Countering Extremism, Engaging Americans in the Fight against Global Warming (Theda Skocpol, Harvard)
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Chairman Charles Rangel presided over an impressively substantive Ways & Means Committee hearing on economic policy to combat global warming this week. The seven witnesses at the March 26 hearing spanned a fairly broad spectrum of interest, representing the Congressional Budget Office, national environmental organizations, academia, think tanks and the corporate Right.
Among the takeaways: even stalwart supporters of cap-and-trade acknowledged the need to manage price volatility; two panelists suggested eliminating the market in carbon altogether and setting an explicit price based on scientific and economic principles.
Three witnesses displayed graphs showing that price volatility in the European Union’s carbon emissions trading system has risen with accelerating trading volume. They noted that such volatility along with collapsing prices discourages investment in energy conservation and alternatives but enriches speculators.
Michelle Chan, author of Friends of the Earth’s new “Subprime Carbon” report cautioned that a bubble in carbon-based derivatives is an almost certain consequence of a cap-and-trade system with unverifiable offsets, free allowances and unregulated secondary markets in carbon allowances. With Congress starting from scratch to design a carbon pricing system, Chan urged lawmakers to avoid the sub-prime carbon syndrome at the outset. Her warning seemed especially trenchant: across the Capitol, the Senate Banking Committee simultaneously heard testimony on how to untangle the wreckage from the collapse of the sub-prime mortgage bubble whose shock waves continue to rock financial markets and the world economy, throwing millions out of homes and jobs.
Reflecting the panel’s consensus, Douglas Elmendorf, director of the Congressional Budget Office said putting a price on carbon through either a carbon tax or cap-and-trade is the most cost-effective way to spur reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. He explained that flexibility about where, when and how to make emissions reductions is essential to capture all of the potential benefits from carbon pricing. Ideally, he said, carbon prices should not fluctuate in response to temporary factors such as weather or economic activity, but should reflect permanent factors that affect compliance costs over a period of years, such as new technologies. Elmendorf outlined the tools available to manage price volatility: banking, borrowing, a reserve pool, a price floor and ceiling, or a managed price approach.
Dan Lashof of NRDC (a member of the USCAP cap-and-trade coalition) said Earth’s atmosphere is “too big to fail” and argued that “a cap is the most effective way to re-power America.” He conceded that allowances will trade on a secondary market that could be volatile, regardless of whether they are auctioned or given away. Lashof insisted, however, that price fluctuations could have beneficial effects such as countercyclically providing price relief during a recession as is now occurring in the EU trading system. He listed six ways to manage volatility: 1) banking allowances, 2) market regulation, 3) access to high quality offsets, 4) complementary measures to promote energy efficiency, cleaner transportation and transformation of energy supply technology, 5) an allowance floor price established through a reserve price in the primary allowance auction and 6) a strategic offset and allowance reserve made available at a trigger price set to avoid undue economic harm.
Dallas Burtraw of Resources for the Future recommended a “symmetric safety valve” or “price collar” to set a floor and ceiling for allowance prices and limit market manipulation. Burtraw calculated that the acid rain (SO2) cap-and-trade program left roughly a billion dollars a year of environmental and public health benefits on the table because it lacks a price floor.
William Whitesell of the Center for Clean Air Policy agreed that a carbon tax would eliminate price volatility but expressed concern that even an adjustable carbon tax such as proposed earlier this month by Rep. John Larson might not reduce emissions enough to meet climate objectives. At the other extreme, he said, a pure cap-and-trade program lacks an effective mechanism to limit volatility. Whitesell called price volatility not only a market problem but a potential risk factor that would discourage investment in low-carbon energy supply and efficiency. He recommended Rep. Cooper and Doggett’s “Safe Markets” approach: an independent board would establish price targets to meet emissions reductions goals. The board would manage the supply of allowances to meet those price targets similar to the way the Federal Reserve manages interest rates.
Chan of Friends of the Earth predicted that carbon markets would experience boom-bust cycles. She noted that speculators now do the majority of carbon trading in the EU and predicted that they would continue to dominate as carbon markets grow. She suggested that speculation would drive prices higher, spurring development of sub-prime assets and creating the kind of bubble that precipitated the mortgage crisis.
Sub-prime carbon assets, Chan testified, would come from “shoddy” carbon offsets that would trade alongside emission allowances. She noted that in some proposals (e.g., USCAP’s January Blueprint for Legislative Action), offsets represent as much as 30% of carbon traded. Contending that regulatory agencies are often captured by well-heeled financial interests, Chan said FoE wants all offsets banned to preclude sub-prime carbon. She endorsed the structure of Rep. McDermott’s bill which eliminates the basic incentive for speculation by making prices predictable with quarterly sales that limit arbitrage opportunities.
Tufts University economist Gilbert Metcalf agreed with CBO’s Elmendorf that short-term price fluctuation is harmful and can obscure the longer-term price trends needed to set incentives. Metcalf testified that the trade-off between price certainty and emissions certainty can be managed under either a carbon tax or a cap-and-trade approach, but he cited these advantages of a carbon tax: first, it can be quickly implemented using existing structures; second, it avoids price spikes that can erode political support, such as the price spike that led to a relaxation of the cap in the Southern California smog emissions trading program, “RECLAIM.”
Metcalf recommended a “Responsive Emissions Autonomous Carbon Tax” (REACT) that would set an initial carbon tax with a specified growth rate, adjusted periodically to meet cumulative emissions goals, the structure that Rep. Larson’s bill employs. Metcalf suggested that in addition to straightforward implementation, and avoidance of price volatility, a carbon tax could be more easily made both revenue-neutral and regionally-neutral to reflect differing regional energy use patterns.
Alone among the panelists, Margo Thorning of the American Council for Capital Formation testified that all climate proposals would raise prices, hobble the economy, drastically raise unemployment and would not benefit the environment, because U.S. actions would not have any substantial effect on global emissions. She did, however, agree that a carbon tax would cause less volatility in energy prices than a cap and trade system.
Ways & Means Committee members questioned the panel extensively. Chairman Rangel (D-NY) asked whether revenue return would be easier with a carbon tax (as Metcalf had testified). Rangel said, “we want the most efficient system” and asked Elmendorf whether CBO had concluded that a carbon tax would work better. With the caveat that “CBO doesn’t advocate,” Elmendorf replied, “yes, cap-and-trade is less efficient than a carbon tax.”
Rep. McDermott (D-WA) asked why derivatives traders should be trusted to set carbon prices instead of EPA and Treasury. Lashof said we need market regulations. McDermott followed up: “Where have you seen a well-regulated derivatives market?” Metcalf and Chan nodded in agreement with his point.
Metcalf noted that the U.S. isn’t acting alone or first — the EU has led. He suggested that border tax adjustments provide a “GATT-legal” way to create economic incentives for other nations to follow and noted that such adjustments are easier with a carbon tax. Metcalf also noted that the EU had high unemployment long before its climate program started.
Rep. Doggett (D-TX) mentioned that last year’s Inslee-Doyle (“carbon leakage prevention”) bill included incentives for U.S. trading partners to enact their own carbon reduction systems. Doggett touted his “safe markets” approach — “training wheels” to limit volatility in the early years of the program.
Rep. Camp (R- MI) asked whether a carbon “cap and tax” would increase unemployment. Elmendorf replied that unemployment might temporarily rise in the transition to low-carbon energy, but because low-carbon energy production is likely to employ more workers, he expects the policy to reduce long-run unemployment.
Lashof disputed that climate policy would harm the economy. Even using Thorning’s estimate of a 1% relative reduction in GDP, Lashof calculated that the delay in the expected 50% growth to 2020 would amount to only several months. Lashof concluded that climate policy flexible enough to allow various compliance options should help build a more robust economy.
Links to written testimony:
- Douglas Elmendorf, Congressional Budget Office
- Daniel Lashof, Natural Resources Defense Council
- Dallas Burtraw, Resources for the Future
- William Whitesell, Center for Clean Air Policy
- Michelle Chan, Green Investments, Friends of the Earth
- Gilbert Metcalf, Tufts University
- Margo Thorning, American Council for Capital Formation
Graph: Point Carbon EUA OTC assessment
Note: British Columbia’s carbon tax remains the standard-bearer for carbon taxing in the Western Hemisphere. Click here for our Dec. 2015 report on its emissions impacts; click here for our press release; click here to download the data spreadsheet (xlsx).
