Thomas Crocker’s weird arguments against cap-and-trade

By Felix Salmon
August 13, 2009
Thomas Crocker's opposition to cap-and-trade and his support of a carbon tax instead: all of his arguments why a carbon tax is preferable to cap-and-trade are exactly the same as my arguments why cap-and-trade is better than a carbon tax!

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There’s something rather odd about Thomas Crocker’s opposition to cap-and-trade and his support of a carbon tax instead: all of his arguments why a carbon tax is preferable to cap-and-trade are exactly the same as my arguments why cap-and-trade is better than a carbon tax!

Let’s take Crocker’s arguments one by one, with the proviso that they’re coming second-hand, via the WSJ, rather than directly from Crocker himself.

First, Crocker says that a carbon tax “would be easier to enforce” than a cap-and-trade system. But it’s hard to see why that should be the case: both of them involve measuring the same carbon emissions. It’s certainly easier to enforce when you measure upstream rather than downstream, but that applies equally to carbon taxes and to cap-and-trade.

Crocker then gets into the meat of his argument:

Mr. Crocker sees two modern-day problems in using a cap-and-trade system to address the global greenhouse-gas issue. The first is that carbon emissions are a global problem with myriad sources. Cap-and-trade, he says, is better suited for discrete, local pollution problems. “It is not clear to me how you would enforce a permit system internationally,” he says. “There are no institutions right now that have that power.”

Yes, cap-and-trade is better suited for local pollution problems than it is for global pollution problems. But that doesn’t mean that a carbon tax is better for global pollution problems than cap-and-trade is. Indeed, the opposite is true. In theory, once a number of jurisdictions implement a cap-and-trade system, carbon traders will start arbitraging the various different carbon permits, and we will end up with something approaching a global system. Carbon taxes, by contrast, are ever and always local. Crocker is right that a US cap-and-trade system wouldn’t necessarily slow global carbon emissions if China and India refuse to play ball. On the other hand, neither would a carbon tax. But at least a cap-and-trade system has the ability to scale into China and India.

But moving on:

The other problem, Mr. Crocker says, is that quantifying the economic damage of climate change — from floods to failing crops — is fraught with uncertainty. One estimate puts it at anywhere between 5% and 20% of global gross domestic product. Without knowing how costly climate change is, nobody knows how tight a grip to put on emissions.

In this case, he says Washington needs to come up with an approach that will be flexible and easy to adjust over a long stretch of time as more becomes known about damages from greenhouse-gas emissions.

Agreed, 100% — which is exactly why we need a flexible cap-and-trade system rather than an inflexible carbon tax. A cap-and-trade system can be tweaked much more easily than a carbon tax, both in terms of the level of the cap and in terms of the proportion of the permits which is auctioned off rather than given away. Crocker says it’s hard to adjust a cap once it’s in place — but he neglects to mention that it’s harder still to adjust a tax once it’s in place.

In the first instance, the important thing is to get something in place, which can then be improved over time. A cap-and-trade system fits the bill perfectly; a carbon tax, by contrast, doesn’t.

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