Opportunity Costs: Can Carbon Taxing Become A Positive-sum Game?

Opportunity Costs: Can Carbon Taxing Become A Positive-sum Game?

Climate change, caused by human activity, is arguably the biggest single problem facing the world today, and it is deeply entangled with the question of how to lift billions of people out of poverty without destroying the global environment in the process. But climate change also represents a crisis for economists (I am one). Decades ago, economists developed solutions – or variants on the same solution – to the problem of pollution, the key being the imposition of a price on the generation of pollutants such as carbon dioxide (CO2). The idea was to make visible, and accountable, the true environmental costs of any production process.

Carbon pricing could stabilise the global climate, and cap unwanted warming, at a fraction of the cost that we are likely to end up paying in other ways. And as emissions were rapidly reduced, we could save enough to compensate most of the ‘losers’, such as displaced coal miners; a positive-sum solution. Yet, carbon pricing has been mostly spurned in favour of regulatory solutions that are significantly more costly. Why?

Environmental pollution is one of the most pervasive and intractable failures of market systems (and Soviet-style central planning). Almost every kind of economic activity produces harmful byproducts, which are costly to dispose of safely. The cheapest thing to do is to dump the wastes into waterways or the atmosphere. Under pure free-market conditions, that’s precisely what happens. Polluters pay nothing for dumping waste while society bears the cost.

Since most energy in modern societies comes from burning carbon-based fuels, solving this problem, whether through new technology or altered consumption patterns, will require changes in a vast range of economic activities. If these changes are to be achieved without reducing standards of living, or obstructing the efforts of less developed countries to lift themselves out of poverty, it is important to find a path to emissions reduction that minimises costs.

But since pollution costs aren’t properly represented in market prices, there’s little use in looking at the accounting costs that appear in corporate balance sheets, or the market-based costs that go into national accounting measures such as Gross Domestic Product (GDP). For economists, the right way to think is in terms of ‘opportunity cost’, which can be defined as follows: The opportunity cost of anything of value is what you must give up so that you can have it. So how should we think about the opportunity cost of CO2 emissions?

We could start with the costs imposed on the world’s population as a whole from climate change, and measure how this changes with additional emissions. But this is an impossibly difficult task. All we know about the costs of climate change is that they will be large, and possibly catastrophic. It’s better to think about carbon budgets. We have a good idea how much more CO2 the world can afford to emit while keeping the probability of dangerous climate change reasonably low. A typical estimate is 2,900 billion tonnes – of which 1,900 billion tonnes have already been emitted.

Within any given carbon budget, an additional tonne of CO2 emitted from one source requires a reduction of one tonne somewhere else. So, it is the cost of this offsetting reduction that determines the opportunity cost of the additional emission. The problem is that, as long as the CO2 generated ‘disappears’ into the atmosphere (and, eventually, the oceans), corporations and households do not bear the opportunity cost of the CO2 they emit.

In a properly working market economy, prices reflect opportunity costs (and vice versa). A price for CO2 emissions high enough to keep total emissions within the carbon budget would ensure that the opportunity cost of increasing emissions would be equal to the price. But how can this be brought about?

In the 1920s, the English economist Arthur Pigou suggested imposing taxes on firms generating pollution. This would make the (tax-inclusive) prices paid by those firms reflect social cost. An alternative approach, developed by the Nobel laureate Ronald Coase, stresses the role of property rights. Rather than setting a price for pollution, society decides how much pollution can be tolerated, and creates property rights (emissions permits) reflecting that decision. Companies that want to burn carbon must acquire emissions permits for the CO2 they produce. Whereas the carbon-tax approach determines a price and lets markets determine the volume of polluting activity, the property-rights approach sets the volume and lets the market determine the price.

There is no necessary link between imposing a carbon tax and distributing the resulting payments. However, natural intuitions of justice suggest that the revenue from carbon pricing should go to those adversely effected. At a national level, the proceeds could be used to offset the costs borne by low-income households. More ambitiously, a truly just system of global property rights would give everyone equal rights, and require those who want to burn more than their share of carbon (mostly, the global rich) to buy rights from those who burn less.

This raises the question of whether emissions rights should be equalised going forward, or whether historical emissions should be taken into account, allowing poorer nations to ‘catch up’. This debate has been rendered largely irrelevant by dramatic drops in the price of renewable energy that have sidelined development strategies based on fossil fuels. The best solution seems to be ‘contract and converge’. That is, all nations should converge as fast as possible to an emissions level far below that of currently developed countries, then phase out emissions entirely.

Carbon taxes have already been introduced in various places, and proposed in many more, but have met with vigorous resistance nearly everywhere. Emissions-permit schemes have been somewhat more successful, notably in the European Union, but have not taken off in the way envisaged when the Kyoto Protocol was signed in 1997. This disappointing outcome requires explanation.

