanoff presenting on congestion pricing in Hangzhou, Dec. 12.

Traffic gridlock and tailpipe emissions are mounting in China’s megacities, and officials are looking to economic policy instruments to control both. It seems only a matter of time — and perhaps not much time — before Chinese cities begin to charge vehicles a fee to be driven into their central areas during peak periods.

And if congestion pricing is truly on the table for China, might a carbon tax, which is cut from the same cloth of cost internalization and price incentives, be close behind?

My experience in China, which you can read about here, reinforces my conviction that there will be a U.S. carbon tax.

Maybe, if we get lucky with the new Congress, as part of tax reform in 2015. Or perhaps not till after 2016 or even 2020, given our low-functioning political system.

The push may need to come from the states and spread to D.C., as it has for marriage equality. Or a carbon tax may be forced upon Congress as China and other countries enact carbon taxes and impose carbon tariffs on our exports.

But a national carbon tax will come. The moment will arrive when, to paraphrase Jim Hansen, the laws of physics and chemistry, not to mention economics, overwhelm even denialism and gridlock.

The Carbon Tax Center works to accelerate that moment. And to ensure that the carbon tax that eventually passes Washington isn’t piecemeal and opaque, but is rapidly rising, transparent, and just.

Just under the radar — ­ in think tanks, meeting halls and, yes, Congressional offices ­ — carbon pricing is inching back into conversations about climate, energy policy and fiscal and tax reform. And CTC is key to these discussions.

We run numbers for Capitol Hill staff, journalists and grassroots advocates. We cross-pollinate the carbon tax grapevine to keep others in the field up-to-date and connected. We help fellow climate proponents see that neither subsidies for clean-tech nor EPA regulations can rid our economy of fossil fuels fast enough . . . and to grasp that a robust and transparent carbon pollution tax is needed to level the entire playing field, not just select pieces.

The Carbon Tax Center does all this on a budget that barely qualifies as shoestring. With your help now, we’ll do it even more vocally, in more arenas, and more effectively in 2014.

Your contribution, of any size, will help us grow support for a U.S. carbon tax in Washington and the states. Please click here, now, to make your tax-deductible donation.

Thank you for your past and future support. Have a wonderful New Year.

  — Charles Komanoff, founder-director, Carbon Tax Center

Photo: Silvia Moroni, Mobility, Environment and Land Agency, Milan.

Last modified: December 26, 2013

A Carbon Fee Can Cut Business Taxes in New York … and Elsewhere

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. 

Last modified: December 6, 2013

Why "Official" Nuke Plant Cost Estimates Are Like Campaign Promises

In my in-box are a dozen e-mails wanting my reaction to Eduardo Porter’s column in yesterday’s New York Times in which he insisted that of all non-carbon based energy sources, nuclear power is “the cheapest and most readily scalable.”

Whether my correspondents knew that in my former life I meticulously established the spectacular failure of nuclear power plants to stay on budget and produce affordable electricity, or they simply thought I might have a halfway informed opinion on reactors’ proper role in combating the climate crisis, I can’t say. But I dutifully opened up Porter’s column and was quickly appalled.

Finland’s Olkiluoto fiasco shows that reactor cost escalation isn’t peculiar to the U.S.

The column fails the single most critical precept in nuclear economics: don’t confuse promise with performance. I made this point in 1979, a month before the Three Mile Island reactor accident, in a review of a book that plumbed that very theme. I was struck with how the authors of Light Water: How the Nuclear Dream Dissolved — two business academics with experience in the American and French Atomic Energy Commissions — showed that from Day One nuclear power proponents mesmerized themselves with idealized cost estimates that ignored reactors’ innate complexities and razor-thin tolerances — twin Achilles Heels that time and again broke project budgets and sowed mistrust among policymakers and the public, especially in the U.S.

