Solar energy could provide an affordable source of power for the increasingly power-hungry digital technology industry. This article discusses the environmental tax, digital technology, and solar energy policies of the countries that are the world’s six largest carbon dioxide (CO2) emitters. Multinational corporations should pay attention to environmental tax policy because in the past two years there has been a particularly strong increase in corporate internal carbon pricing initiatives in China, Japan, Mexico, and the U.S. Companies that haven’t yet adopted an internal price/tax will soon have to do so, as investors demand more and more insight into the risks of climate disruption, according to the 2019 Status Report prepared by the Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures (TCFD).
New digital technologies could replace a majority of jobs and necessitate very high consumptions of electric energy—currently produced with coal and fossil fuels with adverse environmental effects. According to the study The Carbon Footprint of Bitcoin, from Technical University of Munich and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, cryptocurrency mining alone generates about 22 megatons in CO2 emissions each year.
Society is now entering what is known as the Fourth Industrial Revolution, which is witnessing the implementation of several emerging technologies worldwide, including:
- Digitization of money;
- Blockchain technology; and
- Artificial intelligence (AI).
With global energy demands continually increasing, pushing CO2 emission to its highest levels in history, methods of generating large quantities of clean energy have become a survival concern. A report issued by LUT University in Finland and the Energy Watch Group (EWG) in Germany states that transitioning to green energy—69% solar—can be accomplished globally, in an economically competitive way, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the energy system to zero by 2050. Among other important options, solar power satellite (SPS) systems remains one of the most-promising, but as yet largely undeveloped options to accomplish this goal, as explained in New Developments in Space Solar Power, by John C. Mankins. Nevertheless, switching to green energy will necessitate removing the technological/infrastructural, financial, and regulatory/tax policy barriers.
Solar Power Satellite (SPS) Systems
In 1968, the concept for SPS technology emerged when aerospace engineer Peter Glaser published the first technical article—“Power from the Sun: Its Future”—in the journal Science, where he described collecting solar power in outer space via Solar photovoltaic (PV) technology (which converts light into electrical current) cells on a satellite system at geosynchronous orbit where the sunlight is available almost continuously (more than 99.8% of the time each year) that would be capable of converting sunlight directly into electricity and distributing it to Earth via a wireless transmission system to a receiver. There are two potentially viable options: laser and microwave beams. According to a NRL 2009 research report, SPS offers one of several possible solutions to the energy independence and dominance of the U.S. and its military, but there remain significant system risks in many areas.
Unlike land-based solar power, which has been inefficient due to atmospheric, day-night light interference, SPS could harnesses the sun’s energy 24 hours a day, working not only when there is daylight, but also at night, during rain or snow, and even on cloudy days. For these reasons, the SPS concept initially attracted much attention during the 1970s when the cost of solar power dropped from $300 to $20 per watt, in stark contrast to soaring fossil fuel prices due to problems in the Middle East. At the time, NASA technical reports indicated that the SPS concept was technically feasible, but economically still unrealistic, so the U.S. government and its agencies cut funding for PV research during the 1980s, ending the collaboration with business as well as educational institutions. Another hurdle for space solar includes the lack of an existing regulatory framework for wireless power transmission, particularly for microwave.
The International Academy of Astronautics completed the First International Assessment of SPS during 2008-2011, involving diverse subject matter experts from 10 countries, and concluded SPS is technically feasible and might be realized in as little as 10-15 years.
While SPS is yet to electrify terrestrial grids, ground-based solar energy has been making an important contribution to the future energy mix.
Terrestrial Ground-Based Solar Energy
Starting in the 1980s, Japanese manufacturers began incorporating solar PV cells into electronic applications in various areas. Up until 1996, the U.S. was still the leader of installed PVs. But from the late 1990s, Japan became the world’s leader of produced solar electricity until 2005, when Germany took the lead with its Energiewende solar roof project. In 2015, China surpassed Germany to become the world’s largest producer of photovoltaic power based on its 2011 five-year-plan for energy production, and in 2017 became the first country to surpass the 100 GW of installed capacity.
Worldwide growth of solar PV has been close to exponential since 1992, increasing manufacturing scale, and making solar energy more reliable and cost-efficient than virtually all other energy sources. It has enabled more than 100 developing countries to expand their solar capacities, contributing 20% of power generation in 2017. Renewables now cover one-third of the power mix in Europe, one-fourth in China, and one-sixth in the U.S., India, and Japan. For example, utility-scale solar farms in India generate solar energy for 3 to 4 cents a watt.
GLOBAL ENVIRONMENTAL TAX POLICY
Environmental tax is used as an economic instrument to address environmental problems by taxing activities that burden the environment (direct carbon tax), or by providing incentives to lessen environmental burdens and preserve the environmental activities (tax credits, subsidies). It is used as part of a market-based climate policy that was pioneered in the U.S., which also includes cap-and-trade energy emission allowance trading programs that attempt to limit emissions by putting a cap and price on them.
