The Climate Change Pact agreed by leaders at the end of COP26 in Glasgow went further than many pessimists had forecast, but not far enough to meet the goal of keeping global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. The Pact states that:
limiting global warming to 1.5°C requires rapid, deep and sustained reductions in global greenhouse gas emissions, including reducing global carbon dioxide emissions by 45 per cent by 2030 relative to the 2010 level and to net zero around mid-century, as well as deep reductions in other greenhouse gases.
So how far would the commitments made in Glasgow restrict global warming and what actions need to be put in place to meet these commitments?
Short-term commitments and long-term goals
According to Climate Action Tracker, the short-term commitments to action that countries set out would cause global warming of 2.4°C by the end of the century, the effects of which would be calamitous in terms of rising sea levels and extreme weather.
However, long-term commitments to goals, as opposed to specific actions, if turned into specific actions to meet the goals would restrict warming to around 1.8°C by the end of the century. These long-term goals include reaching net zero emissions by certain dates. For the majority of the 136 countries agreeing to reach net zero, the date they set was 2050, but for some developing countries, it was later. China, Brazil, Indonesia, Russia, Nigeria, Sri Lanka and Saudi Arabia, for example, set a date of 2060 and India of 2070. Some countries set an earlier target and others, such as Benin, Bhutan, Cambodia, Guyana, Liberia and Madagascar, claimed they had already reached zero net emissions.
Despite these target dates, Climate Action Tracker argues that only 6 per cent of countries pledging net zero have robust policies in place to meet the targets. The problem is that actions are required by firms and individuals. They must cut their direct emissions and reduce the consumption of products whose production involved emissions.
Governments can incentivise individuals and firms through emissions and product taxes, through carbon pricing, through cap-and-trade schemes, through subsidies on green investment, production and consumption, through legal limits on emissions, through trying to change behaviour by education campaigns, and so on. In each case, the extent to which individuals and firms will respond is hard to predict. People may want to reduce global warming and yet be reluctant to change their own behaviour, seeing themselves as too insignificant to make any difference and blaming big business, governments or rich individuals. It is important, therefore, for governments to get incentive mechanisms right to achieve the stated targets.
Let us turn to some specific targets specified in the Climate Change Pact.
Phasing out fossil fuel subsidies
Paragraph 20 of the Climate Change Pact
Calls upon Parties to accelerate … efforts towards the … phase-out of inefficient fossil fuel subsidies, while providing targeted support to the poorest and most vulnerable in line with national circumstances and recognizing the need for support towards a just transition.
Production subsidies include tax breaks or direct payments that reduce the cost of producing coal, oil or gas. Consumption subsidies cut fuel prices for the end user, such as by fixing the price at the petrol pump below the market rate. They are often justified as a way of making energy cheaper for poorer people. In fact, they provide a bigger benefit to wealthier people, who are larger users of energy. A more efficient way of helping the poor would be through benefits or general tax relief. Removing consumption subsidies in 32 countries alone would, according to International Institute for Sustainable Development, cut greenhouse gas emission by an average of 6 per cent by 2025.
The chart shows the 15 countries providing the largest amount of support to fossil fuel industries in 2020 (in 2021 prices). The bars are in billions of dollars and the percentage of GDP is also given for each country. Subsidies include both production and consumption subsidies. (Click here for a PowerPoint of the chart.) In addition to the direct subsidies shown in the chart, there are the indirect costs of subsidies, including pollution, environmental destruction and the impact on the climate. According to the IMF, these amounted to $5.4 trillion in 2020.
But getting countries to agree on a path to cutting subsidies, when conditions vary enormously from one country to another, proved very difficult.
The first draft of the conference agreement called for countries to ‘to accelerate the phasing-out of coal and subsidies for fossil fuels’. But, after objections from major coal producing countries, such as China, India and Australia, this was weakened to calling on countries to accelerate the shift to clean energy systems ‘by scaling up the deployment of clean power generation and energy efficiency measures, including accelerating efforts towards the phasedown of unabated coal power and phase-out of inefficient fossil fuel subsidies’. (‘Unabated’ coal power refers to power generation with no carbon capture.) Changing ‘phasing-out’ to ‘the phasedown’ caused consternation among many delegates who saw this as a substantial weakening of the drive to end the use of coal.
