A revenue-neutral carbon tax preserves the tax’s price-incentive to reduce emissions but avoids the “income” effects that might drag down economic activity.
Revenue-neutral means that government retains little if any of the tax revenues raised by taxing carbon emissions. The vast majority of the revenues are returned to the public; with, perhaps, small amounts utilized to assist communities dependent on fossil-fuel extraction and processing to adapt and convert to low- or non-carbon economies.
There are two primary approaches to returning or recycling the tax revenues.
One approach returns revenues directly through regular (e.g., monthly) “dividends” to all U.S. households or residents. Every resident or household receives an equal, identical slice of the total carbon revenue “pie.” In this approach, which adherents at Citizens Climate Lobby call fee-and-dividend, each individual’s carbon tax is proportional to his or her fossil fuel use, creating an incentive to reduce; but everyone’s dividend is equal and independent of his or her usage, preserving the conservation incentive. Alaska’s dividend program has provided residents with annual allotments from the state’s North Slope oil royalties for three-and-a-half decades.
In the other revenue return method, each dollar of carbon tax revenue triggers a dollar’s worth of reduction in existing taxes such as the federal payroll tax or corporate income tax — or, on the state level, sales taxes. As carbon-tax revenues are phased in (with the tax rates rising steadily but not too steeply, to allow a smooth transition), existing taxes are phased out. While this “tax-shift” is less direct than the dividend method, it too ensures that the carbon tax is revenue-neutral. It offers other important benefits, as well; for example, reducing payroll taxes could stimulate employment.
To repeat: each individual’s receipt of dividends or tax-shifts is independent of the carbon taxes he or she pays. That is, no person’s benefits are tied to his or her energy consumption and carbon tax “bill.” This separation of benefits from payments preserves the carbon tax’s incentive to reduce use of fossil fuels and emit less CO2 into the atmosphere. (Of course, it would be extraordinarily cumbersome to calculate an individual’s full carbon tax bill since to some extent the carbon tax would be passed through as part of the costs of various goods and services.)
Revenue-neutrality not only protects the poor (see next section), it’s also politically savvy since it offers a way to blunt the “No New Taxes” demand that has held sway in American politics for decades. Returning the carbon tax revenues to the public would also make it easier to raise the tax level over time, a point made nicely by McGill University professor Christopher Ragan in a 2008 Montreal Gazette op-ed, and subsequently borne out by the experience in British Columbia where a revenue-neutral carbon tax was ramped up in four annual increments; that tax remains politically popular and is driving down emissions.