The Case for a Carbon Tax: Getting Past Our Hang-ups to Effective Climate Policy

The Case for a Carbon Tax: Getting Past Our Hang-ups to Effective Climate Policy

by Shi-Ling Hsu

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There's a simple, straightforward way to cut carbon emissions and prevent the most disastrous effects of climate change-and we're rejecting it because of irrational political fears. That's the central argument of The Case for a Carbon Tax, a clear-eyed, sophisticated analysis of climate change policy.

Shi-Ling Hsu examines the four major approaches to


There's a simple, straightforward way to cut carbon emissions and prevent the most disastrous effects of climate change-and we're rejecting it because of irrational political fears. That's the central argument of The Case for a Carbon Tax, a clear-eyed, sophisticated analysis of climate change policy.

Shi-Ling Hsu examines the four major approaches to curbing CO2: cap-and-trade; command and control regulation; government subsidies of alternative energy; and carbon taxes. Weighing the economic, social, administrative, and political merits of each, he demonstrates why a tax is currently the most effective policy. Hsu does not claim that a tax is the perfect or only solution-but that unlike the alternatives, it can be implemented immediately and paired effectively with other approaches.

In fact, the only real barrier is psychological. While politicians can present subsidies and cap-and-trade as "win-win" solutions, the costs of a tax are immediately apparent. Hsu deftly explores the social and political factors that prevent us from embracing this commonsense approach. And he shows why we must get past our hang-ups if we are to avert a global crisis.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
"Climate change could well turn out to be a more important problem than national security, space exploration, or the confrontation of fascism." University of British Columbia professor and environmental lawyer Hsu doesn't waste time arguing whether climate change is happening, or about its implications to social justice around the world. Instead, he launches into a treatise that presents a sound, well-researched, and accessible argument for implementation of a carbon tax. As Hsu writes: "Because of its breadth, its simplicity, and its ability to piggyback on existing regulatory infrastructure, offers the greatest chance to reduce greenhouse gas emissions immediately." Pros include: providing incentive for innovation; ease of administration and ability to be combined with other regulations, both existing and future; and creation of a revenue stream. Hsu clearly tackles the cons, including arguments that such a tax is regressive, ineffective, or economically harmful. Acknowledging political reality, Hsu states that politicians worldwide hesitate to propose a carbon tax even if they believe it's the best idea, and even though it has been successfully implemented in British Columbia, Sweden, and the United Kingdom. This concise, logical, and sincere dissertation should be required reading for policymakers. (Sept.)
Professor of Law, Yale University - Douglas A. Kysar

"Who's afraid of a carbon tax? Not Shi-Ling Hsu, who builds an accessible, well-informed, and undeniably persuasive case for the superiority of carbon taxes over alternative climate change policy instruments. He also delves into individual and group psychology literatures to explain why the superiority of carbon taxes seems not to be grasped by the public and its representatives. Altogether a vital contribution to this, our most important debate."
Director, Environmental Tax Policy Institute, Vermont Law School - Janet E. Milne

"Shi-Ling Hsu has written a thought-provoking defense of carbon taxes. His discussion of the policies, politics, and psychology of carbon taxes is highly readable and an extremely useful resource. Although the political winds in North America change from year to year, the challenge of pricing carbon is unavoidable in the long term. This book has staying power."
Director of Economic Policy Studies, American Enterprise Institute - Kevin Hassett

"Shi-Ling Hsu's book is the most thoughtful and sweeping book on carbon taxation in existence. It is must reading for anyone interested in climate change policy. The book covers every angle, and does so with moderation and wit."

"...Hsu's case is thoroughly documented and eloquently made."
Director, NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies - James E. Hansen

"A must-read for anyone concerned about the wellbeing of their children and grandchildren. An objective, clear-sighted revelation of the sine qua non for stabilizing climate and preserving a livable planet."

