What Is a Carbon Tax?

By Laurel Tincher · December 15, 2022 · 7 minute read

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What Is a Carbon Tax?

In countries where there is a carbon tax, businesses must pay a levy based on the amount of carbon emissions produced by their business operations. A carbon tax is designed to reduce the amount of carbon — also known as CO2 emissions.

There are two types of carbon taxes: a tax on quantities of greenhouse gases emitted, and a tax on carbon-intensive goods and services such as gasoline production.

In the United States, several carbon tax proposals have been introduced in Congress, but none have yet been implemented.

How Does a Carbon Tax Work?

When a government implements a carbon tax, a price per ton of greenhouse gas emissions is chosen, and a company gets taxed that amount for every ton they emit or are responsible for.

In some cases, the price per ton increases the more an entity emits, thereby incentivizing companies to reduce and prevent emissions.

What Type of Carbon Is Taxed?

Although it is called a carbon tax, usually the price is actually per ton of CO2 gas emitted. That’s because every fossil fuel has a particular amount of carbon content in it, and when burned each carbon molecule combines with two oxygen molecules and becomes CO2 gas which goes into the atmosphere.

So the amount of emissions associated with the fuel can be taxed at the point of extraction, refinement, import, or use.

As many ESG investors know, burning coal emits the highest amount of CO2, followed by diesel, gasoline, propane, and natural gas. Therefore, coal gets taxed higher than other fossil fuels. Once CO2 is emitted into the atmosphere, it remains there for a hundred years or more, creating a greenhouse effect which heats up the planet and leads to climate change.

Only products associated with the burning of fossil fuels get taxed. So products such as plastic that contain petroleum but don’t directly result in CO2 emissions don’t get taxed.

What Is the Economic Impact of Carbon Taxation?

Since a carbon tax increases costs across the entire supply chain, everyone from extractors to consumers are incentivized to reduce fossil fuel consumption — at least in theory.

Those being taxed can raise the prices of their goods and services, but only as much as the market is willing to pay while allowing them to remain competitive.

What Is the Social Impact of Carbon Emissions?

The theory around carbon pricing is that each ton of CO2 should have a price equal to the social cost of carbon. The social cost of carbon is the current amount of estimated damages over time that each ton of CO2 emitted causes today.

In addition to causing global warming, emissions and pollution typically lead to negative effects on human health and natural ecosystems. Thus investing in companies with lower carbon emissions can be considered a type of socially responsible investing.

Over time, the social cost of carbon increases, because each ton of emissions is more damaging as climate change worsens. Therefore, the price of carbon and the tax would increase over time.

Those producing emissions know that the tax will increase over time, and so investments into decarbonization are worth it to them today. For instance, a company can invest in solar energy and wind power, and while that might have a high upfront cost for them, over time it could be worth it could help them avoid a rising carbon tax.

Examples of Carbon Taxes

Understanding carbon taxes is an important facet of sustainable investing. Carbon taxes have been put into place in many countries around the world so far, and their popularity is rising. As of 2021, 35 countries had a form of carbon tax or energy tax.

•   Finland was the first country to implement a carbon tax in 1990, soon followed by Norway and Sweden in 1991. In 2021 Finland’s price per ton was $73.02. Norway is known to have one of the strictest carbon taxes.

•   The Canadian province of British Columbia implemented a carbon tax in 2008. In 2019, South Africa became the first African country to install a carbon tax.

•   Although there is not yet a federal carbon tax in the U.S., there are more than 50 regional ones. For instance, the city of Boulder, CO, implemented a carbon tax in 2006 after it passed a local vote. However, the average price per ton across these programs is very low: generally about $2.

Support for a U.S. federal carbon tax has been growing over time, but one of the things holding it back is debate about how the revenue from the tax would be used. A few ideas include: paying back consumers through a carbon dividend; using the money to fund infrastructure upgrades or low-emissions technologies, or reducing other taxes.

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The Importance of Carbon Tax

Reducing global emissions is essential to stop the buildup of CO2 in the Earth’s atmosphere. The more CO2 gets emitted, the more the planet warms and the worse climate change becomes — including the frequency of climate-related disasters.

Global temperatures have already increased 1°C over pre-industrial levels, and if emissions are not reduced temperatures are projected to rise 4°C by the end of this century. The more temperatures rise the more the effects become irreversible and catastrophic.

A carbon tax is a powerful tool to discourage the use of fossil fuels and incentivize a shift to low- and zero-emission energy sources. This is why many people invest in green stocks.

Pros and Cons of Carbon Tax

There are several pros and cons to a carbon tax.

Some of the pros of a carbon tax include:

•   The carbon tax is a way to regulate emissions without having to actually mandate production and consumption limits directly.

•   Carbon taxes incentivize companies and individuals to reduce and avoid emissions.

•   Carbon taxes are easy to administer.

•   A carbon tax may help reduce the buildup of greenhouse gasses, which in turn may help reduce pollution, improve air and water quality, and more.

•   The revenue raised through a tax can be used to fund decarbonization efforts, environmental restoration, and other projects.

•   Other programs, such as an incentive using renewable energy, haven’t been as successful in reducing fossil-fuel use.

A few cons of a carbon tax include:

•   It can be challenging to figure out how the revenues should be spent.

•   A carbon tax can be put on any point of a supply chain and it’s hard to decide which is best.

•   It’s hard to predict how much emissions will be reduced as a result of the carbon tax.

•   If a carbon tax increases energy costs, this can have a big impact on lower-income households which tend to spend a higher percentage of their income on energy than higher-income households.

•   If one country implements a carbon tax and others don’t, then that puts local industries at a competitive disadvantage. If they have to raise prices, customers may start buying from the countries that don’t have the tax, resulting in the same or more emissions. For this reason carbon tax plans build in ways to prevent emissions leakage and issues with competition. Some of these include rebates, exemptions for particular industries, and taxation based on past emissions.

•   Companies can purchase carbon offsets or carbon credits to lower the amount they pay in taxes. They can also use those offsets to claim that they are carbon neutral or carbon negative. This isn’t exactly true, since they are still emitting carbon. The ability to purchase offsets reduces their incentive to decarbonize.

Who Regulates Carbon Taxes?

Carbon tax programs are regulated by federal, state, or local governments. Regulation involves setting the price per ton of carbon, deciding which entities get taxed, collecting the tax, and deciding how the revenues are spent.

There is an ongoing discussion about the international coordination of carbon pricing. If a minimum price per ton is set, this would eliminate issues around competition and guarantee a certain amount of effort towards emission reduction. Canada has already implemented national price coordination. The minimum price per ton in Canadian provinces and territories is CAD $50.

Which Countries Have the Highest Carbon Tax?

Below are a few of the countries that have the highest carbon tax rates. The rates are in USD price per ton:

•   Uruguay: $137

•   Sweden: $129.89

•   Switzerland: $129.86

•   Liechtenstein: $129.86

•   Norway: $87.61

The Takeaway

A carbon tax can be a powerful tool for reining in carbon emissions, and potentially helping reduce the amount of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere. Essentially, these taxes penalize companies by making them pay a fee for CO2 emissions relating to their products or operations.

While the U.S. doesn’t have a federally mandated carbon tax, there are state and local levies. Given concerns about climate change, it’s likely that more countries will continue to adopt and adjust carbon taxes.

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Photo credit: iStock/Delmaine Donson

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