Tag: carbon taxes

There is increasing recognition that the world is facing a climate emergency. Concerns are growing about the damaging effects of global warming on weather patterns, with increasing droughts, forest fires, floods and hurricanes. Ice sheets are melting and glaciers retreating, with consequent rising sea levels. Habitats and livelihoods are being destroyed. And many of the effects seem to be occurring more rapidly than had previously been expected.

Extinction Rebellion has staged protests in many countries; the period from 20 to 27 September saw a worldwide climate strike (see also), with millions of people marching and children leaving school to protest; a Climate Action Summit took place at the United Nations, with a rousing speech by Greta Thunberg, the 16 year-old Swedish activist; the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has just released a report with evidence showing that the melting of ice sheets and rising sea levels is more rapid than previously thought; at its annual party conference in Brighton, the Labour Party pledged that, in government, it would bring forward the UK’s target for zero net carbon emissions from 2050 to 2030.

Increasingly attention is focusing on what can be done. At first sight, it might seem as if the answer lies solely with climate scientists, environmentalists, technologists, politicians and industry. When the matter is discussed in the media, it is often the environment correspondent, the science correspondent, the political correspondent or the business correspondent who reports on developments in policy. But economics has an absolutely central role to play in both the analysis of the problem and in examining the effectiveness of alternative solutions.

One of the key things that economists do is to examine incentives and how they impact on human behaviour. Indeed, understanding the design and effectiveness of incentives is one of the 15 Threshold Concepts we identify in the Sloman books.

One of the most influential studies of the impact of climate change and means of addressing it was the study back in 2006, The Economics of Climate Change: The Stern Review, led by the economist Sir Nicholas Stern. The Review reflected economists’ arguments that climate change represents a massive failure of markets and of governments too. Firms and individuals can emit greenhouse gases into the atmosphere at no charge to themselves, even though it imposes costs on others. These external costs are possible because the atmosphere is a public good, which is free to exploit.

Part of the solution is to ‘internalise’ these externalities by imposing charges on people and firms for their emissions, such as imposing higher taxes on cars with high exhaust emissions or on coal-fired power stations. This can be done through the tax system, with ‘green’ taxes and charges. Economists study the effectiveness of these and how much they are likely to change people’s behaviour.

Another part of the solution is to subsidise green alternatives, such as solar and wind power, that provide positive environmental externalities. But again, just how responsive will demand be? This again is something that economists study.

Of course, changing human behaviour is not just about raising the prices of activities that create negative environmental externalities and lowering the prices of those that create positive ones. Part of the solution lies in education to make people aware of the environmental impacts of their activities and what can be done about it. The problem here is that there is a lack of information – a classic market failure. Making people aware of the consequences of their actions can play a key part in the economic decisions they make. Economists study the extent that imperfect information distorts decision making and how informed decision making can improve outcomes.

Another part of the solution may be direct government investment in green technologies or the use of legislation to prevent or restrict activities that contribute to global warming. But in each case, economists are well placed to examine the efficacy and the costs and benefits of alternative policies. Economists have the tools to make cost–benefit appraisals.

Economists also study the motivations of people and how they affect their decisions, including decisions about whether or not to take part in activities with high emissions, such air travel, and decisions on ‘green’ activities, such as eating less meat and more vegetables.

If you are starting out on an economics degree, you will soon see that economists are at the centre of the analysis of some of the biggest issues of the day, such as climate change and the environment generally, inequality and poverty, working conditions, the work–life balance, the price of accommodation, the effects of populism and the retreat from global responsibility and, in the UK especially, the effects of Brexit, of whatever form.

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Questions

  1. Explain what is meant by environmental externalities.
  2. Compare the relative merits of carbon taxes and legislation as means of reducing carbon emissions.
  3. If there is a climate emergency, why are most governments unwilling to take the necessary measures to make their countries net carbon neutral within the next few years?
  4. In what ways would you suggest incentivising (a) individuals and (b) firms to reduce carbon emissions? Explain your reasoning.
  5. For what reasons are the burdens of climate changed shared unequally between people across the globe?

There has been much criticism of the European Emissions Trading Scheme, the world’s most significant cap-and-trade (tradable permits) scheme for curbing greenhouse gas emissions. The main criticism is that the scheme has failed to make significant cuts in pollution. The cap was so loose in the first phase (2005–07) that by the end of this period, carbon was trading for as little as €0.02 per tonne. Although the cap on emissions was tightened by 7 per cent for phase 2 (2008–12) (see Economics, 7th ed, Box 12.5), causing the carbon price to rise to about €30.00 per tonne by mid 2009, since then the price has fallen as industry has cut output in response to the recession. By February 2010, the carbon price was around €12.50 per tonne (see the Guardian article Carbon price falls to new low). For carbon price data see the European Climate Change site.

