Intro to Econ: Eleventh Lecture Aside – Why don’t we have a global carbon tax?

If I understood it correctly, we are currently experiencing climate change, climate change is believed to be detrimental to most people, and climate change is to a large extent due to human activity, especially those activities that release CO2 and similar gases into the atmosphere. Moreover climate change is a global problem. Any CO2 released by people’s activities in Asia, this (supposedly mostly negatively) affects not only people in Asia, but also in South and North America, Africa, Australia, Europe, in fact everyone living on this planet. In other words, using the language of a previous post, climate change is a global negative externality of any economic activity that (directly or indirectly) releases CO2 (or similar gases) into the atmosphere.

In the last post I argued that such negative externality problems (that the market typically does not solve because of the logic explained in the advertising example) can often be solved by setting appropriate taxes on the offending (negative externality producing) products. I also argued that one would probably expect that a voting process will in fact lead to a country adopting such taxes. Can’t we just use a similar approach to solve the global climate crisis? I will here explain why this is not so easy.

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Some unpleasant carbon tax economics

Every economist knows that a carbon tax is the correct solution to climate change. By correct I mean the solution that a perfectly informed, well-meaning dictator would choose.

But when I was recently brooding over some dynamic optimization problems, I made a discoverey that I haven’t seen anyone discuss. And I find it disturbing.

I’m going to develop the argument formally below, but I will give away the punchline. Brace for impact!

Theorem: A carbon tax that remains constant over time doesn’t change the extraction path of fossil fuel. A carbon tax that increases over time tilts the extraction path in such a way that more fossil fuel is extracted now, less later.

If this is obvious to you, you can stop reading and start freaking out. If you think that this must be wrong, I would like you to point out any error I made in the argument below.

Let’s start from the Hotelling rule which dictates how profit maximizing oil sheikhs exploit their resource over time:

P(1+r) = P’,

where P is today’s price for oil (or gas, or whatever), r is the real interest rate and a prime denotes future variables. The rule says that you want prices to rise over time at the rate of the real interest rate.

When I say P is the price for oil, I mean the price the oil sheikh gets. The price consumers pay is P(1+t) where t is the (ad-valorem) carbon tax.

Next we need to postulate a demand curve to translate the Hotelling rule, which is about the evolution of prices, into a rule about quantities. Let’s write the (inverse) demand curve as follows

P(1+t) = D(Q)

and let’s postulate that D is decreasing in Q. This should shock nobody: demand curves slope down.

I hope you agree with me that absolutely nothing about this is in any way controversial. But then you must agree with me that we can combine the Hotelling rule with the present and future demand curves to get the following equation:

D(Q)(1+r)/(1+t) = D(Q’)/(1+t’).

This, ladies and gentlemen, is the dynamic law of motion for fossil fuel consumption. It describes how the quantity of fossil fuel extracted from the ground evolves over time. Since everything that is extracted will be consumed in the end, it implies a time path of carbon emissions.

Now what can we deduce about that time path from this equation?

  1. Hold the carbon tax constant over time by setting t=t’, and you will see that the equation reduces to
    D(Q)(1+r) = D(Q’),
    which is exactly the same equation that would hold if no carbon tax existed at all. It follows that with a time-invariant carbon tax, the sheiks will go on extracting oil and carbon emissions will continue at the exact same rate as if there were no carbon tax.
  2. It gets worse.  Suppose the carbon tax increases over time, i.e. t<t’. The effect of this will be the same as if the real interest rate would increase: it will make fossil fuel prices rise at a faster rate. But how do sheikhs make the sure the price path is steeper? By extracting more today, thus lowering the price today, and less in the future, thus increasing the future price.

Quod erat demonstrandum!

Now, of course you can refine the argument. What if, for example, the carbon tax eventually becomes so high that even the most fanatical SUV lover will refuse to pump gas? I don’t think this changes the argument. All this means is that oil producers will tilt the extraction path even more towards the present.

After all, there is a fixed and finite reserve of fossil fuels in the ground. All a carbon tax can change is when it will be extracted and the price consumers will pay for it.

If my argument is correct, why exactly are we sure that a carbon tax is the correct solution to climate change?

Addendum: If you want to me more concrete, assume fossil fuel demand is iso-elastic with elasticity e. In this case it is almost trivial to derive the equilibrium quantity: If R is the current stock of oil reserves, the quantity extracted now is

Q = (1-1/s)R with s = [(1+r)(1+t’)/(1+t)]^e

Notice that the extraction share Q/R is increasing in s which is increasing in the ratio of future to present carbon taxes (1+t’)/(1+t).