Why Carbon Taxes Actually Increase Global Emissions

As the hysteria over global warming heats up, carbon taxes have become the “cool” option. Environmentalists love them. So do politicians, who are more than happy to raise taxes while scoring political points.

Carbon taxes, or other analogous pricing schemes, are now prevalent in Western Europe, and are making headway in North America. For example, California recently joined forces with the Canadian Provinces of Ontario and Quebec to create an integrated cap-and-trade carbon market.

On top of this, many well-known economists support carbon taxes, thinking they’re the best way to mitigate man’s contribution to climate change. A relatively new report written by thirteen leading economists under the direction of professors Nicholas Stern and Joseph Stiglitz—who won a Nobel Prize in 2001—recommends the adoption of a global carbon tax. The tax would value carbon emissions somewhere between 50 and 100 USD per ton by 2030, and would cost upwards of $4 trillion. Theoretically, the tax would raise the cost of using carbon-intensive sources of energy, thereby nudging producers to switch from fossil fuels to “green energy” sources like wind and solar power. Likewise, it would raise the cost of electricity, thus creating an incentive to use energy more efficiently.

As an abstract principle of theory, this seems to make sense. There’s just one problem. It won’t work.

In reality, carbon taxes are just that: taxes. They’re a money-grab dressed up with good intentions. Worse still, carbon taxes will not reduce our greenhouse gas emissions. Instead, adopting carbon taxes in the West will actually raise global carbon emissions by offshoring economic activity from relatively environmentally-friendly places, like the USA and Germany, to places with lax environmental laws, like China.

Open Markets & Offshoring

Wealth is like water: it flows to the lowest possible point, and continues to do so until the level is equal. This is why consumers chase cheaper goods, why investors look for undervalued companies, and why multinationals offshore to cheaper markets. This last point—offshoring—is why Western carbon taxes will actually increase global emissions.

The underlying logic is fairly straightforward. Pretend there are only two countries in the world: Germany and China. The cost of doing business in them is identical, however China’s economy is twice as carbon-intensive as Germany’s. In other words, it costs $1 to build a widget in either country, but the widget’s carbon footprint in Germany is only 1 kilogram of carbon, compared to 2 kilograms in China. Clearly it’s better for the environment if widgets are made in Germany.

But Germany’s not satisfied: they want to further reduce their carbon emissions. Therefore, they impose a carbon tax of 10 percent per widget. This raises the cost of making widgets in Germany to $1.10. Ideally, German widget-makers will invest in energy-efficient machinery, and the government can use the tax revenues to plant more trees.

Sadly Germany’s politicians forgot something: Germany is an open market. This means that German consumers can simply buy Chinese widgets—which still only cost $1 to make. At this point, Germany’s widget-makers have two options: (1) they can foreclose, since they’re unable to compete with artificially cheaper Chinese widgets, or (2) they can move their factories to China and import the widgets back into Germany. Either way, China ends up building enough widgets for both China and Germany, and Germany doubles its carbon emissions.

Now imagine what our example would look like if China built widgets for $0.1 rather than $1, and they generated three times as much emissions per widget of Germany, since this better reflects the reality. Would a carbon tax in Germany have a hope of reducing global emissions? No.

Evidence Suggests Carbon Taxes Will Increase Global CO2 Emissions

Not only does the logic show that carbon taxes in the West will invariably increase global CO2 emissions, but so does the empirical evidence.

To begin with, data from the World Bank reveals that China, and other developing countries, produce far more carbon per dollar of economic output (at purchasing power parity) than do Western nations. For example, China produced 0.6 kilograms of carbon dioxide per dollar of economic output in 2014, whereas America produced 0.3 kg of CO2, and Germany produced just 0.2 kg. On top of this, China shows no signs of decreasing its emissions any time soon: China’s currently building hundreds of new coal-fired power plants, which will ensure its CO2 emissions continue to rise for decades to come.

Taken together, these facts suggest that every factory pushed out of the West due to carbon taxes actually increases global emissions dramatically, and this will continue to be the case for decades to come. A number of other studies came to the same conclusion.

One important paper published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found that carbon reductions alleged to the Kyoto Protocol were more than offset by increase emissions from imported products. Glen Peters of the Centre for International Climate and Environmental Research said this of the research:

Our study shows for the first time that emissions from increased production of internationally traded products have more than offset the emissions reductions achieved under the Kyoto Protocol … this suggests that the current focus on territorial emissions in a subset of countries may be ineffective at reducing global emissions without some mechanisms to monitor and report emissions from the production of imported goods and services.

Essentially, local carbon taxes are not a useful tool for mitigating a nation’s carbon footprint. If anything they actually raise global emissions. The paper also notes that China accounts for some 75 percent of the developed world’s offshored emissions.

