- Environmental Taxation and the Double Dividend (Lawrence Goulder, Stanford, 1994). Seminal articulation of the dual benefits of replacing taxes on income and work with taxes to discourage pollution.
- When Can Carbon Abatement Policies Increase Welfare? The Fundamental Role of Distorted Factor Markets (Ian Parry, Roberton Williams & Lawrence Goulder, Resources for the Future, 1998). General equilibrium modeling demonstrates economic efficiency benefits of pollution taxes with revenue “recycling” to reduce marginal rates of pre-existing distortionary taxes.
- Clean Energy And Jobs: A comprehensive approach to climate change and energy policy (James P. Barrett & J. Andrew Hoerner, Economic Policy Institute, 2002).
- A Proposal for a U.S. Carbon Tax Swap (Gilbert Metcalf, Brookings, 2007).
- Caps vs. Taxes (Kevin Hassett, Steven Hayward, Ken Green, AEI, 2007).
- U.S. Federal Climate Policy and Competitiveness Concerns: The Limits and Options of International Trade Law, Joost Pauwelyn, Duke U., 2007). WTO rules permit “border tax adjustments” (import tariffs) to harmonize domestic carbon taxation. [Updated, March 2012.]
- Smart Taxes: An Open Invitation to Join the Pigou Club (Greg Mankiw, Harvard, 2008).
- Policy Options for Reducing CO2 Emissions (Congressional Budget Office, 2008). “[T]he net benefits (benefits minus costs) of a [carbon] tax could be roughly five times greater than the net benefits of an inflexible cap.”
- CO2 Price Volatility: Consequences and Cures (Brattle Group, January 2009).
On Modeling and Interpreting the Economics of Catastrophic Climate Change (Martin Weitzman, Harvard, 2009).
- Addressing Climate Change Without Impairing the US Economy (Robert Shapiro, US Climate Task Force, 2008).
- On The Merits of A Carbon Tax (Ted Gayer, Brookings, Testimony to Senate Env’t & Nat’l Res. Committee, 2009).
- The Design of a Carbon Tax (Gilbert Metcalf & David Weisbach, Harvard Envt’l Law Rev, 2009).
- Carbon taxation – a forgotten climate policy tool? (Global Utmaning [Sweden], 2009)
Carbon Tax and Greenhouse Gas Control: Options for Congress, (Jonathan Ramseur & Larry Parker, Congressional Research Service, 2009). Options for design and implementation of U.S. carbon tax to match emissions reductions from Lieberman-Warner (cap & trade) bill without price volatility, speculation and offsets.
- How Climate Policy Could Address Fiscal Shortfalls (Adele Morris & Ted Gayer, Brookings, 2010).
- A Balanced Plan to Stabilize Public Debt and Promote Economic Growth (William Galston, Brookings & Maya MacGuineas, Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, 2010). Recommendations include a broad-based carbon tax with proceeds to reduce payroll taxes and for deficit reduction.
Carbon pricing in Washington (Yoram Bauman, Sightline Institute, 2010). Quantitative economic and climate policy “blueprint” for Carbon Washington revenue-neutral carbon tax proposal.
- Moving U.S. Climate Policy Forward: Are Carbon Taxes the Only Good Alternative? (Ian Parry & Roberton Williams, Resources for the Future, 2011).
- Revising the Social Cost of Carbon, (Frank Ackerman & Elizabeth Stanton, E3 Network, 2011).
- Carbon Taxes, An Opportunity for Conservatives (Irwin Stelzer, Hudson Institute, 2011).
- Fiscal Solutions: A Balanced Plan for Fiscal Stability and Economic Growth, Peterson Foundation & American Enterprise Institute, 2011). As part of comprehensive reform, recommends replacing ethanol subsidies and greenhouse gas regulations with a $26/tonne CO2 (and CO2-eq) tax, rising 5.6% annually. (p 25.)
- The Potential Role of a Carbon Tax in U.S. Fiscal Reform (Brookings, 2012)
- Offsetting a Carbon Tax’s Costs on Low-Income Households (CBO, 2012)
- Considering a U.S. Carbon Tax: Frequently Asked Questions (Resources for the Future, 2012)
- Carbon Tax Revenue and the Budget Deficit: A Win-Win-Win Solution? (MIT, August 2012)
- It’s Time for a Carbon Tax (Elizabeth Kolbert, The New Yorker, Dec. 10, 2012)
- Fiscal Policy to Mitigate Climate Change (IMF, 2012)
- The Many Benefits of A Carbon Tax (Adele Morris, Brookings, 2013)
Carbon Taxes and Corporate Tax Reform (Donald Marron & Eric Toder, Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center, 2013)
- Reaffirming the Case for a Briskly Rising Carbon Tax (James Handley, Carbon Tax Center, June 2013)
Changing Climate for Carbon Taxes: Who’s Afraid of the WTO? (Jennifer Hillman, German Marshall Fund, Climate Advisors, American Action Forum, July 2013).
- Can Negotiating a Uniform Carbon Price Help to Internalize the Global Warming Externality? (Martin Weitzman, Harvard Project on Climate Agreements, January 2014).
- Design of Economic Instruments for Reducing U.S. Carbon Emissions, (Carbon Tax Center, submitted to Senate Finance Committee, January 2014).
- Tax Policy Issues in Designing a Carbon Tax (Donald B. Marron and Eric J. Toder, Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center, May 2014).
A Carbon Tax in Broader U.S. Fiscal Reform: Design and Distributional Issues, Adele Morris (Brookings) and Aparna Mathur (American Enterprise Institute), C2ES, May 2014.
Temperature impacts on economic growth warrant stringent mitigation policy, Frances C. Moore, Delavane B. Diaz (Nature Climate Change, January 2015). When climate change is allowed to affect economic growth in the DICE Integrated Assessment Model, its estimate of the Social Cost of Carbon may exceed $220/T CO2.
- How to Adopt a Winning Carbon Price — Top Ten Takeaways from Interviews with the Architects of British Columbia’s Carbon Tax (Clean Energy Canada, 2015).
Putting a Price on Carbon: A Handbook for U.S. Policymakers, Kevin Kennedy, Michael Obeiter, Noah Kaufman (World Resources Institute, April 2015).
Energy Subsidy Reform, Lessons and Implications (International Monetary Fund, May 2015).
Taxing Carbon: What, Why, and How, by Donald Marron, Eric Toder, and Lydia Austin, (Tax Policy Center, June 2015).
Global Carbon Pricing: We Will If You Will (September 2015). E-book compilation of eight papers by David J. C. MacKay, Richard Cooper, Joseph Stiglitz, William Nordhaus, Martin L. Weitzman, Christian Gollier & Jean Tirole, Stéphane Dion & Éloi Laurent, Peter Cramton, Axel Ockenfels & Steven Stoft. The authors, from a variety of viewpoints and disciplines, conclude that negotiating an explicit global price on carbon pollution would help unlock global climate negotiations by aligning national self-interest with the global goal of rapidly reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
After Paris: Fiscal, Macroeconomic, and Financial Implications of Climate Change (IMF discussion draft, January 2016).
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Getting the politics to align for a carbon tax requires the right blend of honey and vinegar. For years, advocates’ and opponents’ attention alike has focused on the vinegar – the tax part. Lately, though, we’ve noticed growing interest about how to best spread the honey — the potentially huge revenues a carbon tax would generate. Here’s a primer on the options: what they are, how they would work, their merits and drawbacks, and who’s pushing them hardest.
Setting the initial tax rate at $15/T CO2 and increasing it by that amount each year (reflecting the maximum carbon tax rate and ramp-up of Rep. Larson’s bill) we estimate that the Treasury would take in approximately $80 billion in revenue in the first year. (This calculation uses the Carbon Tax Center’s spreadsheet model.) This amount would rise each year, though at slightly less than a linear rate as carbon reductions kicked in, reaching around $600 billion by the tenth year.
