Which Carbon Tax: Robust or Miniature?

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.

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Last modified: July 7, 2013