Carbon Dividends: The Bipartisan Key to Climate Change?

by James K. Boyce

reposted from the Institute for New Economic Thinking

The practical question in Washington today is not whether regulations will go, but whether anything will replace them

A ray of light may be piercing the cloud of gloom that settled over climate policy after the November election. It comes from an unexpected source: grand old men of the Republican Party and prominent conservative economists. In same-day op-ed pieces in the Wall Street Journal and New York Times, they unveiled a climate strategy that aims to win support on both sides of the aisle, uniting environmentalists, growth advocates, libertarians and populists around a common cause.

A conservative plan for climate action

Recalling President Ronald Reagan’s advocacy for the 1987 Montreal Protocol, the international treaty that protects the Earth’s delicate ozone layer, George Shultz and James Baker (who served in Reagan’s cabinet as Secretary of State and Secretary of the Treasury, respectively) call in the Wall Street Journal for “the Grand Old Party to once again lead the way” in rising to the greatest environmental challenge of our era.

In the New York Times, Harvard economists Martin Feldstein and Gregory Mankiw (who chaired the Council of Economic Advisers under presidents Reagan and George W. Bush, respectively) and Ted Halstead, founder of the Climate Leadership Council, write that rather than simply repealing climate regulations left by the Obama administration, Republicans should embrace a “repeal and replace” strategy that protects the climate in a way that’s “pro-growth, pro-competitiveness, and pro-working class.”

The centerpiece of their strategy is carbon dividends: recycling revenues from a carbon tax back to the American people as equal quarterly dividend checks. For a family of four, dividends from a $40/ton carbon tax would amount to about $2,000/year.

To protect the competitiveness of American producers, they call for border price adjustments: fees on the carbon content of imports from countries that do not have comparable carbon pricing, and rebates on carbon taxes paid by exporters to such countries.

Obama-era regulations made unnecessary by the carbon tax would be eliminated, including the Clean Power Plan, which the Trump administration already has vowed to repeal.

Echoing an argument long made by climate policy advocates, the proponents maintain that the strategy would promote robust economic growth by encouraging innovation and investment in new energy sources.

Reactions

Early reactions to the proposal have been mixed. Predictably, Breitbart News was having none of it. Ronald Reagan “is reaching for the celestial sickbag over this absurd proposal,” a commentator jeered within hours of the op-eds, urging the Trump administration to tell the Republican elder statesmen, “in the nicest possible way, exactly where they can shove their carbon tax.”

Former Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney lauded it on Twitter as a “thought-provoking plan from highly respected conservatives to both strengthen the economy & confront climate risks.”

The Nature Conservancy immediately released a statement applauding the plan. The president of the Natural Resources Defense Council was less positive, telling the Washington Post that while a carbon price could be important in a comprehensive climate policy, it should not replace existing regulations.

Pricing v. regulation?

In principle, carbon pricing and regulation can co-exist. California’s cap-and-trade program, for example, complements state regulations rather than substituting for them. The cap-and-trade program for sulfur-dioxide emissions from power plants, created by the 1990 Clean Air Act amendments under President George H.W. Bush, likewise supplemented regulatory standards rather than replacing them.

Yet, many existing carbon regulations were introduced by the Obama administration as a fallback alternative in response to the failure by Congress to pass legislation that would have put a price on carbon.

There may be good reasons to maintain some existing regulations or even craft new ones. For example, fuel economy standards for automobiles that mandate a 54.5 miles/gallon average for the 2025 model year may inspire manufacturers to accelerate investments in innovations, including electrified vehicles, that yield high payoffs in years ahead.

Regulations can also be important in preventing “hot spots” where hazardous co-pollutants that are emitted along with carbon impose unacceptable risks on local populations. A one-size-fits-all carbon price does not take into account how public health benefits vary across pollution sources.

But it would require a considerable leap of faith to imagine that no regulations would be rendered superfluous by carbon pricing. For example, the Clean Power Plan’s carbon emission standards for power plants could become redundant once a serious carbon price is in place.

Moreover, all signs emanating from Washington are that the power plan will be scrapped by the new administration. If so, the practical question is not whether regulations will go, but whether anything will replace them.

