Let this be the year when we put a proper price on carbon

January 5th, 2015

January 4, 2015

The fall in oil prices and declines in other energy prices make the case for a tax overwhelming

The case for carbon taxes has long been compelling. With the recent steep fall in oil prices and associated declines in other energy prices it is overwhelming. There is room for debate about the size of the tax and about how the proceeds should be deployed. But there should be no doubt that starting from the current zero tax rate on carbon, increased taxation would be desirable.

The core of the case for taxation is the recognition that those who use carbon-based fuels or products do not bear all the costs of their actions. Carbon emissions exacerbate the global climate change problem. In many cases they contribute to local pollution problems which immediately harm human health. Removing fossil fuels from the ground involves both accident risks and environmental challenges. And even with the substantial increases in US oil production we remain a net importer, so increases in consumption raise our dependence on Middle East producers.

When we drive our cars, heat our homes or use fossil fuels in more indirect ways, all of us create these costs without paying for them. It follows that we overuse these fuels. This is not some kind of government planning argument — it is the logic of the market: that which is not paid for is overused. Even if the government had no need or use for revenue, it could make the economy function better by levying carbon taxes and rebating the revenues to society.

While the recent decline in energy prices is a good thing in that it has on balance raised the incomes of Americans, it does exacerbate the problem of energy overuse. The benefit of imposing carbon taxes is therefore enhanced.

On the other side of the ledger, there has always been the concern that raising carbon taxes would place an unfair burden on some middle- and low-income consumers. Those who drive long distances to work, say, or who have homes that are expensive to heat would be disproportionately burdened. Now these groups have received a windfall from the drop in energy prices so it would be possible to impose substantial carbon taxes without them being burdened relative to where prices stood six months ago. As an example, the price of petrol has fallen by over $1 per gallon. A $25 a ton tax on carbon that would raise over $1tn during the next decade would lift petrol prices by only about 25 cents.

Some worry that taxing fossil fuels will hurt the competitiveness of US industry and encourage offshoring. In fact a well designed tax would be levied on the carbon content of all imports coming from countries that did not impose their own carbon levies. The US should insist that its tax is compatible with World Trade Organisation rules. It would have the virtue of encouraging countries who wished to avoid the US tax to impose carbon taxes of their own, thereby further supporting efforts to reduce global climate change.

A US carbon tax would contribute to efforts to combat climate change in other ways. It would be a hugely important symbolic step ahead of the global climate summit in Paris late this year. It would shift the debate towards harmonised measures to raise the price of carbon use and away from the complex cap-and-trade type systems that in the EU and elsewhere have proven more difficult to operate than expected.

What size levy is appropriate? Here there is more danger of doing too little than too much. Once the principle of taxation is accepted its level can be adjusted. A tax of $25 a ton would raise well over $100bn each year and seems a reasonable starting point.

How should the proceeds be used? Here too it seems more important to reach consensus on the principle of taxation. My preference would be for the proceeds to be split between investments in infrastructure and pro-work tax credits. An additional $50bn a year in infrastructure spending would be a significant contribution to closing America’s investment gap in that area. The same sum devoted to pro-work tax credits could finance a huge increase in the earned income tax credit, a meaningful reduction in the payroll tax or some combination of the two.

Progressives who are concerned about climate change should rally to a carbon tax as the most important step for mobilising against it. Conservatives who believe in the power of markets should favour carbon taxes on market principles. And Americans who want to see their country lead on the energy and climate issues that are crucial to the world this century should want to be in the vanguard on carbon taxes. Now is the time.

The writer is Charles W Eliot university professor at Harvard and a former US Treasury secretary