Tag Archives: carbon tax

OMG Did I say that out loud?

Steve Chu says the t word in an NYT interview:

He said that while President Obama and Congressional Democratic leaders had endorsed a so-called cap-and-trade system to control global warming pollutants, there were alternatives that could emerge, including a tax on carbon emissions or a modified version of cap-and-trade.

Glad the option isn’t totally dead.

News Flash: There Is No “Environmental Certainty”

The principal benefit cited for cap & trade is “environmental certainty,” meaning that “a cap-and-trade system, coupled with adequate enforcement, assures that environmental goals actually would be achieved by a certain date.” Environmental certainty is a bit of a misnomer. I think of environmental certainty as ensuring a reasonable chance of avoiding serious climate impacts. What people mean when they’re talking about cap & trade is really “emissions certainty.” Unfortunately, emissions certainty doesn’t provide climate certainty:

Emissions trajectories yielding 2C temperature change

Even if we could determine a “safe” level of interference in the climate system, the sensitivity of global mean temperature to increasing atmospheric CO2 is known perhaps only to a factor of three or less. Here we show how a factor of three uncertainty in climate sensitivity introduces even greater uncertainty in allowable increases in atmospheric CO2 CO2 emissions. (Caldeira, Jain & Hoffert, Science)

The uncertainty about climate sensitivity (not to mention carbon cycle feedbacks and other tipping point phenomena) makes the emissions trajectory we need highly uncertain. That trajectory is also subject to other big uncertainties – technology, growth convergence, peak oil, etc. Together, those features make it silly to expend a lot of effort on detailed plans for 2050. We don’t need a ballistic trajectory; we need a guidance system. I’d like to see us agree to a price on GHGs everywhere now, along with a decision rule for adapting that price over time until we’re on a downward emissions trajectory. Then move on to the other legs of the stool: ensuring equitable opportunities for development, changing lifestyle, tackling institutional barriers to change, and investing in technology.

Unfortunately, cap & trade seems ill-suited to adaptive control. Emissions commitments and allowance allocations are set in multi-year intervals, announced in advance, with long lead times for design. Financial markets and industry players want that certainty, but the delay limits responsiveness. Decision makers don’t set the commitment by strictly environmental standards; they also ask themselves what allocation will result in an “acceptable” price. They’re risk averse, so they choose an allocation that’s very likely to lead to an acceptable price. That means that, more often than not, the system will be overallocated. On balance, their conservatism is probably a good thing; otherwise the whole system could unravel from a negative public reaction to volatile prices. Ironically, safety valves – one policy that could make cap & trade more robust, and thus enable better mean performance – are often opposed because they reduce emissions certainty.

Cap & Trade – How Soon?

I’m a strong advocate for a price on carbon, but I have serious reservations about cap & trade. I’m thrilled that climate policy is finally getting off the dime, but I wish enthusiasm were focused on a carbon tax instead. Consider this:

Jurisdiction Instrument Started Operational Status
EU Cap & Trade 2003 2005 Phase 1 overallocated & underpriced; still wrangling over loopholes for subsequent phases
British Columbia Tax Feb 2008 July 2008 Too low to do much yet, but working
Sweden Tax 1991 1991 Running, at $150/TonCO2; emissions down
RGGI Cap & Trade 2003 2008 Overallocated
Norway Tax 1990 1991 Works; not enough to lower emissions substantially
California Cap & Trade (part of AB32) 2007 Earliest 2012 Punted
WCI Cap & Trade 2007 Earliest 2012 Draft design

The pattern that stands out to me is timing – cap & trade systems are slow to get out of the gate compared to carbon taxes. They entail huge design challenges, which often restrict sectoral coverage. Price uncertainty makes it difficult to work out the implications of allowance allocation (unless you go to pure auction, in which case you lose the benefit of transitional grandfathering as a mechanism to buy carbon-intensive industry participation). I think we’ll be lucky to see an operational cap & trade system in the US, with meaningful prices and broad coverage, by the end of the first Obama administration.

California Punting on Cap & Trade

Bloomberg reports that California’s cap and trade program may still be some way off:

[CARB chair] Nichols told venture capitalists and clean-energy executives last week in Mountain View, California, that she was “thinking of punting,” saying the specifics of the emissions-trading program may not be ready for 1-2 more years.

“I think the cap-and-trade system needs to be thought through and I don’t think that has been done yet,” said Jerry Hill, a member of the Air Resources Board. “It would be a good idea to take our time to be sure what we do create is successful.”