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The Case for a Carbon Tax

Getting Past Our Hang-ups to Effective Climate Policy

By Shi-Ling Hsu


Copyright © 2011 Shi-Ling Hsu
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-61091-178-8



Global climate change has become the dominant environmental issue of our time. The "greenhouse effect," or the trapping of heat from the sun as it bounces off the Earth's surface, keeps heat within the Earth's atmosphere instead of allowing it to radiate back into space. "Greenhouse gases" such as carbon dioxide trap this heat, and in fact play a vital role in regulating the Earth's temperature. But this regulatory mechanism preserves a delicate balance, one that has been disturbed by the carbon dioxide emissions from the burning of fossil fuels. The Earth can only absorb so much carbon dioxide, it appears, and the excess emissions that have been accumulating since the onset of the Industrial Revolution have increased the Earth's temperature, threatening to disrupt life for an entire planet that has gotten used to very specific climatic conditions.

This theory of global climate change has been around for a long time, dating back to the findings of Swedish chemist Svante Arrhenius, who reported in 1908 that the buildup of "carbonic acid" in the Earth's atmosphere created the possibility that the Earth could gradually grow warmer. He noted that a warmer Earth could improve agricultural yield "for the benefit of rapidly propagating mankind." As a Swede, Arrhenius could be forgiven for finding some comfort in this possibility, but we have long been on notice—since at least the 1970s.—that the buildup of atmospheric carbon dioxide could have very dire consequences. As it turns out, the accumulation of greenhouse gases in the Earth's atmosphere will have much more destructive effects than just warmer weather. Changes in weather patterns could bring about prolonged heat waves, prolonged droughts, and resulting water shortages; warmer oceans could produce more frequent and stronger storm events; and rises in sea levels could jeopardize trillions of dollars of real estate worldwide. In simple physical terms, trapping heat means that more energy is staying within the Earth's system, and this excess energy is likely to release itself in disruptive ways. And some effects of climate change pose dangers of positive feedback effects : warmer temperatures could unlock and release methane from cold, hard, frozen tundra and from oceans, unleashing a greenhouse gas twenty-five times more powerful than carbon dioxide. A "burp" of methane from Northern Canada alone could swamp worldwide efforts to reduce carbon dioxide emissions.

More than most environmental problems, global climate change has become a defining social issue. Climate effects will impose particularly high social costs on the equatorial regions of the world. Since the equatorial countries are generally poorer, climate change is a problem that will aggravate global inequalities. Moreover, it is largely the developed world that has created this problem by its prolific combustion of fossil fuels (and prospered from it). As a final insult, the capacity to adapt to a climate-changed future, as much as is possible, lies mostly within the developed world. In a climate-changed future, the rich could well be poorer, but the poor stand to be much poorer. Extreme weather events such as Hurricane Katrina, which made a mockery of US federal disaster response efforts, will punish developed countries but overwhelm poorer ones.

Against this complicated geopolitical backdrop is the daunting reality that addressing the problem of climate change will in all likelihood require a global response, and will require the engagement of the vast majority of countries. The nature of the greenhouse gas problem is such that unilateral action by one or a few countries is likely to be ineffective. Imagine the United States biting the bullet and dramatically reducing its use of petroleum in its transportation sector. What would be the effect of the world's largest consumer of crude oil reducing its demand by, say, 20 percent? The answer would almost certainly be that the price of crude oil, which is a fungible, globally traded good, would plummet. In the wake of a global price drop, would we not fully expect developing countries to snap up the suddenly plentiful, suddenly cheap crude oil and use it to develop their own economies?

The net global effect of a costly unilateral action could well be zero, or perhaps even worse, since developing countries almost certainly burn fossil fuels less efficiently than the United States. This prospect of "leakage," or the offshoring of greenhouse gas emissions, is at the heart of the problem confronting climate negotiators as they try to hammer out an international agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

And yet there is fierce resistance to a global response. Developing countries, having benefited little from the past combustion of fossil fuels, do not wish to commit to limiting their greenhouse gas emissions, as that would mean they would refrain from doing that which developed countries have already done. Developing countries have largely said to the developed nations of the world: "you created the problem, you fix it." This is an understandable position from the viewpoint of developing countries. A number of "justice" theories have been put forth by academics in support of this course of action. But where does that leave the problem of climate change? If developed countries do not act first for fear of leakage, and developing countries are unwilling to act until developed countries act first, how will there be any kind of agreement, let alone a global response?

