…environmental economics and the implications of environmental policy

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A Taxing Time In Bali

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While we in Canada dig out from three cross-county storms and our GHG emissions peak as all those two stroke snowblowers and plows make life more mobile, one can only think wistfully of Bali and those lucky few climate intelligentsia. Of course there is serious work to be done, and those tasked with working through the current political minefield will be working 24/7. While visions of post-2012 allocation schemes dance in their heads, there is a new and perhaps interesting twist — a call for a global carbon tax that will emerge from Bali.

Given a past political bias towards emission taxes, the emissions price that will continue to dominate the international GHG mitigation regime is of course emission trading. But this bias is not universal, and has ameliorated over time, and thus we now see a range of national and sub-national polices that implement emission taxes. This means that we are moving into a climate policy world where emission pricing is conducted by a mix of carbon trading and carbon taxes, with instances of both implemented concurrently (BC for example). It is not just the economists who are advocating for global carbon tax as part of the post-2012 international regime, but politicians as well. But the question is, can these two emission price options — taxes and trading — be reconciled in a post-2012 global regime? In this post we argue there are a number of reason why the answer is yes.

From an economist’s perspective, the options are reconcilable since both can be designed to mimic each other to ensure similar economic and abatement outcomes are achieved. An oft cited example of this “mixing and matching” of design elements is where a “safety valve” can remove the price uncertainty associated with trading so that total abatement costs are limited. Similarly, an emission tax can be updated up or down so that observed emission outcomes align with desired reduction targets. The advice from economists, therefore, is that the decision to move forward with emission pricing is not an “either/or” decision, but instead how to mix and match these inherently complementary price signals.

This assertion has important implications for the feasibility of a global carbon tax, for if emission taxes and trading are complements, there is scope for a carbon tax in the international regime. But why would it would be appropriate to implement the emission price policies as complements in the post-2012 regime. There are a number of reasons:

• Post-2012 allocations will remain contentious and will take time to sort out, and hence there is an opportunity for a global carbon tax to speed the transition to broader and deeper carbon reductions.

• A global carbon tax could transition newly industrialized countries to the post-2012 regime with binding caps.

• Institutional feasibility in the developing world more closely aligns with taxes rather than trading.

• Competitiveness issues can be lessened if a global carbon tax can be implemented in advance of global emission constraints.

Of course, some political support for a global carbon tax may do little to address “carbon tax” as a four letter word in politics.

Written by Dave Sawyer

December 3rd, 2007 at 3:20 pm