Canada is set to impose a national carbon price in 2018. The initial price will be a minimum of $10 (Canadian) per metric ton (“tonne”) of CO2, and it will increase annually by $10/tonne to reach $50 in 2022.
The policy was announced on Oct. 3, 2016 by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in an address to Parliament and widely reported across Canada. Here’s the lede from that day’s CBC News:
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau took provinces by surprise Monday by announcing they have until 2018 to adopt a carbon pricing scheme, or the federal government will step in and impose a price for them.
A tough-talking Trudeau told MPs in the House of Commons that provinces can craft a cap-and-trade system or put a direct price on carbon pollution — but it must meet the federal benchmark or “floor price.” “If neither price nor cap and trade is in place by 2018, the government of Canada will implement a price in that jurisdiction,” he said.
Trudeau made the announcement in leading off parliamentary debate on the Paris climate change agreement Monday, making the case for Canada to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 30 per cent from 2005 levels by 2030. Trudeau said the proposed price on carbon dioxide pollution should start at a minimum of $10 a tonne in 2018, rising by $10 each year to $50 a tonne by 2022.
Provinces and territories that choose a cap-and-trade system must decrease emissions in line with both Canada’s target and with the reductions expected in jurisdictions that choose a price-based system. Whatever model a province chooses, Trudeau said, it will be revenue neutral for the federal government, with any revenues generated under the system staying in the province or territory where they are generated.
In U.S. terms — applying a Fall 2016 exchange rate of 1.3 Canadian dollars to 1.0 U.S. and converting tonnes to tons — the price equates to $7 U.S. per ton at the start, rising to $35/ton in 2022. Inputting that price trajectory into CTC’s carbon-tax spreadsheet model suggests that a U.S. carbon tax at that rate would reduce CO2 emissions by 12-13 percent below “otherwise” emissions (without a carbon price) in 2022. While the two economies are far from identical, that result is probably a good first-order approximation of the prospective impact of the Canadian carbon price.
PM Trudeau’s policy appears to be modeled on the carbon tax adopted by British Columbia in 2008, discussed directly below. Both carbon prices employ a linear ramp-up plateauing in the fifth year, and both are revenue-neutral. The parallels point to the importance of putting an actual carbon tax in place to demonstrate its effectiveness and political acceptability and thus provide “proof of concept” to advance to the national level.
British Columbia is Canada’s third largest province (estimated 2015 population of 4.7 million). Its carbon tax is straightforward and transparent in both administration and revenue treatment, and it easily qualifies as the most significant carbon tax in the Western Hemisphere.
British Columbia inaugurated its carbon tax on July 1, 2008 at a rate of $10 (Canadian) per metric ton (“tonne”) of carbon dioxide. The tax incremented by $5/tonne annually, reaching its current level of $30 per tonne of CO2 in July 2012. At the U.S.-Canadian dollar exchange rate (1.00/0.75) in November 2015, and converting from tonnes to short tons, the provincial tax now equates to approximately $20.40 (U.S.) per short ton of CO2.
Emission Reductions from British Columbia’s carbon tax (this section is from our Dec. 2015 report)
From 2008 to 2011, British Columbia’s per capita emissions of carbon dioxide and other taxed greenhouse gases declined, continuing a downward trend that began in 2004. Averaged across the period with the tax (2008 through 2013; no data are available for 2014 or 2015), province-wide per capita emissions from fossil fuel combustion covered by the tax were nearly 13 percent below the average in the pre-tax period under examination (2000-2007), as shown in the graphic directly below.
The 12.9% decrease in British Columbia’s per capita emissions in 2008-2013 compared to 2000-2007 was three-and-a-half times as pronounced as the 3.7% per capita decline for the rest of Canada. This suggests that the carbon tax caused emissions in the province to be appreciably less than they would have been, without the carbon tax.
These figures come with an important caveat: They exclude emissions from electricity production ― a minor emissions category for British Columbia, which draws most of its electricity from abundant (and zero-carbon) hydro-electricity, but a major emissions source for much of Canada. This sector accounted for just 2 percent of total emissions from fossil-fuel combustion in British Columbia in 2013, but for nearly 20 percent in the rest of the country. More importantly, that sector constitutes most of the “low-hanging fruit” for reducing carbon emissions, since electricity generation affords more opportunities for quickly and easily substituting low-carbon supply than any other major sector. Eliminating it from our analysis allowed us to compare changes in emissions over time on an equal basis between BC and the rest of the country.
In terms of total emissions (not per capita), British Columbia emissions of CO2 and other greenhouse gases covered by the carbon tax (but excluding the electricity sector) averaged 6.1% less in 2008-2013 than in 2000-2007. (The reduction was 6.7% when electricity emissions are counted.) The 6.1% contraction is roughly what would be expected from a small carbon tax such as British Columbia’s.
We also found that British Columbia’s carbon tax does not appear to have impeded economic activity in the province. Although GDP in British Columbia grew more slowly during 2008-2013, the period with the carbon tax, than in 2000-2007, the same was true for the rest of Canada. From 2008 to 2013, GDP growth in British Columbia slightly outpaced growth in the rest of the country, with a compound annual average of 1.55% per year in British Columbia, vs. 1.48% outside of the province.
Nevertheless, as seen in the figure at left, GHG emissions increased in British Columbia in 2012 and again in 2013, not just in absolute terms but also per capita. This suggests that the carbon tax needs to resume its annual increments (the last increase was in 2012; its bite has since been eroded by inflation) if emissions are to begin again their downward track.
While we believe our report demonstrates unequivocally the success of the carbon tax at reducing BC’s emissions, our figures are less striking than reductions claimed in some other publications. For example, University of Ottawa law and economics professor Stewart Elgie, an eloquent supporter of the carbon tax, asserted in an 2015 interview in Yale’s “Environment 360” on-line journal, How British Columbia Gained by Putting a Price on Carbon (April 2015), that fossil fuel use in the province fell by 16 percent in the wake of the tax. While Prof. Elgie’s interview is a tour de force on the politics of designing, selling and implementing a carbon tax without disadvantaging vulnerable sectors and alienating the citizenry, we believe the figures in our report provide a more precise and comprehensive portrait.
Raise the Tax?
Not just the case for raising British Columbia’s tax, but a framework for doing so, was laid out in a Feb. 1 (2016) Huffington Post essay by Pembina Institute communications director Stephen Hui. Drawing on a report of the province’s Climate Leadership Team released in January by BC Environment Minister Mary Polak, Hui summarized the key recommendations (there were 32 in all):
- Increase B.C.’s carbon tax by $10 per tonne per year starting in 2018 (and use the incremental revenue to lower the provincial sales tax from 7% to 6%, protect low-income households and implement measures to maintain the competiveness of emissions-intensive, trade-exposed industry);
- Cut methane emissions from the natural-gas sector by 40 per cent within five years;
- Commit to 100 per cent renewable energy on the electricity grid by 2025 (except where fossil fuels are required for backup);
- Require new buildings to be so energy-efficient that they would be capable of meeting most of their annual energy needs with onsite renewable energy within the next 10 years (and starting in 2016 for new public buildings);
- Require an increasing percentage (rising to 30 per cent by 2030) of light-duty vehicles sold in the province to be zero-emission vehicles;
- Review the Climate Leadership Plan every five years.
(Although Hui didn’t say so, one can speculate that the financial incentives inherent in the robustly rising carbon tax levels in the first bullet point might by themselves exert enough force to effectuate most of the other recommendations).
In late March, more than 130 British Columbia businesses called on BC government to increase the carbon tax by $10 per tonne per year, starting in July 2018, as reported by Pembina.
The new Climate Leadership Plan is due out this spring, and the web-based public consultation period expires on April 8 (deferred from March 25). As Hui notes, this is a critical opportunity to rally public support for ambitious new actions.
Revenue from British Columbia’s tax funds more than a billion dollars worth of cuts in individual and business taxes annually, while a tax credit protects low-income households who might not benefit from the tax. All carbon tax revenues are being returned to taxpayers through personal income and business income tax cuts, as well as a low-income tax credit, fulfilling the 2008 promise of revenue-neutrality by Carole Taylor, who as BC finance minister shepherded the tax to implementation. A 2015 study by University of Ottawa graduate students concludes that BC’s carbon tax is “highly progressive” distributionally.
Mary Polak, BC’s minister of environment, commented in 2014, “We were told it would destroy the economy and we’d never get elected again, but we’ve won two elections since [our carbon tax] was enacted five years ago. It’s the revenue neutrality that really makes it work. We collected C$1.2 billion last year and a little bit more was returned.”
