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?
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.
- Explain what is meant by environmental externalities.
- Compare the relative merits of carbon taxes and legislation as means of reducing carbon emissions.
- 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?
- In what ways would you suggest incentivising (a) individuals and (b) firms to reduce carbon emissions? Explain your reasoning.
- For what reasons are the burdens of climate changed shared unequally between people across the globe?
The EU has recently signed two trade deals after many years of negotiations. The first is with Mercosur, the South American trading and economic co-operation organisation, currently consisting of Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay – a region of over 260m people. The second is with Vietnam, which should result in tariff reductions of 99% of traded goods. This is the first deal of its kind with a developing country in Asia. These deals follow a recent landmark deal with Japan.
At a time when protectionism is on the rise, with the USA involved in trade disputes with a number of countries, such as China and the EU, deals to cut tariffs and other trade restrictions are seen as a positive development by those arguing that freer trade results in a net gain to the participants. The law of comparative advantage suggests that trade allows countries to consume beyond their production possibility curves. What is more, the competition experienced through increased trade can lead to greater efficiency and product development.
It is estimated that the deal with Mercosur could result in a saving of some €4bn per annum in tariffs on EU exports.
But although there is a net economic gain from greater trade, some sectors will lose as consumers switch to cheaper imports. Thus the agricultural sector in many parts of the EU is worried about cheaper food imports from South America. What is more, increased trade could have detrimental environmental impacts. For example, greater imports of beef from Brazil into the EU could result in more Amazonian forest being cut down to graze cattle.
But provided environmental externalities are internalised within trade deals and provided economies are given time to adjust to changing demand patterns, such large-scale trade deals can be of significant benefit to the participants. In the case of the EU–Mercosur agreement, according to the EU Reporter article, it:
…upholds the highest standards of food safety and consumer protection, as well as the precautionary principle for food safety and environmental rules and contains specific commitments on labour rights and environmental protection, including the implementation of the Paris climate agreement and related enforcement rules.
The size of the EU market and its economic power puts it in a strong position to get the best trade deals for its member states. As EU Trade Commissioner, Cecilia Malmström stated:
Over the past few years the EU has consolidated its position as the global leader in open and sustainable trade. Agreements with 15 countries have entered into force since 2014, notably with Canada and Japan. This agreement adds four more countries to our impressive roster of trade allies.
Outside the EU, the UK will have less power to negotiate similar deals.
- Draw a diagram to illustrate the gains for a previously closed economy from engaging in trade by specialising in products in which it has a comparative advantage.
- Distinguish between trade creation and trade diversion from a trade deal with another country or group of countries.
- Which sectors in the EU and which sectors in the Mercosur countries and Vietnam are likely to benefit the most from the respective trade deals?
- Which sectors in the EU and which sectors in the Mercosur countries and Vietnam are likely to lose from the respective trade deals?
- Are the EU–Mercosur and the EU–Vietnam trade deals likely to lead to net trade creation or net trade diversion?
- What are the potential environmental dangers from a trade deal between the EU and Mercosur? To what extent have these dangers been addressed in the recent draft agreement?
- Will the UK benefit from the EU’s trade deals with Mercosur and Vietnam?
In 2015, at the COP21 climate change conference in Paris, an agreement was reached between the 195 countries present. The Paris agreement committed countries to limiting global warming to ‘well below’ 2°C and preferably to no more than 1.5°C. above pre-industrial levels. To do this, a ‘cap-and-trade’ system would be adopted, with countries agreeing to limits to their emissions and then being able to buy emissions credits to exceed these limits from countries which had managed to emit below their limits. However, to implement the agreement, countries would need to adopt a ‘rulebook’ about how the permitted limits would be applied, how governments would measure and report emissions cuts, how the figures would be verified and just how a cap-and-trade system would work.
At the COP24 meeting from 2 to 15 December 2018 in Katowice, Poland, nearly 14 000 delegates from 196 countries discussed the details of a rulebook. Despite some 2800 points of contention and some difficult and heated negotiations, agreement was finally reached. Rules for targeting, measuring and verifying emissions have been accepted. If countries exceed their limits, they must explain why and also how they will meet them in future. Rich countries agreed to provide help to poor countries in curbing their emissions and adapting to rising sea levels, droughts, floods and other climate-induced problems.
