Increasing the political acceptability of carbon taxes

Straightforward, practical measures can make carbon taxes more acceptable to voters.

Carbon pricing often faces political obstacles due to public opposition …

Carbon pricing has spread widely in recent years, with around 40 systems now in place[i].  However, most emissions are not yet priced, and, even where they are, most prices remain too low.

Both expanding coverage and increasing price levels face political obstacles.  Overcoming these is essential for carbon pricing to play the role that it should in reducing emissions.  Fortunately, evidence is now emerging on what can be done to reduce opposition from voters – overcoming opposition from powerful lobbies such as industry warrants separate approaches.

A study by researchers at the LSE’s Grantham Research Institute, based on reviewing 39 existing empirical analyses, describes people’s objections to carbon pricing and other kinds of environmental taxes, and suggests specific actions to overcome them.  (The study focusses on carbon taxes, and most evidence is from North West Europe and North America, so the conclusions may not extend fully to emissions trading systems or to other cultural contexts.)

The study identifies several reasons people oppose carbon taxes:

  • The personal and wider economic costs of a tax are seen as too high.
  • Carbon taxes are seen as regressive, having a disproportionately negative effect on low-income households.
  • Carbon taxes are not believed to be an effective way to reduce emissions.
  • Governments are seen as having a ‘hidden’ motive to increase fiscal revenue rather than curb emissions.

However the study noted that people’s aversion to carbon taxes decreases over time after they have been introduced, particularly if the effects of the tax are measured and communicated.

There are various design options for reducing public opposition …

The study then identifies a range of measures for addressing the objections

  • Phasing in carbon taxes over time, introducing the tax at a low rate but having commitment devices to subsequently increase the rate to more efficient levels.
  • Redistributing revenues to ameliorate the regressive effects of taxes.
  • Earmarking revenues for emission reduction projects, which is popular with voters and improves the perceived effectiveness of carbon taxes.
  • Ensuring revenue neutrality of carbon taxes.
  • In all cases, policymakers need to gather and communicate the objectives and design of the carbon price to improve trust and credibility, before and after the introduction of a carbon tax. This includes communicating emissions reductions achieved and co-benefits of reductions in other pollutants[ii].

Drawbacks to these options seem limited …

The study notes that these recommendations may diverge from “first best” tax designs recommended in the economics literature.  However, while the study does not assess the implications of this, it is not clear to me that, even where they exist, these divergences are very significant.  They seem to me likely to be easily outweighed by the increased acceptability (a “sub-optimal” carbon tax that can be implemented is usually better than an “optimal” one that can’t).  And there are likely to be benefits often omitted in modelling of “first best” designs. This is especially the case as once a tax is in place it can be modified to over time as experience is gained and acceptance increases.

For example, phasing in a carbon tax is likely to produce economic benefits by reducing economic dislocation due to a price shock from sudden introduction at its full level, which may at least partly counterbalance the inefficiencies from prices being below optimal levels for an initial period.  Similarly, redistribution of revenue to poorer households may provide an economic stimulus benefits as poorer households are more likely to spend the revenue than richer households.  It may also increase social solidarity in ways which are conducive to economic welfare and growth.

Other emissions reductions, for example improving building insulation and deploying new technologies, may be funded at more nearly optimal levels where there are currently restrictions.  However, caution is needed here, and there may often be a stronger case for dispersing funds to citizens.

Revenue neutrality can take different forms.  One approach is to use revenues to reduce other taxes.  This is the approach adopted for the introduction of the carbon tax in British Columbia.  Economists tend to favour this type of approach because existing taxes are seen as distortionary.  However this approach often lacks transparency and credibility even if accompanying tax cuts are publicised – for example if other taxes are reduced they may be increased again in future.  This appears to be one reason why voters tend not to prefer this option.

And the current Canadian experiment with “tax and dividend” approaches appears promising …

A stronger guarantee is provided when revenue is explicitly returned to citizens.  This approach is usually referred to as “tax and dividend” (or “fee and dividend”, or “cap and dividend” in the case of any emissions trading system).  I’ve previously noted the advantages of this approach (see here).  It has been implemented for the Swiss carbon tax in the form of rebates on health insurance costs.  Four provinces in Canada are now working on implementing dividends in the form of direct financial payments to citizens.  This will make most citizens better off as the result of the tax, because they will also benefit from revenue raised from businesses.

There is an argument made in the environmental economics literature that a lump-sum dispersal to citizens is economically suboptimal, because it is better to use funds to reduce other taxes and so reduce distortions.   There is little if any empirical support for this argument as far as I am aware.  But in any case taking a view that citizens have more of a natural claim on property rights to the atmosphere than governments makes the limitation of the argument clear.  From this perspective, not providing citizens with any of the proceeds from pricing emissions is in effect a 100% tax on those proceeds imposed on everyone.  This is indeed non-distortionary – it applies the same tax to everyone irrespective of circumstances – but a fixed per-capita tax is not regarded by governments or their citizens as a good idea anywhere, for sound reasons.

A larger objection to returning all revenue directly to citizens, or using it to reduce current taxes, is that emissions run down natural capital for the benefit of current generations at the expense of future generations.  Intergenerational justice would, as I’ve previously argued (see here and here), be better served by some combination of preserving natural capital and investing revenue from carbon pricing in a “carbon wealth fund” analogous to a sovereign wealth fund.  However this would be unlikely to increase the political acceptability of carbon pricing compared with immediate dispersal of revenues to citizens.

Overall, the study makes a range of recommendation that are well justified on a range of grounds, and seem likely to help establish carbon pricing more widely and effectively.  It is to be hoped that governments everywhere take note of the findings.

Adam Whitmore – 5th March 2019 

Thanks to Maria Carvalho for useful discussions about the background to the study covered by this post.

[i] See the World Bank’s State and Trends of Carbon Pricing report here.  The definition of carbon pricing adopted in that report is quite broad, but even excluding some of the systems included in the report there remain over 40.

[ii] Please see World Bank’s  Guide to Communicating Carbon Pricing here for more information on developing an effective communications strategy.

 

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