Tax or trade – that old chestnut

The recent letter on carbon pricing from six oil and gas industry CEOs to Christiana Figueres, Executive Secretary of the UNFCCC and Laurent Fabius, Foreign Minister of France and President of COP 21 sent something of a tremor through the media world, to the extent that the New York Times picked up on it with an editorial on carbon taxation. The editorial transposed the CEO call for a carbon price into a call for a carbon tax (as is currently applied in British Columbia) and then set about building the case for a tax based approach and dismantling the case for mechanisms other than taxation; but their focus was on cap-and-trade (such as in California, Quebec and the EU ETS). The New York Times suggested that cap-and-trade doesn’t work, but apparently didn’t look at the evidence.

In January 2015 the EU ETS was ten years old. There were those who said it wouldn’t last and any number of people over the years who have claimed that it doesn’t work, is broken and hasn’t delivered; including the New York Times. Yet it continues to operate as the bedrock of the EU policy framework to manage carbon dioxide emissions. The simple concept of a finite and declining pool of allowances being allocated, traded and then surrendered as carbon dioxide is emitted has remained. Despite various other issues in its ten year history the ETS has done this consistently and almost faultlessly year in and year out; the mechanics of the system have never been a problem.

Effective carbon price
Comparing approaches and policies is difficult, but in general the various mechanisms can be rated as shown above. The most effective approach to mitigation is a widely applied carbon price across as much of the (global) economy as possible. Lost opportunities and inefficiencies creep in as the scope of approach is limited, such as in a project mechanism or with a baseline and credit approach; neither of which tackle fossil fuel use in its entirety.

The chart clearly shows carbon taxation and cap-and-trade competing for the top spot as the most effective mechanism for delivering a carbon price into the economy and driving lasting emission reductions. Both approaches work, so differentiating them almost comes down to personal preference, which can even be seen in the extensive academic literature on the subject where different camps lean one way or the other. My preference, perhaps influenced by my oil trading background, is to back the cap-and-trade approach. My reasons are as follows;

  • The cap-and-trade approach delivers a specific environmental outcome through the application of the cap across the economy.
  • Both instruments are subject to uncertainty, however the cap-and-trade is less subject to political change; conversely, taxation policy is regularly changed by governments. The New York Times made note of this with its reference to Australia, which has removed a fixed price carbon price that was effectively operating as a tax.
  • The carbon price delivered through a cap-and-trade system can adjust quickly to national circumstances. In the EU it fell in response to the recession and perversely has stayed down in response to other policies (renewable energy goals) currently doing the heavy lifting on mitigation. Why is this perverse; because the other policies shouldn’t be doing this job when a cap-and-trade is in place to do it more efficiently.
  • Acceptance is hard to win for any new cost to business, but particularly when not every competitor will be subject to that cost. The cap-and-trade system has a very simple mechanism, in the form of free allowance allocation, for addressing this problem for energy intensive (and therefore carbon intensive) trade exposed industries. Importantly, this mechanism doesn’t change the environmental outcome or reduce the incentive to manage emissions as the allowances held by a facility still have opportunity value associated with them.
  • Most carbon policies are being formulated at country or regional levels, rather than being driven by global approaches. Cap-and-trade systems are well-suited to international linking, leading to a more harmonized global price, while tax coordination is complex and politically difficult. Linking leads to a level playing field for industry around the world which fosters acceptance.

The economic effectiveness of both a carbon tax and a cap-and-trade system for carbon pricing means that countries and regions of all shapes and sizes have an implementation choice. For large, multi-faceted economies, the cap-and-trade system is ideally suited for teasing out the necessary changes across the economy and delivering a lowest cost outcome. At the same time it offers the many emitters considerable flexibility in implementation. Equally, for some economies or sectors where options for change are limited, the offset provisions that often feature in the design of an emissions trading system can offer a useful lifeline for compliance. Still, in some economies, a direct tax may be the most appropriate approach. Perhaps this is for governance reasons related to trading, or a lack of sufficient market participants to create a liquid market or simply to encourage the uptake of a fuel such as natural gas rather than coal.

The choice between these instruments isn’t as important as the choice of an instrument in the first place, which is why the letter from the CEOs is so important at this time.