The Feb. 2008 BC Budget and Fiscal Plan spelled out the rationale, impacts and mechanics of the tax, including the revenue return provisions. The first 40 pages in particular make essential reading for any carbon tax advocate seeking to master not only the details of carbon taxing but communication tools for making a carbon tax palatable to the public. We also recommend Alan Durning’s March 13, 2008 Grist post, which usefully parsed the four principles embodied in BC’s carbon tax: revenue neutrality, phased implementation, protection for families, and broad coverage.
In May 2009, British Columbia voters re-elected Liberal Party Premier Gordon Campbell, under whose aegis the province’s carbon tax was proposed, devised and instituted, to a third four-year term. Our post, BC Voters Stand By Carbon Tax, reported on the election’s significance for carbon tax campaigners. See also Macleans magazine’s detailed take, Did Gordon Campbell Win Because of His Carbon Tax? In the same vein, the Vancouver Sun reported in November 2009 on the cost to the opposition New Democratic Party of its strident opposition to the BC carbon tax during the May provincial election.
In July 2012, on the occasion of the fourth (and final) annual increase in the BC carbon tax, the Toronto-based Financial Post newspaper chimed in with 4 key reasons why BC’s carbon tax is working. (The Post drew its text from the June, 2012 report by Sustainable Prosperity, British Columbia’s Carbon Tax Shift: The First Four Years.)
- Drop in Fuel Consumption: “The carbon tax has contributed substantial environmental benefits to British Columbia (BC). Since the tax took effect in 2008, British Columbians’ use of petroleum fuels (subject to the tax) has dropped by 15.1% — and by 16.4% compared to the rest of Canada. BC’s greenhouse gas emissions have shown a similarly substantial decline (although that analysis is based on one year’s less data).”
- Growth Unaffected: “BC’s GDP growth has outpaced the rest of Canada’s (by a small amount) since the carbon tax came into effect – suggesting that it has not adversely affected the province’s economy, as some had predicted. This finding fits with evidence from seven other countries that have had similar carbon tax shifts in place for over a decade, resulting in neutral or slightly positive effects on GDP.”
- Revenue-Neutral: “The BC government has kept its promise to make the tax shift ‘revenue neutral’, meaning no net increase in taxes. In fact, to date it has returned far more in tax cuts (by over $300 million) than it has received in carbon tax revenue – resulting in a net benefit for taxpayers. BC’s personal and corporate income tax rates are now the lowest in Canada, due to the carbon tax shift.”
- Greenhouse Gas Emissions Declining: “From 2008 to 2010, BC’s per capita GHG emissions declined by 9.9% — a substantial reduction. During this period, BC’s reductions outpaced those in the rest of Canada by more than 5%.”
A similar tack was taken in a July, 2012 NY Times op-ed, The Most Sensible Tax of All, by Yoram Bauman, an environmental economist and fellow at the Sightline Institute in Seattle, and Shi-Ling Hsu, law professor at Florida State University and former law professor at the University of British Columbia, and author of “The Case for a Carbon Tax” (Island Press, 2011). (Bauman has since become the spearhead of Carbon Washington and its Measure I-732 Carbon Tax initiative.)
A later summation is a July, 2014 Toronto Globe & Mail op-ed, The shocking truth about B.C.’s carbon tax: it works. Also useful is a July, 2014 op-ed in the Guardian, A carbon tax that’s good for business?, that cogently compares B.C.’s successful revenue-neutral carbon tax with Australia’s short-lived revenue-raising one.
BC’s Advantage — Abundant Hydro-Electricity
British Columbia’s carbon tax applies to energy sold and consumed in the province from fossil fuel combustion. (Notably, the tax excludes coal exported for combustion elsewhere.) Because the province is blessed with abundant sources of hydro-electric power, the price of electricity there is only minimally affected by its carbon tax. But BC’s power grid is linked to the U.S. Pacific Northwest and Alberta. Seasonal and daily fluctuations in power availability and electricity demand result in electricity inflows and outflows, in turn raising the question of whether BC’s carbon tax applies to the full carbon content of electricity consumed there.
Recent analysis indicates that at times, up to a quarter of BC’s electricity may be generated by fossil fuel sources outside the province, whose carbon emissions are not covered by the tax. Nevertheless, this should be seen as a minor flaw in BC’s carbon-tax leadership. Indeed, this instance of carbon leakage points to the need for adjacent jurisdictions, perhaps especially those linked through the power grid, to enact their own carbon taxes, as part of the march to a globally-harmonized carbon price.
Canada (other than British Columbia)
Why Saskatchewan should join the carbon-pricing club, Christopher Ragan, Globe & Mail, 29 Feb 2016.
Canada’s Atlantic provinces eyeing regional carbon price – PEI environment minister, Mike Szabo, Carbon Pulse, 14 Feb 2016.
Ottawa seeks to set national minimum on carbon pricing, Shawn McCarthy, Globe & Mail, 17 Feb 2016.
Canada’s second largest province began collecting a carbon tax on “hydrocarbons” (petroleum, natural gas and coal) on Oct. 1, 2007. Though the tax rate is quite small, the tax nevertheless made Quebec the first North American state or province to charge a carbon tax.
Here are details from the Toronto Globe & Mail (June 7, 2007, updated April 3, 2009):
Quebec will introduce Canada’s first carbon tax this fall, forcing energy producers, distributors and refiners to pay about $200-million a year in taxes as one part of an ambitious plan to fight global warming.
About 50 energy companies will be required to pay the new tax, including Ultramar Ltd., Petro-Canada and Shell Canada Ltd., which operate refineries in the province as well as distributors Imperial Oil Ltd., Irving Oil Ltd. and independent retailers.
Oil companies will be required to pay 0.8 cents for each litre of gasoline distributed in Quebec and 0.938 cents for each litre of diesel fuel. The tax is expected to generate $69-million a year from gasoline sales, $36-million from diesel fuel and $43-million from heating oil.
At March 2008 exchange rates, the petroleum tax rate equated to just 3.1 cents (U.S.) per gallon of gasoline and 3.6 cents for diesel. Moreover, because only a tiny fraction of electricity in Quebec is generated from fossil fuels (virtually all is from hydroelectricity), power prices are essentially unaffected.
Spread across Quebec’s population of 7,546.000 million (2006), the anticipated annual carbon tax revenue of $200 million is only $26.50 per person per year ($26.75 U.S.). For the U.S. to generate the same per capita revenue through a carbon tax would entail a rate of just $4.26 per ton of carbon (equivalent to $1.16 per ton of carbon dioxide), which equates to 1.1 cent (U.S.) per gallon of gas.
The worldwide fossil fuel divestment campaign got a huge boost this week when Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger boldly thrust his paper into the fray. Britain’s most respected newspaper is urging readers to sign a petition by 350.org demanding that the Gates Foundation and the Wellcome Charitable Trust divest from the world’s top 200 fossil fuel companies within five years.
Combined, the two charities manage over $70 billion in assets. Both say they consider climate change a serious threat. But last year the Gates Foundation invested at least $1 billion of its holdings in 35 of the top 200 carbon reserve companies, while the Wellcome Trust invested $834 million in fuel-industry mainstays Shell, BP, Schlumberger, Rio Tinto and BHP Billiton.
We’re both elated and concerned by Rusbridger’s audacious move. Elated that this distinguished and brave journalist has thrown down the gauntlet to the global fossil fuel industry. But concerned that this divestment campaign may raise false hopes.
As Matthew Yglesias articulated last year in a thoughtful piece on Slate, divestment by socially responsible investors, universities and even governments won’t starve capital flows to fossil fuel corporations anytime soon. That’s because in a global market, every share of stock we activists dutifully unload will be snatched up in milliseconds by some trader who can bank on humanity’s continued dependence on fossil fuels to continue generating profits.
South Africa’s historic divestment campaign — the one that helped topple Apartheid and enshrined divestment as a tool against oppression — was paired with a UN-sponsored boycott of South African goods. Not just aiming at the supply of capital but destroying the demand for goods sheared the Apartheid regime’s economic lifeline to the rest of the world more than either policy could have done alone.
No, we’re not suggesting a global boycott of fossil fuels. Rather, we point to the Guardian’s campaign to reiterate that the best and maybe only broadly effective way to reduce fossil fuel demand (which is the point of a boycott) is with a carbon tax. Economists agree on that policy prescription just as strongly as climate scientists agree on the diagnosis. And national-level carbon taxes can be designed to draw our or any nation’s global trading partners into carbon taxing, which means that a move by a big economy to impose a carbon tax will trigger a wave of followers.
