Posts Tagged ‘Climate Change’

Climate change is hot. From the pope’s encyclical to the upcoming United Nations conference in Paris, leaders are debating how to slow and eventually stop the warming of our planet.

We economists think we have an answer: put a price on carbon dioxide and the other gases driving climate change. When emissions are free, businesses, consumers, and governments pollute without thinking. But put a price on that pollution and watch how clean they become.

That’s the theory. And it’s a good one. But translating it from the economist’s whiteboard to reality is challenging. A carbon price that works well in principle may stumble in practice. A real carbon price will inevitably fall short of the theoretical ideal. Practical design challenges thus deserve close attention.

To help policymakers, analysts, and the public address those challenges, Eric Toder, Lydia Austin, and I have published a new report, “Taxing Carbon: What, Why, and How,” on putting a price on carbon.

Some highlights:

  • Lawmakers could put a price on carbon either by levying a tax or by setting a limit on emissions and allowing trading of emission rights. These approaches have much in common. Politically, however, a carbon tax is on the upswing. Cap and trade failed in 2010, while interest in taxing carbon is growing, including three bills in Congress and endorsements from analysts of diverse ideological stripes.
  • Carbon prices already exist. At least 15 governments tax carbon outright, and more than 25 have emissions trading systems. Those efforts have demonstrated that the economists’ logic holds. If you put a price on carbon, people emit less.
  • Figuring out the appropriate tax rate is hard. The Obama administration estimates that the “social cost of carbon” is currently about $42 per metric ton. But the right figure could easily be double that, or half. That uncertainty is not a reason to not tax carbon. But it does mean we should maintain flexibility to revisit the price as new evidence arrives.
  • Taxing carbon could reduce the need for regulations, tax breaks, and other subsidies that currently encourage cleaner energy. Rolling back those policies, in particular EPA regulations for existing power plants, may make policy sense and will likely be essential to the politics of enacting a carbon tax. But the details matter. Rolling back existing policies makes more sense with a carbon tax that’s high and broad, than with one that’s low and narrow.
  • By itself, a carbon tax would be regressive: low-income families would bear a greater burden, relative to their incomes, than would high-income families. We can reduce that burden, or even reverse it, by recycling some carbon revenue into refundable tax credits or other tax cuts focused on low-income families.
  • By itself, a carbon tax would weaken the overall economy, at least for several decades. That too can be reduced, and perhaps even reversed, by recycling some carbon revenue into offsetting tax cuts, such as to corporate income taxes.
  • Unfortunately, there’s a tradeoff. The most progressive recycling options do the least to help economic growth. And the recycling options that do the most for growth would leave the tax system less progressive.
  • A global agreement on carbon reductions would be preferable to the United States acting alone.  Given the nation’s size and contribution to global emissions, a unilateral tax would make a difference, but would damage the competitiveness of some US industries. Special relief for these sectors could reduce the benefits of the tax, but may be necessary both practically and politically.

A carbon tax won’t be perfect. Done well, however, it could efficiently reduce the emissions that cause climate change and encourage innovation in cleaner technologies. The resulting revenue could finance tax reductions, spending priorities, or deficit reduction—policies that could offset the tax’s distributional and economic burdens, improve the environment, or otherwise lift Americans’ well-being.

The challenge is designing a carbon tax that delivers on that potential. We hope our new report helps elevate what will surely be a heated debate.

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Tom Toles - Carbon Tax - December 2012

Artist/Source: Tom Toles at Go Comics

h/t: Greg Mankiw, A Cartoon for the Pigou Club

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Climate change legislation died an ignominious death in the Senate earlier this year. If you’d like to understand why, check out Ryan Lizza’s autopsy of the effort in the latest New Yorker. Lizza documents how the “tripartisan” trio of John Kerry, Joe Lieberman, and Lindsey Graham came up short in their effort to craft a 60-vote coalition in the Senate. Among the bumps along the way:

  • On March 31, President Obama announced a dramatic expansion in offshore waters open for oil and natural gas drilling. In so doing, he gave away one of the sweeteners that the trio was hoping to use to attract pro-drilling senators.
  • On April 15, Fox News reported that, according to “senior administration officials”, the White House was opposing efforts by Senator Graham to increase gasoline taxes. That claim was perverse–the bill didn’t include higher gasoline taxes and Graham certainly wasn’t pushing them–but not surprisingly it created problems for Graham back home.

