Carbon Pricing: Can We Put a Price on Emissions?

18 minute read

Updated on Sat May 29 2021

Climate change will result in huge costs for future generations. However, future costs are not normally included in the prices of products or services that contribute to climate change (remember negative externalities from chapter 1).

To address this, and to make emission reductions happen, some people suggest that we should put a price on our goods and services that reflect their true cost to society. This is where carbon pricing comes in.

What do we mean when we say “carbon pricing”?

Carbon pricing means businesses that emit carbon dioxide have to pay for those emissions.

This gives producers of CO₂ two options:

  • They can continue emitting as usual and pay up, which increases their costs
  • Or, they can find a way to reduce their emissions and then don’t have to pay
Carbon Pricing

The benefits of carbon pricing

What are the benefits of carbon pricing? Select all that apply.

Pricing carbon can encourage investment and innovation into clean technologies. This is because using polluting technology becomes too expensive due to the additional carbon price cost.

For example, the European Union's Emissions Trading System (a type of carbon pricing) appears to have resulted in an increase in patenting activity in low-carbon technologies.

Carbon pricing has several benefits

There are two main ways of pricing carbon:

  • Implementing a “Carbon Tax”.
  • Creating an “Emissions Trading System”.

Let’s look at these one by one...

Carbon taxes

A carbon tax directly sets a price on carbon dioxide emissions. This means that companies are charged a set amount of money for every tonne of CO₂ that they emit.

Where is carbon pricing used?

The province of British Columbia in Canada is well-known for the way it runs its carbon tax.

How much does British Columbia charge per tonne of CO₂ emitted (as of April 2021)?

$45 per tonne, however, is still not enough if British Columbia seriously wants to reduce their emissions in line with the Paris Agreement.

Charging money for every tonne of carbon emitted results in the prices of goods and services going up. Costs for energy production companies will increase due to the tax they now pay. These companies won’t want to lose profits so are likely to pass on this “extra cost” to consumers by raising electricity prices.

Energy and transport largely rely on fossil fuels, so would bear the brunt of the carbon tax. But because almost all other sectors need energy and transport too, the tax would affect the entire economy.

How is increasing energy prices likely to affect energy demand?

Taxing carbon: the demand effect

As well as decreasing demand for energy, a carbon tax also leads to the substitution of high carbon fuels with cleaner energy sources. This is known as the substitution effect, because individuals substitute more expensive goods for cheaper ones due to the tax.

Taxing carbon: the substitution effect

Both of these effects can reduce CO₂ emissions. However, we need to think carefully about how to design carbon taxes, because they can have negative effects too...

Problems with a Carbon Tax

Although a carbon tax guarantees a price on emissions, it cannot guarantee any specific level of CO₂ reductions. This is because we don’t know whether companies will reduce their emissions, or choose to pay the tax instead.

How much a carbon tax reduces emissions depends on whether it is easy or even possible for people to change their behaviours - and if they want to.

A badly thought-out carbon tax could also make inequality worse, because poorer households have to spend a greater share of their income on heating and energy (which are most affected by the tax).

How can we avoid this?

Money can be given back to poorer households by direct payments or by cutting other taxes for them. This way, carbon taxes can actually help reduce inequalities that would otherwise be made worse by the tax. This type of carbon tax is called a revenue-neutral carbon tax.

A revenue-neutral carbon tax

Carbon taxes can be a relatively cheap way to reduce emissions, but their effects will depend on how they are designed. This may need adjusting for different countries, too. So, how else can we put a price on carbon?

Emission trading systems

Emission trading systems
put a limit on the total amount of emissions that can be produced in a certain amount of time.

Companies are then given or sold carbon permits that allow them to release a certain amount of CO₂.

What happens if a company produces more emissions than it has permits for?

If a company expects to produce more emissions than they have permits for, they have to purchase extra permits from other companies. Companies producing fewer emissions than their permits allow can sell their permits to other companies that emit more.

This is why the system is also known as ‘cap-and-trade’: the total emissions are capped and companies can trade the permits between each other.

The total number of permits available can go down year by year, gradually reducing emissions in line with international agreements.

Emissions trading systems

Unlike the carbon tax, carbon permits do not have a fixed price; instead, they depend on the balance between supply and demand. Supply is the number of ‘carbon permits’ available for sale, while demand is the total emissions being produced. This means that the price can go up and down.

This changing price of carbon permits might be a problem: if the price is too low, companies can easily buy more permits rather than reducing their emissions.

Emission reductions also might not happen if the limit on emissions is set too high. This happened with the EU trading scheme back in 2005.

However, provided the limit is chosen well, an emissions trading system is a good way to make sure that emissions reductions will happen. Unlike the carbon tax, this is guaranteed because of the limit on the number of carbon permits available.


So, carbon pricing is one way to include the cost of CO₂ emissions in our economic system. Both carbon taxes and emission trading schemes can actually be implemented simultaneously.

However, it is not easy to implement due to the need for companies to accurately monitor and report their emissions. These reports also need checking by another organisation (so companies don’t cheat), all of which needs money and people.

Money raised from carbon pricing should be used to develop clean technologies and to make sure inequality is not increased by the pricing.

As with all the policies we have looked at in this course, a carbon tax will only be part of the solution. We will still need improvements in technology, green investment and plans for emission reductions too. Nonetheless, putting a price on carbon is an efficient way to help achieve targets to reduce emissions.

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