Greentech VCs aren’t thrilled, but I think this is wise, and applaud CARB for recognizing the scale of the design task rather than launching a half-baked program. Still, delay is costly, and design complexity contributes to delay. California has a lot of balls in the air, with a hybrid design involving a dozen or so sectoral initiatives, a low-carbon fuel standard, and cap & trade. As I said a while ago,

My fear is that the analysis of GHG initiatives will ultimately prove overconstrained and underpowered, and that as a result implementation will ultimately crumble when called upon to make real changes (like California’s ambitious executive order targeting 2050 emissions 80% below 1990 levels). California’s electric power market restructuring debacle jumps to mind. I think underpowered analysis is partly a function of history. Other programs, like emissions markets for SOx, energy efficiency programs, and local regulation of criteria air pollutants have all worked OK in the past. However, these activities have all been marginal, in the sense that they affect only a small fraction of energy costs and a tinier fraction of GDP. Thus they had limited potential to create noticeable unwanted side effects that might lead to damaging economic ripple effects or the undoing of the policy. Given that, it was feasible to proceed by cautious experimentation. Greenhouse gas regulation, if it is to meet ambitious goals, will not be marginal; it will be pervasive and obvious. Analysis budgets of a few million dollars (much less in most regions) seem out of proportion with the multibillion $/year scale of the problem.

One result of the omission of a true top-down design process is that there has been no serious comparison of proposed emissions trading schemes with carbon taxes, though there are many strong substantive arguments in favor of the latter. In California, for example, the CPUC Interim Opinion on Greenhouse Gas Regulatory Strategies states, “We did not seriously consider the carbon tax option in the course of this proceeding, due to the fact that, if such a policy were implemented, it would most likely be imposed on the economy as a whole by ARB.” It’s hard for CARB to consider a tax, because legislation does not authorize it. It’s hard for legislators to enable a tax, because a supermajority is required and it’s generally considered poor form to say the word “tax” out loud. Thus, for better or for worse, a major option is foreclosed at the outset.

At the risk of repeating myself,

The BC tax demonstrates a huge advantage of a carbon tax over cap & trade: it can be implemented quickly. The tax was introduced in the Feb. 19 budget, and switched on July 1st. By contrast, the WCI and California cap & trade systems have been underway much longer, and still are no where near going live.

My preferred approach to GHG regulation would be, in a nutshell: (a) get a price on emissions ASAP, in as simple and stable a way as possible; if you can’t have a tax, design cap & trade to look like a tax (b) get other regions to harmonize (c) then do all that other stuff: removing institutional barriers to change, R&D, efficiency and renewable incentives, in roughly that order (c) dispense with portfolio standards and other mandates unless (a) through (c) aren’t doing the job.

Is the BC Carbon Tax Fair?

That’s the title of a post today at The Progressive Economics Forum, introducing a new report from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.

The bottom line:

In this study, we model the distribution of BC’s carbon tax and recycling measures. Our results conirm that BC’s carbon tax, in and of itself, is regressive. However, the overall carbon tax and recycling framework is modestly progressive in 2008/09 — that is, low-income families get back more in credits, on average, than they pay in carbon taxes. If the low-income credit is not expanded, however, the regime will shift to become regressive by 2010/11. It is important for policy makers to rectify this situation in the 2009 and future budgets by minimally ensuring that the credit grows in line with the carbon tax.

A related problem:

A second concern with the carbon tax regime is that tax cuts undermine a progressive outcome at the top of the income scale. In 2008/09, personal and corporate income tax cuts lead to an average net gain for the top 20% of households that is larger in dollar terms than for the bottom 40%.

I plotted the results in the report’s tables to show some of these effects. In 2009, the lowest income groups (quintiles 1-3) come out a little ahead, but the 4th quintile faces a net loss, while the top income group is overcompensated by the corporate tax cut:

BC carbon tax incidence and rebate distribution

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How To Fix A Carbon Tax

Imagine that you and I live in a place that has just implemented a carbon tax. I, being a little greener than you, complain that the tax isn’t high enough, in that it’s not causing emissions to stabilize or fall. As a remedy, I propose the following:

  • At intervals, a board will set targets for emissions, and announce them in advance for the next three years.
  • On a daily basis, the board will review current emissions to see if they’re on track to meet the annual target.
  • The daily review will take account of such things as expectations about growth, the business cycle, weather (as it affects electric power and heating demand), and changing fuel prices.
  • Based on its review, the board will post a daily value for the carbon tax, to ensure that the target is met.