Another problem is in defining ‘inefficient’ subsidies. Countries are likely to define them in a way that suits them.
The key question was the extent to which countries would actually adopt such measures and what the details would be. Would they be strong enough? This remained to be seen.
As an article in the journal, Nature, points out:
There are three main barriers to removing production subsidies … First, fossil-fuel companies are powerful political groups. Second, there are legitimate concerns about job losses in communities that have few alternative employment options. And third, people often worry that rising energy prices might depress economic growth or trigger inflation.
The other question with the phasing out of subsidies is how and how much would there be ‘targeted support to the poorest and most vulnerable in line with national circumstances’.
Financial support for developing countries
Transitioning to a low-carbon economy and investing in measures to protect people from rising sea levels, floods, droughts, fires, etc. costs money. With many developing countries facing serious financial problems, especially in the light of measures to support their economies and healthcare systems to mitigate the effects of COVID-19, support is needed from the developed world.
In the COP21 Paris Agreement in 2015, developed countries pledged $100 billion by 2020 to support mitigation of and adaptation to the effects of climate change by developing countries. But the target was not reached. The COP26 Pact urged ‘developed country Parties to fully deliver on the $100 billion goal urgently and through to 2025’. It also emphasised the importance of transparency in the implementation of their pledges. The proposal was also discussed to set up a trillion dollar per year fund from 2025, but no agreement was reached.
It remains to be seen just how much support will be given.
Then there was the question of compensating developing countries for the loss and damage which has already resulted from climate change. Large historical polluters, such as the USA, the UK and various EU countries, were unwilling to agree to a compensation mechanism, fearing that any recognition of culpability could make them open to lawsuits and demands for financial compensation.
- More than 100 countries at the meeting agreed to cut global methane emissions by at least 30 per cent from 2020 levels by 2030. Methane is a more powerful but shorter-living greenhouse gas than carbon. It is responsible for about a third of all human-generated global warming. China, India and Russia, however, did not sign up.
- Again, more than 100 countries agreed to stop deforestation by 2030. These countries include Indonesia and Brazil, which has been heavily criticised for allowing large parts of the Amazon rainforest to be cleared for farming, such that the Amazon region in recent years has been a net emitter of carbon from the felling and burning of trees. The pledge has been met with considerable cynicism, however, as it unclear how it will be policed. Much of the deforestation around the world is already illegal but goes ahead anyway.
- A mechanism for trading carbon credits was agreed. This allows countries which plant forests or build wind farms to earn credits. However, it may simply provide a mechanism for rich countries and businesses to keep emitting as usual by buying credits.
- Forty-five countries pledged to invest in green agricultural practices to make farming more sustainable.
- Twenty-two countries signed a declaration to create zero-emission maritime shipping routes.
- The USA and China signed a joint declaration promising to boost co-operation over the next decade on various climate actions, including reducing methane emissions, tackling deforestation and regulating decarbonisation.
Blah, blah, blah or real action?
Many of the decisions merely represent targets. What is essential is for countries clearly to spell out the mechanisms they will use for achieving them. So far there is too little detail. It was agreed, therefore, to reconvene in a year’s time at COP27 in Egypt. Countries will be expected to spell out in detail what actions they are taking to meet their emissions targets and other targets such as ending deforestation and reducing coal-fired generation.
- COP26 ended with the Glasgow Climate Pact. Here’s where it succeeded and failed
CNN, Angela Dewan and Amy Cassidy (14/11/21)
- Good COP, Bad COP: Separating heat from light at the climate summit
Ing, Samuel Abettan, Gerben Hieminga and Coco Zhang (15/11/21)
- COP26: What was agreed at the Glasgow climate conference?
BBC News (15/11/21)
- Five Things You Need to Know About The New Glasgow Climate Pact
The Conversation, Simon Lewis and Mark Maslin (13/11/21)
- Infographic: What has your country pledged at COP26?
