Wayne Winegarden

Concerns about global warming, and its potentially devastating impact on the planet, has caught Congress’ attention. Global warming may well be serious, but so are the consequences from combating global warming. The economic costs of reducing carbon emissions are by no means trivial and therefore it’s not enough for policymakers to simply press forward in the name of global warming and ignore the economic consequences of the various plans.

What we can say with a high degree of certainty is (1) A cap and trade policy is inappropriate and (2) that a higher overall tax rate on carbon emissions per se will have a devastatingly negative impact on the long term growth of America and the world. Poverty, despair, and suffering will expand exponentially.

Cap and trade regulations cap greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, sub-divide the cap into smaller parts (or emissions allowances aka rationing coupons), and distribute the emissions allowances to businesses that emit GHGs. Those companies that wish to emit GHGs beyond their specific allowances could purchase the right to do.

Cap and trade regulations are nothing more than tax increases in disguise. Why? In order to effectively limit GHG emissions, the emissions cap must be set at a level below what the market is currently emitting. Reducing the amount of emissions below current market levels reduces the amount of energy we can produce – at least in the short-run. A reduction in the supply of energy below current market demand causes energy prices to increase.

Energy consumers in the U.S. will, consequently, face significantly higher energy prices due to a cap and trade regime. The Department of Energy estimated that had the U.S. joined the Kyoto Protocol, energy prices would have increased by as much as 86 percent. Because consumers are paying higher prices for their energy as a result of a federal law, the impact on the consumer is the same as if the government imposed the tax directly on the consumer.

However, the tax revenues from the cap and trade tax will not likely go to the government. There are two ways in which the emissions allowances can be allocated: the government can auction off the rights (thereby collecting the “tax revenue” themselves) or they can simply distribute these rights to the companies based on some grandfathering system. Following the European example, discussions in the U.S. are leaning towards the latter. Because the companies will receive the rights to pollute without paying for them, the revenues from the higher prices are transferred from the consumer to the producer – which may be an undesirable outcome from an equity perspective.


Wayne Winegarden

Wayne H. Winegarden Ph.D. is a partner in the firm Arduin, Laffer & Moore Econometrics.

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