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A carbon tax could have achieved Obama's new climate goals and raised $24 billion a year

John Mueller/Flickr

One frustrating aspect of America's seemingly endemic congressional dysfunction is that we end up with policy results that are worse from all points of view than could be achieve with a more constructive legislature.

Consider the relevant case of the Obama administration's new emissions limits on power plants.

These regulations will aim to cut carbon-dioxide emissions around 25 percent below 2005 levels by 2020. What if you tried to do the same thing with a carbon tax? Michael Levi of the Council on Foreign Relations points out that imposing a $10 per ton tax on carbon-dioxide emissions and raising it gradually to $13 per ton by 2020 would generate a similar reduction in power plant emissions. The difference is the carbon tax would also raise $24 billion per year in tax revenue from those plants.

(Of course, a carbon tax would also produce emissions reductions and tax revenue from other sectors and you could do comparable regulatory analysis for vehicles, industrial uses, etc.)

Pretty much every member of Congress — regardless of what they think about climate change — could think of something they'd like to see done with $24 billion rather than $0. You could cut taxes. Or bolster Social Security's finances. Or invest in clean energy R&D. Or some mixture. But to impose a carbon tax, Congress would need to act. And obviously House Republicans aren't going to vote for a carbon tax, even if the EPA regulations we got instead has all of the same downsides without quite as many upsides.