Aljazeera, Hanna Duggal (14/11/21)
- Cop26: world on track for disastrous heating of more than 2.4C, says key report
The Guardian, Fiona Harvey (9/11/21)
- Cop26 took us one step closer to combating the climate crisis
The Guardian, Christiana Figueres (15/11/21)
- After the failure of Cop26, there’s only one last hope for our survival
The Guardian, George Monbiot (14/11/21)
- Why fossil fuel subsidies are so hard to kill
Nature, Jocelyn Timperley (20/10/21)
- The COP26 blah blah blah detector
Rappler, Elpidio Peria (16/11/21)
- What were the main achievements of COP26?
- What were the main failings of COP26?
- How can people be incentivised to reduce their direct and indirect greenhouse gas emissions?
- How is game theory relevant to understanding the difficulties in achieving global net zero emissions?
- Should developing countries be required to give up coal power?
- If the world is to achieve net zero greenhouse gas emissions, should all countries achieve net zero or should some countries achieve net negative emissions to allow others to continue with net positive emissions (albeit at a lower level)?
The development of open-source software and blockchain technology has enabled people to ‘hack’ capitalism – to present and provide alternatives to traditional modes of production, consumption and exchange. This has enabled more effective markets in second-hand products, new environmentally-friendly technologies and by-products that otherwise would have been negative externalities. Cryptocurrencies are increasingly providing the medium of exchange in such markets.
In a BBC podcast, Hacking Capitalism, Leo Johnson, head of PwC’s Disruption Practice and younger brother of Boris Johnson, argues that various changes to the way capitalism operates can make it much more effective in improving the lives of everyone, including those left behind in the current world. The changes can help address the failings of capitalism, such as climate change, environmental destruction, poverty and inequality, corruption, a reinforcement of economic and political power and the lack of general access to capital. And these changes are already taking place around the world and could lead to a new ‘golden age’ for capitalism.
The changes are built on new attitudes and new technologies. New attitudes include regarding nature and the land as living resources that need respect. This would involve moving away from monocultures and deforestation and, with appropriate technologies (old and new), could lead to greater output, greater equality within agriculture and increased carbon absorption. The podcast gives examples from the developing and developed world of successful moves towards smaller-scale and more diversified agriculture that are much more sustainable. The rise in farmers’ markets provides an important mechanism to drive both demand and supply.
In the current model of capitalism there are many barriers to prevent the poor from benefiting from the system. As the podcast states, there are some 2 billion people across the world with no access to finance, 2.6 billion without access to sanitation, 1.2 billion without access to power – a set of barriers that stops capitalism from unlocking the skills and productivity of the many.
These problems were made worse by the response to the financial crisis of 2007–8, when governments chose to save the existing model of capitalism by propping up financial markets through quantitative easing, which massively inflated asset prices and aggravated the problem of inequality. They missed the opportunity of creating money to invest in alternative technologies and infrastructure.
New technology is the key to developing this new fairer, more sustainable model of capitalism. Such technologies could be developed (and are being in many cases) by co-operative, open-source methods. Many people, through these methods, could contribute to the development of products and their adaptation to meet different needs. The barriers of intellectual property rights are by-passed.
New technologies that allow easy rental or sharing of equipment (such as tractors) by poor farmers can transform lives and massively increase productivity. So too can the development of cryptocurrencies to allow access to finance for small farmers and businesses. This is particularly important in countries where access to traditional finance is restricted and/or where the currency is not stable with high inflation rates.
Blockchain technology can also help to drive second-hand markets by providing greater transparency and thereby cut waste. Manufacturers could take a stake in such markets through a process of certification or transfer.
A final hack is one that can directly tackle the problem of externalities – one of the greatest weaknesses of conventional capitalism. New technologies can support ways of rewarding people for reducing external costs, such as paying indigenous people for protecting the land or forests. Carbon markets have been developed in recent years. Perhaps the best example is the European Emissions Trading Scheme (EMS). But so far they have been developed in isolation. If the revenues generated could go directly to those involved in environmental protection, this would help further to internalise the externalities. The podcasts gives an example of a technology used in the Amazon to identify the environmental benefits of protecting rain forests that can then be used to allow reliable payments to the indigenous people though blockchain currencies.
