Policy complementarity and the paradox of carbon pricing

Policy complementarity and the paradox of carbon pricing

Policy complementarity and the paradox of carbon pricing

Michael Grubb, Alexandra Poncia, Paul Drummond, Karsten Neuhoff, Jean-Charles Hourcade


We present an economics framework appropriate to the exceptionally broad scope of the climate change problem. This considers that economic and social processes, particularly those involved in purposive transitions of energy technologies and systems, involve the interplay between three distinct domains of decision-making and associated actors. The first concerns small-scale and often short-term decision-making, much of which reflects extensive ‘satisficing’ and habituation as identified in behavioural economics. Calculated economic optimization decisions, especially of companies in the energy and energy-intensive industries, then best reflect the core assumptions of neoclassical and welfare economics, including discrete market failures. Third, at the largest scale are strategic judgements made by big actors (e.g. governments, large multinational companies) relevant to transformation of complex systems over long periods—particularly concerning innovation and structural changes, for which lessons from theories of evolutionary and institutional economics are most relevant.

Economically, these can be logically mapped in relation to the technology (or more accurately, ‘best practice’) frontier. Each has corresponding policy implications: most directly, respectively in terms of (i) standards and engagement to establish norms; (ii) competitive markets with the critical role of prices; and (iii) strategic investment in innovation and infrastructure. Each faces challenges of implementation and government failure, as observed, for example, with wholly inadequate carbon pricing to date, naïve and ineffective approaches to enhancing energy efficiency, or misdirected support to R&D. Based on the domain distinctions, we argue that the corresponding pillars of policy are naturally complementary, and can be mutually supportive: strong standards and norms on energy efficiency, for example, would enhance the political space for carbon pricing by reducing its direct consumer impacts, while carbon pricing has multiple positive two-way interactions with enhanced low-carbon innovation.

From this we also posit a ‘carbon pricing paradox’: that adequate carbon prices, the central recommendation of most economists, are in most jurisdictions only feasible (or even optimal) if equal analytic and policy attention is devoted to the other pillars, and the wider context of macroeconomic and fiscal policies. Only these other aspects can reduce the absolute cost impact of carbon pricing (potentially turning into a gain) and offer consumers and businesses better lower-carbon alternatives, which are critical to establishing climate-compatible pricing structures across our economies.

Citation: Grubb M., Poncia A., Drummond P., Neuhoff K., Hourcade J-C., Policy complementarity and the paradox of carbon pricing, Oxford Review of Economic Policy, Volume 39, Issue 4, Winter 2023, Pages 711–730

Skip to content