So by all means, divest. The cultural and perhaps political opprobrium that divestment can spark is long overdue for the fossil fuels industry. But let’s not assume that divestment alone will break the chains of fossil fuel dependence. Even with the Guardian’s welcome campaign, the world still needs a transparent price on carbon pollution to strangle demand for fossil fuels by replacing them with non-carbon alternatives.
A new report from a British Columbia think tank reveals the inside story behind B.C.’s successful tax on CO2 pollution. “How to Adopt a Winning Carbon Price, Top Ten Takeaways from Interviews with the Architects of British Columbia’s Carbon Tax,” published by Clean Energy Canada, draws on extensive interviews with senior government officials, elected representatives and a broad range of experts who helped shape or respond to this groundbreaking policy.
British Columbia inaugurated its carbon tax on July 1, 2008 at a rate of $10 (Canadian) per metric ton (“tonne”) of carbon dioxide released from coal, oil and natural gas burned in the province. The tax incremented by $5/tonne annually, reaching its current level of $30 per tonne of CO2 in July 2012. At the current U.S.-Canadian dollar exchange rate (1.00/0.80), and converting from tonnes to short tons, the B.C. tax now equates to around $22 (U.S.) per ton of CO2.
In the tax’s initial four years (2008 to 2012), CO2 emissions from fuel combustion in British Columbia fell 5% — or 9% per capita, considering the province’s 4.5% population growth over that span. [NB: These figures are revised downward from the original version of this post; see editor’s note at end.] During the same period, emissions from the rest of Canada increased slightly. Revenue from the tax has funded more than a billion dollars worth of cuts in individual and business taxes annually, while a tax credit protects low-income households who might not benefit from the tax cuts. [Read more…]
The entrenched power of the fossil-fuel industry and its political backers isn’t all that stands in the way of taxes on carbon pollution. Outmoded ideas and enduring myths about energy use and taxes are also factors.
This page describes and dissects some of these misconceptions. Please send us your own favorite fallacies about carbon taxes. Ditto your suggestions or criticisms of ours.
Myth #1. A tax on carbon pollution will harm the poor and middle class.
Who says? Some low-income advocates, some left-of-center activists, some conservatives masking as populists.
Rebuttal: The wealthy use more carbon-based energy than the rest of us, by far. For every gallon of gasoline used by the poorest quintile (20%) of households, the richest quintile uses three.
A similar pattern holds for the other sources of carbon pollution: electricity, jet fuel, even diesel fuel that powers the trucks that deliver goods. It’s true that consumption taxes, a category including carbon taxes, are “regressive” — they take a larger share of income from low-income households — but that’s true only when the use of the tax revenues is ignored. The net impact can be made “progressive,” i.e., beneficial to people of below-average means, by proper distribution of those revenues.
One policy option is to distribute the revenue directly to households as regular “dividends.” Climate scientist Jim Hansen and the Citizens Climate Lobby are among those calling for all carbon tax revenues to be returned to citizens in equal, monthly “green checks.” In 2016 CCL released a working paper analyzing the short-term financial impact of a $15/ton carbon fee under this plan.
The report, which estimated household carbon footprints with new levels of detail, including crucial geographical variation, found that 53% of U.S. households (58% of individuals) would reap a positive net financial benefit, i.e., receiving more via the dividends than they would pay directly and indirectly in higher fossil fuel prices. The benefits would be greatest for lower-income, younger, senior, and minority households with nearly 90% of households below the poverty line benefitting from a carbon tax. The distributional effect would essentially shift purchasing power from the top quintile of households to the bottom two quintiles, highlighting the income-progressive nature of a fee-and-dividend plan.
A worthy alternative, which Al Gore and many economists advocate, is “tax-shifting” — use carbon tax revenues to reduce regressive taxes such as sales taxes and payroll taxes. (See our Issues page, Managing Impacts.) British Columbia has enacted and annually increased its revenue-neutral carbon tax with popular support by dedicating all revenue to reducing a variety of other taxes ranging from sales taxes to business taxes.
What’s really regressive is the impact of global warming. Sea level rise, food shortages and storms like Katrina, Irene and Sandy hit the poorest hardest.
Myth #2. Carbon taxes won’t change habits — after all, high gasoline prices haven’t cut usage.
Who says? An odd collection of groups and individuals, including former Sierra Club “CAFE” (car fuel-economy) lobbyist Dan Becker (“Even as gas prices have doubled and trebled over the past several years, we see little change in driving behavior,” Becker told the New York Times in October, 2006.)
Rebuttal: Four points are key. First, rises in gasoline prices have cut usage, and by more than a little. Comparing 2008, the last pre-recession year, to 2003, U.S. gasoline usage was unchanged even though economic activity was up 13%. What did the trick was the 73% higher price “real” (inflation-adjusted) price. Second, much of the increase in energy prices in recent years was masked by price volatility; as we show here, over the past decade or more, gas prices have fallen almost as often on a month-to-month basis as they have risen, masking the upward trend and convincing millions of Americans that prices would head south soon enough to make adjustments unnecessary. Third, other sectors, especially electricity generation, which emits nearly twice as much CO2 as cars, are even more price-sensitive. Last, price-responsiveness will grow as households have opportunities to buy more fuel-efficient vehicles and appliances, and as society transitions to a more fuel-efficient infrastructure — once we enact carbon taxes to send clear and strong price signals. (See our Issues page, Carbon Tax Effectiveness, for more discussion.)
Myth #3. Taxes on carbon emissions aren’t necessary. Vehicle efficiency standards and mandates or subsidies for wind turbines, ethanol, hydrogen, nuclear power [pick one or more] will solve the problem.
Rebuttal: Standards and subsidies are blunt instruments — vehicle efficiency standards don’t reduce vehicle usage, for example — and are often contested for years and then undermined by “gaming” (viz., the “light trucks” exemption from CAFE standards, or tax credits for hybrid SUV’s). Moreover, fuel usage is ever-changing and diffuse (a majority of petroleum is not used in cars or light trucks, for example), while efficiency standards are by nature both usage-specific and frozen in time. As for supply, economic theory predicts, and experience confirms, that raising the price of a harmful activity is always more effective at reducing that activity than is lowering prices of the thousands of imaginable alternatives — as we documented in the comments we submitted in January 2014 to the Senate Finance Committee. Only taxes on carbon pollution from fossil fuels can create the clear, rapid, across-the-board incentives needed to propel a massive shift to clean alternatives.
Myth #4. Heavy fuel taxes will constrict the economy.
Who says? Traditional growth champions, fossil fuel interests.
Rebuttal: Price volatility wreaks far more economic havoc than high or even steadily rising energy prices. Even fairly steep increases can be manageable so long as they’re regular and predictable, particularly now that the share of economic activity occupied by the fossil fuels sector is at an historic low — provided the revenues are distributed or tax-shifted back to Americans. And carbon taxes need not be draconian to accomplish their mission. Our program of recurring annual increases of $10-15 per ton of emitted carbon dioxide equates to 5-10% increases in energy prices per annum (with the percentages shrinking as the “base” rises and as non-fossil energy assumes a larger share). By comparison, the average annual real increase in U.S. gasoline prices in 2003-07 was 11%, but that didn’t stop the economy from growing at 3% a year. Needless to say, the true long-term threat to the economy (and everything else) is unchecked global warming, as the National Academy of Sciences warned years ago and the National Climate Assessment reiterated more urgently in 2014.
Myth #5. Carbon taxes will provide more revenue for government to squander.
Who says? Anti-tax groups, some conservatives, Tea-Partiers.
Rebuttal: Not if the tax is made revenue-neutral” via dividends and/or tax-shifting (see rebutgtal to Myth #1). Because higher taxes on fuels will create a strong “market pull” to clean energy, carbon taxes will put a big dent in fossil fuel use and CO2 emissions without having to earmark revenues for hybrid cars, mass transit, biofuels, etc. — or to lawmakers’ pet projects.
Myth #6. Heavy fuel taxes will price U.S. goods out of the marketplace.
Who says? Some business groups, some labor unions.
Rebuttal: This argument assumes a static economy, sans adaptation and innovation. In reality, increased energy taxes will shrink the trade deficit (by cutting both volumes and pre-tax prices of imported oil). The higher prices will also spark innovation in clean, efficient technologies better suited for world markets than, say, supersized automobiles. Finally, taxing energy will create parity with our traditional competitors — the EU and Japan — while encouraging like-minded actions in India, China and other emerging economies. In the interim, border tax adjustments can equalize prices of imports from non-carbon-taxing nations.