- What are the main reasons why capitalism has led to such great inequality?
- What do you understand by ‘hacking’ capitalism?
- How is open-source software relevant to the development of technology that can have broad benefits across society?
- Does the current model of capitalism encourage a self-centred approach to life?
- How might blockchain technology help in the development of a more inclusive and fairer form of capitalism?
- How might farmers’ co-operatives encourage rural development?
- What are the political obstacles to the developments considered in the podcast?
The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has just published the first part of its latest seven-yearly Assessment Report (AR6) on global warming and its consequences (see video summary). The report was prepared by 234 scientists from 66 countries and endorsed by 195 governments. Its forecasts are stark. World temperatures, already 1.1C above pre-industrial levels, will continue to rise. This will bring further rises in sea levels and more extreme weather conditions with more droughts, floods, wildfires, hurricanes and glacial melting.
The IPCC looked at a number of scenarios with different levels of greenhouse gas emissions. Even in the most optimistic scenarios, where significant steps are taken to cut emissions, global warming is set to reach 1.5C by 2040. If few or no cuts are made, global warming is predicted to reach 4.4C by 2080, the effects of which would be catastrophic.
The articles below go into considerable detail on the different scenarios and their consequences. Here we focus on the economic causes of the crisis and the policies that need to be pursued.
Global success in reducing emissions, although partly dependent on technological developments and their impact on costs, will depend largely on the will of individuals, firms and governments to take action. These actions will be influenced by incentives, economic, social and political.
Economic causes of the climate emergency
The allocation of resources across the world is through a mixture of the market and government intervention, with the mix varying from country to country. But both market and government allocation suffer from a failure to meet social and environmental objectives – and such objectives change over time with the preferences of citizens and with the development of scientific knowledge.
The market fails to achieve a socially efficient use of the environment because large parts of the environment are a common resource (such as the air and the oceans), because production or consumption often generates environmental externalities, because of ignorance of the environmental effects of our actions, and because of a lack of concern for future generations.
Governments fail because of the dominance of short-term objectives, such as winning the next election or appeasing a population which itself has short-term objectives related to the volume of current consumption. Governments are often reluctant to ask people to make sacrifices today for the future – a future when there will be a different government. What is more, government action on the environment which involves sacrifices from their own population, often primarily benefit people in other countries and/or future generations. This makes it harder for governments to get popular backing for such policies.
Economic systems are sub-optimal when there are perverse incentives, such as advertising persuading people to consume more despite its effects on the environment, or subsidies for industries producing negative environmental externalities. But if people can see the effects of global warming affecting their lives today, though fires, floods, droughts, hurricanes, rising sea levels, etc., they are more likely to be willing to take action today or for their governments to do so, even if it involves various sacrifices. Scientists, teachers, journalists and politicians can help to drive changes in public opinion through education and appealing to people’s concern for others and for future generations, including their own descendants.
Policy implications of the IPCC report
At the COP26 meeting in Glasgow in November, countries will gather to make commitments to tackle climate change. The IPCC report is clear: although we are on course for a 1.5C rise in global temperatures by 2040, it is not too late to take action to prevent rises going much higher: to avoid the attendant damage to the planet and changes to weather systems, and the accompanying costs to lives and livelihoods. Carbon neutrality must be reached as soon as possible and this requires strong action now. It is not enough for government to set dates for achieving carbon neutrality, they must adopt policies that immediately begin reducing emissions.
The articles look at various policies that governments can adopt. They also look at actions that can be taken by people and businesses, actions that can be stimulated by government incentives and by social pressures. Examples include:
- A rapid phasing out of fossil fuel power stations. This may require legislation and/or the use of taxes on fossil fuel generation and subsidies for green energy.
- A rapid move to green transport, with investment in charging infrastructure for electric cars, subsidies for electric cars, a ban on new petrol and diesel vehicles in the near future, investment in hydrogen fuel cell technology for lorries and hydrogen production and infrastructure, cycle lanes and various incentives to cycle.