Another study published in The Guardian, found that “50 percent of the rise in Chinese emissions are the result of goods for foreign markets.” This was echoed in a different study from the scientific journal Geophysical Research Letters, which found that cuts in carbon emissions by developed countries have been cancelled out “many times over” by increases in imported goods from developing countries—especially China.

Another study found that all of the trumpeted carbon reductions in places like Germany fall apart under closer scrutiny:

According to standard date, developed countries can claim to have reduced their collective emissions by almost 2% between 1990 and 2008. But once the carbon cost of imports have been added to each country, and exports subtracted—the true change has been an increase of 7%. If Russia and Ukrainewhich cut their CO2 emissions rapidly in the 1990s due to economic collapseare excluded, the rise is 12%.

These studies conclusively show that the offshoring of Western industry to China has actually increased global carbon emissions. It is unreasonable to assume that a carbon tax, which will further increase the incentive for business owners to offshore, will magically reduce global carbon emissions. There is no silver bullet. Carbon taxes are a pipe dream.

Carbon Taxes Won’t Reduce Global CO2 Emissions—Now What?

Carbon taxes will not reduce global carbon emissions—they’ll only make things worse. So what should we do? We should stop and put things in perspective. No matter your opinion on climate change, we should begin with the assertion that carbon dioxide is not a harmful chemical in the traditional sense of the word. It’s actually essential for all life on earth—plants need it to live.

The obsession with carbon emissions is allowing many real polluters to fly under the radar. For example, fertilizers and pesticides runoff from our farms is creating gigantic “dead zones” downstream. Algal blooms are choking out life a the mouths of major rivers throughout the world. Likewise, deforestation is (often unnecessarily) stripping the world of its most precious habitats.

These are real environmental problems that aren’t getting attention because carbon dioxide is so ardently demonized. It is high time we triaged the situation, and took care of real environmental concerns before investing billions in green schemes

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4 responses to “Why Carbon Taxes Actually Increase Global Emissions”

  1. Excellent and rational analysis. Environmentalism is too often based on emotion which clouds judgement from finding actual solutions. The last two paragraphs really explain the opportunity cost of our focus on carbon emissions. A carbon tax is no silver bullet but it does point in the correct direction by including the cost of carbon in the price of a product. Indeed there is an environmental cost to every extra widget we purchase.

    The truth is we don’t have so much of an environmental problem but an overconsumption problem. Al Gore doesn’t need a 10,000 sq/ft home and all the baubles and furniture to fill it. Or the energy to heat and cool it. The average new home in America keeps getting bigger(over 2600 sq/ft) despite our household sizes shrinking (2.6 people). That’s the curse of wealth. Are we happier? Are we more fulfilled will all of our widgets?

    True environmentalism is a mindset of living more with less. In economic terms it’s just increasing the efficiency of our consumption by reducing throughput. Can we live with 4 pairs of shoes rather than 8? Probably. 1,500 sq/ft house? Sure. We don’t have to live a 19th century lifestyle but we certainly should curb our wasteful spending. It’s inefficient and doesn’t improve our lives. In fact, it could be argued that consumer debt and enormous mortgages are making us miserable.

    Public policy can help. We need to change the way we tax. Namely, we need to quit taxing work and investment and start taxing consumption and imports. Something like the Fair Tax which places a sales tax on every NEW good or service while shielding the poor with a rebate is a great 21st century idea. Cheap imports also promote overconsumption while hurting the environment through longer supply chains. Place a VAT on them instead of a tariff. That would allow U.S. workers the opportunity to add value to cheaper raw goods from overseas.

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  2. This is the most telling phrase in the article: If Russia and Ukraine—which cut their CO2 emissions rapidly in the 1990s due to economic collapse—are excluded, the rise is 12%. (emphasis added). The ‘environmentalist’ movement is full of anti-human sentiment. These anti-human activists want a ‘die off’ of human beings to restore ‘balance’ to ‘the environment’. It doesn’t matter how this is achieved as far as these anti-human activists are concerned, it could be a virus, or a famine or economic collapse. The economic collapse in Russia and Ukraine resulted in a dramatic lowering of the life expectancy of human beings in that region. The situation was so dire that, in essence, they began prostituting their women to the West (both via sex trafficking and ‘mail order brides’) to acquire money for necessities.

  3. This is a very stupid article: it lies about the situation in China, which is striving to catch up with the advanced parts of the west in environmental improvement. And it supposes that the countries which have carbon taxes will allow unfair market competition from other countries without.

    A conservatism which can only keep itself afloat on rafts of self-delusion is a doomed political movement, a dead idea.