Myth #7. A carbon cap-and-trade system is as good as a carbon tax, and more politically feasible.
Who says (or said)? Too many “Big Green” groups; elected officials seeking to “hide the price” signals; business organizations and corporations that know a complex program like cap-and-trade can be more easily gamed in their favor.
Rebuttal: Click here for CTC’s dissection of the logistical and strategic differences between carbon taxes and cap-and-trade (they’re not minor). As for political feasibility, the political process has borne out our belief that carbon cap-and-trade was too complex, regressive, cumbersome and undemocratic to succeed. Supporters of cap-and-trade were never able to resolve this contradiction: either it wouldn’t raise fossil fuel prices, in which case it would be ineffectual; or it would raise them after all, provoking an unstoppable backlash among a citizenry that hadn’t signed off on the higher prices and wouldn’t be getting the dividends from the tax revenues, while carbon-market participants skimmed big profits. Moreover, cap-and-trade’s complexity guaranteed that it couldn’t be implemented for several years — the Northeast states’ electricity cap-and-trade system took five years to institute — whereas a carbon tax can be implemented within months, as British Columbia demonstrated with its 2008 carbon tax startup.
Myth #8. Americans are too myopic, and our politics too broken, for even revenue-neutral carbon taxation to ever take root here.
Who says: Veterans of failed past efforts to take on entitlements; assorted skeptics and cynics — including, sometimes, ourselves.
Rebuttal: This is the myth even we at CTC can’t dismiss out of hand. Witness the failure of past fuel-tax efforts, the resistance to fossil-fuel-displacing wind farms in some areas, and the persistence of costly tax entitlements like the deductibility of home mortgage interest payments from federal taxes — each, in its own way, testament to the dictum that “losers cry louder than winners sing,” in the words of University of Michigan tax policy expert Joel Slemrod.
Nevertheless, we’re working for a different outcome for carbon taxes. For one thing, emphasizing revenue-neutral carbon taxing can help dispel the presumption that a carbon tax is a tax hike. Second, because the non-climate benefits of carbon taxes are enormous, from cleaner air to less road gridlock, there are many opportunities to broaden support from traditional environmentalists. Finally, unlike 1980 or 1993, when fuel-tax proposals that were primarily designed for budget-balancing went down to defeat, the stakes are frighteningly high. Stiff carbon taxes can’t rescue the climate by themselves, but without them a rescue is virtually inconceivable. We remain hopeful that the American people will rise to the challenge.
The Case for a Carbon Tax (by Prof. Shi-Ling Hsu), reviewed here. Chapter 4 offers forceful responses to standard (and largely mythological) arguments against carbon taxes and chapter 5 delves into some of the psychology that biases many people against using price instruments to address global warming.
Could a new paper by two economists at the University of California at Santa Barbara upend the belief that carbon pricing cannot further environmental justice?
Drawing on millions of simulations of pollution trails from industrial smokestacks across California, UCSB PhD candidate Danae Hernandez-Cortes and Associate Prof. Kyle C. Meng have amassed convincing evidence that the state’s carbon cap-and-trade program has lessened the disproportionate dumping of pollution on disadvantaged communities.
So ingrained is this inequity that a decade ago, ground-level concentrations of pathogenic carbon “co-pollutants” — toxic particles and gaseous oxides — emanating from those smokestacks were three to four times higher in disadvantaged communities than elsewhere, according to the UCSB analysis.
The persistence of this and other stark instances of environmental injustice has nourished a conviction among many climate advocates that carbon pricing, whether rendered indirectly via emission permits or directly through carbon taxes, cannot mitigate pollution disparities affecting historically-burdened environmental-justice communities. As this belief has proliferated, some advocates have turned against carbon pricing measures as a way to reduce fossil fuel use and greenhouse gas emissions.
Now comes the UCSB economists’ finding that during the first five years of California’s carbon cap-and-trade program, what they call the state’s “EJ (environmental justice) gap” shrank considerably. From 2012 to 2017, the pollution disparity between disadvantaged and other communities fell an estimated 30 percent for particulates, 21 percent for nitrogen oxides and 24 percent for sulfur oxides.
Importantly, Hernandez-Cortes and Meng computed these shrinkages relative to a control group: industrial facilities whose smaller sizes exempted them from the cap-and-trade program. In this way, the researchers were able to conclude that “while the EJ gap was widening prior to 2013,” when cap-and-trade began, “it has since fallen by 21-30% across pollutants due to the policy” (emphasis added).
Scope of the UCSB paper
Hernandez-Cortes and Meng posted their paper, Do Environmental Market Cause Environmental Injustice? Evidence from California’s Carbon Market, in May on the web site of the prestigious National Bureau of Economic Research as a working paper — a preliminary form intended to make cutting-edge research available ahead of final publication. (Although the NBER posting is behind a paywall, it is available gratis at Ms. Hernandez-Cortes’ and Prof. Meng’s web sites, here and here.)
Because the EJ gap worsened considerably from 2008 to 2012, the post-2012 narrowing of the gap that the authors ascribe to the cap-and-trade program has only yielded a modest net improvement from the 2008 status quo. Nevertheless, the paper’s linkage of the 2012-2017 shrinkage of the EJ gap in California to a statewide program pricing carbon emissions is an apparent first.
Surprisingly, the Hernandez-Cortes – Meng paper has not attracted notice among climate advocates or researchers. It is not a casual read. It employs the techniques, and language, of mathematical modeling and statistics. That, along with its reliance on a “difference-in-difference research design” to sift the impacts of the cap-and-trade program from other ongoing phenomena, made it impracticable for the authors to express some of their findings as simple averages.
Moreover, the sheer size of their research sample — more than 300 power generators, refineries, cement plants, incinerators and factories that are California’s largest “stationary” carbon emitters — prevented the authors from tracing the specific pathways by which the cap-and-trade program elicited changes in individual plant designs and operations that brought about the emission reductions.
Nevertheless, their findings are unequivocal: the gaps in pollution burdens inflicted upon EJ communities vis-a-vis other locales narrowed conclusively — “statistically significantly” in academic parlance — for all four examined pollutants. The stigma against carbon-pricing policies as tools of environmental injustice is ripe for re-examination.
Breaking the mold
Emissions pricing has never gained much of a foothold among environmental justice campaigners. While mainstream economists traditionally view pricing of pollution as a necessary and benign market corrective, many activists recoil from its implicit acquiescence to capitalist means of exchange. To some, proposals to commodify pollution may serve as an unwelcome reminder of the central role of stolen labor and stolen land in the historical amassing of wealth by white planters and merchants. Emissions pricing can also appear antithetical to the Indigenous ethos that to monetize Nature is to desecrate it.
Added to this are the scars visited by an earlier California experiment with cap-and-trade — the RECLAIM (Regional Clean Air Incentives Market) program aimed at cutting emissions of smog-causing nitrogen oxides. By some accounts, the program’s softening of emission caps following the Enron-instigated power shortages in 2000-2001 greenlighted Chevron Corp. to bulk up on emission permits and expand operations at its sprawling Richmond petroleum refinery north of San Francisco rather than invest in costlier clean-up technology. The resulting concentration of pollutants in surrounding Black and brown neighborhoods erupted into a cause célèbre of environmental injustice, particularly in 2012 when a distillation unit at the refinery exploded, inundating fence-line neighborhoods in noxious plumes and reportedly sending 15,000 area residents to hospitals.
Initially, EJ antipathy to emissions pricing focused on cap-and-trade systems, not only because of the Chevron disaster but also because “pollution markets” were enabling blatant Wall Street profiteering. Moreover, early emissions trading schemes were riven by “offsets” that let polluters substitute offshore cuts for local action. Of late, distrust of pollution pricing has come to afflict even the straightforward taxing of carbon emissions.
“Carbon taxes will always be low, will always be evaded, do not cut pollution to the degree needed, and are greenwash.” So declared Carbon Pricing: A Critical Perspective for Community Resistance, a 2017 manifesto of the Indigenous Environmental Network and the Environmental Justice Alliance. A year later, as retiring California Governor Jerry Brown was convening a blue-chip “Global Climate Action Summit” in San Francisco, Indigenous and EJ demonstrators protesting Brown’s refusal to rein in petroleum fracking marched under a banner proclaiming that “Carbon pricing is colonialism.”