Sound crazy? Welcome to cap and trade. The only difference is that the board’s daily review is distributed via a market. The presence of a market doesn’t change the fact that emissions trading has its gains backwards: rapid adjustment of prices to achieve an emissions target that can only be modified infrequently (the latter due to the need to set stable quantity expectations). Willingness to set a cap at a level below whatever a tax achieves is equivalent to accepting a higher price of carbon. Why not just raise the tax, and have lower transaction costs, broader sector coverage, and less volatility to boot?

Certainly cap and trade is a viable second-best policy, especially if augmented with a safety valve or a variable-quantity auction providing some supply-side elasticity. However, I find the scenario playing out in BC quite bizarre.

Update: more detailed thoughts on taxes and trading in this article.

The GAO’s Panel of Economists on Climate

I just ran across a May 2008 GAO report, detailing the findings of a panel of economists convened to consider US climate policy. The panel used a modified Delphi method, which can be good or evil. The eighteen panelists are fairly neoclassical, with the exception of Richard Howarth, who speaks the language but doesn’t drink the Kool-aid.

First, it’s interesting what the panelists agree on. All of the panelists supported establishing a price on greenhouse gas emissions, and a majority were fairly certain that there would be a net benefit from doing so. A majority also favored immediate action, regardless of the participation of other countries. The favored immediate action is rather fainthearted, though. One-third favored an initial price range under $10/tonCO2, and only three favored exceeding $20/tonCO. One panelist specified a safety valve price at 55 cents. Maybe the low prices are intended to rise rapidly (or at the interest rate, per Hotelling); otherwise I have a hard time seeing why one would bother with the whole endeavor. It’s quite interesting that panelists generally accept unilateral action, which by itself wouldn’t solve the climate problem. Clearly they are counting on setting an example, with imitation bringing more emissions under control, and perhaps also on first-mover advantages in innovation.

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Regional Climate Initiatives – Model Roll Call – Part II

Minnesota

The Minnesota Next Generation Energy Act establishes a goal of reducing GHG emissions by 15% by 2015, 30% by 2025, and 80% by 2050, relative to 2005 levels.

From ScienceDaily comes news of a new research report from University of Minnesota’s Center fro Transportation Studies. The study looks at options for reducing transport emissions. Interestingly, transport represents 24% of MN emissions, vs. more than 40% in CA. The study decomposes emissions according to a variant of the IPAT identity,

Emissions = (Fuel/VehicleMile) x (Carbon/Fuel) x (VehicleMilesTraveled)

Vehicle and fuel effects are then modeled with LEAP, an energy modeling platform with a fast-growing following. The VMT portion is tackled with a spreadsheet calculator from CCAP’s Guidebook. I haven’t had much time to examine the latter, but it considers a rich set of options and looks like at least a useful repository of data. However, it’s a static framework, and land use-transportation interactions are highly dynamic. I’d expect it to be a useful way to construct alternative transport system visions, but not much help determining how to get there from here.

Minnesota’s Climate Change Advisory Group TWG on land use and transportation has a draft inventory and forecast of emissions. The Energy Supply and Residential/Commercial/Industrial TWGs developed spreadsheet analyses of a number of options. Analysis and Assumptions memos describe the results, but the spreadsheets are not online.

British Columbia

OK, it’s not a US region, but maybe we could trade it for North Dakota. BC has a revenue-neutral carbon tax, supplemented by a number of other initiatives. The tax starts at $10/TonCO2 and rises $5/year to $30 by 2012. The tax is offset by low-income tax credits and 2 to 5% reductions in lower income tax brackets; business tax reductions match personal tax reductions in roughly a 1:2 ratio.

BC’s Climate Action Plan includes a quantitative analysis of proposed policies, based on the CIMS model. CIMS is a detailed energy model coupled to a macroeconomic module that generates energy service demands. CIMS sounds a lot like DOE’s NEMS, which means that it could be useful for determining near-term effects of policies with some detail. However, it’s probably way too big to modify quickly to try out-of-the-box ideas, estimate parameters by calibration against history, or perform Monte Carlo simulations to appreciate the uncertainty around an answer.

The BC tax demonstrates a huge advantage of a carbon tax over cap & trade: it can be implemented quickly. The tax was introduced in the Feb. 19 budget, and switched on July 1st. By contrast, the WCI and California cap & trade systems have been underway much longer, and still are no where near going live. The EU ETS was authorized in 2003, turned on in 2005, and still isn’t dialed in (plus it has narrower sector coverage). Why so fast? It’s simple – there’s no trading infrastructure to design, no price uncertainty to worry about, and no wrangling over allowance allocations (though the flip side of the last point is that there’s also no transient compensation for carbon-intensive industries).

Bizarrely, BC wants to mess everything up by layering cap & trade on top of the carbon tax, coordinated with the WCI (in which BC is a partner).