Antecedents

The idea of carbon dividends originated more than a decade ago with the entrepreneur Peter Barnes, whose visionary book Who Owns the Sky? made the case for carbon dividends on the grounds that the atmosphere’s limited ability to absorb carbon emissions belongs to the people, and that everyone should share in payments for use of this scarce resource.

Over the years this idea gained modest political traction, notably in the cap-and-dividend bills proposed by Senators Maria Cantwell (D-Wa) and Susan Collins (R-Me) and by then Congressman (now Senator) Chris Van Hollen (D-Md).

However, bipartisan support for climate policy instead coalesced around cap-and-trade plans that would have awarded free carbon permits to polluters (rather than auctioning the permits as in cap-and-dividend). In this case, the revenue from the carbon price paid by consumers would have gone to corporations that got free permits, a windfall that proponents of the policy thought would neutralize opposition by the fossil fuel industry.

That hope proved unfounded. Successive cap-and-trade bills — McCain-Lieberman (2003), Lieberman-Warner (2007), and finally Waxman-Markey (2009) — all failed to survive the legislative gauntlet on Capitol Hill. Part of the opposition came from fossil fuel lobbyists whose preferred option turned out to be no policy at all, and from industry-funded climate change denialists.

But opposition also came from centrist Republican politicians who did not want to back a tax that would spark voter resentment. “By imposing a tax on every American who drives a car or flips on a light switch,” declared House Speaker John Boehner in opposing the Waxman-Markey bill, “this plan will drive up the prices for food, gasoline and electricity.” Democrats contested this argument, memorably claiming that the cost to the average American would be “about the price of a postage stamp per day.” But, in fact, Boehner was right. The postage stamp number came from a Congressional Budget Office study that estimated the cost of clean energy and efficiency investments to reduce emissions. Boehner was talking about the price that consumers would pay for emissions that are not reduced, much of which would have wound up as those windfall profits for energy companies.

Carbon dividends do not clear the political hurdle posed by the vested interests of corporations who do not want their fossil fuel reserves turned into stranded assets. But dividends do surmount the hurdle raised by Boehner, by turning the tax (a regressive one at that) into a net financial gain for the majority of Americans, benefiting low-income households and protecting real incomes of the middle class.

Carbon dividends could even dent opposition from those who doubt that climate change is real since, as its proponents note, the plan’s economic benefits “accrue regardless of one’s views on climate science.” Indeed James Baker says he’s still uncertain as to whether humans are responsible for climate change. But in the face of uncertainty, he and George Shultz write in their op-ed that “the responsible and conservative response should be to take out an insurance plan.” For most Americans, whose dividends would exceed what they pay in higher fuel prices, this insurance policy would not only be free, it would pay them.

Setting the carbon price

A key feature of any carbon pricing policy is whether the price is high enough to drive the necessary reductions in fossil fuel consumption within the necessary time frame. A price of $40/ton would be a good start, but it would need to rise over time. The question is how.

This is one reason why some carbon dividend backers (myself included) have favored a carbon cap over a carbon tax. Under a cap with auctioned permits, as in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative of the northeastern states, the number of permits is fixed by the cap and their price can vary. Under a tax, the price is fixed and the quantity can vary. Apart from this, the two are equivalent. Because the precise relationship between price and quantity cannot be known in advance — no one can say exactly what price will reduce emissions by a specified amount, especially over the medium and long run — a cap that “gets quantities right” is the better way to hit the target.

Carbon tax proponents worry, however, that fluctuations in permit prices would impede long-range planning by investors. They also worry that cap-and-permit systems could be opened to permit trading and market speculation, or weakened by “offsets” that offer polluters alternatives to buying permits.

One way to address the concerns on both sides of this debate is to combine a cap and a tax in a hybrid policy. For example, changes over time in the tax could be calibrated to the quantity of emissions, rising automatically whenever reductions fall short of the targets. This strategy was implemented in Switzerland’s carbon levy on power plants.

The case for carbon dividends

In the past, support for carbon dividends has been limited by competing preferences of carbon pricing advocates. Among conservatives, the go-to option has been to use carbon revenue to cut other taxes, especially corporate income taxes, in the belief that this would spur economic growth. This belief is grounded in the orthodox doctrine that income taxes necessarily impose an “excess burden” on the economy, lowering total output by reducing supplies of labor and capital. This supply-side theory is taught as gospel in most graduate economics programs, despite the widespread phenomena of unemployed labor and idle capital – in other words, excess supply of both factors of production – in the real world.

