Nov 09 2012

Economic arguments for and against a carbon tax

Reuters – Long-shot carbon tax suddenly part of fiscal cliff debate

The article above suggests that during Barack Obama’s second term as president of the United States, the country may begin to seriously consider imposing a tax on carbon dioxide emissions. The justification for such a tax, points out the article, is two-fold:

The aftermath of Superstorm Sandy, which devastated parts of the U.S. East Coast last week, has raised fresh questions about the links between climate change and extreme weather events, which also makes the idea of a carbon tax more appealing.

A carbon tax is a mechanism to charge emitters of greenhouse gases, such as power plants and oil refiners, for each ton of carbon dioxide they emit.

Prospects for such a tax as a way to address pollution and climate are probably dim in a still deeply-divided Congress, but some analysts say the measure would be more attractive if positioned as a source of new revenue.

In fact, a recent report by the Congressional Research Service, suggesting a $20 per ton tax on carbon emissions could halve the U.S. budget deficit over time.

Such a tax would generate about $88 billion in 2012, rising to $144 billion by 2020, the report said, slashing U.S. debt by between 12 and 50 percent within a decade, depending on how high the deficit climbs, the report said.

America’s government budget has been in deficit every year since 2000, meaning the government spends more than it collects in taxes. Fears over the growing national debt and the impact it will have on future economic growth potential have led many in the US government to look for new ways to earn tax revenue for the government, even some ways that have bene considered taboo until now.

In my year 1 IB Economics course this week we have been learning about and evaluating taxes and subsidies in the markets for various goods. Generally, we learn that government intervention in free markets worsens the overall allocation of resources in the market economy, imposes more costs on society than benefits, and therefore leads to a loss of total welfare. For example, a tax on American beef in Switzerland helps keep the price of imported meat high, benefiting Swiss farmers, but overall the higher price of meet and the reduced quantity and variety available to consumers harms many in society to the benefit of the few cattle farmers. Such a tax, it can be argued, creates a loss of total welfare in society, as the tax’s cost outweighs its benefit.

But not ALL indirect taxes (those placed on the production and consumption of particular goods) reduce total welfare in society. A tax on a good that is over-consumed by the free market may actually improve total welfare as the higher cost to producers leads to a reduced supply, higher price, and a reduction in the quantity demanded in the market. A cigarette tax is the classic example. Without taxes on cigarettes, more people would smoke, creating more harmful effects for society, such as the ills of second-hand smoke, higher rates of lung cancer, greater demand for health care and the higher prices that this increased demand create for all of society, even non-smokers. Cigarette taxes are so widely employed by government and accepted by society that there is no debate whatsoever about their use.

But taxes on other goods that create ills for society are highly controversial, and for good reason. Perhaps one of the most debated and divisive tax proposals of recent years has been on the emission of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas emitted during the burning of fossil fuels. The main emitters of CO2 in the United States are the country’s electricity generating firms, which burn coal, gas and oil more than any other industry in the country. CO2 emissions are measured in tons, and a CO2 tax would apply to each ton of the gas emitted by fossil fuel consuming firms.

Arguments against a carbon tax

The primary argument against a tax on CO2 emissions is that it would drive up the costs of energy production, leading to higher energy costs for the nation’s households and firms. This boost in prices would increase costs to producers of all other goods and services in the economy, effectively reducing the supply in several key sectors of the US economy, leading to falling national output, more inflation and greater unemployment. American industry would become less competitive with other nation’s producers, leading to more factories closing down and moving overseas, taking American jobs with them.

Such a conclusion requires that a CO2 tax would, in fact, lead to significant decreases in the amount of energy demanded by the nation’s households and firms. In other words, it assumes a relatively elastic demand for electricity. It also assumes that as the price of fossil fuel generated electricity rises, there will be few alternative forms of electricity for firms to switch to. This leads us to the arguments for a carbon tax.

Arguments for a carbon tax

Energy is an essential good that consumers (whether they be households or firms) demand in large quantities regardless of the price. A carbon tax, which increases the cost and decreases the supply of fossil fuel energy, will not significantly reduce the amount of fossil fuel energy consumed in the United States; at least not in the short run, during which there will be very few substitutes for fossil fuel energy available to consumers.

However, one outcome that proponents of the tax hope for is an increase in the demand for alternative energies, such as wind and solar, which do not require the burning of fossil fuels. Such alternatives are not currently price-competitive with fossil fuels, but a carbon tax would make them more competitive, increasing demand for alternative energies and leading to a greater percentage of America’s total energy production coming from wind and solar.

The graphs below show the desired outcome of a CO2 tax on the markets for fossil fuel energy and renewable energies.

Notice that the tax does not lead to a significant decrease in the quantity of fossil fuel energy consumed in the short run. Businesses in the US will face higher costs, but energy costs are a relatively small proportion of most US industries’ total costs. (The biggest cost faced by US firms, not surprisingly, is labor costs). But the highly inelastic demand assures that fossil fuel energy prices will rise, leading to greater interest from consumers in alternative energies. In the graph on the right, we see an increase in the demand for renewables, leading to a greater quantity being produced.

But what might the long-run impact of a carbon tax be on the US energy sector? As we can see in the graph on the right above, greater demand for renewables will drive their prices up, which over time will increase the appeal of renewable energies to the country’s electricity producing giants. Slowly, the number of renewable energy producers will grow, as old coal or gas burning electricity plants are decommissioned and new wind or solar plants are installed. The supply of renewable energies should rise while the supply of fossil fuel energy should decrease. The result is an ever growing percentage of America’s total energy production generated using wind, solar, or other renewable sources of power. The graphs below show the possible long run impact of a carbon tax in the fossil fuel and renewable energy sectors.

Here we can see that in the long-run, the prices of renewable energies and fossil fuel energies will become closer as the supply of energy produced using wind and solar grows, making it more price-competitive and therefore reducing the demand for fossil fuel energies.Presumably, if the outcomes described above come to pass, the proposed carbon tax could lead to meaningful reductions in America’s greenhouse gas emissions over the long run, as the composition of the nation’s energy production slowly transitions away from non-renewable fossil fuels to renewable, non-polluting energy sources.

But what about the other reason the government is considering a carbon tax now? Remember those fears over the national debt and deficit? How effective would a carbon tax be at raising revenue to help the government balance its budget? To determine this, we must look again at the first graph we drew, only examine the impact of the tax on government, not just the market for fossil fuel energy.

In the graph above, we see that the tax creates a large chunk of tax revenue for the government, “about $88 billion in 2012, rising to $144 billion by 2020″. These figures seem optimistic, especially if the previous outcome in which the demand for fossil fuel energies falls in the long run comes to pass. But for now, at least from this Economics teacher’s perspective, a tax on carbon is a good first step towards both reducing American’s dependence on fossil fuels and generating desperately needed government revenues.


About the author:  Jason Welker teaches International Baccalaureate and Advanced Placement Economics at Zurich International School in Switzerland. In addition to publishing various online resources for economics students and teachers, Jason developed the online version of the Economics course for the IB and is has authored two Economics textbooks: Pearson Baccalaureate’s Economics for the IB Diploma and REA’s AP Macroeconomics Crash Course. Jason is a native of the Pacific Northwest of the United States, and is a passionate adventurer, who considers himself a skier / mountain biker who teaches Economics in his free time. He and his wife keep a ski chalet in the mountains of Northern Idaho, which now that they live in the Swiss Alps gets far too little use. Read more posts by this author

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