Confronting the American Divide on Carbon Emissions Regulation - Working Paper 232
The failure of carbon regulation in the U.S. Congress has undermined international negotiations to reduce carbon emissions. The global stalemate has, in turn, increased the likelihood that vulnerable developing countries will be severely damaged by climate change. This paper asks why the tragic American impasse has occurred, while the EU has succeeded in implementing carbon regulation. Both cases have involved negotiations between relatively rich "Green" regions and relatively poor "Brown" (carbon-intensive) regions, with success contingent on two factors: the interregional disparity in carbon intensity, which proxies the extra mitigation cost burden for the Brown region, and the compensating incentives provided by the Green region. The European negotiation has succeeded because the interregional disparity in carbon intensity is relatively small, and the compensating incentive (EU membership for the Brown region) has been huge. In contrast, the U.S. negotiation has repeatedly failed because the interregional disparity in carbon intensity is huge, and the compensating incentives have been modest at best. The unsettling implication is that an EU-style arrangement is infeasible in the United States, so the Green states will have to find another path to serious carbon mitigation. One option is mitigation within their own boundaries, through clean technology subsidies or emissions regulation. The Green states have undertaken such measures, but potential free-riding by the Brown states and international competitors seems likely to limit this approach, and it would address only the modest Green-state portion of U.S. carbon emissions in any case. The second option is mobilization of the Green states’ enormous market power through a carbon added tax (CAT). Rather than taxing carbon emissions at their points of production, a CAT taxes the carbon embodied in products at their points of consumption. For Green states, a CAT has four major advantages: It can be implemented unilaterally, state-by-state; it encourages clean production everywhere, by taxing carbon from all sources equally; it creates a market advantage for local producers, by taxing transport-related carbon emissions; and it offers fiscal flexibility, since it can either offset existing taxes or raise additional revenue.
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