These harsh expressions could be viewed as an outgrowth of the failure of laissez-faire capitalism to contain carbon pollution, or, at a minimum, to alleviate its inequitable burdens on disadvantaged communities and households. Some of the stiffening line against carbon pricing may also be traced to the general radicalization of resistance movements during the Trump presidency, which has seen communities of color increasingly besieged by environmental assaults, systemic economic inequality, violent policing and Covid-19.
Concurrently, antipathy to carbon pricing was gaining further traction from an emerging body of research into the incidence of pollution from California’s carbon cap-and-trade law known as AB 32.
In 2015, a team of academics led by Prof. Lara Cushing, a well-known health-sciences scholar formerly at San Francisco State University and U-C Berkeley who is now at UCLA, began posting findings from an ambitious research project on AB 32. Their investigations culminated in a widely cited paper, Carbon trading, co-pollutants, and environmental equity: Evidence from California’s cap-and-trade program (2011–2015), which was published in the journal PLOS Medicine in 2018.
The Cushing team concluded that a majority (52 percent) of California “regulated facilities” — essentially, the same 300 or more factories and power plants that Hernandez-Cortes and Meng would tackle in their paper — increased rather than curbed their emissions of greenhouse gases following implementation of the cap-and-trade program. Moreover, the resulting increases in co-pollutants were disproportionately concentrated in communities with “higher proportions of people of color and poor, less educated, and linguistically isolated residents,” according to the PLOS paper.
These findings left a strong imprint on discourse about carbon pricing and environmental justice. Indeed, Prof. Hernandez-Cortes of UCSB mentioned in an email that she and Prof. Meng launched their research project after reading the original Cushing et al. working paper in 2015. Because of the salience of the issue as well as the “natural experiment” afforded by California’s carbon cap-and-trade program — the world’s second largest, after the European Union’s Emissions Trading System (ETS) — the UCSB scholars devised a research methodology to build on the Cushing team’s work in three respects.
How the UCSB paper improves on the Cushing analysis of AB-32
First, Hernandez-Cortes and Meng established a control group of 440 lesser California emitters that were not regulated by the cap-and-trade program; this “difference-in-difference research design” enabled them to weed out macroeconomic and other factors to discern the cap-and-trade program’s specific effects on emissions from the 306 larger, “covered” facilities. (Strong increases in economic activity across the state — California’s economy grew more than 17 percent during the five-year 2010-2015 period covered in the Cushing paper — also made it valuable to include a control group.)
Second, Hernandez-Cortes and Meng sought to track where the carbon co-pollutants deposit after they have been emitted. The work by Cushing et al. implicitly assumed that only households within a 2.5-mile ring of a source are exposed to its emissions. Yet pollutants can and do travel scores and even hundreds of kilometers, especially from very large emitters, whose plumes typically exhaust through tall smokestacks and at high velocity.
To “explicitly model where pollution goes,” Hernandez-Cortes and Meng fed estimates of each facility’s emissions into an atmospheric transport model that traces pollutants’ paths once they have gone up and out the stack. “This was a highly computationally intensive process,” they noted in an email, “involving modeling over 11 million trajectories [and] taking over a week’s worth of high-performance cluster computing time.”
Third, whereas the Cushing findings emphasized whether each facility’s emissions rose or fell from 2012 to 2017 — an approach that flattened broad ranges of data into simple yes-or-no form — the UCSB economists calculated facilities’ emission quantities along with their deposition. This approach steered clear of potential distortions from assigning equal weight to the 300-plus facilities.
California’s Shrinking EJ Gap, Quantified
The table below summarizes the key findings of from the Hernandez-Cortes – Meng working paper.
The columns in yellow display ground-level concentrations of particulate and gaseous carbon co-pollutants from California’s 306 largest carbon emitters in 2008, expressed in the standard pollution-exposure metric of micrograms of pollution suspended in air. Perhaps even more striking than the “deltas” (numerical differences) between pollution concentrations in environmental justice vs. other communities are the ratios. Pollution levels in the EJ or disadvantaged communities were three to four times as high as in other areas. While these disparities were probably attenuated by pollution from mobile sources, which tend to be evenly distributed but were not included in the cap-and-trade program or the Hernandez-Cortes – Meng analysis, the differences are stark nonetheless.
The next column, in green, shows that by 2012 each pollutant’s “EJ gap” — the excess pollution deposited on disadvantaged communities relative to other California locales — had worsened even from their shocking 2008 base. Thereafter, however, coinciding with the onset of the cap-and-trade program, the gap narrowed significantly, as shown in the final two columns.
Consider the Hernandez-Cortes – Meng findings for PM2.5, in the third row of the table. PM2.5, designating fine particulate matter that lodges deep in the lungs and is implicated in illness and death from heart and lung diseases and strokes, is considered the most deadly air pollutant associated with industrial processes that emit climate-damaging carbon dioxide.
Over the four years starting in 2008, the UCSB economists found, the gap in levels of PM2.5 between EJ and other localities widened, from 3.0 micrograms per cubic meter to 3.8. However, beginning in 2013, the EJ gap for fine particulates contracted, falling to 2.7 µg/m3 in 2017 (the last year for which pollution data was available). That was 30 percent less than the 2012 gap of 3.8, and less than the baseline figure of 3.0 µg/m3 as well.
The state’s cap-and-trade program had a similarly beneficial impact on oxides of nitrogen, or NOx. This dangerous pollutant is the key constituent (along with volatile organic compounds) of the photochemical smog that since the late 1950s has infamously blanketed skies and seared eyes and lungs across much of California, with disadvantaged communities bearing more of the impact. NOx is also a precursor of “secondary” formation of deadly particulates. As shown in the table’s top row, from 2012 to 2017 the EJ gap for NOx shrank to 4.8 µg/m3, a level 21 percent below the 2012 figure.
Over the same five years, the environmental justice gap shrank by 24 percent for sulfur oxides and 30 percent for larger particulate matter, known as PM10, matching the decline in PM2.5.
Implications of California’s narrowed EJ gap
For all of its depth and rigor — or perhaps on account of it — the Hernandez-Cortes and Meng paper does not seek to explain why California’s cap-and-trade program should have shrunk the EJ gap in carbon co-pollution. The marked reductions they reported in their paper for all four pollutants are perhaps surprising, given that California’s cap-and-trade program was designed solely to engender the greatest pollution declines from emission sources that could most easily be abated at the lowest cost, without regard to location or incidence.
If, and only if, low-abatement-cost sources already are concentrated in EJ communities, would those populations be expected to enjoy above-average percentage rates of pollution reduction as a result of carbon pricing. Or so most economists reason. (Although AB 32 contains provisions for allocating a portion of the carbon permit revenues to disadvantaged communities, these would not be expected to induce facility owners and operators to concentrate emission reductions in those communities.)
For now, the UCSB economists’ finding that California’s comprehensive statewide cap-and-trade program has narrowed the EJ gap should be considered a fortuitous result. It should not be used to argue that carbon pricing policies, whether delivered via cap-and-trade or carbon taxes, will necessarily shrink EJ gaps elsewhere.
This caveat should not be taken too far, however. Even if disadvantaged communities shouldn’t expect carbon pricing to bestow disproportionate percentage reductions in emissions, pricing will still tend to deliver greater quantity reductions to those communities — and to any communities that suffer from excessive burdens of pollutants that the pricing measures address. This follows mathematically from the fact that a given percentage reduction applied to a larger amount translates to a greater quantity reduction than the same percentage reduction applied to a smaller amount.
A schematic example
To grasp this, consider Community A that suffers 100 daily doses of pollution while Community B suffers 50. A 20 percent reduction applied to both will cut the burden to A by 20 while cutting the burden to B by just 10. If the “before” EJ gap is expressed as a percent, with A suffering a 100 percent greater burden relative to B, then the percentage gap is unaffected by the across-the-board (20 percent) reduction, since the new burdens, which are 80 for A and 40 for B, still amount to a 100 percent gap. Yet it is also true that A’s reduction of 20 is twice B’s reduction of 10 — and that the EJ gap expressed as an amount has shrunk from 50 to 40.
This schematic suggests that community-neutral pricing policies stand to additionally benefit disadvantaged communities in health terms, even if the relative bias of disproportionate burdens on those communities remains untouched.
This is not to argue for community-neutral policies in the environmental realm or any other arena. Nevertheless, it is important to point out that such policies need not replicate the felicitous outcome thus far from California’s cap-and-trade program in order to benefit disadvantaged communities in an absolute sense, and, further, to confer larger benefits on them than on relatively privileged areas.
