All You Need to Know About BC’s Carbon Tax Shift in Five Charts

The revolution, six years in.
This post is 1 in the series: Cashing In Our Carbon

Author’s note:The graphs in this post were updated in August 2015 to include the most recent available data. 

When British Columbia enacted a carbon tax shift in 2008, many thought other jurisdictions would follow soon with their own ways of cashing in their carbon. Seven states and four provinces were working out the details of a huge carbon cap-and-trade market called the Western Climate Initiative. Candidates Barack Obama and John McCain were campaigning for president with promises of clean energy on the double quick; Senator Obama even pitched carbon pricing in his stump speech. Ottawa was murmuring about following the lead of Washington, DC, with a carbon cap or tax of its own.

Then history took a turn: financial collapse, bailouts, Tea Party, climate science denial, 2010 midterms, the fiasco at Copenhagen. The front in the war on climate disruption shifted from grand policy to fighting Keystone XL, coal trains, and other dirty-fuel infrastructure. Momentum abated for comprehensive laws at the state, provincial, and federal level that would gradually but persistently wean companies and households from fossil fuels by charging a small but rising fee for carbon pollution.

British Columbia then found itself alone: the only jurisdiction in North America with an appreciable, economy-wide price on global warming emissions. With this post, we launch a new series of articles on pricing carbon in Cascadia. Our ultimate focus will be Oregon and Washington, which sit between British Columbia, with its carbon tax, and California, with its new carbon cap (which we’ll discuss another day). But the best place to begin is where Cascadian carbon pricing began: in Canada.

What’s the latest on what BC’s carbon tax shift has done to carbon pollution, the provincial economy, and public revenue?

1.    Pricing carbon has reduced carbon pollution.

BC’s carbon tax shift launched on July 1, 2008, with a rate of $10 per ton CO2. It increased by $5 per ton each year through July 2012, when it reached $30 per ton. Since then, the province has arguably been waiting for other jurisdictions to catch up, so that fossil-fuel price differences do not become too large between British Columbia and other places. The tax has therefore stayed at $30 per ton—about 30¢ per gallon of gasoline or 15¢ per therm of natural gas. The tax applies to almost all fossil fuels burned inside the province. Certain agricultural sectors are exempt (see page 23), and by definition the tax does not apply to carbon emitted at non-BC power plants that zap power into the province, to “process emissions” from industries such as aluminum and cement manufacturing, and to fuels for planes and boats that cross provincial borders.

When you tax something, you get less of it. That’s the point of taxing carbon pollution. What’s happened to emissions in the province?

Original Sightline Institute graphic, available under our free use policy.

Original Sightline Institute graphic, available under our free use policy.

Energy-related greenhouse gas emissions in BC dropped by six percent overall (and nine percent per capita) between 2007 and 2011 (the latest year for which data are available).

Carbon pricing skeptics might note that emissions have also fallen elsewhere in Canada, and they have. In fact, between 2007 and 2011 Canada’s energy-related emissions fell by an equal amount.

But the carbon tax shift was not the only thing happening—far from it. Other forces have also trimmed emissions, such as widespread fuel-switching from coal to gas in much of Canada. These electricity-related changes have had little effect in BC, though, which gets almost all of its electricity from hydropower. Meanwhile, some trends, such as the Great Recession, have suppressed emissions, while others, such as the natural gas boom in northern British Columbia, have boosted emissions. BC’s tax shift is one influence among many.

Petroleum products consumption—a trend less complicated by other factors than electricity or industrial emissions—may be the best indicator of the influence of the tax shift on carbon pollution. The province’s per-capita combustion of motor fuels and other petroleum diminished by 15 percentage points in the first four years of the tax shift—10 full points more than in Canada overall.

Original Sightline Institute graphic, available under our free use policy.

Original Sightline Institute graphic, available under our free use policy.

2.    The carbon tax shift has not hurt the economy.

Economies are whipsawed by massive forces all the time. The carbon tax shift has raised the price of petroleum products and natural gas by around 10 percent—less than their prices normally vary in a year anyway. Meanwhile, it’s reduced corporate and personal income taxes. Economic theory suggests this swap of taxes will not hurt the economy and may even help. Some studies suggest that BC’s carbon tax shift in particular will eventually give B.C. an economic boost.

Still, you wouldn’t expect to be able to discern much of an economic impact in aggregate statistics. After all, since the carbon tax started, the province has been rattled by a global financial meltdown, the bursting of a gigantic housing bubble in the United States (the principal market for BC commodities), a boom and then a slowdown in China (another principal market for BC goods), and cascading economic debacles in Greece and other parts of the Euro zone (a third major market for BC exports). The effects of a gradual, modest increase in fuel prices, offset by reductions in income taxes, are almost guaranteed to be lost in the noise of these other trends.

What is detectable is that BC’s economy has roughly matched the Canadian economy overall in GDP growth; the economy has done just fine.

Original Sightline Institute graphic, available under our free use policy.

Original Sightline Institute graphic, available under our free use policy.

3.    Pricing carbon has not caused inflation.

Will raising fossil-fuel prices drive up the price of everything else, triggering inflation the way that the oil price spikes of the 1970s did? No. On inflation, BC has done no worse than Canada overall. As the chart shows, inflation was lower in British Columbia than in Canada as a whole in 2007, before the tax shift started, and it has stayed lower ever since, neatly paralleling the national average a portion of a percentage point lower.