- A rapid shift away from gas for cooking and heating homes and workplaces and a move to ground source heating, solar panels and efficient electric heating combined with battery storage using electricity during the night. These again may require a mix of investment, legislation, taxes and subsidies.
- Improvements in energy efficiency, with better insulation of homes and workplaces.
- Education, public information and discussion in the media and with friends on ways in which people can reduce their carbon emissions. Things we can do include walking and cycling more, getting an electric car and reducing flying, eating less meat and dairy, reducing food waste, stopping using peat as compost, reducing heating in the home and putting on more clothes, installing better insulation and draught proofing, buying more second-hand products, repairing products where possible rather than replacing them, and so on.
- Governments requiring businesses to conduct and publish green audits and providing a range of incentives and regulations for businesses to reduce carbon emissions.
It is easy for governments to produce plans and to make long-term commitments that will fall on future governments to deliver. What is important is that radical measures are taken now. The problem is that governments are likely to face resistance from their supporters and from members of the public and various business who resist facing higher costs now. It is thus important that the pressures on governments to make radical and speedy reductions in emissions are greater than the pressures to do little or nothing and that governments are held to account for their actions and that their actions match their rhetoric.
- Some climate changes now irreversible, says stark UN report
Channel 4 News, Alex Thomson (9/8/21)
- Climate change: IPCC report is ‘code red for humanity’
BBC News, Matt McGrath (10/8/21)
- Climate change: Five things we have learned from the IPCC report
BBC News, Matt McGrath (10/8/21)
- Climate Scientists Reach ‘Unequivocal’ Consensus on Human-Made Warming in Landmark Report
Bloomberg Green, Eric Roston and Akshat Rathi (9/8/21)
- Climate change: Seven key takeaways from the IPCC climate change report
Sky News, Philip Whiteside (10/8/21)
- IPCC report: global emissions must peak by 2025 to keep warming at 1.5°C – we need deeds not words
The Conversation, Keith Baker (9/8/21)
- This is the most sobering report card yet on climate change and Earth’s future. Here’s what you need to know
The Conversation, Pep Canadell, Joelle Gergis, Malte Meinshausen, Mark Hemer and Michael Grose (9/8/21)
- IPCC report: how to make global emissions peak and fall – and what’s stopping us
The Conversation, Matthew Paterson (9/8/21)
- World’s 1.5C goal slipping beyond reach without urgent action, warns landmark IPCC climate report
Independent, Daisy Dunne and Louise Boyle (9/8/21)
- IPCC report: 14 ways to fight the climate crisis after publication of ‘Code Red’ warning
Independent, Harry Cockburn (10/8/21)
- Major climate changes inevitable and irreversible – IPCC’s starkest warning yet
The Guardian, Fiona Harvey (9/8/21)
- Climate scientists have done their bit. Now the pressure is on leaders for COP26.
CNN, Ivana Kottasová and Angela Dewan (10/8/21)
- 21 For 21: The Climate Change Actions Scotland Needs Now
Common Weal, Common Weal Energy Policy Group (9/8/21)
- How to build support for ambitious climate action in 4 steps
The Conversation, Sarah Sharma and Matthew Hoffmann (4/3/21)
- Scientists have finally added world politics to their climate models
Quartz, Michael J Coren (9/8/21)
- Summarise the effects of different levels of global warming as predicted by the IPCC report.
- To what extent is global warming an example of the ‘tragedy of the commons’?
- How could prices be affected by government policy so as to provide an incentive to reduce carbon emissions?
- What incentives could be put in place to encourage people to cut their own individual carbon footprint?
- To what extent is game theory relevant to understanding the difficulties of achieving international action on reducing carbon emissions?
- Identify four different measures that a government could adopt to reduce carbon emissions and assess the likely effectiveness of these measures.
Back in November, when Joe Biden had just been elected, we considered some of his proposed policies to tackle climate change (see A new era for climate change policy?). On 20th January, the day of his inauguration, he signed 17 executive orders overturning a range of policies of the Trump presidency. Further executive orders followed. Some of these related directly to climate change.
