Towards a Free-Market Global Climate Treaty

An article in the 19 March 2014 “NewScientist” featured Catherine Brahic’s interview of Christiana Figueres, executive secretary of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change. She is leading a project to create a Global Climate Treaty in December 2015. A draft agreement is scheduled to be delivered to all country governments in May 2015.

A previous U.N. climate change conference in Copenhagen in 2009 failed to achieve an agreement. Christiana Figueres points out that while in 2009 there was doubt that countries would adopt policies to curb emissions, more than 60 countries now have climate legislation that apply to 90 percent of global emissions. There has been more investment in renewable energy. But this progress is much less than what is needed to reduce air pollution to a sustainable optimal level.

A major technological obstacle to the use of renewable energy is the expense of storing electricity in batteries in order to have a steady supply of power on grids. Another technology that is needed for emission reduction is carbon capture and storage.

Unfortunately this interview did not delve into the economics of climate policy. Economists are in wide agreement that the most effective policy to reduce widespread pollution is full-cost pricing, to make the polluters pay the social cost of the damage. The charge is passed on to the buyers of the products, who buy less. The firm either installs methods of reducing the emissions or else pays the fee and reduces pollution by producing less of the product.

A pollution charge or tax is more efficient than command-and-control restrictions, because the tax lets the polluter respond according to its particular costs. In contrast, when government dictates particular methods such as gasoline additives and engine technologies, these may not be the most effective means, and the mandates and restrictions may not encourage innovations.

There is much talk about carbon taxes, but carbon exists in both the inputs and outputs. A tax on the gasoline input does not create an incentive to capture the carbon and other emission outputs, and the tax imposes an excess burden on cars that have already reduced their pollution. A tax on the emission output does induce technology to capture the carbon, and avoids the excess burden.

The executive secretary talked about carbon neutrality, such that each factory, building, city, and vehicle has very low or zero carbon outputs. But the most effective policy is not to regulate and micro-manage, but to set an overall goal and an emission charge per ton of pollutant, and then let each person, enterprise, and facility adjust according to its own costs and benefits. If the cost of carbon neutrality is greater than the social benefit, then such neutrality is bad for the environment, because it wastes resources.

Unfortunately, governments are moving towards regulations rather than pollution taxes. The government of Australia is seeking to replace the carbon tax, enacted by a coalition of the Green and Labor parties in 2012, with a subsidy to industry and an emission permit trading scheme. On 20 March 2014 the Australian Senate voted against repealing the carbon tax, but the prime minister continues to seek repeal on July 1.

While emission permit exchanges are more efficient than regulations, the increase in the price of permits is a gain only to the permit holders, and the price of the permits may be different from the social cost of the pollution. A pollution fine, charge, or tax, however it’s called, enables the government to enact a “green tax shift” to replace market-hampering taxes on income, sales, and value added, with payment for emissions that not only reduce pollution, but also prevent what would otherwise be a subsidy to polluters by not having them pay the full social costs.

Economists and their journalist followers should be in the forefront of promoting a green tax shift as the best policy both for the environment and the economy. Even the skeptics of global warming should embrace the green tax shift, as pollution is harmful trespass regardless of climate change, and the shift promotes greater economic freedom along with productivity.

If the 2015 Global Climate Treaty is based on pollution levies, it will succeed. If instead the Treaty calls for “command and control,” it will doom the planet to yet another failure of central planning, and the result will be both a worsening global economy and a backlash against the tyranny of regulation strangulation.