Op-ed by Noah Kaufman, USA Today, Sept. 5, 2019
Democratic voters are growing more focused on addressing climate change, but the leading presidential candidates are largely steering clear of a critical tool for cutting emissions: carbon pricing.
The Democrats leading in the polls are aware of the benefits of putting a price on each ton of carbon dioxide emissions. Bernie Sanders has supported carbon pricing policies in the past, and in the CNN climate town hall on Wednesday, both Joe Biden and Elizabeth Warren responded affirmatively when asked about carbon pricing before quickly pivoting to discuss other policies. But none of these candidates mentions carbon pricing in their detailed climate plans.
It is the Voldemort of Joe Biden’s climate plan, which torturously describes “an enforcement mechanism … based on the principle that polluters must bear the full cost of the carbon pollution” while avoiding the words “carbon pricing.” It is avoided entirely in Warren’s plans.
Carbon pricing is a third rail that candidates should avoid, or so the conventional wisdom holds. In part, it is a branding problem, because the costs of the carbon price are transparent and explicit. Politicians do not like highlighting costs, especially costs labeled as taxes, and fear that by the time they explain that revenues from the carbon price can be used to offset higher household energy expenditures, constituents will have already tuned out.
Adding fuel to the concerns of politicians are the failures of high-profile attempts to price carbon: the Waxman-Markey proposal that died in the US Senate in 2010, the yellow vest protests in France last year, and recent state-level policies in Washington State and Oregon.
The political winds are shifting, however, and Democratic voters now overwhelmingly see climate change as a central issue. Earlier this year, a CNN poll found that over 80 percent of Democratic voters say it is "very important" that candidates support aggressive climate policies, a 20 to 30 point jump from 2016.
As evidenced by the CNN climate town hall on Wednesday, candidates have received the message. For the first time, all major Democratic presidential candidates are proposing climate plans that stress the need for the complete and rapid decarbonization of the U.S. economy. They are not hiding the massive effort this will entail — each plan contemplates trillions of dollars in spending. Bernie Sanders’ $16 trillion plan eclipsed former candidate Jay Inslee’s $9 trillion plan, which one-upped Beto O’Rourke’s $5 trillion plan. Instead of political liabilities, these high price tags are being touted as badges of honor.
In this new context, viewing carbon prices as politically toxic makes far less sense. With aggressive and costly climate plans already on the table, adding a well-designed carbon price will save Americans money rather than cost them money. That’s because it encourages the most inexpensive options to reduce emissions, as opposed to prescribing where and how emissions reductions must occur.
The focus on failed attempts to price carbon also ignores considerable recent policy successes. In fact, in the few jurisdictions around the world that have climate policy success stories, carbon pricing has played a prominent role. The United Kingdom imposed a significant carbon price on its electricity emissions in 2013, and emissions from power plants have fallen nearly 60 percent since. Here in the United States, California’s economy-wide package of climate policies, with a carbon price at the center, have helped cause emissions to steadily fall in the country’s most populous state. And in Germany, coal use is on pace to fall about 20 percent this year due largely to carbon prices rising from under 10 to nearly 30 euros per ton since early 2018.
Studies led by Columbia University show that a federal carbon price in the United States would be similarly successful. Any of the seven new proposals to price carbon in the U.S. Congress this year would reduce U.S. emissions well beyond the Obama administration’s 2025 target.
With voters demanding climate solutions, presidential candidates can point to not only emissions targets but also a policy with a proven track record of rapidly reducing emissions. They can promise not only trillions in spending but also an effective and efficient source of revenue for that spending. Instead, most of the leading candidates remain squeamish about carbon pricing.
“I know you're not supposed to use the 'T' word when you're in politics, but we might as well call it what it is,” said Buttigieg on Wednesday when he called for a carbon tax. Does Mayor Pete’s approach reflect inexperience or a fresh-eyed assessment of current political realities?
The danger is we may never find out. If the leading candidates continue to shun carbon pricing due to a blind acceptance of conventional wisdom, they will fail to build support for a policy that may be our best shot for significant emissions reductions.
Noah Kaufman is an economist and research scholar at the Columbia University Center on Global Energy Policy.