MIT academics propose carbon tax as the solution to America's deficit problems

Compared to the fiscal cliff, a carbon tax would boost growth while cutting emissions.

A protest placard from Australia, where the carbon tax is rather unpopular. Photograph: Getty Images

The Washington Post's Brad Plumer reports on a paper from the MIT Global Change Institute which argues that a carbon tax could, and should, replace the Bush tax cuts in the US.

Plumer:

The authors model what would happen if, this December, Congress enacted a small fee on carbon emissions to fend off a portion of the tax hikes and spending cuts that are scheduled to occur. The carbon tax would be levied directly on fossil fuels—on coal that comes out of the mine, say, or oil that’s shipped in from overseas—and would start at $20 per ton of carbon in 2013, rising 4 percent each year thereafter.

The authors, Sebastian Rausch and John M. Reilly, estimate that this tax would raise $1.5 trillion over the next 10 years.

To advocates of a carbon tax, this paper ought to be a mixed blessing.

On the one hand, the framing of the tax in terms of sensible deficit reduction is one of the better ways to get it in the debate. In both Britain and America, there is – for good or ill – an agreement that high deficits are a major problem which needs to be dealt with, and so hitching any policy to that cause is a far better recipe for success than pointing out its efficacy at fighting climate change.

On the other, the purpose of the tax could get muddled if this is how the debate is to proceed. Look, for example, at debates over the Robin Hood tax. No-one can agree whether it is being implemented to raise revenues, cut down on practices like high-frequency trading, or some undefined mixture of the two.

With a Robin Hood tax, that may be an acceptable confusion, but with a carbon tax, it is undoubtedly introduced to reduce carbon emissions. To think otherwise would be dangerous indeed. And so yoking a deficit reduction program to the tax creates some perverse incentives on the part of lawmakers. For if the tax does succeed in reducing carbon emissions – which the authors of the MIT paper suggest it will, though not by nearly enough to single-handedly solve the problem for the US – then the revenues gathered by it will drop accordingly.

Even so, having a carbon tax is still better than not having one, and the choke point the authors identify – the US fiscal cliff, and all the uncertainty it brings with it – could well be a time for introducing novel legislation of all stripes to the house.