Among liberals, the go-to option typically is to earmark the carbon revenue for worthy public purposes, especially clean energy investments. At first blush this may seem like a way to speed the transition from fossil fuels, but as long as the policy includes quantitative limits on emissions it could affect only how the emission targets are met, not total emissions. For example, if the money is used to subsidize more efficient electrical appliances, this frees more space for emissions from other sources like transportation fuels.

Liberals also often contend that any payments to shield consumers should be means-tested, with eligibility restricted to the needy. While this would mitigate the regressive impact of carbon pricing, it would raise administrative cost. Dwarfing this concern, however, may be the political cost of excluding the middle class. Much as the universality of Social Security and Medicare has safeguarded these programs from rollback attempts over the decades, universal dividends could safeguard climate policy over the decades needed to complete the clean energy transition.

For many conservatives and liberals, dividends may remain second to their favorite alternatives. But given that neither side has the political muscle to prevail on its own, dividends may define the scope for a political compromise that brings an effective carbon price. To their credit some prominent conservatives have figured this out. It remains to be seen whether they can enlist significant support from their fellow Republicans, and whether their liberal counterparts will figure it out, too.


Community Supported Agriculture & the Future of Farm Livelihoods

By Mark Paul, Ph.D. candidate in economics at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and researcher with E3 Network’s Future Economy Initiative. Mark’s current research focuses on the link between sustainable agriculture and development. 

I certainly don’t earn a fair wage, but it’s farming. It’s labor of love

– CSA Farmer

CSAboxesCSA farms are expanding at a rapid pace, with operations in every state and a six-fold increase in farms since 2001, but it is questionable whether this innovative farming model is delivering the goods. Proponents claim CSA are an active process of re-embedding market exchanges in social relations, with benefits to the local food economy that include the availability of healthy fresh local produce, sustainable agriculture production, increase in biodiversity, regional economic development through sustainable supply chains, and a vibrant community space that promotes the sharing of knowledge, ideas, and leisure. But is the CSA delivering on these promises? Continue reading…


Future Economy Initiative – Sheeran

By Kristen Sheeran in regards to E3 Network’s Future Economy Initiative:

Meet the new economy; it’s not the same as the old one. It’s true that communities throughout the United States are still affected by the aftermath of the 2008 economic crisis: foreclosures, unemployment and high inequality are just three of the symptoms. But there’s also something else afoot: an array of innovations taking place nationwide with the potential to change economic life as we know it. The E3 Network is proud to announce the Future Economies Initiative, devoted to carefully documenting, describing and analyzing these innovations around a common framework and set of research questions. Continue reading…


Fixing old water and gas pipelines would create far more jobs than building Keystone XL

By Brendan Smith, Kristen Sheeran, and May Boeve

In the coming months, President Obama will decide whether to approve the permit for the Keystone XL pipeline, which would transport crude tar-sands oil from Alberta to the Gulf of Mexico. We know that the pipeline would greatly aggravate climate change, allowing massive amounts of the world’s dirtiest oil to be extracted and later burned.

The payoff, say supporters such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, is a job boom in construction industries, which are currently suffering from high unemployment. Earlier this month, Chamber of Commerce CEO Tom Donohue called on the president “to put American jobs before special interest politics.”

If you believe headline-grabbing challenges such as Donohue’s, the president is painted into a corner on the KXL pipeline — trapped by a stagnant economy and an ailing environment.

Continue reading…


The Keystone Pipeline Debate: An Alternative Job Creation Strategy

New research shows that replacing failing infrastructure in Keystone XL states creates more and better jobs than the proposed pipeline

Replacing aging wastewater, drinking water, and gas distribution pipes in Montana, South Dakota, Nebraska, Oklahoma, and Texas can create more jobs and better jobs in the pipeline and construction industries than the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, according to a new report released today by E3 Network and Labor Network for Sustainability.

