Debating Revenue-neutral Carbon Taxes

During the 2008 federal election, proposals to implement a federal carbon tax were a major point of contention. Although Canadian voters ultimately rejected the plan, the issue of carbon pricing remains at the forefront of environmental discourse. This is for good reason: climate scientists, having shown conclusively that the earth is warming, now mostly concern themselves with both the size of the effect, in addition to its primary determinants.

In 2007, the Province of British Columbia (BC) successfully implemented a carbon tax with an important feature: revenue neutrality. The government expected to generate nearly $5 billion annually via carbon taxation and, accordingly, it would reduce personal and corporate taxes by an equal amount. This, in effect, slays one substantial criticism of a carbon tax, which is that it amounts to an additional overall tax burden on individuals, families, and firms. In British Columbia, the policy managed to deter purchases of gasoline and other carbon-intensive products by nearly 10 per cent relative to the rest of Canada, without burdening British Columbians with additional taxes.

Granted, those statistics only measure the carbon that British Columbians purchase in BC. They do not consider the stories of weekend lineups at American border towns where Canadians buy cheaper gas now that the price difference is large. This phenomenon may certainly account for some of the change, but it is quite difficult to imagine this effect being substantial. How much gas must a Vancouverite purchase to justify the two-hour drive, plus the wait in line?

Carbon pricing is also part of the discussion in Atlantic Canada.

In a series of papers published in 2009, University of New Brunswick economist Joe Rugger analyzes the environmental and taxation implications of a BC-styled revenue-neutral carbon tax in New Brunswick. The study found that a tax equivalent of 7 cents per liter on gasoline, applied to all forms of fossil fuel, would reduce carbon emissions in the province by roughly 7.5 per cent. This would occur primarily through higher electricity and heating bills, in addition to consumer purchases of gasoline and oil.

Changing carbon consumption occurs because of two opposing forces. First, making gasoline more expensive creates a “price effect” that causes people to shift their consumption away from gas and towards other things. This is what people refer to when they talk about nudging consumer behavior in a direction hoped to be socially beneficial. The second effect is due to the decreased tax burden–the “wealth effect.” Here, income goes up because of a smaller tax burden. People will then tend to consume, on average, slightly more of everything, including carbon. This works in the opposite direction of the price effect. In the case of BC, it became clear that the price effect was larger than the income effect and, therefore, total consumption was less than it would have otherwise been.

This highlights a confusing irony of carbon pricing policy–anything that makes people richer will tend to mean that they consume more carbon. People should continue to prosper; however, the primary objective is reducing carbon consumption. There are also distributional effects that occur based on the form and target of the tax cuts, as well as consumption behavior. This will be the topic of a second blog post.

In sum, Canadians are becoming more environmentally conscious and they recognize the need for not only fiscal, but also ecological, prudence. In this light, carbon-pricing policies are likely to remain in public discourse. By pairing the carbon tax with associated general tax cuts, rendering it revenue neutral, British Columbia’s experiment shows that it is at least possible to deter carbon consumption, while also minimizing harmful economic effects.

With the upcoming New Brunswick election in the fall of 2014, I would not be surprised if this issue arrives on the campaign trail. Considering recent curiosity in New Brunswick about local shale gas development, this policy has the potential to become quite the wedge issue.

Michael Craig is a 2013-2014 Atlantic Institute for Market Studies’ Student Fellow. The views expressed are the opinion of the author and not necessarily the Institute

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