Things haven’t changed. In June, Porter’s colleague Matt Wald, who has covered the nuclear industry for the Times since the early eighties, reported on a nuclear plant under construction in Georgia named Vogtle — one of two reactor projects underway in the U.S. First, Wald summarized the disastrous cost escalation at predecessor projects 30 years ago:

In those decades parts of plants were built, ripped out and rebuilt because of design and regulatory problems, leading to ruinous costs. Examples sit across the muddy construction site: Vogtle 1 and 2, which opened in 1987 and 1989, cost $8.87 billion. When they were proposed in 1971 the estimated cost was $660 million.

Wald noted that the new project, Vogtle 3 and 4, had instituted cost-control measures to lock-in plant designs and also replace often-chaotic field assembly with prefabricated parts. But, he noted:

[T]he company that was supposed to be making prefabricated parts like clockwork, from a factory in Lake Charles, La., was shipping them with some parts missing or without required paperwork. Southern [Company, the reactor owner] built a cavernous “module assembly building,” 120 feet high and 300 feet long, where the parts were supposed to be welded together, largely by robots, into segments weighing thousands of tons. But shipments stopped last August and are still arriving too slowly.

“[I]t remained to be seen,” the Georgia state construction monitor told Wald, “whether modular construction would actually save time.” Meanwhile, 5,000 miles away from Vogtle and “stifling” U.S. regulations that for decades have been blamed for “suffocating” nuclear power here, an ambitious reactor project in Olkiluoto, Finland has run completely off the rails.

“The massive power plant under construction on muddy terrain on this Finnish island was supposed to be the showpiece of a nuclear renaissance,” the Times reported back in 2009. “The most powerful reactor ever built, its modular design was supposed to make it faster and cheaper to build. And it was supposed to be safer, too.”

Instead, the Times reported then, “after four years of construction and thousands of recorded defects and deficiencies, the price tag . . .  has climbed at least 50 percent.” That was just the beginning. By December 2012, three-and-a-half years after the Times article appeared, the cost of the Olkiluoto reactor had doubled again, according to Wikipedia, to 8.5 billion euro — nearly triple the original €3 billion delivery price. So calamitous is the cost spiral that the Finnish electric utility owner and the French reactor supplier are suing each other.

Why bring up Vogtle and Olkiluoto? Because they exemplify the real-world experience that Porter ignored. (They also constitute a majority of reactor construction now underway in the Western economies.) Instead, Porter hung his column on — you guessed it — paper cost estimates from the U.S. Energy Information Administration and the U.K. government. Here’s Porter’s faithful workup of nuclear vs. wind and solar, per EIA:

Take the Energy Information Agency’s [sic] estimate of the cost of generating power. The agency’s [sic] number-crunchers include everything from the initial investment to the cost of fuel and the expense to operate, maintain and decommission old plants. Its latest estimate, published earlier this year, suggests that power generated by a new-generation nuclear plant that entered service in 2018 would be $108.40 per megawatt-hour. . . This is not cheap. . . Still, nuclear power is likely to be cheaper than most power made with renewables. Land-based wind farms could generate power at a relatively low cost of $86.60 per MWh, but acceptable locations are growing increasingly scarce. Solar costs $144.30 per MWh, the agency estimates. A megawatt-hour of power fueled by an offshore wind farm costs a whopping $221.50.

Case closed, eh? $108.40 a MWh for nukes, $144.30 for solar, $221.50 for offshore wind? I’ll leave it to others to see if the EIA figures for renewables properly credit the still-ongoing declines in unit costs for photovoltaics and wind. My point here is that the nuclear numbers in Porter’s column overlooked not just Vogtle and Olkiluoto but the deep-seated problem that invariably leaves paper estimates of reactor costs bearing as little resemblance to the real thing as campaign promises bear to officials’ actual policies: the fabulous energy density that makes nuclear power so appealing in theory requires heroic countermeasures that demand degrees of perfection that are only achievable, if at all, through a punishing array of rules, regulations, paper trails, quality assurance, inspection, checking and double-checking that come at enormous cost.

