- Robert Engle is the Michael Armellino Professor of Finance at New York University Stern School of Business and a Nobel Laureate. His views are his own. -
We have faced energy crises before. The last energy crisis was about running out of oil. This one is about the fear that we might not. The future health of our planet is jeopardized by the greenhouse gases emitted by our industrial society. But can we afford an expensive energy policy in this time of economic distress?
The simplest and best solution to reducing emissions is thought by most economists to be a comprehensive tax on the emission of greenhouse gases. Only in this way will individuals and businesses that avoid the tax be doing what is socially desirable. Only in this way will it become profitable to find substitute energy sources; no longer would it be necessary to subsidize alternatives. The price of oil will rise naturally when we begin to run out, but in this proposal, the price would rise before we reach the bitter end. It is only a matter of timing.
However, a tax is generally considered politically impossible and in this time of deepening recession, it is especially unpalatable. But what about the money – what happens to the money that is raised by this tax? This revenue could be divided evenly among all U.S. residents and sent out in a periodic cheque. This check could even be sent before the tax revenue was received. A substantial emission tax would generate a substantial check. This could be used for anything but might well be used to buy a more fuel efficient car, insulate a house, move closer to work or otherwise reduce the impact of the impending tax.
Because this tax would be returned to consumers, it would stimulate the economy. The sectors that might expect benefits would be automobiles, construction and real estate. These all can use good news. Because of the per capita redistribution, this would be particularly beneficial to low income groups who would pay less than an equal share of the taxes. Because the tax would reduce our consumption of oil, we would be sending fewer petrodollars abroad and instead returning it to Americans.