The first was to cancel the Keystone XL oil pipeline project. If it had gone ahead, it would have transported 830 000 barrels of oil per day from the Alberta tar sands in Canada to refineries on the Gulf Coast of Texas. It would have involved building a new pipeline from Alberta to Nebraska, where it would have linked to an existing pipeline to Texas. Extracting oil from tar sands is a particularly dirty process, involves cutting down large areas of forest (a carbon sink) and total emissions are around 20% greater per barrel than from conventional crude.
The pipeline would have cut across First Nations land and any spills would have been highly toxic to the local environment. In terms of profitability, returns on tar sands oil extraction and transportation are very low. This is likely to remain the case as oil prices are likely to remain low, with greater global energy efficiency and the switch to renewables.
Critics of Biden’s decision argue that the pipeline project would have created some 5000 to 6000 temporary jobs in the USA during the two-year construction phase. Also they claim that it would have contributed to greater energy security for the USA.
The second executive order was to rejoin the Paris Climate Agreement, a process that will take 30 days. Rejoining will involve commitments to cut greenhouse gas emissions and the adoption of various measures to bring this about. During the election campaign, Biden pledged to achieve economy-wide net-zero emissions no later than 2050. As we saw in the previous blog, under Biden the USA will play a leading role in the November 2021 UN COP26 climate change conference in Glasgow.
At present, the Paris agreement is for countries to aim to reach a peak of greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible to achieve a climate neutral world by mid-century. Many countries have have made commitments about when they aim to achieve carbon neutrality, although concrete action is much more limited. It is hoped that the COP26 conference will lead to stronger commitments and actions and that the USA under Biden will play a leading part in driving this forward.
In addition, to cancelling the Keystone XL pipeline and rejoining the Paris Agreement, the executive orders reversed more than 100 other decisions with negative environmental effects taken by the Trump administration – many overturning environmental measures introduced by previous administrations, especially the Obama administration.
These orders included reversing the easing of vehicle emissions standards; stopping reductions in the area of two major national monuments (parks) in Utah; enforcing a temporary moratorium on oil and natural gas leases in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge; and re-establishing a working group on the social costs of greenhouse gasses.
Then there will be new measures, such as adopting strict fuel economy standards and investment in clean public transport. But it remains to be seen how far and fast the Biden administration can move to green the US economy. With the desire for bipartisanship and seeking an end to the divisive policies of Trump, there may be limits to what the new President can achieve in terms of new legislation, especially with a Senate divided 50:50 and only the casting vote of the chair (Kamala Harris as Vice-President) being in Democrat hands.
The articles below consider the various green policies and how likely they are to succeed in their objectives.
- Climate change: Biden’s first act sets tone for ambitious approach
BBC News, Matt McGrath (20/1/21)
- Biden nixes Keystone XL permit, halts Arctic refuge leasing
The Hill, Rachel Frazin (20/1/21)
- Biden’s return to Paris pact just a first step for U.S. climate action
Reuters, Megan Rowling (20/1/21)
- Court Decision Lets Biden Set New Emissions Rules To Meet Paris Agreement Climate Goals
Forbes, Allan Marks (20/1/21)
- Biden to ‘hit ground running’ as he rejoins Paris climate accords
The Guardian, Oliver Milman (19/1/21)
- What could a Biden-Harris administration mean for the planet?
Euronews, Marthe de Ferrer (20/1/21)
- Ask a Scientist: What Should the Biden Administration and Congress Do to Address the Climate Crisis?
ecoWatch, Elliott Negin (18/1/21)
- Biden marks Day One with burst of orders reversing Trump policies on climate and health
Science Business, Éanna Kelly (21/1/21)
- What Is the Paris Climate Agreement That Joe Biden Will Rejoin, Why Did Donald Trump Leave?
Newsweek, Kashmira Gander (18/1/21)
- Find out what other environmental policies are being pursued by President Biden and assess their likely effectiveness in achieving their environmental objectives.
- Would policies to reduce carbon emissions necessarily be desirable? How would you assess their desirability?
- When is it best to use the ‘precautionary principle’ when devising environmental policies?
- To what extent is game theory relevant in understanding the difficulties and opportunities of developing internationally agreed policies on carbon reduction?
