Carbon revenues

In 2017, governments raised over $30 billion in carbon pricing revenues—from allowance auctions, direct payments to meet compliance obligations, and carbon tax receipts. This revenue represents a 50 percent increase compared to 2016 receipts. Part of this substantial increase was due to auction revenues from the newly launched emission trading scheme in Ontario, Canada, and income from new carbon taxes in Alberta, Canada; Chile, and Colombia. Other sources included a larger number of allowances bought at auctions in California combined with higher auction sale prices, the increase in the European EUA price, and the carbon tax rate hike in France.[1]

However, there is an important difference between the two methods of setting a price on carbon: much more revenue is generated from carbon tax policies than from cap-and-trade schemes.[2]

Carbon revenues are generally disbursed in three different ways:

Green spending, where revenues are invested in energy efficiency measures and renewable energy initiatives, as well as programs intended to reduce greenhouse gas emissions related to agriculture and forestry, landfill management, electric and other zero emission vehicles and mass transit. 

General funds, where governments disburse carbon revenues on programs unrelated to emissions reductions or adaptation to climate change impacts

Revenue recycling, where carbon revenues are directly returned to some part of the population through individual or business tax cuts or rebates in order to offset the negative impacts of higher energy costs.

How governments spend their carbon revenues differs quite markedly.  The table below shows data from 2013/2014 for several major jurisdictions.[3]


Several countries and jurisdictions invested all their carbon pricing revenues into green initiatives: among them Quebec, France and Japan.  At the other end of the scale, British Columbia recycled all revenue back to households and businesses—even adding in a bit more for good measure. Iceland directed all carbon revenue into general funds. [4]

The case of Australia is instructive. In 2014, that country’s carbon tax had the world’s largest overall pool of revenues ($8.8 billion) but also the largest per capita burden of any tax ($391 annually). The carbon price was set at $30 per tonne of CO2, but this reasonable price, coupled with the country’s high coal-fired greenhouse gas emission intensity, together with an overnight launch and the fact that carbon taxes generate revenue from the full range of emissions, meant that Australia’s carbon tax system resulted in an economic shock greater than other similar carbon pricing systems. Even though more than half the revenue was earmarked for recycling, the tax was unpopular.  Repealing the carbon tax was therefore a major element of the opposition party’s campaign platform and the tax was eventually cancelled.[5]

The turmoil in Australia over carbon pricing continued into 2018. In August, prime minister Malcolm Turnbull was forced out of office after proposing “modest emission targets” for the country’s energy sector—which is heavily dependent on coal. Australia is one of the world’s top coal exporters, accounting for almost 40% of global exports.[6]

The Australian experience underscores the political difficulty of introducing carbon pricing in some jurisdictions unless careful attention is paid to how it is implemented, its revenue-sharing policy, and its packaging and marketing. In British Columbia, Canada, there was political opposition to the carbon tax, but because it was revenue-neutral, with all the revenue recycled, efforts by opposition political parties to cancel the tax failed.  

In a similar vein, the emissions trading scheme operating in Ontario, Canada, in collaboration with Quebec and California, was cancelled in 2018 when the provincial government changed hands.   Justifying the cancellation of the program, the new provincial Environment Minister, Rod Phillips, stated: “We’re sending a clear message: Ontario’s carbon-tax era is over.  It’s a punishing, regressive tax that forces low- and middle-income families to pay more.” [7]

One result of the cancelation of Ontario’s cap-and trade program was that the province’s $377 million (CAD) Green Ontario Fund—which supported energy efficiency measures and promoted electric vehicles–was immediately closed down.


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For more information check out these sources:

[1] State and Trends of Carbon Pricing 2018. World Bank Group. Available at //hdl.handle.net/10986/29687/
[2] See : Tracking global carbon revenues: A survey of carbon taxes versus cap-and-trade in the real world.. Science Direct.  //www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0301421516302531?via%3Dihub
[3] Ibid
[4] Note that the data are from 2013 or FY 2013/14 and so are to some extent out of date, although the revenue disbursement policies may still be applicable. Percentages do not always add up to 100% because the spending categories are not comprehensive, and annual revenue budgeting may not match annual revenue.
[5] Since 2016, Australia has a policy called Direct Action, which provides financial incentives for polluters to reduce emissions through the Emissions Reduction Fund. See: //www.abc.net.au/news/2016-12-05/the-carbon-pricing-debate-explained/8092506 .
[6] See: Australian prime minister ousted over climate policy.  At: //www.ecowatch.com/australia-prime-minister-climate-policy-2598685521.html/
[7] See the Toronto Star, July 26, 2018. Page A4
[8] UN Environment Programme Emissions Gap Report 2018. Available at: //www.unenvironment.org/resources/emissions-gap-report-2018 .