The allure of carbon tax revenue also offers a growing incentive for other nations to match a U.S. carbon tax in order to avoid WTO-sanctioned border tax adjustments, capturing the revenue themselves. Indeed, Brookings economist Adele Morris calls a carbon tax a “two-fer” because along with a growing revenue stream would come substantial CO2 emissions reductions. For the U.S., based on historic price-elasticities, CTC’s model projects a 30% reduction in climate-damaging CO2 emissions by the tenth year, compared to 2005 levels.
Six hundred billion (again, that’s the projected take in the tenth year from an ambitious carbon tax) is a lot of revenue, equivalent to around a quarter of federal tax receipts. As Ian Parry and Roberton Williams recently explained in “Moving U.S. Climate Policy Forward: Are Carbon Taxes the Only Good Alternative?” (Resources for the Future), the efficiency advantages of a carbon tax depend on using the revenue wisely. Not surprisingly, there are loads of claimants. Here’s a guide to the most prominent ones, sequenced more or less from the political left to right:
a) “Dividend.” Climate scientist James Hansen contends that to support a steadily-rising CO2 price, the public needs to see the money — every month. He calls his proposal “fee & dividend.” Senators Cantwell (D-WA) and Collins (R-ME) introduced the “CLEAR” bill which uses “price discovery” via a cap to set its carbon tax which would begin at a price between $7 and $21/T CO2, increasing 5.5% each year. CLEAR would return 75% of revenue via direct “dividends” and dedicate the remaining 25% to a fund for transition assistance and reduction of non-CO2 emissions. Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) also introduced a cap & dividend bill in the Ways & Means Committee. It relies on a cap to set the CO2 price indirectly, aiming for 85% reductions (over 2005 levels) by 2050. Because of its similar emissions trajectory, we’d expect Van Hollen’s bill to generate similar revenue to Rep. Larson’s bill: roughly $80 billion in the first year, rising to about $600 billion within a decade. Both the CLEAR bill and the Van Hollen bill bear the intellectual and organizing stamp of social entrepreneur Peter Barnes, who founded “Cap & Dividend,” and Peter’s allies including the Chesapeake Climate Action Network.
b) Payroll tax rebate. Rep. John Larson’s “America’s Energy Security Trust Fund Act” pairs a carbon tax with rebates of payroll taxes on earnings. As articulated by Tufts University economist Gilbert Metcalf (now serving at the Treasury Department’s energy office), Larson’s proposal has the appeal of broad fairness. It would distribute revenue very evenly across both income and regions. Because Rep. Larson’s approach rebates payroll taxes via a credit on federal income taxes — it would rebate the payroll tax on the first $3600 of income in the first year, with that threshold and rising over time — it avoids tangling with the Social Security Trust fund.
Economist and former Undersecretary of Commerce Rob Shapiro supports the approach of a payroll tax rebate, arguing that cutting payroll taxes could spur job growth. Social entrepreneur Bill Drayton, founder of “Get America Working,” is also a strong advocate of using carbon revenue to cut payroll taxes in order to stimulate employment while reducing emissions. Al Gore captured the idea with the phrase, “tax what we burn, not what we earn.” Former Rep. Bob Inglis (R-SC) introduced the “raise wages, cut carbon” bill co-sponsored by Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Az). Conservative economists Greg Mankiw and Douglas Holtz-Eakin, both of whom have advised Republican presidents and candidates, have also supported shifting tax burdens from payrolls to carbon emitters. And the Progressive Democrats of America endorsed the Larson bill.
c) Deficit reduction. Brookings economists including Ted Gayer and Adele Morris have been pointing out the potential for climate policy to reduce deficits. While deficit reduction isn’t revenue return in the immediate sense that Dr. Hansen suggests, Morris points out that deficit reduction will benefit future taxpayers by paying down at least part of the nation’s debt, rather than letting it continue accumulating interest. In this way, she suggests, the impulse to help future generations via foresighted climate policy would have a natural fiscal correlative of reducing future tax burdens.
Supporters of applying carbon tax revenues to deficit reduction include MIT’s Michael Greenstone (chair of the Brookings Hamilton Project on climate and energy policy) and Alice Rivlin, founding director of the Congressional Budget Office, who co-chaired the Bipartisan Policy Institute’s alternative to the Obama deficit commission. Prof. Metcalf proposed a carbon tax to the commission, with revenue return as “transition assistance” in the early years, shifting to deficit reduction in later years. As Irwin Stelzer of the conservative Hudson Institute recently pointed out, when the options to close budget gaps sift down to unpopular alternatives such as a value added tax (regressive and annoying, as EU residents will attest) or curbing home mortgage deductions, a carbon tax may emerge with greater appeal. While Keynesians argue that the present weak economy militates against any net increase in taxes, a phased-in allocation of carbon tax revenues to deficit reduction such as Prof. Metcalf proposes may circumvent that objection.
d) Income tax cuts. Greg Mankiw has suggested cutting income taxes as an alternative to payroll tax cuts to return carbon tax revenues; those Form 1040’s could include a carbon rebate drawn from those revenues for every taxpayer. Revenue could be returned via a lump sum credit (which would be income-progressive) or by reducing income tax rates (arguably more stimulative of income-earning activity).
e) Corporate income tax (CIT) rate cut. At a recent AEI event “Whither the Carbon Tax,” AEI economist Kevin Hassett argued for a carbon tax paired with a reduction in the corporate income tax rate. The Wyden-Coates tax reform bill proposes to reduce top CIT rates and make up the revenue by closing numerous exemptions, indicating interest on the Hill. Adherents of CIT rate cuts point to IMF studies saying that U.S. CIT rates are among the world’s highest, asserting that these taxes are especially stifling of business activity and employment. Hassett and his AEI collegue Aparna Mathur argue that CIT’s are passed through as higher prices for consumers and passed back to the factors of production: labor (in the form of reduced wages) and capital (in the form of reduced corporate earnings). They estimate that using carbon tax revenue to cut the effective CIT rate would result in return of about 40% of revenue to wage-earners, which they assert would give the CIT to carbon tax shift a net progressive effect. Their conclusion may be a stretch, given that real wages have remained stagnant or fallen for decades while corporate profits are rising briskly, but a CIT cut has strong salience for conservatives and business leaders.
f) The sampler platter. The options listed above can be mixed and matched. In fact, British Columbia’s carbon tax (which started at $10/t CO2 in 2008 and rises $5/t each year — it notches up to $25 per metric ton on July 1) launched with a distribution of a $100 direct “dividend” to each taxpayer even before the carbon tax was levied, and is now returning revenue via cuts in payroll, income and corporate tax rates. Former BC Premier Gordon Campbell was re-elected to a third term in 2009 after enacting the carbon tax with this mix of revenue return measures, perhaps indicating that a diverse approach to revenue return can have broad and sustained appeal.
Each of the revenue options has important economic and political advantages as well as disadvantages. At the June 1 AEI event, Kevin Hassett decried Senator Cantwell’s direct “dividend” as “terrible policy” because it foregoes the efficiency advantage of using carbon tax revenue to reduce or possibly eliminate other taxes that dampen economic activity. In 2007 Hassett and his AEI colleague Ken Green published an essay aguing for a carbon tax shift as a “no regrets” policy for conservatives, because its tax reform benefits would make it worthwhile even without climate benefits. They pointed to the work of Stanford’s Lawrence Goulder who concludes that the benefit of reducing other distortionary taxes can be large enough to offset some or all of the dampening effect of adding a carbon tax, a phenomenon known as a “double dividend.”