The ideas of Pigou and Coase provide a theoretically neat answer to the market-failure problem. Unfortunately, they run into the more fundamental problem of income distribution and property rights. If governments create emissions rights and auction them, they create public property out of a resource (the atmosphere) that was previously available for use (and misuse) free of charge. The same is true when a carbon tax is proposed.

Whether property rights are created explicitly, as in the Coase approach, or implicitly, through the carbon taxes advocated by Pigou, there will be losers as well as gainers from the resulting change in the distribution of property rights and, therefore, market income. Not surprisingly, those potential losers have resisted market-based policies of pollution control.

The strongest resistance arises when businesses that have previously dumped their waste into airways and waterways free of charge are forced to bear the opportunity costs of their actions by paying taxes or purchasing emissions rights. Such businesses can call on an array of lobbyists, think tanks and friendly politicians to defend their interests.

Faced with these difficulties, governments have often fallen back on simpler options such as regulations and ad hoc interventions, such as feed-in tariffs and renewable-energy targets. These solutions are more costly and frequently more regressive, not least as the size of the cost burden and the way it is distributed is obscure and hard to understand. Yet the likely costs of climate change are so great that even second-best solutions such as direct regulation are preferable to doing nothing; and the delays caused by resistance from business, and from the ideologically driven science deniers in their pay, have been such that, in the short run, emergency interventions will be required.

Still, the need to respond to climate change is not going away any time soon, and the costs of regulatory solutions will continue to mount. If we are to stabilise the global climate without hampering efforts to end the scourge of global poverty, some form of carbon pricing is essential.

Economics in Two Lessons: Why Markets Work So Well, and Why They Can Fail So Badly by John Quiggin is forthcoming via Princeton University Press.Aeon counter – do not remove

About The Author

John Quiggin is professor of economics at the University of Queensland in Brisbane. He is the author of Zombie Economics  (2010), and his latest book is Economics in Two Lessons: Why Markets Work So Well, and Why They Can Fail So Badly (forthcoming, 2019).

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

Related Books

Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming

by Paul Hawken and Tom Steyer
9780143130444In the face of widespread fear and apathy, an international coalition of researchers, professionals, and scientists have come together to offer a set of realistic and bold solutions to climate change. One hundred techniques and practices are described here—some are well known; some you may have never heard of. They range from clean energy to educating girls in lower-income countries to land use practices that pull carbon out of the air. The solutions exist, are economically viable, and communities throughout the world are currently enacting them with skill and determination. Available On Amazon

Designing Climate Solutions: A Policy Guide for Low-Carbon Energy

by Hal Harvey, Robbie Orvis, Jeffrey Rissman
1610919564With the effects of climate change already upon us, the need to cut global greenhouse gas emissions is nothing less than urgent. It’s a daunting challenge, but the technologies and strategies to meet it exist today. A small set of energy policies, designed and implemented well, can put us on the path to a low carbon future. Energy systems are large and complex, so energy policy must be focused and cost-effective. One-size-fits-all approaches simply won’t get the job done. Policymakers need a clear, comprehensive resource that outlines the energy policies that will have the biggest impact on our climate future, and describes how to design these policies well. Available On Amazon

This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate

by Naomi Klein
1451697392In This Changes Everything Naomi Klein argues that climate change isn’t just another issue to be neatly filed between taxes and health care. It’s an alarm that calls us to fix an economic system that is already failing us in many ways. Klein meticulously builds the case for how massively reducing our greenhouse emissions is our best chance to simultaneously reduce gaping inequalities, re-imagine our broken democracies, and rebuild our gutted local economies. She exposes the ideological desperation of the climate-change deniers, the messianic delusions of the would-be geoengineers, and the tragic defeatism of too many mainstream green initiatives. And she demonstrates precisely why the market has not—and cannot—fix the climate crisis but will instead make things worse, with ever more extreme and ecologically damaging extraction methods, accompanied by rampant disaster capitalism. Available On Amazon

From The Publisher:
Purchases on Amazon go to defray the cost of bringing you InnerSelf.comelf.com, MightyNatural.com, and ClimateImpactNews.com at no cost and without advertisers that track your browsing habits. Even if you click on a link but don't buy these selected products, anything else you buy in that same visit on Amazon pays us a small commission. There is no additional cost to you, so please contribute to the effort. You can also use this link to use to Amazon at any time so you can help support our efforts.

