Economics

Kneecapping Cap-and-Trade

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Irwin Stelzer at the D.C. Examiner sees a few problems with Obama's version of cap-and-trade plans to reduce carbon emissions:

[Cap-and-trade] has nothing to do with the stimulus package into which this green agenda has been inserted. It takes years to get permits for new windfarms and transmission lines, by which time we hope the recovery will be well underway.

The second problem is the volatility of the price of permits. The goal is to make it so expensive to emit greenhouse gases that polluters will switch to other, greener means of producing energy. But significant investment in greener technologies can occur only if investors can calculate the costs faced by their CO2 -emitting competitors.

In Europe, the price of permits has fluctuated between zero and around $40 per ton. Green technologies that were economic, and could attract capital when permits fetched $40, are uneconomic when the price at which permits trade is far less, as it now is (about $10).

The third problem is that a recession is a bad time to load costs onto businesses and consumers. The Obama team counters that the levies won't cut in until 2011. But for businessmen planning long-term investments, that is right around the corner, and the uncertainties associated with cap-and-trade will surely discourage investment.

The fourth problem is that Obama has promised that no family earning less than $250,000 per year will pay one dime in higher taxes. But the companies that have to pay for permits will pass that cost on to consumers in the form of higher prices for electricity and other products. So these families will pay $645 billion, only some of which will be returned in the form of lower income taxes, for a system that is terribly inefficient.

The solution, of course, would be a straight-forward tax on carbon, the proceeds to be refunded through the payroll tax system. But unlike the hidden tax of cap-and-trade, a carbon tax is out there for the voters to see. And given the choice between a stealthy tax and a visible tax, politicians will pick the former every time.

Ron Bailey has written often for Reason Online about cap-and-trade.

Back in May 1996, I wrote an article on the early theory and practice of cap-and-trade for emission control, back in the days before carbon was on everyone's mind.