Resources Article

Ensuring Competitiveness under a US Carbon Tax


As policymakers express renewed interest in a carbon tax, Carolyn Fischer, Richard Morgenstern, and Nathan Richardson weigh three options for preventing business—and accompanying emissions—from simply moving to other countries.

Debates about the political and practical feasibility of a US carbon tax have gained traction once again as Congress deliberates how to encourage economic growth and reduce the deficit. An important consideration for such a policy—and a possible obstacle—is how it affects the competitiveness of US industries. This problem is real, though probably not as large as some critics suggest. Nevertheless, there are tools for reducing impacts on vulnerable industries. The choice among them has implications for the effectiveness of the program, its costs, and who pays those costs.

Analysis by Liwayway Adkins, Richard Morgenstern, and colleagues (see Further Reading) suggests that the output of companies in energy-intensive, tradeexposed (EITE) sectors may decline about 1 percent over the long run under a carbon tax of $15 per ton of carbon dioxide (CO2 ). Some industries, such as cement, aluminum, petroleum refining, chemicals, and plastics, could be hit relatively harder, facing declines as great as 3 percent or more.

Additionally, if a carbon tax increases the costs for US industries and not their international competitors, economic activity and carbon emissions could “leak” to nations with less stringent carbon pricing policies or no policies at all. Some production may move abroad to avoid the new tax, and a decline in US demand for fossil fuels would result in cheaper energy in nontaxed countries without such a tax. Recent studies by Carolyn Fischer and Alan Fox find overall emissions leakage rates from 5 to 20 percent, depending on various factors, and certain sectors may face leakage rates of up to 50 percent.

If Congress decides to implement a tax on carbon emissions, these effects provide a strong case for developing an additional policy to reduce the impacts on EITE industries. One obvious solution—which will likely generate support from affected industries—is to simply grant exemptions from the tax. This has the advantage of being relatively simple to administer. Sweden, for example, has exempted certain industries from 80 percent of its carbon tax. Beyond simplicity, exemptions do not have significant advantages. They are neither as efficient nor as effective as other options in achieving emissions reductions targets or revenue goals. Also, this approach may raise equity concerns because some industries would be paying taxes and cutting their emissions to help reach national goals while others would be exempt, placing a greater burden on the participating industries.

There are two other options for dealing with EITE concerns: industry rebates and border carbon adjustments. Both are probably better than tax exemption, but neither is perfect. Both raise interesting questions about program design, institutional setting, and international trade policy.

What Is an Energy-Intensive, Trade-Exposed (EITE) Industry?

An EITE industry is one that

  • consumes large amounts of energy, either as a result of direct combustion of fossil fuel or from heavy reliance on electricity for production; and
  • is highly vulnerable to international competition.

The first characteristic, energy intensity, is measured as the percentage of total costs a company spends on energy. The second, trade intensity, is measured as the percent- age of total shipments that are exports. The American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009—also known as Waxman–Markey—defines EITE sectors as manufacturing industries (excluding refining) that are either at least 20 percent energy intensive or 15 percent trade intensive and 5 percent energy (or CO2) intensive.

Industry Rebates

Rather than simply exempting firms from a carbon tax, the government could provide a rebate tied to the company’s domestic output. Under this policy, EITE-sector firms would get a partial carbon tax rebate that would increase if firms increased their production (and decrease if firms cut production). The Waxman–Markey capand-trade system would have used such an output-based rebate program.

This type of program poses significant challenges within a carbon tax regime. First, it may face legal challenge in the World Trade Organization if it is perceived as a discriminatory subsidy. Probably the best way to avoid such a perception is to embed the subsidy in the tax system. Second, developing and managing a rebate system can be extremely complex. In addition to the challenge of accurately and equitably identifying EITE industries, the government must devise a dynamic rebate system and track the output of all the firms.