Still, the potential political attractiveness of direct distribution of revenue can hardly be overstated. Dr. Hansen is no politician and doesn’t claim to be an economist, but he sticks to the “dividend” or “green check” while noting that because of its clear and briskly rising price, Rep. Larson’s approach is nevertheless the best climate option on the table. Rep. Van Hollen, outgoing chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, certainly knows a thing or two about politics, and Senator Cantwell very effectively made the case for her “cap & dividend” approach last month at Brookings. But even she seems to be looking at other items on the revenue return menu. For the first time, she suggested appropriating some carbon revenue for deficit reduction, confirming that as high summer arrives in Washington, fiscal matters remain the topic for this Congress.
U.S. climate activists are gleeful at Sen. John Kerry’s demolition of a sometime climate skeptic at a Senate Finance Committee hearing on Tuesday, and justly so. Ken Green, a resident scholar for the corporate-financed American Enterprise Institute, won the respect of carbon tax advocates two years ago, when he co-authored an AEI report that powerfully made the case for a revenue-neutral carbon tax over a cap-and-trade system. But as an invited witness on Climate Change Legislation: Considerations for Future Jobs, Green attempted to argue that Earth’s ecosystems and human civilization could safely accommodate a global temperature rise of 2 degrees Celsius, though he admitted that any larger temperature rises would be dangerous. Kerry skillfully “outed” Green as an amateur in climatology who had published no peer-reviewed studies and could point to none to support his climate blandishments.
The interchange, summarized in a 6½-minute video assembled by Joe Romm at Climate Progress, showcases Sen. Kerry’s skill as a cross-examiner and reveals just how flimsy and muddled the case questioning the climate crisis really is. Lost in the euphoria, however, is evidence of the Senator’s own confusion — not on the need to act to avert climate catastrophe, but on the workings of competing means of pricing carbon emissions.
In an earlier part of this week’s hearing, Sen. Kerry repeated a point he made in an August 4 Finance Committee hearing on Climate Change Legislation: Allowance and Revenue Distribution: a carbon tax wouldn’t reduce emissions, Kerry claimed, because polluters would “just pay the tax,” whereas a cap would force them into making the desired reductions.
Of course, as anyone versed in climate economics knows, and as the economist-witnesses explained in August, a carbon price of, say, $20/ton would produce the same emissions reductions whether the price was set by traders in a carbon market or directly via a fee on fossil fuel producers. Under a cap with a $20/ton permit price, emitters would have no greater (and no less) incentive to reduce emissions than they would under a $20/ton tax. Reductions that can be made for up to $20 per ton will be made in either system because they will yield the same savings — as permits that wouldn’t need to be purchased under a cap, or as taxes that wouldn’t have to be paid under a tax. Similarly, reductions costing more than the set price won’t be made because it will be cheaper to “just buy the permits” (to adapt Sen. Kerry’s phrase), or “just pay the tax.”
Under either system, then, emitters retain the flexibility to make reductions when those reductions are cheaper than the carbon price and to pay the allowance cost or tax if that turns out to be cheaper. That flexibility about where, when and how to make reductions is why either a carbon cap or tax is more efficient than source-specific regulations which would force emissions reductions at times and places where they’re more expensive and would miss some reductions that were cheaper.
In the August hearing, Sen. Kerry questioned whether American businesses and households would actually respond to higher fuel and energy prices. In doing so, Sen. Kerry overlooked the vast body of evidence quantifying price-elasticity in virtually every sector of the U.S. economy. He also had evidently forgotten what happened during the summer of 2008 when gasoline hit $4/gallon: traffic congestion eased, carpools, buses and trains filled up, and SUV sales tumbled. And that was only the short-term effect of a price spike; a long-term, predictable carbon emissions price increase would allow sound business planning and create incentives for long-term investment in energy efficiency and low-carbon alternatives.
And that points to a key reason that cap-and-trade is an inferior way to set a price on carbon: the price signal under a cap would be “noisy” due to both volatility and the fact that the price must be “revealed” through the market workings of the cap rather than being stated, explicitly, in the tax code. That noise means that with cap-and-trade it takes a higher price for the economy to “hear it” and respond, even if the general trend is upward.
Sen. Kerry is on solid ground relying on peer-reviewed climate science. But his ongoing misunderstanding of the workings of carbon pricing is almost as shocking as the AEI witness’s misrepresentation this week of climate science. It’s past time for both sides to get it right: The consequences of unmitigated climate change will be grave, whereas clear, simple, predictable carbon pricing is essential to catalyzing the solutions.
Photo: Flickr / The Minnesota Independent
For too long the conventional wisdom has been that while carbon taxes may be superior to cap-and-trade schemes, there is no way that politicians would ever support a new tax, even one that was revenue-neutral. Environmentalists who might otherwise be supporting a carbon tax because it could produce real reductions in greenhouse gas emissions far more rapidly than cap-and-trade have dismissed carbon tax advocacy as naive and have rallied behind cap-and-trade.
Just as conventional wisdom was consistently proven wrong in the 2008 presidential election, it’s also proving wrong about the political infeasibility of a carbon tax. Just look at events over the past two days.
On Saturday, the lead editorial in the New York Times, The Gas Tax, made a compelling case that the president-elect and Congress should impose a “gas tax or similar levy to keep gas prices up after the economy recovers from recession.”
On Sunday, two prominent Republicans, Congressman Bob Inglis of South Carolina and supply-side economist Arthur Laffer, unequivocally endorsed a U.S. carbon tax in a New York Times op-ed, An Emissions Plan Conservatives Could Warm To, that concisely summarized the politics of climate change and the rationale for a carbon tax from a conservative perspective:
Conservatives don’t support tax increases that are veiled as “cap and trade” schemes for pollution permits. But offer us a tax swap, and we could become the new administration’s best allies on climate change.
The Inglis/Laffer summary of why the Liberman-Warner cap-and-trade bill failed is short and to the point:
A climate-change bill withered in Congress this summer because families don’t need an enormous, and hidden, tax increase. If the bill’s authors had instead proposed a simple carbon tax coupled with an equal, offsetting reduction in income taxes or payroll taxes, a dynamic new energy security policy could have taken root.
Inglis/Laffer cogently present the economic basis for a carbon tax:
We need to impose a tax on the thing we want less of (carbon dioxide) and reduce taxes on the things we want more of (income and jobs). A carbon tax would attach the national security and environmental costs to carbon-based fuels like oil, causing the market to recognize the price of these negative externalities.
They recognize that “the costs of reducing carbon emissions are not trivial” and the concomitant need for revenue-neutrality in carbon pricing:
It is essential, therefore, that any taxes on carbon emissions be accompanied by equal, pro-growth tax cuts. A carbon tax that isn’t accompanied by a reduction in other taxes is a nonstarter. Fiscal conservatives would gladly trade a carbon tax for a reduction in payroll or income taxes, but we can’t go along with an overall tax increase.
Inglis/Laffer directly address concerns that putting a price on carbon (whether through a carbon tax or cap-and-trade) would put Americans at a competitive disadvantage:
If China and India join the United States in attaching a price to carbon, their goods should come into this country without a carbon adjustment. But if they do not, every item they place on our shelves should be subject to the same carbon tax that we would place on our domestically produced goods, again offset by a revenue-neutral tax cut.
If World Trade Organization rules entitle members to an unwarranted exemption from such a carbon tax, then we should change them. Outliers should not be allowed to frustrate the decision-making of the countries that are trying to prevent the security and environmental train wrecks of this century.
Although other conservatives including George W. Bush speechwriter David Frum and the American Enterprise Institute’s Ken Green have made similar arguments, Inglis and Laffer are the two most prominent Republicans to publicly articulate such a clear pro-carbon tax position.