Consider the illustrative relationship between the United States and China. These two superpowers are now the two largest emitters in the world, together accounting for more than 40 percent of the world's carbon dioxide emissions in 2006. China became the world's largest carbon dioxide emitter in 2006, emitting 6,240 megatons of carbon dioxide that year, nearly double the 3,228 megatons it emitted in 2001. This growth in emissions has its own economic momentum, and will be difficult to check. Even a dramatic slowdown of this growth in emissions would still result in large increases for at least a decade. Yet, China still counts itself as a developing country, and its official position is that it will not accept emissions limitations on the grounds that it would interfere with its development. China has made some moves that signal a slightly greater engagement with the climate change problem, such as the adoption of a climate change program in 2007, an increasing interest in wind energy, and its approval of the Copenhagen Accord. But by and large, unless China reverses itself dramatically, its emissions will continue to grow, making huge contributions to global greenhouse gas levels and driving climate change.

For its part, the United States has contributed more to the stock of greenhouse gases in the Earth's atmosphere than any other country: 240 gigatons from 1950 to 2005, 26.5 percent of the world's emissions over that period. And in terms of per-person cumulative emissions from 1950 to the present, the United States averaged 808 Mt per person, more than ten times the figure for China over that period . The annual per person emissions for the United States are still more than four times that of China at current emissions rates and populations. Yet, at the time of writing of this book, the prospect of climate legislation in the United States seemed remote, at least in part because China has yet commit to any meaningful efforts to reduce emissions.

Even if the United States and China somehow manage to bridge their differences and agree to something that would be politically acceptable in both countries, what about the rest of the world? Assuming somewhat generously that the European Union would be supportive of a bilateral arrangement between the United States and China, that would bring the emissions total of three cooperating parties to about 55 percent, still 45 percent short of universality. What about brooding, defiant, natural-gas-rich Russia, which accounts for more than 5 percent? What about India, which also puts itself in the have-not category with China and the developing countries, but itself accounts for another 5 percent? What about the swarm of other developing countries with growing economies, such as Brazil and Vietnam? The nature of the leakage problem is that the greater the efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the greater the leakage. The more that is done by a group of countries cooperating to reduce the combustion of fossil fuels that lead to climate change, the cheaper those fossil fuels become and the greater the temptation for noncooperating countries to buy and burn those fossil fuels, undoing all of those reductions.

So the big question is exactly how the diverse nations of the world will come together to curtail the emission of greenhouse gases. Burning fossil fuels and emitting carbon dioxide are such inherent parts of economic activity that it is hard to imagine the diverse nations of the world finding agreement on abstaining from something so important to economic growth. This is especially true when developed countries have already emitted and prospered, and developing countries have not. With the developing countries of the world clamoring for a first step on the part of the developed countries, and the developed countries worried about leakage and waiting for developing countries to commit, how will this impasse be resolved?

Some movement is afoot, with most developed countries taking some steps to address climate change. Most developed countries seem to accept that their participation in an agreement to reduce emissions is a necessary, but not a sufficient condition to bring about global cooperation in addressing climate change. The only alternative to undertaking costly emissions reductions without knowing whether others will reciprocate is to do nothing. So while it is still possible that the developing nations could undo reduction efforts, for developed nations doing something still seems preferable to doing nothing. The United States does not know that its efforts will be successful, but it does know that without an American push, the world will hurtle toward an historic and frightening climatic experiment.

Moreover, developed countries recognize that climate change poses a security threat: poor countries left with nothing will have nothing to lose by violence, and the sheer numbers of dispossessed could overwhelm the ability of rich countries to insulate themselves from climate-induced unrest. Even the traditionally conservative US Department of Defense has acknowledged the threats to national security that could arise because of humanitarian crises throughout the world brought on by climate change. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has long espoused planning for the security threats that will arise at least partially as a result of climate change:

Current defense policy must account for ... the implications of demographic trends.... The interaction of these changes with existing and future resource, environmental, and climate pressures may generate new security challenges.

And in its 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review, the Department of Defense noted that a number of new trends, including climate change, could "spark or exacerbate future conflicts," and that it was "developing policies and plans to manage the effects of climate change on its operating environment [and] missions."

But to undertake the fairly radical, economy-wide changes necessary to bring annual emissions levels down, and eventually stabilize atmospheric concentrations at reasonably safe levels, these unilateral baby steps undertaken by developed countries are insufficient. Because of the leakage problem, global engagement with the reduction of greenhouse gases is absolutely necessary, and almost every country, developed or not, has to be a party. What can possibly be proposed, that could satisfy almost every country in the world?

