Many economists argue that the most effective policy for dealing with climate change is carbon pricing. This reduces greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in a way that minimises the costs to the economy.
For the policy to work effectively it is important that the price per tonne of CO2 equivalent (CO2e) does not vary with the activity that causes the emissions. In other words, whether you drive a car, heat your house using gas or travel by air, the GHGs you create need to be priced at a unified rate.
Governments can introduce carbon pricing in two different ways – cap-and-trade schemes and carbon taxes.
With a cap-and-trade policy, emission allowances are either issued or sold to the organisations covered by the scheme. They must accumulate enough of these allowances to match the actual level of emissions they produce or pay a large fine. After the initial allocation, allowances can be bought and sold in a secondary market and prices can be quite volatile.
With a carbon tax, the government directly sets the price of GHGs through the tax rate but has less control over the quantity of emissions.
Policy in the UK
The UK Emissions Trading Scheme – an example of a cap-and-trade scheme – clearly places a price on GHG emissions. As this price is determined by market forces it can vary on a daily basis. The scheme applies to electricity generation and other energy-intensive industries that account for approximately 30 per cent of all emissions.
Although the UK does not have a specific carbon tax, it does have a number of different taxes that have an impact on the environment. Some of these have stated environmental objectives (e.g. the Climate Change Levy) while the main rationale for others is to raise revenue (fuel duty).
The tax rates are typically set on the output or consumption of the good rather than on emissions. For example, the Climate Change Levy applies to businesses’ use of electricity, gas and coal rather than the emissions the energy generates. Fuel duty depends on the amount of petrol consumed rather than the emissions the burning of that fuel generates. Clearly, emissions will tend to rise in proportion to the consumption/production of the good, but the relationship will not be precise.
The structure of VAT also influences emissions. The standard rate of VAT in the UK is 20 per cent. However, a lower level is applied to some goods/services that produce significant emissions. For example, the rate on household consumption of gas is 5 per cent while commercial passenger flights are zero rated. These lower tax rates are an implicit subsidy for the people who consume these goods/services. It makes them cheaper relative to the price of other goods.
Impact of the policies
Researchers from the Institute for Fiscal Studies have recently tried to analyse the impact of this complex range of policies on the price of carbon. The results indicate wide variations depending on the activity that causes the emissions.
One of the most significant differences is between gas and electricity. For example, non-energy-intensive businesses pay a price of £229.10 per tonne of CO2e from electricity generation but only £30.50 per tonne from burning gas. The response to the incentives this creates is unsurprising. One of the biggest contributing factors to the fall in territorial emissions in the UK has come from the decarbonisation of electricity supply: i.e. the switch away from coal-fired generation.
The impact of government policy on UK households creates quite perverse incentives. Because of the lower rates of VAT, families receive an implicit subsidy of £24 per tonne CO2e when they use gas to heat their homes. When they use electricity, the source of energy that generates less emissions, they face a positive price of £137 per tonne of CO2e. Once again, the response to these incentives is unsurprising. Household emissions only fell by a relatively small amount between 1990 and 2018 because of the continued use of gas for heating and cooking.
Unsurprisingly many commentators have referred to carbon pricing in the UK as a confusing mess and have called for a unified rate across all activities to minimise the costs to the economy. Another important issue is the level at which a new unified rate is set. Some research by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy suggests that the figure would have to be set between £122 and £36 per tonne of CO2e in order for the UK to reach its target of net zero emissions by 2050.
A higher unified rate would also create another problem – the distributional impact. Poorer households spend a much greater share of their income on electricity, heating and food and so would be disproportionately affected by the policy. For the policy to be politically acceptable, the government will need to find an effective way to compensate these groups.
- Why a carbon tax could be the answer to climate change
- Global pollution price could cut greenhouse gases by 12%, says report
- High greenhouse gas emitters should pay for carbon they produce, says IMF
- Real carbon taxes are the next big political battle
- Britain’s confused approach to carbon pricing
Science Focus, William Nordhaus
The Guardian, Jillian Ambrose (3/11/21)
The Guardian, Fiona Harvey (18/6/21)
Financial Times, Simon Kuper (23/9/21)
Financial Times (3/10/21)
- Tax policies to help achieve net zero carbon emissions: Green Budget 2021, Chapter 8
Institute for Fiscal Policies, Stuart Adam, Isaac Delestre, Peter Levell and Helen Miller (2/10/21)
- Outline the difference between territorial and consumption emissions.
- Using the concepts of rivalry and excludability, explain why GHGs and the climate change they cause are an example of market failure.
- Discuss the main differences between cap-and trade schemes and carbon emission taxes.
- Explain why a unified carbon price would minimise the costs to the economy of reducing the level of GHG emissions.
- Discuss some of the potential limitations of introducing carbon pricing and explain why some countries are considering the implementation of a Carbon Border Adjustment mechanism.