Original Sightline Institute graphic, available under our free use policy.

Original Sightline Institute graphic, available under our free use policy.

4.    The carbon tax shift has been revenue neutral.

By law, carbon tax revenue must go back to citizens and companies as tax cuts (see page 64): “tax reductions must be provided that fully return the estimated revenue from the carbon tax to taxpayers in each fiscal year.” In practice, the tax shift has actually reduced tax revenue slightly overall: the carbon tax raised $1.1 billion in the fiscal year ending in 2013, for example, but offsetting tax cuts lowered other treasury receipts by $1.4 billion.

This chart shows revenues for the first six years of the program, during which net revenue declined by $700 million. The goal of the policy was not to reduce revenue, but the province has overestimated carbon tax revenue and therefore reduced other taxes by more than necessary to maintain revenue-neutrality.

Original Sightline Institute graphic, available under our free use policy.

Original Sightline Institute graphic, available under our free use policy.

5.    BC’s carbon tax shift is not perfect.

BC’s carbon pricing system has flaws.

First, although BC’s carbon tax shift made low-income families whole in its early years, it has since become mildly regressive. An expansion of tax credits for working families would make them whole again.

Second, the carbon tax shift is not likely to get the province all the way to its ambitious emissions reductions goals for the later years of this decade. In fact, carbon tax revenues (and the associated carbon emissions) are expected to begin rising now that the carbon price has stopped stepping upward each year to counteract the effects of population growth and economic growth.

Third, the value of offsetting tax reductions is expected to grow faster than are carbon tax revenue. In other words, the shift is yielding a revenue gap that’s gradually growing.

All three of these issues could be addressed by returning to annual $5 per ton increases in the tax rate. This would help keep carbon pollution on a downward trajectory and at the same time would generate additional revenues that could be split between closing the revenue gap and providing additional tax reductions for low-income households.

Still, BC’s carbon pricing system is the best in North America and probably the world. The province has finished the nitty-gritty work of drafting statutes and regulations to implement the system. Oregon and Washington could do worse than to copy them, word for word, into their tax codes, then make adjustments needed to match circumstances. (Washington, for example, cannot rebate the carbon tax revenue through its income tax, because it does not have one. Instead, it could reduce sales and business taxes and provide rebates to low-income families, perhaps through the Working Families Rebate.)


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  1. Rick Barnett says:

    I fully support carbon tax if the goal is to increase the tax until emissions are significantly decreased.
    While policy changes like this are good, the net results are very difficult to accurately measure, due to all the factors that influence emissions.
    So, to the side of this and other important political/policy battles (like pipelines), i think we need something that actually reduces emissions “on the ground”,today.
    Not sure if it will show up hot, but this link is the first in a series of articles I’m writing about a non-policy option, that would go well alongside your support for low carbon policy:
    If you like it, i’d be happy to send the others.

  2. Lee James says:

    This is a wonderful summary of the B.C. carbon tax history and performance.

    I very much appreciate your effort to account for other events in Canada, such as fuel-switching, after the carbon tax was enacted in B.C. in 2007.

    One variable that I have been mindful of is the great difference between the Province of Alberta and the rest of Canada. I have always felt that including Alberta data with “Canada” confounds things because Alberta’s population is relatively low, and industrial fossil fuel consumption is so very high. I hope that my attempt to show historic and projected data from a published Canadian table on GHG emissions, for the provinces of B.C. and Alberta, will show up OK below:

    Table 18 – Provincial and territorial GHG emissions: 2005 to 2020 (Mt CO2e)

    2005 2011 2020 Change: 2005 to 2020

    British Columbia: 64 59 64 change: 0
    Alberta: 232 246 295 change: 63

    My tendency is to want to compare B.C.’s emissions performance to the rest of Canada, less Alberta.

    Thank you, Sightline, for your very important work seeking to understand outcomes from implementing B.C.’s revenue-neutral carbon tax. I agree that the B.C. tax is currently the best model and path-finding experiment that we have.

  3. Ed Newbold says:

    Thank you that was a tremendously helpful article. I haven’t done a search and could be wrong, but it seems that the press and media in the US, including NPR, have almost completely ignored this story.

  4. jan freed says:

    A recent study by the prestigious group REMI says a national carbon fee (and dividend with 100% going to households) would reduce emissions 50%, add 80 B dollars to GDP, create 3 million jobs, save over 200,000 lives in 20 years.

  5. Vern Cornell says:

    Pollution from “emissions”… Is usually looked upon as S, NItrogen Oxides, Mercury, etc.
    And these are well controlled.
    But now CO2 is included as a ‘pollutant’…why?
    The increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide in 200 years, some 33 percent, has really
    greened this planet….300ppm to 400.
    This has helped mankind…yes?
    So let us clear the foolish idea, belief?, that it is something bad…
    It’s not..
    It benefits.
    So we should produce more!

  6. George Boehm says:

    Why the increase in fossil fuel consumption between 2009-2010?
    It leads to simple conclusion, decline in fossil fuel consumption is more related to price of fuel than carbon tax. All you have to increase the price of fuel by 50% and consumption would come down!

    So why the complexity of carbon tax, when polluters will just add it cost of doing business and public will pay as it always does. All you are doing is rob Peter to pay Paul, at the end only people reducing their driving needs are those on fixed income who can not afford it. That is making them a second class citizens.

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