The same day as the Inglis/Laffer op-ed, conservative pundit Charles Krauthammer published his own strong endorsement of a gas tax. Though his Weekly Standard article, The Net-Zero Gas Tax – A Once-in-a-Generation Chance, begins by describing Americans’ “deep and understandable aversion to gasoline taxes,” Krauthammer quickly presents what he refers to as the “blindingly obvious” energy independence and other benefits of an increase in the federal gas tax, and proposes what he calls:
Something radically new. A net-zero gas tax. Not a freestanding gas tax but a swap that couples the tax with an equal payroll tax reduction. A two-part solution that yields the government no net increase in revenue and, more importantly — that is why this proposal is different from others — immediately renders the average gasoline consumer financially whole.
Krauthammer envisions the simultaneous enactment of a carbon tax and an offsetting reduction of payroll taxes, with the payroll tax reduction kicking in a week before the gas tax takes effect. He notes as a “nice detail” the fact that the payroll deduction would be “mildly progressive” and follows with a constructive analysis of some of the nitty-gritty details of implementing his net-zero gas tax.
Finally, Times columnist Thomas Friedman weighed in with yet another strong call for a gasoline and/or carbon tax in Win, Win, Win, Win, Win. Echoing the previous day’s Times editorial, Friedman states what should be obvious:
It makes no sense for Congress to pump $13.4 billion into bailing out Detroit — and demand that the auto companies use this cash to make more fuel-efficient cars — and then do nothing to shape consumer behavior with a gas tax so more Americans will want to buy those cars. As long as gas is cheap, people will go out and buy used S.U.V.’s and Hummers. (emphasis in original)
Friedman follows with a geopolitical argument very similar to that made by Inglis, Laffer and Krauthammer:
A gas tax reduces gasoline demand and keeps dollars in America, dries up funding for terrorists and reduces the clout of Iran and Russia at a time when Obama will be looking for greater leverage against petro-dictatorships. It reduces our current account deficit, which strengthens the dollar. It reduces U.S. carbon emissions driving climate change, which means more global respect for America. And it increases the incentives for U.S. innovation on clean cars and clean-tech.
The weekend explosion of support for carbon and/or gas taxing followed by just three weeks a similar confluence, also described here, in which Thomas Friedman called for a carbon tax, the Wall Street Journal stated its clear preference for a carbon tax over cap-and-trade and Ralph Nader and Toby Heaps made a compelling case for pricing carbon emissions via a tax rather than a trading scheme in a Wall Street Journal op-ed.
This convergence of opinion from Left and Right signals an extraordinary opportunity to obtain bipartisan support for a revenue-neutral carbon tax. As Congressman Inglis and Mr. Laffer conclude:
As president, Barack Obama, by working with conservatives as well as the members of his own party, can at once clean the air, create jobs and improve the national security of the United States — a triple play for the next American century.
Will the environmental community unite to actually help pass climate change legislation? That remains to be seen as environmental groups continue to be split between carbon tax and cap-and-trade camps. I’ve worked closely with some of the groups supporting cap-and-trade, have tremendous respect for them and know they understand how important it is to put a price on carbon and to make very large reductions in greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible. I know that some cap-and-trade supporters are genuinely convinced that a carbon tax is simply not possible politically. Will that change as bipartisan support grows for a revenue-neutral carbon tax?
It’s time to recognize that 2008’s conventional wisdom is wrong. If we join together in a bipartisan alliance, Congress can adopt and implement a carbon tax in 2009.
Photo: Valerio Schiavoni / Flickr.
A special report for the Carbon Tax Center by James F. Handley
For almost four decades, the powerhouse Natural Resources Defense Council has stood as the green movement’s stronghold for regulation-based eco-solutions. It has fought for, and won, energy-efficiency standards for appliances, cars and buildings; renewable-energy quotas for electricity supply; and parts–per-million regulations on chemicals in water, air and food have been NRDC’s stock-in-trade. But not price-based mechanisms like gasoline taxes, congestion tolls and carbon emissions pricing.
It was striking, therefore, to read NRDC finance advisor Andy Stevenson come out swinging for carbon emissions pricing. In Why Putting a Price on Carbon is Fast Becoming an Economic Necessity, posted this week on NRDC’s Web site, Stevenson warns that tightening
credit markets threaten to strangle investment in alternative energy. His solution — “cap and invest”:
The cap forms a limit on the amount of CO2 that can be emitted in a given year. This declining limit is then broken up into permits… auctioned off to emitting entities, creating a… revenue stream of roughly $150 billion a year over several decades that can be used to help collateralize the loans needed to put America back to work and move us in the right direction…. [O]ver a trillion dollars in the early years of a "cap and invest" program… to help finance innovative energy solutions for our economy… giving the banks confidence to once again finance longer-term investments at reasonable interest rates. Investments that will pay dividends both in terms of their economics under a carbon cap, as well as for their ability to help reduce our greenhouse gas emissions profile.
Once sufficient capital has been deployed to jump-start emerging energy technologies, this program would then be transformed from a "cap and invest" program into a "cap and dividend" program that would rebate energy revenues back to the American people.
We like that last piece, “dividend… to the people.” Why not start there?
Stevenson’s article suggests that NRDC is moving up the ladder from Boxer-Lieberman-style cap-and-trade towards "the gold standard" of a revenue-neutral carbon tax. Could the Council be following the progression laid out in the Congressional Budget Office’s “Caps vs. Taxes”
report, of steps to make cap-and-trade more effective (and more like a carbon tax)?
100% auction (drop all permit giveaways)
safety valves and price floors to dampen volatility
recycle revenue via dividend or tax-shift
regulate (or eliminate) traders.
NRDC’s proposed cap-and-trade includes 100% auction and a loose safety valve. With Stevenson’s call for eventual revenue recycling, the group is at least contemplating the first three of these steps.
Yet the NRDC-Stevenson "evolutionary" approach of moving to cap-and-dividend only after a long incubation in cap-and-invest is riddled with problems. For one thing, once traders and polluters owned permits they’d be invested in the system. They’d have to be bought out to take the next step up the ladder toward the "gold standard" of a straight carbon
tax. Moreover, "green energy" subsidies are addictive, even if (or especially when) they don’t reduce emissions. Subsidies for corn-based ethanol — which Sen. McCain denounced in the Sept. 26 presidential debate
—– are a case in point.
Furthermore, a dividend or tax shift seem essential to counteract the income impacts of any carbon pricing scheme, whether tax or cap. Without revenue distribution, carbon emissions pricing is a regressive tax. Yet under either a cap or a tax, carbon prices will have to rise substantially to meet the emission reduction targets NASA’s Jim Hansen and most other climate scientists warn are essential to prevent catastrophic climate instability. The current financial meltdown cries out for a dividend or a tax shift over a regressive tax increase, since consumers are already being bled dry.
But the case against cap-and-invest would be strong even in flush times. Our government is lousy at choosing technology winners, particularly this early in the technology race. Remember synfuels? Lieberman-Warner was loaded with subsidies for similar money holes like nukes, ethanol, and “clean coal.” Carbon auction or tax revenue diverted to "green energy" programs, even well-crafted ones, is unlikely to drive conservation and innovation nearly as well as the steeper price increase on fossil fuels that could be politically and economically sustained if a broadly distributed dividend or tax shift were coupled with a tax (or cap) on carbon fuel producers. That’s because we know our homes and businesses better
than the government. With the right price signals, we’ll be in a far better position than government-mediated program officers to make decisions about how to reduce our use of fossil fuels.
NRDC’s thinking is evolving. But cap-and-invest is still a regressive policy that won’t do much good up-front. And down the line, as the cap tightens and fossil fuel prices soar, it will become wildly unpopular. Stevenson is right to suggest revenue recycling to offset that pain, but why wait? Why not skip “cap-and-invest” and go straight for “tax-and-dividend.” Economists
ranging from Ken Green on the right, Bill Nordhaus in the center and Robert Shapiro on the left are all saying “go for the gold” – a revenue-neutral carbon tax. Keep climbing, NRDC!
Photo: Flickr / Charlie Brewer.
