Make the Alberta Carbon Levy Revenue Neutral

  • Kenneth J. McKenzie University of Calgary


The new carbon levy of $30 per tonne, announced in November 2015 as part of the report issued by the Alberta government’s Climate Leadership Panel, is a positive move in the direction of pricing carbon emissions. The levy is expected to generate $3 billion in net revenue by 2018, and possibly as much as $5 billion by 2030.  While there is some discussion in the report of what should be done with the revenues generated by the carbon levy, it is somewhat vague on the details, leaving a number of options open to the government. The purpose of this briefing paper is to argue that the revenues from the carbon levy should be used to lower existing taxes – the carbon tax should be revenue neutral, generating no new net revenue for the government. The basic argument is that the carbon levy can be viewed through two lenses. The first lens is the imposition of a price on carbon emissions which (at least partly) reflects the social costs of emissions. Viewed through this price lens, the carbon levy plays an important role in incenting firms and individuals to change their behaviour and move towards less carbon intensive activities. The second lens is the role of a carbon tax as a part of the broad revenue system. Viewed through this tax lens, a carbon tax is not a very good, or efficient, way of generating revenue. The reason for this is somewhat nuanced, but the basic idea is that the carbon tax is applied to a narrower base than broader-based taxes. Broad based taxes generally impose lower costs on the economy than narrow based taxes. Moreover, carbon taxes interact with other taxes in the economy, exacerbating the economic costs associated with those taxes. And those costs are quite high – research shows that the total cost to the economy of raising an additional $1 in revenue through the corporate income tax in Alberta is $3.79; for the personal income tax the cost is $1.71. These taxes therefore impose higher costs on the economy than they raise in revenue. Swapping revenue from the carbon levy for these taxes in a revenue neutral manner would lower these costs, generating a substantial return to the provincial economy relative to other uses. If the government wants to fund other priority areas – be it public infrastructure, investment in complementary initiatives to reduce emissions, or even deficit reduction – it is better to finance these initiatives through more efficient and less costly taxes than a carbon tax. The basic approach advocated here is as follows: price emissions appropriately by way of a carbon levy, use the revenue to reduce existing taxes in a revenue-neutral manner, evaluate the benefits of spending money on other initiatives, and finance those initiatives using the least costly configuration of taxes possible (subject to equity considerations).


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Briefing Papers