This is one of half-a-dozen pages compiling expressions of support for carbon taxes (or more targeted taxes, e.g., on gasoline) by notable individuals and organizations. To access other pages with different supporter categories, click on the Progress link on the navigation bar and move to the desired category.
Dr. James Hansen, Director, NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, the nation’s and perhaps the world’s pre-eminent climate scientist, has been a forceful advocate of a U.S. revenue-neutral carbon tax since at least 2006.
An effective fossil energy policy should include a tax on carbon emissions… Fuel taxes should encourage conservation, but with rebates to taxpayers so that the government revenue from the tax does not increase. The taxpayer can use his rebate to fill his gas-guzzler if he likes, but most people will eventually reduce their use of fuel in order to save money, and will spend the rebate on something else. With slow and continual increases of fuel cost, energy consumption will decline. The economy will not be harmed. Indeed, it will be improved. (New York Review of Books, July 13, 2006, The Threat to the Planet)
In 2008, Dr. Hansen further articulated his proposal for a gradually-rising carbon tax with revenue returned through equal and recurring “dividends”:
A price on emissions that cause harm is essential. Yes, a carbon tax. Carbon tax with 100 percent dividend is needed to wean us off fossil fuel addiction. Tax and dividend allows the marketplace, not politicians, to make investment decisions… Carbon tax on coal, oil and gas is simple, applied at the first point of sale or port of entry. (Full text of June 23, 2008 speech here.)
On the eve of the 2009 Copenhagen climate summit, Dr. Hansen’s NY Times op-ed, “Cap and Fade” forcefully critiqued proposals for cap-and-trade with offsets, arguing instead for an upstream carbon “fee” with all revenue returned directly to taxpayers via monthly “dividends.” Continuing this theme, in April 2010, Dr Hansen called on President Obama to seize moral leadership on the climate issue with a “carbon fee and green check.” Hansen acknowledged Sen. Cantwell’s CLEAR (“cap-and-dividend”) bill which would return 75% of revenue as well-intentioned but ineffective due to its reliance on a cap and its “low carbon price.” (Huffington Post).
In late 2009, Dr. Hansen published Storms of My Grandchildren: The Truth About the Coming Climate Catastrophe and the Last Chance to Save Humanity, a book weaving climate science, politics and personal experience into a heartfelt and compelling narrative. Auden Schendler reviewed “Storms” in Grist:
The science is fascinating, especially when presented in the context of a 30-year effort to make our government understand the dire need for aggressive action. But in the end, Hansen’s book is about something else. It’s about how one should live a life; the book is as much about Hansen’s answer to this philosophical question as it is about climate change.
Disclosure: Dr. Hansen has appeared at two Congressional briefings (2008 and 2009) and a fundraising house party (2010) organized by the Carbon Tax Center and our allied organization, the Price Carbon Campaign, and at our Wesleyan “Pricing Carbon” Conference (2010).
Stephen Chu, director, Univ. of California Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory: “Somehow we have to figure out how to boost the price of gasoline to the levels in Europe.” (Times Tough for Energy Overhaul, Wall Street Journal, Dec. 12, 2008. The Journal noted that “Mr. Chu has called for gradually ramping up gasoline taxes over 15 years to coax consumers into buying more-efficient cars and living in neighborhoods closer to work.”) Dr. Chu said this upon his designation as President Obama’s Energy Secretary. Since assuming that post, Secretary Chu has backpedaled from his support of energy taxes, at least in public.
William Moomaw, Professor of International Environmental Policy and Director of the Center for International Environment and Resource Policy, Tufts University:
As a first step, we should dismantle the web of policies that overwhelmingly favors fossil-fuel production and use and actively discriminates against new technologies and practices that would reduce harmful emissions… The second step is to institute federal, state, and local policies that reverse the disincentives created by the existing policy structure and force users to pay the costs of extracting, transporting, and burning fossil fuels. The most straightforward and effective policy changes would include a carbon tax.
(Article co-authored with Judy Mayzer in Jan/Feb 2007 “Can We Stop Global Warming?” issue of Boston Review; Moomaw, holder of a PhD in Physical Chemistry from M.I.T., has been a lead author on four major IPCC reports.)
Steven Running, University of Montana Professor of Ecology: “The first thing we need to do – and it’s highly unpopular – we really need to put a carbon tax that represents the impact carbon emissions have on the world. We need to have five-dollar-a-gallon gas. I’m probably going to be hung in Helena for saying that, but it’s true.” Remarks at an Audubon Society seminar, “Climate Change: What the Future May Hold for Montana’s Plant and Animal Communities,” in Helena, MT, Feb. 27, 2006 (reported by the Helena Independent Record).
David Suzuki, Canadian geneticist, broadcaster and environmentalist has strongly endorsed British Columbia’s revenue-neutral carbon tax and supported a similar nationwide carbon tax for Canada.
This guest post is by Daniel Ambrosio, a development finance professional working in New York.
The European Union’s massive new economic recovery plan “is notable,” says Harrisburg University engineering professor Arvind Ravikumar, “for its focus on climate action, sustainable investments, and a just transition fund.” Writing in MIT Technology Review, Ravikumar applauds the EU’s €1.8 trillion ($2.1 billion) Covid stimulus package for putting climate policy front and center. Yet he takes aim at the Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism that is a key component of the plan.
Ravikumar’s article, Carbon border taxes are unjust, calls Carbon Border Adjustments “colonial” and “a form of economic imperialism” because they reinforce the West’s historic irresponsibility in generating emissions both at home and abroad. In his view, carbon border taxes also fortify Western-based corporations’ ongoing, destructive investment in extractive fossil fuel infrastructure throughout the less-developed world.
It is true that by themselves Carbon Border Adjustments do not address these issues. But does that omission disqualify them? Must correcting historic inequities be a requirement for any and every aspect of climate policy?
Carbon Border Adjustments
A Carbon Border Adjustment is a tax on imports based on the carbon emissions of their production — more precisely, based on the difference between respective carbon tax rates in the importing country and the producing country. If an importing country is taxing its own carbon emissions at, say, $100 per ton of CO2 while the producing country’s tax is just $20, the importing country may impose a Carbon Border Adjustment of $80 on each ton of CO2 ascribed to manufacture of the imported product.
In effect, Border Adjustments supplement a local tax on carbon emissions “production” with a tax on local emissions “consumption” produced abroad. A properly designed (and WTO-compliant) border adjustment thus holds local and foreign producers to a common standard. As both Ravikumar and the EU note, this is necessary to prevent “leakage” of industrial emissions production to untaxed jurisdictions.
Leakage risks are not hypothetical. As Ravikumar notes, “globalization helped the developed world shift manufacturing and outsource its associated pollution burdens to China and other developing countries.” Systematic exemption from Western regulatory regimes for pollution, health and safety and social safety nets powerfully abetted concentration of carbon pollution in the developing world, with myriad local air and water pollution impacts. Yet Ravikumar’s article makes no mention of the possibility that developing countries might foster their own energy transition with carbon taxes, at which point EU border adjustments on imports from these countries would be moot.
A carbon tax on a marginal ton of CO2-equivalent emissions reflects historic untaxed emissions. In other words, because emissions have only just begun to be taxed, returning atmospheric concentrations to pre-industrial levels (or at least capping their rise, as is the EU’s aim, i.e., net carbon-neutral by 2050) requires a tax which internalizes not the damage of a ton of CO2 in isolation, but the damage of that additional ton in the specific context of atmospheric concentrations as they are and the distance needed to travel to meet targets.
Criticism of this approach is correct in that it is blind to 1) who caused the damage to this point, 2) how well situated an individual, firm or nation is to cope with the cost internalization, and 3) the degree of agency these individuals, firms and nations have over their emissions levels. However, the incidence of this taxation — who ultimately bears its burdens — is only one facet of how the costs are ultimately borne.
Disentangling Price Signals and Climate Justice
Many carbon tax proposals and implementations are committed to revenue neutrality. The intent is to price emissions and thus create an economy-wide impetus for behavioral and structural changes while holding average cost of living in place. And while revenue-neutrality does not directly address the international legacy emissions problem, it at least does not exacerbate it.
Global inequity can be addressed through use of carbon border revenues or separate climate reparations such as wealth transfers, technology transfers, concessional financing, and reduced trade barriers. Ravikumar notes, “The Green Climate Fund — established as part of the Paris [climate agreement] — is a good start, but it is not sufficient, nor has it been fully endowed.”