Reported for the Carbon Tax Center by James F. Handley
[Ed. note — two days after the Capitol Hill briefing, on Thurs. Sept. 18, the House Ways and Means Committee heard testimony on optimal pricing of carbon emissions, including a forceful presentation from carbon tax advocate New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg; watch this space for CTC’s report.]
At least one Washington politician dares to say “tax” out loud — a carbon tax, no less.
Representative John Larson (D-Conn.) headlined a Capitol Hill panel discussion Tuesday and came out swinging for a revenue-neutral carbon tax. Larson, a member of the Democratic House leadership and the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee, called carbon taxing the most effective way to curb greenhouse gas emissions. Addressing a briefing organized by Clean Air – Cool Planet and the Energy and Environment Study Institute, the five-term Congressman invoked his constituents at Auggie & Ray’s Diner in East Hartford: “They know climate protection comes with a price tag — they want transparency up-front so they know what to expect and can plan ahead. And they want a fair, level playing field.”
Both a carbon tax or the auctioning of permits under a carbon cap-and-trade system would generate huge streams of revenue which would come under the jurisdiction of Ways and Means. The Committee has scheduled a hearing tomorrow, Sept. 18, on revenue recycling, and Larson will be on hand, presumably putting the spotlight on the American Energy Security Trust Fund Act he introduced in August 2007.
Speaking to an overflowing House banquet room, Larson, shown at right, called a carbon tax “simple, efficient, straightforward and effective” and said it will be a boon to the economy if the revenue is recycled to reduce or eliminate distortionary taxes. Following Larson, a politically diverse panel of economists — Robert Repetto, Robert Shapiro, Terry Dinan, and Ken Green — discussed ways to maximize the “double dividend” — benefits to climate and to the economy from recycling revenue from either a carbon tax or the auction proceeds of cap-and-trade.
Several noted the most egregious flaws of the defeated Lieberman cap-and-trade bill: it would have given away emission permits and auction revenues, mainly to fossil fuel industries, rather than recycling auction revenues downstream to consumers. Panelists noted that energy firms pass their costs downstream to consumers — who will need assistance. Only Repetto, of the UN Foundation, preferred cap-and-trade over a carbon tax, but with either, he wants a tax-shift — auctioning all permits and dedicating revenues to reduce other taxes.
Shapiro, a former Undersecretary of Commerce, warned of the costs and instability from price volatility under cap-and-trade, citing the U.S. acid rain program whose permit prices slosh around as much as 80% and the similarly volatile EU climate program which has achieved zero net greenhouse gas reductions. The morning after a disastrously volatile day on Wall Street, Shapiro called volatility the enemy of rational planning and efficient economic decision-making. Shapiro advocates recycling 90% of carbon tax revenue with the remaining 10% dedicated to R&D on low-carbon alternatives.
Dinan, author of a series of weighty CBO studies on climate policy documenting the advantages of a carbon tax, suggested ways to move cap-and-trade closer in efficiency to a carbon tax, for example by adding safety valves to limit price volatility. She underscored the efficiency advantages of applying revenues to reduce distortionary taxes such as payroll taxes, vs. distributing revenues equally with pro rata dividends. But Dinan and the new RFF study caution that unlike a straight dividend approach, tax-shifting out of payroll taxes would be acutely regressive, mainly because many low-income people, including elderly and the unemployed, don’t pay payroll taxes and thus wouldn’t benefit from payroll tax reductions. In contrast, dividends would go to everyone, equally, thus benefiting a clear majority of less-well-off individuals and households.
Ken Green, AEI resident economist and scientist who has written extensively about the “double dividend” from reducing distortionary taxes with carbon revenues, is rare among conservatives for supporting strong medicine to combat climate change. Because our entire society and every activity in it is built around energy consumption, changing energy prices will have profound effects, he noted, some of which must be offset. Green warned that politicizing climate change legislation or otherwise attempting to favor some constituents over others will “torpedo” the serious effort that is needed. Cap-and-trade hides the truth that we must use prices to change consumption patterns, said Green, and it will breed cynicism and undermine public support for climate protection. The public needs to understand that although fossil fuel prices will rise, they will be “made whole” as a group.
During Q&A an audience member noted the consensus for a carbon tax but asked panelists how a tax would provide the certainty that is often touted as the chief advantage of cap-and-trade. Shapiro suggested that carbon tax levels may need to be adjusted periodically to assure that emissions targets are being met. Green contended that powerful incentives for cheating and market manipulation will render cap-and-trade’s emissions certainty largely illusory. He called cap-and-trade a government-mandated constraint on supply, likening it to OPEC’s mission to limit oil supply to support prices. Just as in OPEC, cap-and-trade will bring irresistible temptation to cheat by selling outside the system and will eventually destroy public confidence, Green said.
Photo courtesy of Clean Air – Cool Planet
While the world is abuzz with the news that a fusion laboratory in California recently generated more energy than the reaction consumed, a different breakthrough in Europe may portend bigger, faster progress on carbon emissions and climate: European national governments and the European Parliament have reached an agreement to tax imported goods and materials based on the carbon dioxide emitted in making them.
The levies will initially apply to imports of iron and steel, cement, aluminium, fertilizers, hydrogen and electricity, according to Euractiv, the Brussels-based pan-European news site specializing in EU matters, which also reported that the mechanism “will mirror the EU’s own domestic carbon price.”
That price — the price of emissions allowances traded on the European Union’s Emissions Trading System (ETS) — on Dec. 1 was 85 euros per metric ton, equivalent to around $91 per metric ton, or nearly $83 per short (U.S.) ton, a far higher price than the starting levies embodied in most U.S. carbon tax proposals. If “mirrors” means “duplicates,” imports from non-carbon-taxing countries may soon face steep charges indeed.
With the agreement, which caps more than a year of negotiations, the European Union is poised to “insert climate-change regulation for the first time into the rules of global trade,” the Wall Street Journal noted. Pascal Canfin, chair of the European Parliament’s Environment Committee, was even more emphatic, telling the New York Times that “We are putting carbon and climate at the heart of trade.”
The Journal added that “The plan, known as the carbon border adjustment mechanism, would be the world’s first tax on the carbon content of imported goods.”
CBAM could become a breakthrough
What could make the EU agreement a climate breakthrough is the tantalizing possibility that carbon border adjustment mechanisms (CBAMs) may compel the United States, China and other major emitters to finally enact national carbon taxes or equivalent carbon-pricing mechanisms.
The initial step in this scenario, which the Journal says “the EU is expected to adopt in the coming weeks as part of a sweeping package of legislation [to] step up the bloc’s efforts to limit global warming,” is to tax imports of key industrial commodities like steel, aluminum and cement to the extent that the carbon intensity of their manufacture exceeds EU averages. Exporters then have two ways to avert the trade tax. They can cut down on the carbon emitted to produce their product. Or the country in which they produced it can tax carbon emissions to the same level as the EU’s carbon price.
The climate wins either way. The first way directly cuts emissions in the industrial sectors covered by the tax. The second cuts emissions indirectly, but far more broadly, via the carbon tax’s economy-wide incentives that steer all energy supply and demand away from fossil fuels by making the market prices for coal, oil and gas reflect at least some of their climate damage.
The announcement from Europe follows by less than a week the Biden administration’s transmission to the EU of a proposal suggesting “creation of an international consortium that would promote trade in metals produced with less carbon emissions, while imposing tariffs on steel and aluminum from China and elsewhere,” according to the New York Times.
While the Biden proposal is merely a “concept paper” and is being kept under wraps, the Office of the United States Trade Representative, which drafted it, has at least given it a name — the Global Arrangement on Sustainable Steel and Aluminum. The Times story called it “the first concrete look at a new type of trade arrangement that the Biden administration views as a cornerstone of its approach to trade policy … one [that] would wield the power of American and European markets to try to bolster domestic industries in a way that also mitigated climate change.”