I documented this in painstaking detail long ago in a book, Power Plant Cost Escalation, that took me several years to conceptualize and several more to quantify and compose and finally publish, in 1981. The book’s bottom line was that through the 1970s, costs of completed U.S. nuclear plants rose twice as fast as costs of completed coal-fired plants; while the higher costs at least paid for coal plants to become much cleaner but not for nuclear plants to be made any safer, judging by the steady drip of nuclear mishaps that culminated in the meltdown of the final nuclear plant in my database, Three Mile Island Unit 2. (The book is on-line here, as a 12MB pdf, or you can pick up a hard copy from me, cheap; send me an e-mail.)

This work went viral in the energy and business world of the time, giving me a good run as expert witness for state government agencies charged with representing utility consumers in electricity rate cases. Eventually I moved on — to bicycling advocacy, road traffic pricing, and, of course, carbon taxing. These days I mostly steer clear of nukes per se, and, indeed, of specific technologies, preferring to agitate to get the most-level playing field possible, via full-cost carbon pollution pricing.

The problems with Porter’s column don’t stop with his slavish adherence to paper estimates of reactor costs. He flogs Germany for its 0.9% bump in CO2 emissions last year (“even as they declined in the United States and most of Western Europe”), ignoring that German GDP grew relative to that of every other major European economy, and that the drop in U.S. CO2 was mostly due to the horrific (and possibly transitory) boom in fracked natural gas.

Indeed, from 2010 to 2012, a two-year period encompassing the March, 2011 Fukushima catastrophe and Germany’s subsequent decision to turn off 29% of its nuclear power production (reducing reactor output from 140.6 terrawatt-hours in 2010 to 99.5 TWh in 2012), Germany actually held constant its use of fossil fuels to make electricity.

How did German society make up for the 41.1 TWh drop in reactors’ electricity generation? Numerically, it was simple:

  • German solar-photovoltaic generation grew from 11.7 TWh to 28.0 TWh (a rise of 16.3 TWh).
  • Wind generation grew from 37.8 TWh to 46.0 TWh (a rise of 8.2 TWh).
  • Total consumption of electricity fell by 16.4 TWh (from 610.9 TWh to 594.5 TWh), despite GDP growth.

(Figures are based on data from Bundesministerium für Wirtschaft und Technologie, Statistisches Bundesamt, Arbeitsgruppe Erneuerbare Energien-Statistik (AGEE-Stat).)

The institutional mechanisms are more complex and involve feed-in-tariffs and other mechanisms to elicit investment in renewables. (You can get the full scoop on how Germany turned off nearly 30% of its nuclear power without burning more fossil fuels from the excellent Energy Transition (The German Energiewende) blog run by Craig Morris at the Heinrich Boll Institute.)

Now that’s a story worth pursuing, and one I pitched to Porter in an e-mail the week before Labor Day. Perhaps my note was too gentle. In retrospect, I might have ripped a page from Nate Silver’s playbook and muttered a cautionary tale about the 2012 election pundits who went with discredited over robust poll data and predicted a Romney victory.

Photo: BBC World Service / Flickr.

Last modified: November 21, 2013

Trade Expert Is Latest to Endorse Border Adjustments to Carbon Taxes

Border tax adjustments (“BTA’s”) — tariffs imposed on imported carbon-intensive goods with corresponding rebates of carbon taxes on domestically-produced goods destined for export — are one of the more technical issues in carbon tax policy. They’re also controversial; some analysts warn of trade wars or lengthy trade litigation in the World Trade Organization over a carbon-tax with BTA’s. But stay with us as we report on a new paper detailing two routes by which WTO rules would unequivocally support national carbon taxes with border tax adjustments and thus offer a route to a harmonized global carbon price.