- If the objective is to tackle global warming, is it better to seek international agreement on limiting the extent of global warming or international agreement on carbon reduction? Explain.
With the growing recognition of the global climate emergency (see also), attention is being increasingly focused on policies to tackle global warming.
In the October version of its journal, Fiscal Monitor, the IMF argues that carbon taxes can play a major part in meeting the goal of achieving net zero carbon emissions by 2050 or earlier.
As the blog accompanying the journal states:
Global warming has become a clear and present threat. Actions and commitments to date have fallen short. The longer we wait, the greater the loss of life and damage to the world economy. Finance ministers must play a central role to champion and implement fiscal policies to curb climate change. To do so, they should reshape the tax system and fiscal policies to discourage carbon emissions from coal and other polluting fossil fuels.
The effect of a carbon tax on production
The argument is that carbon emissions represent a massive negative externality, where the costs are borne largely by people other than the emitters. Taxes can internalise these externalities. The effect would be to raise the price of carbon-emitting activities and reduce the quantity consumed and hence produced.
The diagram illustrates the argument. It takes the case of carbon emissions from coal-fired electricity generation in a large country. To keep the analysis simple, it is assumed that all electricity in the country is generated from coal-fired power stations and that there are many such power stations, making the market perfectly competitive.
It is assumed that all the benefits from electricity production accrue solely to the consumers of electricity (i.e. there are no external benefits from consumption). Marginal private and marginal social benefits of the production of electricity are thus the same (MPB = MSB). The curve slopes downwards because, with a downward-sloping demand for electricity, higher output results in a lower marginal benefit (diminishing marginal utility).
Competitive market forces, with producers and consumers responding only to private costs and benefits, will result in a market equilibrium at point a in the diagram: i.e. where demand equals supply. The market equilibrium price is P0 while the market equilibrium quantity is Q0. However the presence of external costs in production means that MSC > MPC. In other words, MEC = b – a.
The socially optimal output would be Q* where P = MSB = MSC, achieved at the socially optimal price of P*. This is illustrated at point d and clearly shows how external costs of production in a perfectly competitive market result in overproduction: i.e. Q0 > Q*. From society’s point of view, too much electricity is being produced and consumed.
If a carbon tax of d – c is imposed on the electricity producers, it will now be in producers’ interests to produce at Q*, where their new private marginal costs (including tax) equals their marginal private benefit.
Assessing the benefits of carbon taxes
The diagram shows the direct effect on production of electricity. With widespread carbon taxes, there would be similar direct effects on other industries that emit carbon, and also on consumers, faced with higher fuel prices. In the UK, for example, there are currently higher taxes on high-emissions vehicles than on low-emissions ones.
However, there are other effects of carbon taxes which contribute to the reduction in carbon emissions over the longer term. First, firms will have an incentive to invest in green energy production, such as wind, solar and hydro. Second, it will encourage R&D in green energy technology. Third, consumers will have an incentive to use less electricity by investing in more efficient appliances and home insulation and making an effort to turn off lights, the TV, computers and so on.
People may object to paying more for electricity, gas and motor fuel, but the tax revenues could be invested in cheaper clean public transport, home insulation and public services generally, such as health and education. This could be part of a policy of redistribution, with the tax revenues being spent on alleviating poverty. Alternatively, other taxes could be cut.
The IMF estimates that to restrict global warming to 2°C (a target seen as too modest by many environmentalists), large emitting countries ‘should introduce a carbon tax set to rise quickly to $75 a ton in 2030’.
This would mean household electric bills would go up by 43 per cent cumulatively over the next decade on average – more in countries that still rely heavily on coal in electricity generation, less elsewhere. Gasoline would cost 14 percent more on average.
It gives the example of Sweden, which has a carbon tax of $127 per ton. This has resulted in a 25% reduction in emissions since 1995, while the economy has expanded 75% since then.
Limits of carbon taxes
Although carbon taxes can make a significant contribution to combatting global warming, there are problems with their use.
