Carbon Taxes Will Need to be Higher to Pay for Development

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Jeff Sachs and Bono are blogging on the FT web site during this week’s MDG summit in New York (go here). Today, Jeff reports that some bold and creative proposals are coming from the EU, Mexico and Norway, among others. Carbon taxation is to the fore, in particular.

“According to the Swiss Government’s proposal, a $2 per ton levy on carbon dioxide would raise around $48bn per year, money that could play a critical role in helping impoverished countries to meet the Millennium Development Goals and to adapt to climate change. I believe that we’ll be hearing a lot more about carbon levies in the months ahead, as a practical approach to climate change control and development finance”.

Back in 2003, we took a thorough look at innovative sources of finance in a UNU-WIDER project led by Tony Atkinson of Nuffied College, Oxford (go here). The study concluded that many of the proposals were feasible, including carbon taxes. I chipped in with a proposal for a global premium bond to fund chronic poverty reduction – based on the successful UK premium bond scheme (Addison and Chowdhury paper here).

Amongst all the innovative finance proposals, carbon taxes get the most support among economists (more than the popular Tobin  tax: although that may be boosted by the present financial malaise). They not only reduce carbon emissions (a global bad) but also, as Jeff Sachs says, they generate a flow of revenues to finance a step-up in official development assistance (both multilateral and bilateral) as well as global funds to deal with the urgent challenges of climate change, conflict, and HIV/AIDs (to name but three).

All of these problems just get worse without early action: notably climate change, since a stock of carbon is already in the atmosphere, warming the earth — which we will have to adapt to — even as we attempt to reduce the flow of carbon from new emissions. But this is true of conflict and viruses too: war generates more war (notably in the Congo where violence is still endemic after the supposed ‘peace deal’) and viruses mutate to become deadlier (notably unchecked TB).

Given the high returns to taking action now on these global bads, it would be worth accepting a much higher levy on carbon than the Swiss proposal. This would send a clear signal to the market, encouraging a faster rate of invention and adoption of clean technologies. And the additional funds could be spent on peace-keeping and more research for the diseases of the poor world.

But I worry that the US is way behind Europe in all of this, California perhaps excepted. Dealing with the present financial crisis is vital, but it is also a huge distraction from the larger issues such as climate change. And the present administration has been adamant in its opposition to global taxes. Does anybody detect much of a shift in the US position, the occasional piece of rhetoric aside?

The author is executive director of the Brooks World Poverty Institute, University of Manchester.

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