Unlike carbon tax exemptions, outputbased rebating retains the incentive effects of a carbon tax. Firms still have to pay at least some carbon tax and can therefore cut their tax bills by reducing their emissions. It also can help keep product prices from rising, thus discouraging emissions leakage via substitution to more carbon-intensive goods. However, this “subsidy” also discourages energy conservation as a means of reducing emissions, resulting in an efficiency trade-off. Thus, output-based rebating is recommended only for sectors where a large share of reduced output would come from import displacement rather than cuts in domestic consumption.

Border Carbon Adjustments

Border carbon adjustments are simply import taxes on products from countries without carbon prices and/or export subsidies for US exports to those countries. In principle, they ensure that carbon emissions from production of products are taxed, regardless of where products are produced, leveling the playing field.

Border carbon adjustments would ideally be based on companies’ reported (and verified) emissions. But these calculations—especially for companies in developing countries—could be complex and expensive. Using a narrow definition of EITE industries would help somewhat.

Another, simpler approach is to use an emissions benchmark to estimate firms’ emissions. But finding an equitable benchmark that still gives firms an incentive to reduce their emissions is difficult.

Border carbon adjustments are internationally controversial, and no country currently uses them. Without careful framing and design, they are likely to be considered illegal under current trade law.

Border carbon adjustments are the most cost-effective option because they not only address competitiveness-related leakage but also preserve incentives for consumers to find less carbon-intensive products. They are also the most controversial and legally risky option. Only mitigating carbon leakage (not preserving competitiveness) is likely to be a legally permissible justification for interfering with international trade.

In a 2012 paper in the Journal of Environmental Economics and Management, economists Carolyn Fischer and Alan Fox find that for most US sectors, a full border carbon adjustment would be most effective at reducing global emissions, but outputbased rebates can be more effective than import adjustments at reducing emissions leakage and encouraging domestic production (see Figure 1).

However, border carbon adjustments would also shift the burdens of climate regulation toward developing and emerging economies, which is hardly ideal. Requiring that the tariff revenues be returned to exporting countries can allow developing countries overall to enjoy net benefits from the carbon tax policy.

While both output-based rebates and border carbon adjustments appear to offer a viable method for addressing these concerns, it’s important to remember that the devil is in the details.

Addressing EITE Industries in Australia

On July 1, 2012, Australia implemented a tax of A$23 per ton of CO2, which primarily impacts the country’s largest polluting companies (largely in the coal, natural gas, and petroleum sectors). Industries in those sectors are now required to purchase carbon permits equivalent to the CO2 emissions of their facilities.

However, Australia also has recognized the need to provide assistance to its EITE indus- tries such as steel, aluminum, and cement. It has developed an approximately $9 billion Jobs and Competitiveness program to help businesses that cannot completely pass along these new costs. Qualifying industries will be issued carbon permits (essentially tax credits) free of charge. Similar to an output-based rebate program, the level of assis- tance for these industries depends on the amount of carbon emitted for every $1 million of revenue generated by the company. The tax relief will range from 66 to 94.5 percent and will be reduced 1.3 percent each year to help ensure that EITE industries are also reducing their carbon emissions.

In addition, the trucking industry in Australia has been granted a two-year exemption from the tax, and emissions from agricultural businesses and closed landfill facilities are also exempted. Australia is planning to convert its carbon tax to a flexible, market- based cap-and-trade system in 2015.

Further Reading

Adkins, Liwayway, Richard Garbaccio, Mun Ho, Eric Moore, and Richard Morgenstern. 2012. Carbon Pricing with Output-Based Subsidies. Discussion paper 12-27. Washington, DC: Resources for the Future.

Fischer, Carolyn, and Alan K. Fox. 2012. Comparing Policies to Combat Emissions Leakage: Border Carbon Adjustments versus Rebates. Journal of Environmental Economics and Management 64(2): 199–216.

Fischer, Carolyn, Richard Morgenstern, and Nathan Richardson. Forthcoming. Options for Mitigating the Impact of Carbon Taxes on Energy Intensive Trade Exposed Industries. Issue brief. Washington, DC: Resources for the Future.