Pigouvian Taxes: The Carbon Tax

Pigouvian Taxes: The Carbon Tax

Written by Khushi Jain & Vidhi Lakhani


Climate change is an immediate crisis and an undeniable fact today. As the world grapples with the consequences of rising temperatures and extreme weather, governments and organizations are exploring innovative solutions to combat this crisis. One such solution is the implementation of Pigouvian taxes. Pigouvian taxes are taxes on activities that create a negative externality borne by an individual. The most relevant of Pigouvian taxes is the Carbon tax. A carbon tax is a financial instrument that places a price on carbon emissions, aiming to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by making it more expensive to pollute. This approach has garnered support from environmentalists and economists alike, who argue that it provides an economic incentive for companies and individuals to transition towards cleaner and more sustainable practices. 

Carbon dioxide (CO2) makes up the majority of greenhouse gas emissions, and this is caused due to the harmful use of non-renewable (polluting) energy. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the annual growth rate of GHG (greenhouse gasses) emission between 2010- 2019 has been higher than in any previous decade, however the rate of growth between 2010- 2019 has been lower than that of between 2000- 2009. 

The concept of Carbon Tax and how it works

The basic principle behind a carbon tax is to place a price on each ton of carbon dioxide (or its equivalent) emitted by industries, power plants, and other sources. Carbon taxes can be collected from fuel suppliers and are imposed on coal, oil products, and natural gas proportionately to their carbon content. They will then transfer the tax in the form of higher prices for goods and services reliant on them, such as petrol, heating oil, electricity, and so on. By investing in or changing their behaviour, encourages both producers and consumers to reduce energy usage and switch to fuels with lower carbon emissions or renewable energy sources.


Carbon taxes can be implemented easily because they are piggybacked on existing fuel taxes which are collected by most countries. Additionally, the royalties paid by the coal mining and oil and gas drilling sectors can be adjusted to include carbon taxes. A carbon tax is a flexible strategy for decreasing emissions since it can be used in a variety of economic sectors, such as manufacturing, transportation, and energy generation.

Carbon tax should not be implemented callously but only after careful consideration. Setting the right amount of carbon tax is crucial, as it needs to be high enough to instigate a behavioural change without negatively impacting the industries and ultimately the consumers. Additionally, through effective policy design, concerns regarding the carbon tax’s regressive nature, particularly its potential impact on low-income households, must be addressed.

The effectiveness of Carbon Tax in reducing Greenhouse Gas Emissions

The primary goal of a carbon tax is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and mitigate their impacts on climate change. Numerous studies have proved that the use of Carbon taxes can be effective in achieving this objective. One practical example, according to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), would be the United Kingdom, which increased its carbon rates in the electricity sector from 2012 to 2018, while emissions fell by 73% in the same period. 

The effectiveness of a carbon tax in reducing emissions depends on the price elasticity of demand for carbon-intensive goods and services. If the tax leads to a substantial decrease in demand for fossil fuels, it can drive a transition towards cleaner energy sources. However, the magnitude of this impact varies across industries and countries. Sectors with readily available alternatives, such as renewable energy, tend to respond more favourably to a carbon tax compared to those heavily reliant on fossil fuels.

Furthermore, a carbon tax can incentivize technological innovation and investment in low-carbon solutions. As the price of carbon increases, companies are motivated to develop and adopt cleaner technologies to reduce their emissions and avoid higher costs. This can spur a virtuous cycle of innovation, leading to the development of more efficient and sustainable practices across various sectors of the economy.

The Economic Impact of Carbon Tax on Industries and Consumers

While the environmental benefits of a carbon tax are obvious, the economic impact of the same is a concern. Sectoral effects would rely on a variety of factors, including the industries’ ability to switch over to lower-carbon fuels from higher-carbon ones and the intensity of their carbon emissions. The effect it has on different income groups depends on their consumption patterns and sources of income.

In general, a carbon tax would make burning fossil fuels more expensive, which would cause a rise in the price of generating goods and services that rely on them, especially for carbon-intensive services like power and transportation. Different businesses would experience the effects differently, especially the power, transportation, and industrial sectors—the top three emitters of greenhouse gasses.

Based on their income and spending, households would experience a range of effects from a carbon price. Because low-income households spend a bigger proportion of their incomes on carbon-intensive commodities like electricity, a tax on carbon would have a greater impact on their consumption than it would on the expenditure of high-income households.

It is significant to remember that the costs involved in putting in place a carbon price can be far lower than the economic effects of climate change, which can be quite substantial. According to the World Bank, the economic losses brought on by a 4-degree Celsius rise in global temperatures could amount to 5–10% of world GDP. In contrast, a carbon tax’s costs are very low and can be viewed as an investment in a more sustainable future. 

The Role of International Cooperation in Implementing Carbon Tax

Climate Change is a global crisis and requires global solutions. While individual countries can implement carbon tax policies within their borders, international cooperation is crucial to tackling trans- boundary emissions. Global coordination and harmonization of carbon pricing policies can help avoid carbon leakage and ensure a level playing field for businesses.