The Keystone XL pipeline has been touted as a means to address America’s job crisis. This new report, The Keystone Pipeline Debate: An Alternative Job Creation Strategy, shows that we can create five times more jobs than Keystone XL by investing in much needed water, sewer, and gas infrastructure projects in the five states along the proposed pipeline route. The study finds that meeting water and gas infrastructure needs in the five states can create more than 300,000 total jobs. Every dollar spent on gas, water, and sewer infrastructure in those states generates 156% more employment than the proposed Keystone XL pipeline. Continue reading…


E3 Network’s Future Economy Initiative

In diverse communities across the US, new economic practices and models are emerging to challenge business-as-usual. These bold experiments in the new economy vary widely and exist across multiple scales, from neighborhood collaborative consumption initiatives, to cooperative financing models, to new social enterprise structures, to regional economic development processes, and more. At their core, these approaches are motivated by and responses to rising social inequality, environmental degradation, and persistent economic decline.

These innovations may forge the foundation for a more resilient and equitable future economy, yet evidence regarding their impact has been mostly anecdotal. E3 Network is launching our Future Economy Initiative to catalyze research by economists on new economy models and innovations. The Initiative’s goal is to create an analytical framework for evaluating the social, economic, and environmental impacts of new economy models and for documenting the variables contributing to their emergence, success, and limitations.

Later this year, E3 Network will announce a competitive request for proposals from economists to apply the new framework to US-based case studies of the new economy. Right now, we invite input from economists interested in helping us to frame the analytical approach and/or identify promising examples of new economy models appropriate for case study analysis. To encourage wider discussion around new economy research, we encourage you to share your input in the form of a blog post (800 words or less) that we will post here on the E3 blog. Please comment below and send your blog entry or other suggestions via email to director@e3network.org. You can also find us on twitter at @e3network – let the conversation begin!

Continue reading…


Restoration Brings Jobs to Rural Communities

By Kristen Sheeran

Rural communities, particularly in the Northwest, are in the midst of a long-term employment crisis, with measured unemployment rates up to twice the national average. This ongoing employment crisis has undermined local tax bases, leading to the collapse of vital public services and infrastructure. The lack of local opportunities and the resulting brain and youth drain to urban centers, threatens to unravel the social and cultural fabric that has defined many rural communities for generations.

Rural economies are traditionally resource-based, specializing in the supply of low-value added commodity exports that are subject to the boom-bust cycles of commodity markets. The industrial activity that does occur is typically controlled by larger corporations with no direct ties to the local community. This means that rural communities are subject to constant instability resulting from a lack of control over the fundamental mechanisms of their economies. This phenomenon is seen across the Northwest, where the combination of intensified global competition in timber markets, the consolidation of mills, and sharp reductions in federal timber harvests have contributed to long-term, endemic economic decline in forest communities.

In response to the crisis, some rural communities have taken steps to attract tourism, recreation, retirees, and long-distance commuters. But other opportunities are emerging that make deliberate use of the natural assets of these communities. Restoring and maintaining intact ecosystems, developing markets for ecosystem services, and diversifying production to meet growing demand for sustainably produced agriculture, energy, and other bio-based products can harness the natural competitive advantages of these regions. Continue reading…


A Good Environment For Jobs

by Matthew P.H. Taylor at the Stockholm Environmental Institute – U.S. Center.

As the 2012 U.S. presidential election heats up, two important and related issues will set President Barack Obama and Governor Mitt Romney apart – jobs and the environment. But how exactly do the candidates’ views on employment and environmental protection measure up? Mr. Romney and his supporters would have you believe that environmental regulation kills jobs, and that the government should worry less about environmental protection and more about creating “an environment that is good for jobs.” President Obama, on the other hand, views environmental protection as a directing force for economic recovery. Both have a host of studies to back them up – and both perspectives cannot possibly be accurate.

A recent study conducted for E3 Network by myself and Liz Stanton at the Stockholm Environmental Institute’s U.S. Center, reviews the body of employment impact studies that support the candidates’ disparate claims. These studies, conducted by industry groups, environmental advocates, governments, and academics, address a range of environmental issues, including the expansion of the Keystone XL pipeline, offshore drilling, and recent regulations affecting electric utilities. We find some serious deficiencies in the quality of these analyses, resulting in the identification of some key questions that must be asked when assessing and interpreting their claims. We conclude that the characterization of environmental regulations as job-killers is groundless.   Continue reading…