But no details have been agreed on the system of carbon trading, thanks to objections from the Brazilian delegates, who felt that insufficient account would be made of their country’s existing promises on not chopping down parts of the Amazon rainforest.
Most seriously, the measures already agreed which would be covered by the rulebook will be insufficient to meet the 2°C, let alone the 1.5°C, target. The majority of the measures are voluntary ‘nationally determined contributions’, which countries are required to submit under the Paris agreement. These, so far, would probably be sufficient to limit global warming to only around 3°C, at which level there would be massive environmental, economic and social consequences.
There was, however, a belief among delegates that further strong international action was required. Indeed, under the Paris agreement, emissions limits to keep global warming to the ‘well below 2°C’ level must be agreed by 2020.
Climate change is a case of severe market failure. A large proportion of the external costs of pollution are borne outside the countries where the emitters are based. This creates a disincentive for countries acting alone to internalise all these externalities through the tax system or charges, or to regulate them toughly. Only by countries taking an international perspective and by acting collectively can the externalities be seen as a fully internal problem.
Even though most governments recognise the nature and scale of the problem, one of the biggest problems they face is in persuading people that it is in their interests to cut carbon emissions – something that may become increasingly difficult with the rise in populism and the realisation that higher fuel and other prices will make people poorer in the short term.
- To what extent can the atmosphere been seen as a ‘global commons’?
- What incentives might be given for business to make ‘green investments’?
- To what extent might changes in technology help businesses and consumers to ‘go green’?
- Why might international negotiations over tackling climate change result in a prisoner’s dilemma problem? What steps could be taken to tackle the problem?
- How would an emissions cap-and-trade system work?
- Investigate the Brazilian objections to the proposals for emissions credits. Were the delegates justified in their objections?
- What types of initiative could businesses take to tackle ‘supply chain emissions’?
- How could countries, such as the USA, be persuaded to reduce their reliance on coal – an industry lauded by President Trump?
After two weeks of negotiations between the 195 countries attending the COP21 climate change conference in Paris, a deal has been reached on tackling climate change. Although the deal still has to be ratified by countries, this is a major step forward in limiting global warming. Before it can formally come into force, it must have been ratified by at least 55 countries, accounting for at least 55% of global greenhouse gas emissions.
The deal goes much further than previous agreements and includes the following:
||A limit on the increase in global temperatures to ‘well below’ 2°C above pre-industrial levels and efforts pursued to limit it to 1.5°C.
||A recognition that the pledges already made ahead of the conference by 186 countries and incorporated into the agreement are insufficient and will only limit global temperature rise to 2.7°C at best.
||Countries to update their emissions reductions commitments every five years – the first being in 2020. Such revised commitments should then be legally binding.
||A global ‘stocktake’ in 2023, and every five years thereafter, to monitor countries’ progress in meeting their commitments and to encourage them to make deeper cuts in emissions to reach the 1.5°C goal. This requires a process of measurement and verification of countries’ emissions.
||To reach a peak in greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible and then to begin reducing them and to achieve a balance between sources and sinks of greenhouse gases (i.e. zero net emissions) in the second half of this century.
||Developed countries to provide the poorest developing countries with $100bn per year by 2020 to help them reduce emissions. This was agreed in Copenhagen, but will now be continued from 2020 to 2025, and by 2025 a new goal above $100bn per year will be agreed.
||The development of market mechanisms that would award tradable credits for green projects and emissions reductions.
||A recognition that the ‘loss and damage’ associated with climate-related disasters can be serious for many vulnerable developing countries (such as low-lying island states) and that this may require compensation. However, there is no legal liability on developed countries to provide such compensation.
Perhaps the major achievement at the conference was a universal recognition that the problem of global warming is serious and that action needs to be taken. Mutual self interest was the driving force in reaching the agreement, and although it is less binding on countries than many would have liked, it does mark a significant step forward in tackling climate change.
But why did the conference not go further? Why, if there was general agreement that global warming should be tackled and that global temperature rise should ideally be capped at 1.5°C, was there not a binding agreement on each country to apply this cap?