This book explores potential policy options, and argues that a carbon tax is currently the most effective means of reducing emissions. A carbon tax is a tax that is levied on the emission of a quantity of carbon dioxide. In its simplest form, a carbon tax is levied on fossil fuels, at some transaction point before combustion, as essentially a sales tax based on the carbon content of the fuel. Carbon dioxide is the most abundant greenhouse gas, and while ideally a policy instrument would cover all greenhouse gases, the regulation of carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels is the most important aspect of controlling greenhouse gas emissions. Because carbon dioxide is the longest-lived greenhouse gas, remaining in the atmosphere for more than 100 years after emission, it is important to start now because humankind will live with the consequences for such a long time. And because it is such a fundamental part of economic activity, it poses the greatest challenges and will take the greatest and most sustained behavior modification efforts to control. This book proposes such a carbon tax on fossil fuels, expanded to include a few other sources of greenhouse gas emissions that can be monitored and measured with relative ease.

No policy is perfect, and the prospects for finding one that satisfies even a bare majority of countries seems dim. Other alternatives have emerged as being more popular and politically palatable, but there is considerable doubt as to whether they will move the world toward the coordinated effort necessary to curb greenhouse gas emissions, as they represent no real commitment on the part of the United States to actually reduce emissions.

Despite its apparent political liabilities, the carbon tax may just fit the bill. A carbon tax presents a number of advantages relative to the heretofore more popular alternatives. These advantages, as well as the disadvantages and the implementation challenges, are explored in this book. A carbon tax, if adopted, should start at a modest level right now and increase in time, to allow time for economies to plan and adjust, and also to at least parallel (if not track) what most economists believe to be a path of increasing marginal damages over time.

There is no time to wait in terms of addressing climate change, as delay will only further complicate the task of stabilizing greenhouse gas levels at an acceptable level. Waiting to see what other countries will do will only drive up the future costs of reducing emissions. It is thus in the self-interest of developed economies to impose a carbon tax now not only because it is the most effective way to reduce emissions, but also because it will begin the important job of re-ordering economies that have long been predicated on low fossil fuel prices. Because time is not on our side, doing something modest right now is vastly preferable to finding just the "right" greenhouse gas policy, assuming adventurously that such a thing exists.

Many other initiatives, governmental and nongovernmental, need to be undertaken. This book does not contend that a carbon tax is the perfect or the only policy that needs to be implemented. In fact, one of its central arguments is that a carbon tax has the great advantage of precluding nothing else. There are no jurisdictional conflicts between the federal government and states or provinces, and there is no problem with imposing a carbon tax along with a cap-and-trade program, or almost any other policy to reduce greenhouse gases. There is no legal downside to a carbon tax. This is important because almost every other policy option will take time, and time is running short. More work will certainly need to be done in addition to a carbon tax, but there is no first step more important, more effective, and more flexible than a carbon tax.

The case for a carbon tax is hardly a novel thesis. Most economists who have waded into the climate change policy debate have argued for a carbon tax over alternatives. A number of academics in other disciplines have also supported this approach. However, nowhere is there a comprehensive treatment of all of the major advantages and disadvantages of a carbon tax. Economists, law professors, and other academics and policy wonks have made a wide variety of points drawing upon a variety of disciplines in arguing for a carbon tax. But lacking is a collection of these arguments (as well as the counterarguments), so that the totality of the case for a carbon tax can be taken in all at once. A myriad of other policy instruments have been proposed and are purported to mimic the effects of a carbon tax or be superior to a carbon tax in various ways. But it is easy to cherry-pick perceived flaws with carbon taxes; the real task is to weigh all of the advantages and disadvantages of a carbon tax against those of other instruments. This book attempts to do this, reducing the most important considerations down to ten basic arguments in favor of carbon taxes and four arguments against.


Excerpted from The Case for a Carbon Tax by Shi-Ling Hsu. Copyright © 2011 Shi-Ling Hsu. Excerpted by permission of ISLAND PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Shi-Ling Hsu is Professor at the University of British Columbia Faculty of Law. Previously, he was Associate Professor at the George Washington University Law School, Senior Attorney and Economist for the Environmental Law Institute in Washington D.C, and Deputy City Attorney for the City and County of San Francisco.

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