The Paris Agreement, signed by nearly all countries in 2015, provides a framework for international cooperation on climate change. The agreement recognizes the importance of carbon pricing as a tool for emissions reduction and calls on countries to enhance cooperation in this area. Through initiatives such as the Carbon Pricing Leadership Coalition, countries are working together to share best practices, promote collaboration, and develop common approaches to carbon pricing.

The 2021 United Nations Handbook on Carbon Taxation for Developing Countries is developed by the Experts of the United Nation Committee on International Corporation in Tax Matters and Environmental Taxation Issues. This Handbook clarifies and guides on policy and administrative aspects of designing and implementing on Carbon Taxes. The Handbook also points out the reasons why countries might want to introduce such a tax and provide options for the design and administration of taxes that might cater to the various needs of the countries.

Additionally, international financial institutions and organizations play a key role in supporting the implementation of carbon tax policies. They can provide technical assistance, capacity building, and financial support to help countries develop and implement effective carbon pricing mechanisms.

Challenges and Criticisms of Carbon Tax 

Despite the potential benefits of a carbon tax, it faces challenges and criticisms. A few countries have already enacted the tax and a few others are in the process of discussing the same. There are discussions of a carbon tax at a global level as well. Yet, governments are more inclined towards adopting other methods of controlling carbon emissions.

One of the primary concerns of carbon tax is the apparent burden on consumers and industry, especially those largely dependent on fossil fuels. Economists argue that carbon tax might result in job losses and higher expenses, which would disadvantage businesses in the marketplace.

Carbon tax is often regressive in nature, harming poorer people disproportionately more than the rich ones. Poorer people nonetheless experience a welfare loss as prices rise, making their consumption basket more expensive, even when it may be progressive. Setting up transfers to compensate the people is not as easy as it sounds. There may not be adequate compensation systems, and it might be difficult to locate the people who have suffered because of this.

Another issue with the carbon tax is that it does not disincentive other carbon compounds. Other carbon compounds, such as methane, which has a short atmospheric lifetime but a high potential for warming, are not directly targeted by them. 

Furthermore, only the implementation of carbon taxes will not be sufficient to accomplish the deep emissions reductions required to limit global warming to well below 2 degrees Celsius. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predicts that $135 to $5,500 per ton of carbon dioxide would be needed by 2030 to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. This emphasizes on the requirement of complementary regulations and initiatives to promote the economy’s decarbonisation. 

Prospects and Potential Improvements of Carbon Tax Policies

The importance of carbon tax is anticipated to increase as the need to combat climate change becomes more pressing. As part of their broader climate strategy, many nations are either considering or have already implemented carbon tax measures. However, there is room for improvement in order to enhance the efficiency of the same.

One such measure that can be taken is the imposition of an international carbon tax which shall be levied and collected internationally. The imposition of carbon taxes could be uniformly imposed if an international agreement were to be established. An agreement of this nature would undoubtedly reduce concerns about international competition. The benefit of placing the same burden on industries across countries at uniform rates is something that can be achieved by a harmonized adoption of carbon taxes.

The utilization of the revenue collected as a part of the carbon tax is another aspect to be investigated. Some regions have implemented a revenue-neutral carbon tax policy, others have instead utilized the revenue for various other environmental policies or reduced other taxes. Ensuring transparency and accountability in the use of carbon tax revenue can help build public trust and support for these policies.

Additionally, it is crucial to continuously monitor and review carbon tax programmes in order to determine their efficacy and make any necessary revisions. Regular evaluations can assist pinpoint problem areas and confirm that carbon prices are resulting in the anticipated emissions reductions.

Conclusion: The Significance of Carbon Tax in Addressing Climate Change

As discussed above, Carbon taxes play a crucial role in combating climate change by providing an economic incentive for companies and individuals to transition towards cleaner and more sustainable practices. The effectiveness of Carbon Taxes may vary from country to country but various examples have demonstrated their potential for driving emissions reduction and foresting economic growth.

Carbon taxes are not without challenges and criticisms, but when designed and implemented effectively, they can be a powerful tool for addressing climate change. The key lies in setting the right price for carbon, ensuring transparency and fairness in policy design, and complementing carbon taxes with other measures and policies. Countries are pricing carbon in a multitude of ways, not always the most effective, with rate of tax being too high or too low causing the outcome to be far from optimal.

To mitigate the greenhouse gas and CO2 emissions causing climate change, international cooperation is essential. Countries must work together to harmonize carbon pricing policies, share best practices, and support each other in implementing effective carbon tax mechanisms. With continued innovation, collaboration, and commitment, carbon taxes can play a significant role in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and creating a more sustainable future for all.


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  4. Effective Carbon Rates 2021: Pricing Carbon Emissions through Taxes and Emissions Trading, OECD Series on Carbon Pricing and Energy Taxation, OECD Publishing, Paris, OECD (2021), https://doi.org/10.1787/0e8e24f5-en. Accessed on 11 July, 2023.

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