The trade concept paper appears to embody the principles underlying the Clean Competition Act (S. 4355) introduced in June by U.S. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), perhaps Congress’s most indefatigable climate hawk, to tax both domestic and foreign manufacturers of steel, aluminum, cement and other industrial commodities to the extent that the carbon intensity of their manufacture exceeds U.S. averages.
(A July post here by CTC contributor Mike Aucott, A Novel Way to Price Industrial Carbon Emissions?,” has terrific details on how CBAMs would look from a U.S. perspective, and includes a link to a comprehensive report by the Climate Leadership Council on the relative carbon advantage of U.S. industry compared to Russia, China and the authoritarian petro-states. In a similar vein is a September report from Resources for the Future that compiles carbon emission intensities of both domestic and foreign producers for 39 industrial sectors.)
As for nuclear fusion …
We’re thrilled that on Dec. 5, the National Ignition Facility in Livermore, CA achieved an historic first in efforts to harness nuclear fusion, when their laser-driven fusion device, in a brief (100 trillionths of a second) burst, achieved “positive net energy” by generating a flow of neutrons carrying 3 megajoules of energy, exceeding by almost 50 percent the 2.05 megajoules the lasers consumed in the process, as New York Times science correspondent Kenneth Chang reported yesterday.
That’s terrific news for science and, maybe someday, human prosperity and global sustainability. It’s been a long time coming.
We’ve been reading, and dreaming, about the wonders of fusion power — seemingly low and short-lived radioactivity, impossibility of runaway reactions or meltdowns, abundant resource base (deuterium and tritium in seawater), and of course carbon-free — since the 1960s.
But for almost as long, we’ve been mindful of the dauntingly high hurdles that nuclear fusion must clear to ever operate on a commercial, global scale. As climate activist and author Bill McKibben usefully pointed out this week, “producing [the Livermore Lab] reaction required one of the largest lasers in the world.” Not only that, “the reaction creates neutrons that can destroy the very equipment required to produce it” through chronic embrittlement.
Amplifying those concerns, Arthur Turrell, deputy director for research and economics at the U.K.’s Office for National Statistics (ONS) Data Science Campus, and author of The Star Builders: Nuclear Fusion and the Race to Power the Planet, reminded listeners on the Brian Lehrer Show yesterday that for the Livermore Lab breakthrough to lead to the advent of commercial, global-scale electricity, it must be miniaturized and also made modular and scalable.
Perhaps this can happen someday, with enough time, money and commitment. But the march to that point will be measured not in years but in many — multiple — decades.
Consider that a quarter-century elapsed from the first sustained fission chain reaction at the University of Chicago, in 1942, to New Year’s Day 1968, when the first non-prototype nuclear power plants in the United States, Connecticut Yankee and San Onofre 1 (around 500 megawatts each), achieved commercial operation. And harnessing nuclear fission was a far simpler task than achieving breakeven with nuclear fusion, judging by the multiple order-of-magnitude scale differences between Enrico Fermi’s fission team — which operated in a confined space beneath the college football stadium! — and the enormous National Ignition Facility shown in the photograph.
Clearly, it would be folly to ease up on the multiple, synergistic programs to move the U.S. and the rest of the world off of fossil fuels, including implementing the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 and progressing with carbon pricing. As Stephen Sondheim’s mythical, murderous barber Sweeney Todd pronounced, in a somewhat different context: The work waits!
A post last week by a U-C Berkeley Business School professor got me fretting over the staggering rise in China’s fossil fuel use over the past two decades and wondering what it will take to not just rein it in but reverse it.
Just since 2000, Prof. Lucas Davis wrote in Putting China’s Coal Consumption in Context, the amount of electricity China generates from coal, which of course is the most carbon-intensive of the three fossil fuels — went from one-half that of the United States to six times as much, as shown in his graph reproduced here at left. That’s a 12-fold reversal (!), which he parses into China’s nearly five-fold increase at the same time that U.S. coal-fired electricity production was falling more than two-fold.
It was heartening that Davis, an energy and climate specialist at the business school’s Haas Energy Institute, said straight-up that “The biggest single factor explaining the divergent patterns is that China’s demand for electricity is soaring, while U.S. demand is practically flat.” Too many commentators simplistically credit cheap fracked gas for the sharp, sustained drop in U.S. coal-fired power generation, ignoring the flattening in electricity use that allowed gas-fired electricity to substitute for coal rather than simply add to it — a phenomenon we pointed out in 2016 and again in 2020, in our twin “The Good News” reports, which also quantified wind and solar power’s rising contributions.
That said, the subject here is China, whose electricity use has skyrocketed while its mix has stayed nearly locked in place. The surge in solar and wind electricity generation, though considerable, hasn’t kept coal-fired power generation from growing rapidly. China now accounts for more than half of the entire world’s production of coal-fired electricity, according to Prof. Davis. Moreover, as we show below, China’s year-to-year increases in kilowatt-hours made from fossil fuels have exceeded the same year’s combined increases in wind and solar electricity in all but 2 of those 20 years.
(Note, “coal” and “fossil fuels” are used interchangeably in this post, befitting coal’s dominance over the other fossil fuels in making electricity: in 2020 the respective kilowatt-hours percentages were 95.0% coal, 4.8% gas, 0.2% oil.)
Coal’s Unbroken Electricity Dominance
Following Davis’s lead, we charted China’s annual electricity production by fuel type from data compiled by the U.S. Energy Information Administration. To help the graph pop, we consolidated coal, oil and gas into a single fossil fuel supergroup. We also combined wind and solar, and dropped the small “biomass and waste” category.
The biggest takeaway is the unrelenting growth in fossil (coal) generation, despite the concurrent expansion of both hydro-electricity (concentrated in the first decade) and wind and solar (more pronounced in the second decade).
Indeed, coal/fossil accounted for 63 percent of the increase in China’s electricity generation over the entire 20-year period. Even in just the past five years, when wind and solar have enjoyed their greatest increases in absolute terms, 50 percent, or half, of China’s increased electricity generation has been via fossil fuels; solar and wind combined accounted for only a quarter, 25 percent.
To make these changes easier to see we created another graph showing year-to-year growth (or contraction) in the same four categories. Note the 2014-2015 period when fossil-fuel production of electricity barely grew, on account of both below-average growth in total electricity generation and above-average rises in hydroelectric and nuclear power output.
Those two years coincided with a flowering of climate optimism, with the U.S. and China reaching a bilateral agreement to curb emissions — ostensibly dissolving the “alliance of denial” by which both countries used each other’s inaction as a pretext to forego action on climate — and setting the stage for the 2015 Paris climate accord. Beginning in 2016, however, China’s fossil-fuel electricity generation (again, overwhelmingly coal-fired) recovered most of its prior increase pace. Year-to-year growth in fossil output has averaged 200 annual terawatt-hours since then.
When Will China’s Fossil Generation Start to Contract?
At some point, the rises in wind and solar, supplemented by increased nuclear power production, will almost certainly exceed growth in overall electricity demand. That will allow the gargantuan fossil-fuel generation sector to begin to contract, as it has done in the United States since 2007. (Comparing 2021 to 2007, the peak year, U.S. fossil fuel power generation is down more than 16 percent, whereas in China the same metric doubled.)
That kind of turnaround does not appear imminent for China, however, as suggested by the right-hand part of the graph directly above, showing year-to-year changes. Annual rises in fossil electricity production continue to exceed annual rises in wind and solar. (The relative dip in fossil-electricity growth in 2020 was mostly an artifact of the pandemic-induced global economic slowdown.) Indeed, the 2021 BP Statistical Review of World Energy, published in June 2022, shows more than a 400 TWh jump in China’s coal-fired electricity generation, which would be the second largest year-to-year rise in the country’s history, topped only by the 2011 increase.
