Climate, Environment, and the IMF
April 17, 2017
Stabilizing atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases will require a radical transformation of the global energy system over coming decades. Fiscal instruments (carbon taxes or similar) are the most effective policies for reflecting environmental costs in energy prices and promoting development of cleaner technologies, while also providing a valuable source of revenue (including, not least, for lowering other tax burdens). Fiscal policies also have a key role to play in addressing other challenges, like building resilience to climate change and reducing local air pollution and urban congestion. Getting energy prices right has large fiscal, environmental, and health benefits at the national level, and need not wait for international action. Low energy prices, fiscal pressures, and emissions mitigation pledges made by 197 parties to the 2015 Paris Agreement create an opportune time for reform.
Climate change has become one of the world’s foremost policy challenges. In line with its mandate and expertise, the IMF focuses on the fiscal, financial, and macroeconomic challenges. The IMF also advises (e.g., through surveillance and technical assistance to member countries) on the appropriate design of carbon pricing and fiscal reforms to promote greener growth more broadly, particularly with regard to getting prices right in energy and transportation systems to reflect environmental costs and building resilience to climate risks.
Broad-based charges on greenhouse gases, such as a carbon tax, are the most effective instruments for encouraging a switch to cleaner fuels and less energy use. Carbon taxes can also raise substantial amounts of government revenue, are a highly practical extension of existing administration for fuel taxes, and can be in countries’ national interests due to domestic health and other co-benefits.
Emissions trading systems are another option, but generally they should be designed to look like taxes through revenue-raising and price stability provisions.
Designing a response
Issues to consider in designing fiscal policies to mitigate climate change include the appropriate tax level and the balance between carbon and other taxes; the treatment of forestry and other non-energy emissions; accompanying technology policies; addressing the impact on vulnerable households and firms; and international coordination (e.g., through carbon price floor arrangements). These and other issues are discussed in the Managing Director’s Statement on the Role of the Fund in Addressing Climate Change; a recent Staff Discussion Note; and IMF books, Fiscal Policy to Mitigate Climate Change: A Guide for Policymakers and Implementing a US Carbon Tax: Challenges and Debates.
Recent IMF papers recommend carbon and coal taxes for China and India on environmental, fiscal, health, and administrative grounds. IMF work is evaluating emissions prices that countries might need to implement the mitigation pledges made in Paris, as well as the broader economic impact of pricing and trade-offs with other instruments. Issues for the COP22 in Marrakech in November 2016 were discussed at a conference and a panel event co-organized by the IMF. And an ongoing initiative seeks to operationalize climate and energy issues in the IMF’s annual Article IV consultations with country authorities.
Climate mitigation policies affect countries’ economic growth, saving and investment levels, capital flows, and exchange rates. But IMF analysis suggests these costs are manageable if policies provide price stability, adjust to new information and changing economic conditions, are implemented broadly and equitably, and are accompanied by broader fiscal reform.
On climate adaptation, the IMF is helping small states and other countries enhance their macroeconomic disaster risk management frameworks, determine the appropriate combination of building buffers and risk transfer via insurance or financial market instruments, and tailor investment and growth to build resilience. The first ‘Climate Change Policy Assessment’ pilot, for Seychelles, is under way in collaboration with the World Bank.
On climate finance, IMF work emphasizes the crucial role of carbon pricing in effectively mobilizing private and public sources of finance, including charges for international aviation and maritime emissions. On green finance, IMF staff has provided input for the G20 Green Finance Study Group, with a focus on implications of green finance for the cost of capital, employment, and growth. On financial sector resilience, IMF staff supports initiatives that encourage consistent climate-related disclosures, prudential requirements, and stress testing (e.g., designing disclosure rules for climate risk exposure, developing best practices for stress-testing climate risks, supporting work on globally consistent prudential requirements for the insurance sector, and capacity building for developing markets and instruments to manage climate risks).
Other environmental work in the IMF
There is also ample scope for reforming tax systems to deal much more effectively with broader environmental and related problems that can be a significant drag on economic growth, such as the health and productivity impact of poor air quality and severe congestion of major urban centers. The key challenges are to restructure existing energy tax systems to directly target the source of environmental harm (e.g., by taxing emissions rather than electricity consumption, or taxing driving on busy roads rather than vehicle sales), to better align tax levels with the scale of environmental harm, and to overcome practical challenges of higher energy and transportation costs.
Earlier IMF papers lay out core principles of green tax design and focus on case studies for Chile and Mauritius. A 2014 IMF report (covering over 150 countries) provides estimates for taxes on fossil fuel products to reflect pollution and other environmental damage associated with energy use, while underscoring the large environmental, health, and fiscal benefits from tax reform. The report also underscores the critical role finance ministries can play in the administration and efficient use of revenues.
A 2015 IMF paper and accompanying spreadsheet tool put the magnitude of subsidies for fossil fuel energy sources at $5.3 trillion worldwide in 2015, including both direct fiscal costs and implicit subsidies from the failure to charge for environmental damages or to tax energy at the same rate as other consumption products. An earlier book draws on case studies to provide practical guidance (e.g., on better targeted instruments commonly available to protect the poor) for implementing energy price reform. In the case of petroleum products, for example, reducing subsidies could significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions in many countries, while at the same time reducing fiscal deficits and improving equity.
Other IMF work explores opportunities for more efficient pricing of water.
For more information on the Fund’s environmental activities see www.imf.org/environment.