Typhoon Haiyan Underscores the Urgency of Global Action to Curb Global Warming

The paper, published last July by the German Marshall fund of the United States, the American Action Forum and Climate Advisers, is hardly the first to reach such conclusions. In recent years, journal articles from leading academics including Joost Pauwelyn (Duke Univ. Law, 2007 & 2012), Gilbert Metcalf & David Weisbach (Harvard Envt’l Law, 2009), and Carolyn Fisher & Alan Fox (RFF, 2009) have pointed to the potential for BTA’s to create incentives for globally-harmonized carbon taxes. But the July paper, “Changing Climate for Carbon Taxes, Who’s Afraid of the WTO?,” comes from an even more prominent and unimpeachable source.

The author, Jennifer Hillman, a German Marshall Fund senior transatlantic fellow, is one of the world’s leading trade experts. Hillman served for four years as counsel to the WTO Appellate Body (the “Supreme Court” of trade law) and, prior to that, served an eight-year term as a U.S. International Trade Commissioner. From 1995-1997, as General Counsel to the Office of United States Trade Representative, she oversaw U.S. government submissions in dispute settlement cases before both WTO and NAFTA.

So Hillman is an impressive messenger. Here’s why her conclusions are important, and why BTA’s are a crucial element of an effective U.S. carbon tax.

For carbon taxes to form the cornerstone of policies to de-carbonize the world economy, carbon pricing will need to “go global.” But without border tax adjustments, unilateral U.S. climate policy won’t necessarily lead to global emissions reductions (due to “off-shoring” of factories) and could disadvantage domestic energy-intensive business.

BTA’s offer a way to not only protect domestic energy-intensive industry but also provide carrots and sticks to induce our trading partners to enact their own carbon taxes and to prevent “carbon leakage” from relocation of energy-intensive industries. Moreover, a WTO-based process could obviate the U.N. Kyoto Protocol (“COP”) meetings where nations have wrangled for almost two decades to allocate the Earth’s dwindling carbon “budget.” Instead, the U.S. (or any large trading bloc) could simply enact a carbon tax and use WTO-sanctioned border tax adjustments to induce other nations to follow.

The General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) functions as the “constitution” of the World Trade Organization in its mission to foster global trade. Hillman shows that GATT Articles II.2 and III.3 empower countries to impose taxes on imports provided they do not exceed the taxes imposed on “like” domestically-produced goods. (Historically, tax systems that have run afoul of Article II and III have been discriminatory attempts to favor domestically-produced goods by imposing higher tariffs on foreign-produced goods.) GATT allows taxes based on the production process — in the case of a carbon tax the “carbon intensity” of the production process. This would require data on production processes abroad, which may be difficult to obtain. Hillman suggests that, absent such data, WTO would accept an assumption that an imported product’s carbon intensity is similar to that of a like domestically-produced product. (Companies producing goods less carbon intensively than U.S.-produced equivalents could petition for reductions in their border tax adjustment.)

Hillman offers a second avenue for BTA’s via GATT Article XX, which authorizes WTO members to adopt policies to protect human, animal or plant health or to conserve exhaustible natural resources. The general WTO policy of non-discrimination and non-interference with international trade would also apply to tariffs adopted pursuant to Article XX.

Hillman also recommends a rebate of carbon taxes paid on exported goods to ensure that domestic producers selling goods into non-carbon-taxing countries aren’t disadvantaged. She concludes that WTO should permit such rebates so long as they don’t exceed the carbon tax actually paid.

Hillman concludes

Policymakers have sufficient latitude with this [WTO] framework to design and implement a carbon tax system that represents a good faith effort to reduce carbon emissions while encouraging all other countries to cut their emissions too, all while preserving the competitive position of U.S. companies. Policy makers can be bold; the WTO will recognize genuine climate change measures for what they are and is unlikely to find fault with such measures, provided they do not unfairly discriminate in favor of U.S. companies.

Photo: Jun Tokumori (Flickr)

Last modified: October 9, 2014