 

enafarzh-CNzh-TWdanltlfifrdeiwhihuiditjakomsnofaplptruesswsvthtrukurvi

follow InnerSelf on

facebook icontwitter iconyoutube iconinstagram iconpintrest iconrss icon

 Get The Latest By Email

Weekly Magazine Daily Inspiration

LATEST VIDEOS

The Great Climate Migration Has Begun
The Great Climate Migration Has Begun
by Super User
The climate crisis is forcing thousands around the world to flee as their homes become increasingly uninhabitable.
The Last Ice Age Tells Us Why We Need To Care About A 2℃ Change In Temperature
The Last Ice Age Tells Us Why We Need To Care About A 2℃ Change In Temperature
by Alan N Williams, et al
The latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) states that without a substantial decrease…
Earth Has Stayed Habitable For Billions Of Years – Exactly How Lucky Did We Get?
Earth Has Stayed Habitable For Billions Of Years – Exactly How Lucky Did We Get?
by Toby Tyrrell
It took evolution 3 or 4 billion years to produce Homo sapiens. If the climate had completely failed just once in that…
How Mapping The Weather 12,000 Years Ago Can Help Predict Future Climate Change
How Mapping The Weather 12,000 Years Ago Can Help Predict Future Climate Change
by Brice Rea
The end of the last ice age, around 12,000 years ago, was characterised by a final cold phase called the Younger Dryas.…
The Caspian Sea Is Set To Fall By 9 Metres Or More This Century
The Caspian Sea Is Set To Fall By 9 Metres Or More This Century
by Frank Wesselingh and Matteo Lattuada
Imagine you are on the coast, looking out to sea. In front of you lies 100 metres of barren sand that looks like a…
Venus Was Once More Earth-like, But Climate Change Made It Uninhabitable
Venus Was Once More Earth-like, But Climate Change Made It Uninhabitable
by Richard Ernst
We can learn a lot about climate change from Venus, our sister planet. Venus currently has a surface temperature of…
Five Climate Disbeliefs: A Crash Course In Climate Misinformation
The Five Climate Disbeliefs: A Crash Course In Climate Misinformation
by John Cook
This video is a crash course in climate misinformation, summarizing the key arguments used to cast doubt on the reality…
The Arctic Hasn't Been This Warm For 3 Million Years and That Means Big Changes For The Planet
The Arctic Hasn't Been This Warm For 3 Million Years and That Means Big Changes For The Planet
by Julie Brigham-Grette and Steve Petsch
Every year, sea ice cover in the Arctic Ocean shrinks to a low point in mid-September. This year it measures just 1.44…

LATEST ARTICLES

green energy2 3
Four Green Hydrogen Opportunities for the Midwest
by Christian Tae
To avert a climate crisis, the Midwest, like the rest of the country, will need to fully decarbonize its economy by…
ug83qrfw
Major Barrier to Demand Response Needs to End
by John Moore, On Earth
If federal regulators do the right thing, electricity customers across the Midwest may soon be able to earn money while…
trees to plant for climate2
Plant These Trees To Improve City Life
by Mike Williams-Rice
A new study establishes live oaks and American sycamores as champions among 17 “super trees” that will help make cities…
north sea sea bed
Why We Must Understand Seabed Geology To Harness The Winds
by Natasha Barlow, Associate Professor of Quaternary Environmental Change, University of Leeds
For any country blessed with easy access to the shallow and windy North Sea, offshore wind will be key to meeting net…
3 wildfire lessons for forest towns as Dixie Fire destroys historic Greenville, California
3 wildfire lessons for forest towns as Dixie Fire destroys historic Greenville, California
by Bart Johnson, Professor of Landscape Architecture, University of Oregon
A wildfire burning in hot, dry mountain forest swept through the Gold Rush town of Greenville, California, on Aug. 4,…
China Can Meet Energy and Climate Goals Capping Coal Power
China Can Meet Energy and Climate Goals Capping Coal Power
by Alvin Lin
At the Leader’s Climate Summit in April, Xi Jinping pledged that China will “strictly control coal-fired power…
Blue water surrounded by dead white grass
Map tracks 30 years of extreme snowmelt across US
by Mikayla Mace-Arizona
A new map of extreme snowmelt events over the last 30 years clarifies the processes that drive rapid melting.
A plane drops red fire retardant on to a forest fire as firefighters parked along a road look up into the orange sky
Model predicts 10-year burst of wildfire, then gradual decline
by Hannah Hickey-U. Washington
A look at the long-term future of wildfires predicts an initial roughly decade-long burst of wildfire activity,…

 Get The Latest By Email

Weekly Magazine Daily Inspiration

New Attitudes - New Possibilities

InnerSelf.comClimateImpactNews.com | InnerPower.net
MightyNatural.com | WholisticPolitics.com | InnerSelf Market
Copyright ©1985 - 2021 InnerSelf Publications. All Rights Reserved.