Undercover Economist

Why the world needs a carbon tax

You can’t please everyone, it seems. Royal Dutch Shell has announced plans to plant trees in order to absorb some of the carbon dioxide produced when we burn the fossil fuels it sells. What’s more, it plans to invite motorists to chip in at the pump by buying “carbon offsets”: a clever way to help the planet, raise cash, and spread the blame around. Environmental campaigners are sceptical. So am I.

I admit an interest here. I once worked for Shell (with the love-hate relationship that might imply), met my wife at Shell, and have occasionally been paid to return to Shell and dispense pearls of wisdom. Yet, despite a grudging affection for Big Oil that very few people share, I think climate change is far too important a challenge to entrust to oil companies.

The issue is not whether they have benevolent intentions. (I assume Shell’s motives are mixed. Whose aren’t?) It’s that the dramatic reduction in carbon emissions we need isn’t something that is within an oil company’s gift. We’re all involved. If you drive a conventional car, use a gas cooker or boiler, or — green tariff or no — are plugged into a national electricity grid, then you, like me, are part of the problem.

Our instinctive reaction is to guilt-trip each other and big companies into doing something. That is understandable, but falls short. Guilt is too feeble a tool and it is often applied in the wrong place.

Our intuitions about how our daily activities warm the planet are unreliable. Which breakfast contributes most to greenhouse gas emissions: fresh berries flown in from Kenya, toast browned in a toaster powered by coal-fired electricity, or cereal drenched in milk from methane-belching cows? Even if you know the right answer, it’s absurd to expect many others to know — and even more absurd to expect enough of them to care. Voluntarism is not enough to solve climate change.

One response, then, is to demand an ambitious programme of government investment and regulation — the most prominent of which is the Green New Deal, advanced in the US by Ed Markey and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, two prominent Democrats. The exciting thing about the Green New Deal is that it has serious political momentum focused at addressing climate change. Yet this momentum has come at a price. The details have deliberately been left vague, and grand aims often win more support than hard practicalities. (See also: Brexit.)

The Green New Deal is also expansive. The resolution not only wants to act against climate change, but to “promote justice and equity . . . repairing historic oppression of indigenous peoples, communities of colour, migrant communities, deindustrialised communities” and many others. Worthy goals these may be, but in mobilising the US government to take action on every imaginable progressive goal, the whole project may become derailed by its own utopianism.

The other risk of a huge centrally planned response to climate change is that of a huge centrally planned response to anything: clumsy megaprojects chosen for their political or bureaucratic acceptability rather than because they deliver the biggest results for the lowest cost.

A planned response to climate change isn’t hopeless, because there are some obvious big wins — tightening rules on the energy efficiency of new buildings, and replacing coal-fired power with renewable alternatives. Yet the best case for the Green New Deal is that even a clumsy response may still be better than none at all.

But there is a better way: a carbon tax (or its close sibling, a carbon permit auction). A broad-based tax on carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases would be far less expensive than a Green New Deal is likely to be, yet it could motivate action on a scale that is both grander and more precise. Every part of the economy and each decision we make would be shaped by such a tax. A carbon tax would pull billions of different levers in an economy that is both complex and saturated in fossil fuels.

Each one of the billions of different products on sale can be designed, produced, transported and consumed in a way that might increase or reduce carbon emissions. A carbon tax nudges the energy mix to shift in favour of renewables, but also pushes fossil fuels from coal towards gas. It encourages efficiency in the design of cars, homes, any light bulb or any motor, but it also rewards frugality. A lump-sum subsidy can encourage the uptake of electric cars — but a carbon tax will also reward those who cycle instead of driving. Our modern economy reflects countless choices, made by billions of people all over the world. A broad-based carbon price influences them all. Nothing else can.

I fear that, like Buridan’s Ass, the American political system may continue to do nothing rather than choose between different plans for dealing with climate change. I would rather a Green New Deal than inaction, and a carbon tax alone is not the ideal response. But such a tax is the long-overdue, all-embracing response to climate change that America, and the world, badly needs. Everyone who cares about climate change should be advocating for it.

Written for and first published in the Financial Times on 12 April 2019.

My book “Fifty Things That Made the Modern Economy” (UK) / “Fifty Inventions That Shaped The Modern Economy” (US) is out now in paperback – feel free to order online or through your local bookshop.

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