Revenues from carbon border adjustments could fill the funding gap. The broader point is that imposing carbon border adjustments does not preclude addressing international climate justice. Putting a price on carbon that limits regulatory arbitrage and thus discourages emissions leakage is the single most equitable way to distribute the price signals that drive low-carbon investment and behavior. It is also almost certainly a sine qua non to overcome trade-union and other worker-based opposition to carbon taxing in the U.S. and other industrial nations.
Ravikumar’s article advances its own intriguing proposals for climate equity:
Reforms to WTO rules should allow developing countries to grow a domestic green manufacturing sector without triggering a WTO dispute. Developed countries and global financial institutions should extend access to low-interest financing, as well as to technology transfer and bilateral trade and exchange programs that help build capacity for climate mitigation and adaptation in developing economies.
None of these is incompatible with a carbon taxing and border adjustment scheme. Nevertheless, given how repeatedly the article decries “colonialism,” it is worth nothing that each of Ravikumar’s proposals reflects a top-down approach likely to advantage firms with political clout, at least compared to the impartial approach of broad carbon pricing.
The article does bring to the surface a number of important considerations as the EU develops its Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism through consultations. However, its animus toward Border Adjustments appears misplaced.
Five years ago, novelist and technologist Ramez Naam published a series of articles, collectively titled How Far Can Renewables Go? Pretty Darn Far, in which he wove empirical data into declining-cost curves for wind power, solar photovoltaic cells and battery storage that pointed, in his estimation, to prodigious future growth paths for renewables in the U.S.
Now, in a new post, Solar’s Future Is Insanely Cheap, Raam carries optimism about solar photovoltaics to a new height.
He demonstrates that costs of utility scale solar electricity in the U.S., China, India and the world as a whole have dropped by a factor of five since 2010, putting them at around $50 per megawatt-hour (5 cents per kWh), the low end of the cost range for new fossil-fuel generating plants. He points out that most forecasts, including his own, have underestimated the speed of decline in solar costs.
This 10-year record of plummeting solar PV costs is impressive and heartening. But what can it tell us about the next 10 or more years? To predict the cost of solar electricity going forward, Naam uses a “learning curve” approach based on Wright’s Law, a staple of industrial engineering that states that, for many technologies, each doubling of cumulative production leads to a constant percentage decline in the cost of that technology. (The decline rate varies across technologies but tends to be constant for each.)
By Naam’s account, Wright’s Law has been found to apply to at least sixty technologies. Naam demonstrates it via falling prices for Henry Ford’s Model T as its production grew steadily through the period 1909 to 1923. He then compares the cost of utility-scale electricity with global cumulative installed capacity of solar, and, just as Wright’s Law would predict, finds a smooth and steady decline, which he depicts in the chart at right, below.
By plotting these data on a log/log scale (not shown here), as befits “power laws” like Wright’s Law, Naam finds that the cost of utility-scale solar generating facilities has dropped by 30% to 40% for each doubling of installed capacity. This coefficient is at the high end of “doubling elasticties” in those sixty or so technologies that are said to conform to Wright’s Law.
If ever there was cause for optimism that solar power (and perhaps its renewable-power cousin, wind turbines) can keep getting cheaper at a fast enough rate to permit and justify massive deployment (which in turn will keep driving down costs), it is Raam’s May 2020 post. Think of it: just two more doublings in cumulative production (and installed capacity) will drive down costs by another one-half to two-thirds. Affordable, irresistible solar is coming to save us from fossil fuels and climate change.
There’s a problem with this approach, however. The solar costs that Naam has plotted are total installed costs. Thus, they include not only the cost of the solar panels (modules) but the costs of inverters, trackers, cabling, mounting systems, land and labor, not to mention the business relationships and contractual arrangements necessary to actually bring each job to fruition. These so-called balance of system (BoS) costs currently account for 2/3 of the cost of solar installations, by Naam’s admission. And while it is true that the “inertia” in BoS costs means that the costs of the modules themselves have fallen even faster since 2010 than the 80 percent overall drop in solar costs in that time (that’s the 5-fold drop we noted earlier), this same inertia seems almost certain to drag down the rate of cost decline going forward.
And in fact since 2010, costs of modules have dropped approximately 10-fold; twice as much as solar installations as a whole, which means that the other parts of solar costs fell less impressively (see this and this). The slower learning rate for BoS solar costs suggests that while the modules, with their very high learning rate, might theoretically cost next to nothing, the inertia in at least some BoS costs could mean that, no matter how many megawatts and gigawatts of solar are installed here and globally, the full cost of solar electricity may level off and be unable to fall below a certain level.
Even if we assume as Naam does that a 30% to 40% learning rate applies more or less uniformly to all solar costs, including modules and BoS items, cumulative installed capacity will have to double to achieve each approximate 35% drop in cost. Successive doublings in generating capacity require larger and larger absolute increases. World solar generating capacity was about 1 gigawatt in 2000. It was over twice that in 2003, and twice that, about 4 gigawatts, in 2005. Today world solar generating capacity is about 600 gigawatts. Growing from 600 to 1200 gigawatts, and then again from 1200 to 2400 gigawatts, requires vastly more production of panels and other necessary materials than growing from 1 to 2 gigawatts and then from 2 to 4 gigawatts, etc.
In order for cumulative installed solar capacity to double and then double again by 2030, for example, solar’s rate of growth would have to maintain exponential growth in the range of 15% per year. Whether such a continued high rate of growth is at all feasible is a fair question.
Learning from History: Autos, Railroads, Electricity
U.S. solar growth has slowed of late, taking three years for its most recent doubling, from 2016 to 2019, which Naam refreshingly acknowledges, noting that “solar growth has very clearly slowed over the past few years.” This slowdown in solar’s growth in the face of continued dramatic declines in costs signals that other factors are involved than cost alone.
In short, cost declines following Wright’s law may not translate directly to increased deployment. Take Naam’s example of the Model T. U.S. motor vehicle ownership grew exponentially from around 1900 to 1920 but then settled into a long period or more of less linear growth, as indicated in the chart above. (In this figure and the two following it, exponential growth rates were selected that produce curves that approximately match actual data for the early years.)
Another example, shown at left, is U.S. railroad track mileage, which surged in the 1850s and 60s and then also settled into a long period of linear growth.
A third example, shown further below, is U.S. electricity generation. An exponential growth rate of about 9% per year is apparent from 1900 until the mid-1950s. Exponential growth slowed around then, and by 1970 growth had settled into a more-or-less linear pattern.
Few technologies — or natural systems, for that matter — grow in an exponential manner for long (Smil, 2014, Kramer & Haigh, 2009.) Instead, “growth curves” are characterized by an early exponential period that transitions to a linear phase, adding a more-or-less constant increment each period, which eventually levels off as constraints increasingly come into play and limit further growth.
Growth in both motor vehicle ownership and railroad track mileage became linear despite ongoing innovations in the technologies themselves and improvements in manufacturing methods as production continued to increase. A similar pattern is apparent with U.S. electricity generation; growth gradually transitioned from exponential to linear during the ‘60s and ‘70s, as decades of declining costs (which enabled utilities to discount rates for big users) ground to a halt. Since 2005 growth in electricity use has ceased altogether, primarily due to large-scale dissemination of energy efficiency (see reference to Komanoff analysis, below).
How fast will solar electricity production grow?
Naam’s discussion of solar electricity’s declining costs is important because it can shed light on how far and fast solar electricity generation is likely to grow. In particular, can solar output grow rapidly enough to displace enough coal and natural gas to help avert climate catastrophe?
To be sure, growth in solar electricity is already pushing out fossil fuel use in the United States and other countries. In the U.S., the roughly 100 TWh increase in solar electricity production since 2005 was great enough to avert burning coal and gas that would have emitted 74 million metric tons of carbon dioxide in 2019, according to an analysis released last month by Carbon Tax Center director Charles Komanoff.
Yet that accomplishment pales beside the 1,618 million metric tons actually emitted by U.S. power plants last year. And the need for large-scale electrification of transport and heating — in order to displace petroleum — only magnifies the growth required of solar (and wind), and perhaps from other advanced energy sources such as next-generation nuclear and enhanced geothermal, to fully decarbonize the economy.-
Unfortunately, Naam doesn’t venture to predict the pace of solar growth, either for the U.S. alone or for the world as a whole. That is probably wise, seeing as that at this point, and probably for some time to come, there is no way to divine whether to extrapolate past growth figures linearly or exponentially. We’ll revisit this issue in a follow-on post scheduled for the first week of July.