There are two reasons.
First, it is very difficult to predict the exact relationship, including its timing, between emissions and global temperature rise. Even if you could make limits to emissions binding, you could not make global temperature rise binding.
Second, even if there is general agreement about how much emissions should be reduced, there is no general agreement on the distribution of these reductions. Many countries want to do less themselves and others to do more. More specifically, poor countries want rich countries to do all the cutting while many continue to build more coal-fired power stations to provide the electricity to power economic development. The rich countries want the developing countries, especially the larger ones, such as China, India and Brazil to reduce their emissions, or at least the growth in their emissions.
Then there is the difference between what countries vaguely pledge at a global conference and what they actually do domestically. Many developed countries are keen to take advantage of currently cheap fossil fuels to power economic growth. They are also still investing in alternative sources of fossil fuels, such as through fracking.
As we said in the previous blog, game theory can shed some useful insights into the nature and outcome of climate negotiations. ‘The global optimum may be for a strong agreement, binding on all countries. The Nash equilibrium, however, may be a situation where countries push for their own interests at the expense of others, with the final agreement being much more minimalistic.’
‘Minimalistic’ may be too strong a description of the outcomes of the Paris conference. But they could have been stronger. Nevertheless, judged by the outcomes of previous climate conferences, the deal could still be described as ‘historic’.
With landmark climate accord, world marks turn from fossil fuels Reuters (13/12/15)
COP21 climate change summit reaches deal in Paris BBC News (13/12/15)
COP21: Paris climate deal is ‘best chance to save planet’ BBC News (13/12/15)
COP21: Climate change deal’s winners and losers BBC News, Matt McGrath (13/12/15)
The Five Key Decisions Made in the UN Climate Deal in Paris Bloomberg, video: Nathaniel Bullard; article: Ewa Krukowska and Alex Morales (12/12/15)
The key factors in getting a deal in Paris BBC News on YouTube, Tom Burke (13/12/15)
COP21 agreement: All you need to know about Paris climate change deal Hindustan Times, Chetan Chauhan (13/12/15)
COP21: Paris agreement formally adopted Financial Times, Pilita Clark and Michael Stothard (12/12/15)
Let’s hail the Paris climate change agreement and get to work Financial Times, Jeffrey Sachs (12/12/15)
COP21: Public-private collaboration key to climate targets Financial Times, Nicholas Stern (13/12/15)
Paris climate change agreement: the deal at a glance The Telegraph, Emily Gosden (12/12/15)
Climate Accord Is a Healing Step, if Not a Cure New York Times, Justin Gillis (12/12/15)
Paris Agreement Ushers in End of the Fossil Fuel Era Slate, Eric Holthaus (12/12/15)
Paris Agreement: the reaction Business Green, James Murray and Jessica Shankleman (12/12/15)
World’s First Global Deal to Combat Climate Change Adopted in Paris Scientific American, David Biello (12/12/15)
COP21: Paris climate deal ‘our best chance to save the planet’, says Obama Independent, Tom Bawden (13/12/15)
Grand promises of Paris climate deal undermined by squalid retrenchments The Guardian, George Monbiot (12/12/15)
Paris Agreement on climate change: the good, the bad, and the ugly The Conversation, Henrik Selin and Adil Najam (14/12/15)
COP21: James Hansen, the father of climate change awareness, claims Paris agreement is a ‘fraud’ Independent, Caroline Mortimer (14/12/15)
Paris climate agreement: More hot air won’t save us from oblivion Sydney Morning Herald, Peter Hartcher (15/12/15)
Adoption of the Paris Agreement United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (12/12/15)
- Could the market ever lead to a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions? Explain.
- What are the main strengths and weaknesses of the Paris agreement?
- Is it in rich countries’ interests to help poorer countries to achieve reductions in greenhouse gas emissions?
- How might countries reduce the production of fossil fuels? Are they likely to want to do this? Explain.
- Is a ‘cap and trade’ (tradable permits) system (a) an effective means of reducing emissions; (b) an efficient system?
- What is the best way of financing investment in renewable energy?