First, it may be politically popular for governments not to impose them, or raise them, with politicians arguing that they are keen to help ‘struggling motorists’ or poor people ‘struggling to keep their homes warm’. In the UK, successive governments year after year have chosen not to raise road fuel taxes, despite a Fuel Price Escalator (replaced in 2011 by a Fuel Duty Stabiliser) designed to raise fuel taxes each year by more than inflation. Also, governments fear that higher energy prices would raise costs for their country’s industries, thereby damaging exports.
Second, it is difficult to measure the marginal external costs of CO2 emissions, which gives ammunition to those arguing to keep taxes low. In such cases it may be prudent, if politically possible, to set carbon taxes quite high.
Third, they should not be seen as a sufficient policy on their own, but as just part of the solution to global warming. Legislation to prevent high emissions can be another powerful tool to prevent activities that have high carbon emissions. Examples include banning high-emission vehicles; a requirement for coal-fired power stations and carbon emitting factories to install CO2 scrubbers (filters); and tougher planning regulations for factories that emit carbon. Education to encourage people to cut their own personal use of fossil fuels is another powerful means of influencing behaviour.
A cap-and-trade system, such as the European Emissions Trading Scheme would be an alternative means of cutting carbon efficiently. It involves setting quotas for emissions and allowing firms which manage to cut emissions to sell their surplus permits to less efficient firms. This puts a price pressure on firms to be more efficient. But the quotas (the ‘cap’) must be sufficiently tight if emissions are going to be cut to desired levels.
But, despite being just one possible policy, carbon taxes can make a significant contribution to combatting global warming.
- Fiscal Policies to Curb Climate Change
IMF blog, Vitor Gaspar, Paolo Mauro, Ian Parry and Catherine Pattillo (10/10/19)
- Energy bills will have to rise sharply to avoid climate crisis, says IMF
The Guardian, Larry Elliott (10/10/19)
- Huge global carbon tax hike needed in next 10 years to head off climate disaster, says IMF
Independent, Chris Mooney and Andrew Freedman (11/10/19)
- World urgently needs to quicken steps to reduce global warming – IMF
Reuters, Lindsay Dunsmuir (10/10/19)
- The Case for a Goldilocks Carbon Tax
Forbes, Roger Pielke (13/9/19)
- The world needs a massive carbon tax in just 10 years to limit climate change, IMF says
Washington Post, Chris Mooney and Andrew Freedman (10/10/19)
- People like the idea of a carbon tax – if the money is put to good use
New Scientist, Michael Le Page (18/9/19)
- The IMF thinks carbon taxes will stop the climate crisis. That’s a terrible idea.
The Guardian, Kate Aronoff (12/10/19)
- Firms ignoring climate crisis will go bankrupt, says Mark Carney
The Guardian, Damian Carrington (13/10/19)
- How central banks can tackle climate change
Financial Times, The editorial board (31/10/19)
- World Economic Forum: Climate change action needed to avoid societal ‘collapse’ says minister
The National, UAE, Anna Zacharias (3/11/19)
- Riots and trade wars: Why carbon taxes will not solve climate crisis
Recharge, Leigh Collins (31/10/19) (Part 1)
- The plethora of effective alternatives to carbon pricing
Recharge, Leigh Collins (31/10/19) (Part 2)
- Are these the real reasons why Big Oil wants a carbon tax?
Recharge, Leigh Collins (31/10/19) (Part 3)
- Do we need carbon taxes in an era of cheap renewables?
Recharge, Leigh Collins (31/10/19) (Part 4)
- How to Mitigate Climate Change
IMF Fiscal Monitor, Ian Parry (team leader), Thomas Baunsgaard, William Gbohoui, Raphael Lam, Victor Mylonas, Mehdi Raissi, Alpa Shah and Baoping Shang (October 2019)
- Draw a diagram to show how subsidies can lead to the optimum output of green energy.
- What are the political problems in introducing or raising carbon taxes? Examine possible solutions to these problems
- Choose two policies for reducing carbon emissions other than using carbon taxes? Compare their effectiveness with carbon taxes.
- How is game theory relevant to getting international agreement on cutting greenhouse gas emissions? Why is there likely to be a prisoners’ dilemma problem in reaching and sticking to such agreements? How might the problem of a prisoners’ dilemma be overcome in such circumstances?