Lizza’s article is rich with such anecdotes, but it’s the larger picture I’d like to emphasize. Kerry, Lieberman, and Graham adopted a traditional approach to building a Senate coalition. They identified their main goal–comprehensive climate change limits–and then started negotiating with individual Senators and special interests to see how they could get to 60 votes. Nuclear power, electric utilities, oil refiners, home heating oil, even cod fisherman all make an appearance at the bargaining table. But it’s not clear that such horse-trading could ever yield 60 votes.

This failure makes me wonder whether the traditional approach will ever generate a substantive climate bill. I suppose that’s still possible, particularly if the EPA begins to implement a burdensome regulatory approach to limiting carbon emissions. That might bring affected industries running back to the table.

But I would like to suggest another strategy: Perhaps the environmental community should make common cause with the budget worrywarts. In principle, a carbon tax is a powerful two-birds-with-one-stone policy: it cuts carbon emissions and raises money to finance the government. (This is equally true of a cap-and-trade approach in which the government auctions allowances and keeps the proceeds.) Perhaps there’s a future 60-vote coalition that would favor those outcomes even if various energy interests would be opposed?

Such a coalition is unthinkable today. Opposition to energy taxes runs deep, as Senator Graham experienced. But fiscal concerns will continue to grow in coming years, and spending reductions may not be enough to get rising debts under control. If so, maybe we’ll see a day in which a partnership of the greens and the green eyeshades will take a stab at a carbon tax.

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No, not for carbon. For sulfur dioxide.

As noted by Mark Peters at the Wall Street Journal:

The original U.S. cap-and-trade market, which succeeded in slashing the power-plant emissions that cause acid rain, is in disarray following the issuance of new federal pollution rules.

The collapse in the pioneering market where power producers trade permits that allow them to emit sulfur dioxide and other pollutants that cause acid rain comes as policy makers seek to establish a similar market to curb the emissions of carbon, a cause of climate change.

The SO2 market has been one of the great successes of economic engineering, using market forces to drive down the cost of cleaning the environment. After almost twenty years of trading, however, the market ran into what may be an insurmountable hurdle: increased regulatory concern about the location of SO2 emissions.

The SO2 marketplace is national in scope, which has been great for establishing liquid trading and allowing emitters to find the cheapest way of reducing emissions. But it also meant that some SO2 emissions would end up in particularly unwelcome spots, e.g., upwind of cities, states, or entire regions that are having trouble meeting air quality standards.

Over the past couple of years, court rulings and new regulatory efforts by the Environmental Protection Agency have increased the emphasis of the location of emissions. And that means that the national market may be coming to an end.

That’s certainly what it looks like in the allowance marketplace, where prices have fallen from more than $600 per ton in mid-2007 to $5 or less today:

The price decline has been particularly sharp because utilities had been polluting less than allowed in recent years. That allowed them to build up an inventory of allowances to use in the future. With prices so low today, however, utilities have essentially no incentive to avoid sulfur emissions and no incentive to hold allowance inventories. As Gabriel Nelson puts it over at the New York Times:

With SO2 allowances trading at about $5 per ton, and little prospect of carrying over the permits into the new program, utilities have little incentive to bank allowances or add emissions controls for the time being, traders say. Because those controls have upkeep costs beyond the original investment, some plants might even find it more cost-effective to use allowances than to turn on scrubbers that have already been installed, traders said.

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At a time of unsustainable deficits, deficit neutrality is a remarkably lame vision for climate policy.

Last year, President Obama proposed to raise $500 billion over ten years through a cap-and-trade system that would limit carbon emissions. This year his climate policy raises nothing.

The president still backs cap-and-trade, but he has caved into congressional pressure to give away or spend all that potential revenue rather than use it to help taxpayers. Cap-and-trade has thus become cap-and-spend.

The new policy is described as follows in a footnote to Table S-2 of the budget:

A comprehensive market-based climate change policy will be deficit neutral because proceeds from emissions allowances will be used to compensate vulnerable families, communities, and businesses during the transition to a clean energy economy. Receipts will also be reserved for investments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, including support of clean energy technologies, and in adapting to the impacts of climate change, both domestically and in developing countries.

