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Sunday, October 21, 2012

Stavins: Cap-and-Trade, Carbon Taxes, and My Neighbor’s Lovely Lawn

Speaking of externalities associated with energy use, Robert Stavins throws cold water on "current enthusiasm about carbon taxes in the academic and broader policy-wonk community":

Cap-and-Trade, Carbon Taxes, and My Neighbor’s Lovely Lawn, by Robert Stavins: ...my conclusion in 1998 strongly favored a market-based carbon policy, but was somewhat neutral between carbon taxes and cap-and-trade. Indeed, at that time and for the subsequent eight years or so, I remained agnostic regarding what I viewed as the trade-offs between cap-and-trade and carbon taxes. What happened to change that? Three words: The Hamilton Project.
...In 2007, the Project’s leadership asked me to write a paper proposing a U.S. CO2 cap-and-trade system. ... The Hamilton Project leaders said ... they wanted me to make the best case I could for cap-and-trade, not a balanced investigation of the two policy instruments. Someone else would be commissioned to write a proposal for a carbon tax. (That turned out to be Professor Gilbert Metcalf of Tufts University ... who did a splendid job!) Thus, I was made into an advocate for cap-and-trade. It’s as simple as that. ...
In principle, both carbon taxes and cap-and-trade can achieve cost-effective reductions, and – depending upon design — the distributional consequences of the two approaches can be the same. But the key difference is that political pressures on a carbon tax system will most likely lead to exemptions of sectors and firms, which reduces environmental effectiveness and drives up costs, as some low-cost emission reduction opportunities are left off the table. But political pressures on a cap-and-trade system lead to different allocations of the free allowances, which affect distribution, but not environmental effectiveness, and not cost-effectiveness.
I concluded that proponents of carbon taxes worried about the propensity of political processes under a cap-and-trade system to compensate sectors through free allowance allocations, but a carbon tax would be sensitive to the same political pressures, and should be expected to succumb in ways that are ultimately more harmful: reducing environmental achievement and driving up costs.
Of course, such positive political economy arguments look much less compelling in the wake of the defeat of cap-and-trade legislation in the U.S. Congress and its successful demonization by conservatives as “cap-and-tax.”
A Political Opening for Carbon Taxes?
Does the defeat of cap-and-trade in the U.S. Congress, the obvious unwillingness of the Obama White House to utter the phrase in public, and the outspoken opposition to cap-and-trade by Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney indicate that there is a new opening for serious consideration of a carbon-tax approach to meaningful CO2 emissions reductions?

First of all, there surely is such an opening in the policy wonk world. Economists and others in academia, including important Republican economists such as Harvard’s Greg Mankiw and Columbia’s Glenn Hubbard, remain enthusiastic supporters of a national carbon tax. And a much-publicized meeting in July at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C. brought together a broad spectrum of Washington groups – ranging from Public Citizen to the R Street Institute – to talk about alternative paths forward for national climate policy. Reportedly, much of the discussion focused on carbon taxes.

Clearly, this “opening” is being embraced with enthusiasm in the policy wonk world. But what about in the real political world? The good news is that a carbon tax is not “cap-and-trade.” ... But if conservatives were able to tarnish cap-and-trade as “cap-and-tax,” it surely will be considerably easier to label a tax – as a tax! Also, note that Romney’s stated opposition and Obama’s silence extend beyond disdain for cap-and-trade per se. Rather, they cover all carbon-pricing regimes.
So as a possible new front in the climate policy wars, I remain very skeptical that an explicit carbon tax proposal will gain favor in Washington, no matter what the outcome of the election. ...
I would personally be delighted if a carbon tax were politically feasible in the United States, or were to become politically feasible in the future. But I’m forced to conclude that much of the current enthusiasm about carbon taxes in the academic and broader policy-wonk community in the wake of the defeat of cap-and-trade is – for the time being, at least – largely a manifestation of the grass looking greener across the street.

    Posted by on Sunday, October 21, 2012 at 12:07 PM in Economics, Environment, Market Failure, Politics | Permalink  Comments (26)

          


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