Reading a bunch of people criticize green politics on the grounds that it imposes unreasonable reductions in living standards has clarified something for me. There’s extreme right criticism of Angela Merkel’s latest statement that climate protection is vital, accusing her of deindustrializing the country in the name of green-left ideology; from the left, Branko Milanovic, who has criticized the degrowth stream of environmentalism before, complained of people who “call for 50% reduction in income to combat climate change.” I think highly of Milanovic, both for his analysis of economic inequality and for his historical and social insights, but what he’s criticizing is actually a good example for why a high carbon tax does not actually mean a big reduction in income.
Take, as a starting point, the Stern Review‘s numbers. They were on the high side when the review was published in 2006, but a lot of the green consensus since then has converged toward them. As detailed on PDF-p. 20, the expected cost of unmitigated climate change is 20% of global GDP. The implication is that the optimal carbon tax today should be 20% of global GDP – we should be willing to reduce income by 20% now to avoid a permanent 20% reduction in income in the future. Global emissions intensity today is about PPP$2,400/t-CO2e ($127 trillion/53.5 billion t-CO2e), so the carbon tax should be $480/t, right?
But in reality, we should be willing to accept a much higher carbon tax. The reason is that the money raised by the carbon tax is not ejected into outer space. It circulates in the world economy. If a carbon tax is used to offset other taxes, or to pay for new government spending, then the same amount of money stimulates the economy. If it is used to reduce the deficit, then in the long run this stimulates some investment. The money is shifted rather than thrown away.
There is some cost to the carbon tax, but it is much lower than its face value. The cost is the economic loss from shifting consumption to carbon-free products, at the prices of a world in which greenhouse gases are not taxed at all. This is similar to the cost of a tax on cigarettes or alcohol or really any other product – the money is spent on less harmful activities.
The point is that the zero-carbon lifestyle that I advocate as the future is not one of penury. Evidently, so many people enjoy living in dense cities where cars are not necessary that those cities are very desirable. Cities like New York and London, which offer high-wage jobs and comfortable public transportation but aren’t building enough housing to accommodate the tens of millions of people who wish to take advantage of their opportunities, are very expensive to live in. The current zoning regimes in the US, and to some extent even in Europe, act as a negative carbon tax, making it harder to not emit greenhouse gases – this should be reversed, replaced with zoning liberalization and a positive carbon tax.
What’s more, the money saved by not having to drive goes to other forms of consumption. The proportion of income spent on transportation is lower in areas with good public transit than in ones without. Even taking subsidies into account, the operating and equipment costs of New York City Transit are about comparable to the depreciation cost of the cars that one would need to buy for New Yorkers to match the auto usage of the rest of the United States – and car purchases are just 40% of American auto spending, the rest going to fuel and spare parts. This saving is plugged into other kinds of local spending, such as going out to eat. In cities with more modern housing stock than New York this also includes better-accessorized housing. It may also include higher spending on consumer electronics.
What’s true is that not everyone wants to live that kind of future. Some people enjoy driving big cars and keeping the lights and temperature control in their large houses on even when they’re not at home. They will not be able to do so in any realistic green transition, and that’s a real cost. Some people even object to solar power and energy-efficient devices on culture war grounds, and they too will have to adapt to a culture they dislike, just as so many immigrants have. But the alternative lifestyle they will need to adapt to is one that so many comfortably middle-class people choose even at the current carbon cost of $0 that the imposition is not so onerous.
There are still remnants of people who define themselves by the environmental and health hazards of previous generations. Europeans and Japanese still smoke at pretty high rates, as do some subcultures in North America. We can expect that likewise, some people will keep driving at €2/liter fuel, at €3/liter, at €5/liter, and define themselves by not shifting to public transportation or even buying an electric car. But they will be marginal as the bulk of the population shifts to greener consumption, and if squeezing out the last remaining carbon emissions requires regulatory bans, not too many people will mind, just as people no longer mind restrictions on cigarette advertising.
So raise the fuel tax, early and often, and cut other taxes, and spend some of the difference on solar power and public transportation. And make it easy for people to move to big, dense cities by building more housing there. Maybe start worrying if the deadweight loss assuming there were no such thing as climate change grew beyond the cost of greenhouse gas emissions, but the carbon tax required to get there is such a large multiple of the cost of carbon emissions that by then the world would go zero-carbon. Do what you can to limit climate change to non-catastrophic levels, and keep raising carbon taxes and spending on alternatives to get there.