One intriguing form of carbon pricing that is being bandied about is the ‘tax and dividend’ approach. The idea is this: everybody pays a carbon tax on fuels and emitting activities. All the money is collected in a fund and redistributed evenly back to all taxpayers. As such, anyone who buys emits more than the mean quantity of carbon becomes a net payer and everyone who emits less actually gets back more than they pay. As mean emissions fall, so does the equivalence level of emissions – the point where you get back exactly what you paid.
For example, let’s imagine a tax that starts at a relatively modest $20 per tonne of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e). The mean Canadian produces about 23 tonnes of carbon a year, meaning they would pay $460 in carbon tax that year. That being said, the mean Canadian would also get back $460 as a dividend. A Canadian who is really trying (not flying, not eating meat, living in an efficient home, not driving, etc) might have much more modest emissions: say, 6 tonnes a year. They would pay $120 in carbon taxes and get back $460 – a nice ‘thank you’ for living a life that does less harm to others. Of course, someone who flies trans-Atlantically several times a year might end up paying significantly more in tax than they get back as a dividend.
Now say it is ten years on. The price of carbon has risen to $50 per tonne of CO2e and mean emissions per person have fallen by 25%. The break-even point is now 17.25 tonnes of carbon. As a result, someone who has not changed their lifestyle is now paying (23 – 17.25) * $50 or $287.50 a year in carbon taxes. If the 6 tonne person also managed a 25% cut, they would be earning (17.25 – 4.5) * $50 or $637.50 more in dividends than they paid in taxes.
These numbers are purely illustrative. It is possible that the per-tonne carbon taxes could be lower, and also possible that they would need to be much higher. In whatever case, the structure of the approach should be clear.
The approach has much to recommend it. For one, it is likely to enjoy the support of those already living relatively green lifestyles. For another, it has similar incentive effects to other carbon pricing schemes. It would encourage people to minimize or forego things with a heavy carbon burden, as well as make them more willing to invest in capital and technology that will reduce their carbon footprint.