The experience of the ETS has resulted in many people in the USA and elsewhere calling for the use of carbon taxes rather than cap and trade as the best means for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Others have called for a mix of measures. In the US Senate, three senators are seeking to overturn cap-and-trade proposals and take a sector-by-sector approach to cutting emissions.

But increasingly the evidence, supported by economic argument, is that cap and trade does work – or can be made to work – and that it is a better policy tool than carbon taxes. The following articles look at cap and trade and assess whether it really is the best alternative.

Buying off the big polluters looks bad but it works Sunday Times, Charles Clover (28/2/10)
Economists hail EU emissions trading success BusinessGreen, James Murray (15/2/10)
EU study plumps for cap & trade in ship carbon carbonpositive (17/2/10)
European carbon trading labelled ‘model for the world’ Ecologist (1/3/10)
Cap and Trade vs Carbon Tax – 6 Myths Busted Cleantech Blog (26/2/10)
Senators seen ditching cap and trade in new bill Reuters, Russell Blinch (27/2/10)
Senators to propose abandoning cap-and-trade Washington Post, Juliet Eilperin and Steven Mufson (27/2/10)
U.S. Senate may scrap Cap and Trade in exchange for Cap and Dividend The Energy Collective, Chris Schultz (27/2/10)

See also:
Emissions Trading Wikipedia

Questions

  1. What determines the price of carbon in the ETS? Why was it higher in 2008/9 than in 2007? Why has it fallen in recent months?
  2. Does it matter that the carbon price fluctuates with the business cycle?
  3. Explain whether it is better to allocate carbon credits free of charge or auction them.
  4. Assess whether or not the EU emissions trading scheme has been a success so far.
  5. Compare the relative merits of a cap-and-trade scheme with carbon taxes.
  6. What other alternatives are there to cap and trade and carbon taxes as means of curbing emissions? Compare their relative merits.
  7. What is the best means of curbing carbon emissions from shipping? Explain.

In the second of the linked articles below, Andy Atkins, from Friends of the Earth, argues that the European Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) has failed to make any substantial cuts is emissions and is creating the opportunity for carbon traders to become very rich in increasingly complex financial products based on carbon. “This risks the development of sub-prime carbon and financial crisis – with a double whammy this time of environmental catastrophe to match.” He thus argues for alternative methods of reducing carbon, such as green taxes, tough regulation and government investment in green technology

But is the ETS a failure? In the third article, Alexandra Galin, from the Carbon Markets & Investors Association, argues that the second phase of ETS (2008–12) is much more successful than the first (2005–7) and that substantial carbon reductions have been achieved. Her argument is that a carbon trading scheme’s success in cutting carbon emissions does not depend on the trading system, but on the tightness of the cap. In other words, in a ‘cap-and-trade’ system, it is the cap that reduces emissions; the trading simply achieves the reductions in the most efficient way.

Friends of the Earth attacks carbon trading (including video) Guardian, Ashley Seager (5/11/09)
Don’t let the reckless City trade carbon Guardian, Andy Atkins (5/11/09)
The European emissions trading scheme is now a success Guardian, Alexandra Galin (17/11/09)
Storm could follow calm in EU carbon market Reuters, Nina Chestney (11/11/09)
Carbon market clouded by uncertainty BBC News, Damian Kahya (11/11/09)
See also: Gathering momentum on tackling climate change? (May 2009 blog)

Details of the European Emissions Trading Scheme can be found at:
Emission Trading System (EU ETS) European Commission, Environment DG

Questions

  1. Explain how the European Emissions Trading Scheme works.
  2. What are the advantages and disadvantages of the ETS as a means of reducing carbon emissions?
  3. Compare theses advantages and disadvantages with those of green taxes.
  4. How does the market price of carbon traded within the scheme reflect the toughness of the policy? What else might the price reflect?
  5. What is likely to happen to the carbon price in the coming months? Explain.

In a surprise move, the Tories have announced plans to tax air travel as part of their environmental policy. It was no surprise to hear the airlines criticise this, but disquiet about this policy has been expressed in traditional Tory circles and it amounts to a significant departure from the past for the party. Are they just flying a kite, or is this a serious policy initiative?

Tories reveal plans for green tax hike on air travel Guardian (11/3/07)
Tory plan for sky-high flight taxes Scotsman (11/3/07)
Airlines shoot down Tory ‘tax on fun’ Telegraph (12/3/07)
Green tax won’t help the planet or the Tories Telegraph (11/3/07)
Tories plan green tax on flights BBC News Online (11/3/07)

Questions

1. Why might a free market in air travel not result in an optimal number of flights.
2. Discuss the likely effectiveness of the tax on flying for reducing the demand for air travel. (You should consider the likely value of the price elasticity of demand in your answer.)
3. With the use of appropriate diagrams, assess the likely impact of the tax on flying on the equilibrium level of price and output in the market for air travel.