I am sympathetic to the idea that the value of some emission allowances should be used to compensate some families, communities, and businesses as the system ramps up. But studies have repeatedly found that such compensation would require only a fraction of the overall value of the allowances. There should still be plenty of room for allowances that are ear-marked for deficit reduction.

Proponents of the bills currently pending in Congress counter by pointing out that allowance giveaways would get smaller in later decades, helping cut future deficits.

I wouldn’t bet on it. In my experience, these dessert-now-spinach-later policies usually get renegotiated just as the spinach course is about to begin. The alternative minimum tax is about to hit more taxpayers? Let’s patch it for a year. Doctors are about to get their Medicare payments cut? Let’s put that off for another year. Terrorism risk insurance is about to phase out of existence? Let’s extend it for a few more years until we are ready. And on and on.

If we are serious about using some allowances for deficit reduction, we are better off doing it immediately, not creating beneficiary groups who will lobby for extensions when their free dessert is coming to an end.

And faced with $10 trillion or more in deficits over the next decade, we could really use the money.

Note: In his 2010 budget, the president proposed to raise $624 billion in revenues from a cap-and-trade program. $120 billion was earmarked for investing in clean energy technologies, so I netted it out in calculating the $500 billion figure above. The president proposed using those funds to pay for a permanent extension of the making work pay tax program, but they could also have been used to reduce the deficit. (See Table  S-2 from last year’s budget)

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1. Big deficits. Under the President’s specific proposals, deficits will total $10 trillion from 2010-2020. Oh, and if existing policies (as defined by the administration) run their course, those deficits would actually be $12 trillion. Those are gigantic numbers. Under either scenario, our debt would grow faster than the economy every single year. That’s simply not sustainable.

2. The Fiscal Commission warning label. Budget-watchers know Table S-1 as the place to go for budget totals. In today’s budget, however, Table S-1 had a new feature: a box describing the President’s Fiscal Commission:

The Administration supports the creation of a Fiscal Commission. The Fiscal Commission is charged with identifying policies to improve the fiscal situation in the medium term and to achieve fiscal sustainability over the long run.  Specifically, the Commission is charged with balancing the budget excluding interest payments on the debt by 2015. The result is projected to stabilize the debt-to-GDP ratio at an acceptable level once the economy recovers.  The magnitude and timing of the policy measures necessary to achieve this goal are subject to considerable uncertainty and will depend on the evolution of the economy.  In addition, the Commission will examine policies to meaningfully improve the long-run fiscal outlook, including changes to address the growth of entitlement spending and the gap between the projected revenues and expenditures of the Federal Government.

I think of this as a warning label because it’s trying to warn readers that the official deficit forecasts are too pessimistic if, and some would say this is a big if, the commission has an impact.

I think the commission is a step in the right direction, and I welcome the President’s willingness to set an intermediate fiscal goal, even as I might quibble about some details. In addition, I wish he had gone further and specified a target for reducing the debt-to-GDP ratio by, say, 2020.

3. The freeze on non-security discretionary spending. When this was announced last week, I was stunned by heat it generated in the blogosphere. Folks on the left decried it as harmful budget cutting in the face of a weak economy, and folks on the right decried is a sham that would have no effect. I spent about an hour trying to figure it out and decided I couldn’t find enough information to have an informed view one way or the other.

Now that the budget is out, I feel vindicated in that view. To fully understand the trajectory of non-security discretionary spending, you need to consider such obscure bits of budget arcana as the obligation limitations used for transportation funding (ob lims, to the initiated), the proposed conversion of Pell grants from discretionary to mandatory spending, the reassignment of bioshield from security to non-security spending, and the fact that Census spending is particularly high in fiscal 2010 because of the decennial census. I haven’t actually crunched the numbers, but that’s not my point tonight. Instead, my point is simply how hard it can sometimes be to match budget reality to budget communications.

More tomorrow.

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Over at the National Journal’s Economy blog, John Maggs asks some budget experts for recommendations of how President Obama can bring the budget deficit down by 2016.

Here’s an excerpt from my contribution:

President Obama should combine his concern about climate change with his concern about the budget. …  President Obama should demand … that any climate change bill achieve significant deficit reduction. For example, he could refuse to sign any cap-and-trade bill unless it auctions a large fraction of the allowances and dedicates the resulting revenues to deficit reduction. … A reasonable approach could easily reduce deficits by $300 to $400 billion over the next ten years, including both the value of the allowances and lower interest payments.

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