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.

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.


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.

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

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Photo: Getty Images
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Autumn Statement 2015: George Osborne abandons his target

How will George Osborne close the deficit after his U-Turns? Answer: he won't, of course. 

“Good governments U-Turn, and U-Turn frequently.” That’s Andrew Adonis’ maxim, and George Osborne borrowed heavily from him today, delivering two big U-Turns, on tax credits and on police funding. There will be no cuts to tax credits or to the police.

The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that, in total, the government gave away £6.2 billion next year, more than half of which is the reverse to tax credits.

Osborne claims that he will still deliver his planned £12bn reduction in welfare. But, as I’ve written before, without cutting tax credits, it’s difficult to see how you can get £12bn out of the welfare bill. Here’s the OBR’s chart of welfare spending:

The government has already promised to protect child benefit and pension spending – in fact, it actually increased pensioner spending today. So all that’s left is tax credits. If the government is not going to cut them, where’s the £12bn come from?

A bit of clever accounting today got Osborne out of his hole. The Universal Credit, once it comes in in full, will replace tax credits anyway, allowing him to describe his U-Turn as a delay, not a full retreat. But the reality – as the Treasury has admitted privately for some time – is that the Universal Credit will never be wholly implemented. The pilot schemes – one of which, in Hammersmith, I have visited myself – are little more than Potemkin set-ups. Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit will never be rolled out in full. The savings from switching from tax credits to Universal Credit will never materialise.

The £12bn is smaller, too, than it was this time last week. Instead of cutting £12bn from the welfare budget by 2017-8, the government will instead cut £12bn by the end of the parliament – a much smaller task.

That’s not to say that the cuts to departmental spending and welfare will be painless – far from it. Employment Support Allowance – what used to be called incapacity benefit and severe disablement benefit – will be cut down to the level of Jobseekers’ Allowance, while the government will erect further hurdles to claimants. Cuts to departmental spending will mean a further reduction in the numbers of public sector workers.  But it will be some way short of the reductions in welfare spending required to hit Osborne’s deficit reduction timetable.

So, where’s the money coming from? The answer is nowhere. What we'll instead get is five more years of the same: increasing household debt, austerity largely concentrated on the poorest, and yet more borrowing. As the last five years proved, the Conservatives don’t need to close the deficit to be re-elected. In fact, it may be that having the need to “finish the job” as a stick to beat Labour with actually helped the Tories in May. They have neither an economic imperative nor a political one to close the deficit. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.