Moreover, reports of frightful heat waves and drought in much of China this summer almost certainly point to a slackening in hydroelectricity and a resulting upward bump in use of coal-fired power plants. At the same time, the push to electrify transportation, which is progressing much faster in China than in the United States, will spur increased use of electricity, making it harder to bend downward the curve of fossil-fuel burning to make electricity.
(Addendum from Nov 14: The new Global Carbon Budget 2022 report, prepared by an international group of some 100 climate specialists, projects that China’s carbon emissions from fossil fuel combustion will decrease by 0.9 percent in 2022 vs. 2021, as reported by the New York Times’ Brad Plumer in Carbon Dioxide Emissions Increased in 2022 as Crises Roiled Energy Markets. We’re tracking this and will update with new data.)
Other Energy Usage in China
Electricity isn’t the only form in which energy is used in China, or anywhere else, of course. Liquid fuels derived from petroleum power cars, trucks, planes and construction machinery. Natural gas and coal burned directly (rather than to make electricity) fuel industry, especially steel and cement making, and also heat homes and non-residential buildings.
But in China, no single energy application rivals the burning of coal to produce electricity. It accounts for around one-third of the country’s primary energy consumption — a figure we computed by multiplying coal’s 55 percent share of 2021 China primary energy (see donut chart) and electricity’s estimated 60 percent share of the country’s total coal consumption (per the U.S. Energy Information Administration’s extensive write-up of China’s energy sector, which we referenced earlier).
In the United States, the electricity sector has functioned as the proverbial low-hanging fruit for decarbonization, literally accounting for the entire estimated 2005 to 2021 decrease of 866 million metric tons in total CO2 emissions from fuel burning. The trend in China has been diametrically opposite, with the country’s 2005-2021 rise in CO2 emissions from the burning of fossil fuels to make electricity more than four times as great as the U.S. decrease.*
(* = Derived as follows: Per EIA data cited in text, China generated 1,866 TWh of electricity from burning coal in 2005, and 4,775 TWh in 2020. The increase of 420 TWh to 2021 (from BP data cited in text) brings the latter figure to 5,195 TWh, which represents a rise from 2005 of 3,329 TWh. We apply the U.S. average of 2.22 lb per kWh from burning coal and raise that by 10% to reflect presumed inefficiencies in China’s coal-fired power sector and also allow a margin to reflect the small but non-zero amount of natural gas-burning to make electricity. Converting to metrics, the calculation is 3,329 x 10^9 x*2.22*1.1 / 2205, yielding a 2005-2021 increase of 3,687 million tonnes of CO2.)
Addendum, Nov. 9
We didn’t see it till today, when it hit the print edition, but on Nov. 3 the NY Times ran a long, sobering piece, China Is Burning More Coal, a Growing Climate Challenge.
Timed to the start of COP27, the story noted that China’s greenhouse gas emissions grew in 2021 at their fastest pace in a decade, though that was partly an artifact of the slow increase in pandemic 2020. A more startling factoid was that China’s carbon emissions just from burning coal now exceed total energy-related U.S. emissions — a statistic we confirmed by looking up U.S. 2021 energy-related CO2 emissions in our carbon-tax model, 5,289 million metric tons, and computing China’s 2021 CO2 emissions from burning coal to make electricity; coincidentally, they were the same: 5,289 million metric tons.
Though the the story’s subhead said that “Beijing is looking for alternatives,” it presented little if any evidence. Particularly unsettling was the revelation that in contrast to the U.S., where peaking power for the hundred or so highest-demand hours each year comes from quick-start gas-fired generators, China services peak usage with old coal-fired generators that can’t rapidly ramp up and down, which leads to running those plants for thousands of hours a year. Only now is China supposedly retrofitting those plants for more flexible use and, more importantly, beginning to price peak power at premiums that could incentivize customers to install on-site solar to meet peak demand.
Though the Times story includes the obligatory nod to fast-growing wind and solar in China, our second chart, above, makes clear that their growth hasn’t been nearly fast enough to enable a cap on coal-fired power. As we noted, from 2015 through 2020 the growth in coal-fired electricity generation in China was twice that of wind and solar combined. The story’s overall picture is that the planet’s carbon behemoth is not yet intent on backing away from coal.
Climate policy is on the ropes. Is carbon pricing’s moment at hand? Can it move forward in the face of Republican opposition and Democratic indifference?
No federal legislation with a price on carbon has advanced to a floor vote since the “Waxman-Markey” American Clean Energy and Security Act cap-and-trade bill died in the Senate in 2010. Now Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), perhaps Congress’s most outspoken climate hawk, is seeking to tax manufacturers of steel, aluminum, cement and other industrial commodities to the extent that the carbon intensity of their manufacturing process exceeds U.S. averages.
If coupled with a carbon border adjustment mechanism, this approach could establish a U.S. beachhead for carbon emissions pricing at the federal level. The key is its potential to benefit American industry. As Whitehouse puts it, his Clean Competition Act (S. 4355), would “give American companies a step up in the global marketplace while lowering carbon emissions at home and abroad.”
The concept resembles the European Union’s carbon border adjustment mechanism (CBAM) proposal. The Clean Competition Act would charge manufacturers of widely used basic industrial commodities a fee based on their carbon emissions intensity. Firms whose carbon intensity is greater than the U.S. average for that industry would be charged, however, along with importers of goods whose carbon intensity exceeds that of its U.S.-produced counterpart.
Manufacturing and Climate Change
Industrial production is a major generator of climate change. Iron and steel manufacture is responsible for around 8% of global CO2 emissions, according to McKinsey, and aluminum production for around 2%, with cement and ammonia close behind. Current laissez-faire trade policies favor carbon-intensive imports and thus incentivize production in regions with lax emission standards, a phenomenon noted recently in a commentary in Science by 35 academics, mostly from the European Union though including a handful from the U.S. Although raw materials and intermediate goods tend to have high CO2 emissions per unit of value added, they typically face lower tariffs than more finished products with lower carbon intensities.
Whitehouse sees his bill as a way to use U.S. trade policy to drive climate action. He also views its potential to boost U.S. industrial competitiveness as a way to attract bipartisan support. Holcim U.S., whose parent company, Lafarge Holcim, is America’s largest cement manufacturer, supports Whitehouse’s bill.
In its current form, the Clean Competition Act is more conceptual than prescriptive. Should it pass Congress, it will fall to the U.S. Treasury Dept. to codify regulations through administrative rulemaking, which could be complex.
U.S. industrial facilities currently report greenhouse gas emissions to EPA. The bill would use these data and also require submission of electricity use and product weight of covered goods.
So far, so good. Data reporting could be trickier for imported goods, however. Whitehouse’s bill states that, absent specific data, the carbon intensity of an imported good shall be that country’s GDP divided by its “production-based greenhouse gas emissions,” i.e., its economy’s overall carbon intensity. While country-level fossil fuel emissions and GDP data are available, translating those figures to a country’s CO2 emissions per unit of product could be contentious.
Carbon Intensities Compared
Whitehouse and colleagues argue that the U.S. economy is only around half as carbon-intensive as our trading partners’, on average — two-thirds less than China, and three-fourths less than India. While these differences hold promise for attracting domestic political support, they’re not stand-ins for industry-specific data, especially insofar as ratios for specific industrial sectors appear to be less steep.
According to a recent analysis, U.S. manufacture of steel in blast furnaces and basic oxygen furnaces (BF-BOF) is estimated to emit an average of 1.9 tons of CO2 per ton of crude steel. The respective factors for China and India are 2.1 tCO2/t and 2.9 tCO2/t. Since the U.S. also produces steel in efficient electric arc furnaces utilizing scrap metal, these differences may understate the U.S. advantage. Another study, by the Climate Leadership Council (CLC), found that indeed, the prevalence of electric arc furnaces, the relatively low carbon footprint of U.S. electricity production, and a greater reliance on natural gas rather than coal give U.S. steel production a significant advantage over virtually all major trading partners.
Aluminum and other commodities
U.S. aluminum manufacturers also fare well, with an average carbon intensity of just under 8 tCO2/t vs. nearly 13 tCO2/t for China and 15.5 tCO2/t for India. With cement, however, U.S. production is less energy-efficient on average than in China and India, which have newer factories. However, those countries’ greater coal-dependence for electricity generation may tip the carbon intensity scale in favor of the U.S. For ammonia, the U.S. is likely less carbon-intensive than coal-reliant China, which emits an estimated 45% of that sector’s worldwide CO2 emissions while producing only 30% of the product.
Another factor to consider in evaluating the performance of U.S. industry vs. trading partners is the country of origin. According to the USGS Mineral Commodity Summaries, most U.S. steel imports come from Canada, Brazil and Mexico, while most of our imported cement comes from Canada and Turkey, and most of our imported aluminum from Canada.
Still, China dominates world production of steel, and if CBAM should become established with the European Union or, better yet, with a “climate club” including the U.S., Canada, the UK, the EU and Japan, China’s CO2 emission liability could motivate it to reduce its emissions rather than be disadvantaged in international markets.
Could America’s overall carbon superiority over our trading partners help Sen. Whitehouse’s Clean Competition Act attract support from House and Senate Republicans? Climate Leadership Council V-P Catrina Rorke, in a June 13 presentation to Citizens’ Climate Lobby members, cited interest among Republican senators in connecting trade and greenhouse gas emissions. In an August 2021 letter to President Biden, 19 G.O.P. Senators led by Kevin Cramer (R-ND) and Dan Sullivan (R-AS) called on the U.S. to work with EU and other trading partners to design a common approach to climate and trade policy.
While bipartisan action would fly in the face of a dozen years of untempered Republican opposition to climate policy, Sen. Whitehouse is to be commended for pursuing his novel approach. For the climate’s sake, let’s hope his efforts aren’t unrequited.
Note: This post was amended on July 6 to include @bobinglis’s June 30 tweet, shown below.
Maybe we’re grasping at straws. But we see a possible silver lining in this week’s grievous Supreme Court ruling striking down US EPA’s authority to regulate carbon emissions via the Clean Air Act.
The gleam of hope is not that the decision didn’t dismember the federal government’s entire “administrative state” apparatus — you know, the tapestry of rules, regulations and procedures designed to further societal health, safety and accountability. We fear investigative journalist Amy Westervelt may be right that the ruling is a harbinger of steps in that very direction.
What I’m not seeing a lot of people get is that the West Va v EPA verdict is a harbinger. It’s the first step not the death blow. Overstating it obscures that, leaving people thinking it’s all over and ill-prepared for what comes next.
— Amy Westervelt (@amywestervelt) July 1, 2022
Rather, our thin beam of optimism is the opening the ruling could provide for carbon tax proponents to persuade our fellow climate advocates to lean less on fraught, slow and even quixotic approaches for tackling climate change, and to instead turn increasingly toward carbon taxing as a more-holistic and bulletproof way to bring down stubbornly high carbon emissions, both in the U.S. and worldwide.
In recent years, this space has done battle with what we’ve regarded as inadequate or even illusory climate strategies.
* We’ve criticized the decade-long campaign to divest financial and social institutions from fossil fuels, arguing in our posts and on our evergreen pages that capital will easily find ways to finance whatever legal product consumers demand, especially a product so economically and psychologically fraught as gasoline.
* We’ve hit back at the IMF’s unfortunate labelling of fossil fuels’ vast externality costs — both climate damage and immediate human-health harms — as “subsidies,” for fostering the fantasy that citizens need only stop their governments from bestowing public tax dollars on fossil fuel companies, and Big Carbon will crumble and wither away.
* We’ve even questioned the keep-it-in-the-ground movement, arguing, heretically, that “Oil that doesn’t flow to refineries through the Dakota Access Pipeline [to take one example] will instead come from somewhere else – Kuwait or Texas or a hundred other places – to be burned in cars, trucks and planes.” Our movement’s focus, we’ve argued, must be demand, not supply.
* And we’ve looked long and hard at the climate value of environmental regulation — the very approach the Supreme Court threw under the bus yesterday. Look at how, a year ago, we contrasted the fabulous success of the 1970 Clean Air Act and its 1977 and 1990 amendments in slashing concentrations of particulates and other harmful pollutants in “ambient air,” with the less-technology-amenable issue of carbon emissions:
These and similar successes have led many climate advocates to urge similar regulatory pathways to curb carbon emissions. [Yet] regulatory approaches may offer only modest prospects for controlling and reducing emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, for several reasons. For one thing, the absence of antipollution devices for capturing or lowering CO2 emissions limits the scope of technology-forcing regulation. For another, promulgation of regulations is necessarily piecemeal and reactive. Moreover, the regulation-setting and administering process itself is cumbersome, delay-prone and subject to legal challenge by carbon interests.
We backed up that argument with reasoning from a penetrating paper by Case Western University law professor Jonathan Adler. The sidebar at right has Prof. Adler’s own “key takeaways” from the summary version he published on the Niskanen Center’s website. We highlighted two: A, climate regulations that aren’t clearly authorized by legislation will be particularly vulnerable to legal challenges — as we saw this week, when the six right-wing justices took advantage of the absence of explicit mentions of climate or carbon in the Clean Air Act and its amendments. And B, compared to emission-control regulations, a Congressionally enacted carbon tax should be less vulnerable to such challenges.
This isn’t to say that a carbon tax is just around the corner. We readily admit that a path to enacting a meaningful federal carbon tax — not a token, Exxon-style levy that damages coal but not oil or gas, but a robust carbon price that can reach triple digits in a half-dozen or fewer years — is almost impossible to discern.
Rather, now that essentially all of the prominent alternatives have been eviscerated or emasculated, it’s time for climate advocates to rethink, and, hopefully, relinquish, their anti-carbon-pricing positions.
The Carbon Tax Center has strived to be a climate team-player. At least since the start of the Trump administration, we’ve acknowledged the near-impossibility of passing a federal carbon tax in the current political configuration, and have instead pulled for less-ambitious but more-achievable (or so they seemed) incremental steps.
Just last fall, we wrote that “There’s logic in refraining from the one overarching policy that could lead the way to the deep cuts Biden is seeking: an economy-wide carbon tax. Giving businesses and households money to go green [instead] is more palatable, though less potent, than charging them for burning carbon.”
But we’ve also strived to be truth-tellers. That’s why we called that 2021 post, “Without a Carbon Tax, Don’t Count on a 50% Emissions Cut.” And it’s why we’re a little less inclined than some of our climate comrades to go into full mourning over yesterday’s Supreme Court decision .
Supreme Court leaves it up to Congress to act on climate change. That’s OK because Congress can enact a carbon tax and a carbon border adjustment that can make the solution go worldwide. Tax pollution. Un-tax income. Conservatives in Congress, here’s your chance! We need you!
— Former Rep. Bob Inglis (@bobinglis) (R-SC) June 30, 2022
Please also note that unlike the indefatigable Bob Inglis, who bravely fought for carbon pricing as a six-term Member of Congress (1993-1999, 2005-2011) from South Carolina’s 4th District, we’re not calling on “Conservatives in Congress” to push for carbon taxing. We would love it if even a few did, but that ship sailed over a decade ago, as we’ve summarized on CTC’s Conservatives page.
To sum up: Yes, the Supreme Court ruling was ignorant. Yes, it was destructive. Yes, it’s almost certainly a harbinger of worse. But it didn’t demolish policies that were on course to rescue our planet and make Biden a climate hero.
Yesterday’s decision did damage, but maybe it pulled some wool from our eyes as well.