Environmental taxes are designed to internalize environmental costs and provide economic incentives for people and businesses to promote ecologically sustainable activities such as reducing CO2 emissions, promoting green growth, and fighting climate change via innovation. Some governments make use of them to integrate climate and environmental costs into prices to reduce excessive emissions, while raising revenue to fund vital government services.
Under a carbon tax regime, the government sets a price that emitters must pay for each ton of greenhouse gas emissions they emit so that businesses and consumers will take necessary steps, such as switching fuels or adopting new technologies, to reduce their emissions to avoid paying the tax. These taxes are favored because assigning a fee to CO2 pollution is administratively simple compared to addressing climate change by setting, monitoring, and enforcing caps on greenhouse gas emissions and regulating emissions of the energy-generation sector. Environmental taxes include energy taxes, transport taxes, pollution taxes, and resources taxes.
According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), greater reliance on environmental taxation is needed to strengthen global efforts to tackle the principal source of both greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution. Outside of road transport, 81% of CO2 emissions are untaxed and tax rates are below the low-end estimate of climate costs for 97% of emissions. Coal, characterized by high levels of harmful emissions and accounting for almost half of carbon emissions from energy use in the 42 countries, is taxed at the lowest rates or goes untaxed. Only 40 governments out of 197 that have signed on to the first legally binding UNFCCC’s 2015 Paris Agreement have adopted some sort of price on hydrocarbon, either through direct taxes on fossil fuels or through cap-and-trade programs.
Carbon taxes have been implemented in 29 jurisdictions out of 197 that have signed on to Paris Agreement. A Scandinavian wave starting in the early 1990s saw carbon taxes legislated in Denmark, Finland, Norway, and Sweden, among other countries. A second wave in the mid-2000s saw carbon taxes put in place in Switzerland, Iceland, Ireland, Japan, Mexico, Portugal, and the UK. In 2019, Canada, Argentina, South Africa, and Singapore implemented a carbon tax. These carbon tax rates range from $1-$139 per ton.
According to the Report of the High-Level Commission of Carbon Prices, a carbon price/tax of between $50-$100 per ton would need to be implemented by signatories to deliver on Paris Agreement commitments by 2030.
Through tax credits, subsidies, and other business incentives, governments can encourage companies to engage in behaviors and develop technologies that can reduce CO2 emissions. Just as tax credits for fossil fuel energy sources have enabled growth and development, the renewable energy tax credits are incentives for development and deployment of renewable energy technologies. These credits could combat the use of fossil fuels. For example, a new study by the Overseas Development Institute, G20 coal subsidies: tracking government support to a fading industry, suggests that coal subsidies have increased threefold since the Paris Agreement, even though it commits its signatories to hold global warming to well below two degrees Celsius through significant greenhouse emission cuts.
According to the IMF, as well as the International Energy Agency (IEA), the elimination of fossil fuel subsidies worldwide would be one of the most effective ways of reducing greenhouse gases and battling global warming. In 2009, G20 countries pledged to phase out “inefficient fossil fuel subsidies.” This might require coordination by the OECD and integrated implementation because of regulation at the World Trade Organization in light of globalization and increased interconnectedness of energy and environmental policies via the Paris Agreement.
ENVIRONMENTAL TAX AND SOLAR ENERGY POLICIES OF TOP SIX C02 EMITTERS
The world’s top six CO2 emitters together contributed to 69% of the world’s CO2 emissions and are also the top six that provided the largest hydrocarbon industry subsidies. According to the study Global Fossil Fuel Subsidies Remain Large: An Update Based on Country-Level Estimates, conducted by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), subsidies to the hydrocarbon industry accounted for 85% of global subsidies of $4.7 trillion (6.3% of global GDP) in 2015, and were projected at $5.2 trillion (6.5% of GDP) in 2017. All six countries have major cryptocurrency/blockchain as well as SPS initiatives. The following is an overview of their environmental tax, digital technology, and solar energy policies.
Environmental Tax Policy: China is the world’s most populous country and number one in CO2 emissions as well as coal consumption. It is number two in the consumption of oil products, and number three in natural gas consumption. It taxes 8% of CO2 emissions from energy use.
According to the IMF report, China ranks number one in subsidies to the hydrocarbon industry at $1.4 trillion, and third in the world in terms of total coal reserves behind the U.S. and Russia. Fossil subsidies are used as a tool to influence the energy mix and energy prices in China as well as in coal-fueled electricity plants across Belt and Road initiative (BRI) countries where China is making loans and investments.
Digital Technology Policy: China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is a massive free-trade plan involving more than 100 other countries spread across Asia, Europe, Africa, and South America. It involves the pursuit of innovation-driven development and cooperation with the partner countries in frontier areas—such as the digital economy and artificial intelligence—to create a space-based digital silk road of the 21st century. Chinese President Xi Jinping has publicly endorsed cross-border blockchain technology and included it as part of state-level policy. As a result, China is at the forefront of efforts to revolutionize a new digital blockchain-based mobile cross-border payment system that is heavily fueled by coal in China and BRI countries. Already, traders on this 21st century digital Silk Road are sending payments from Hong Kong to the Philippines in mere seconds using blockchain-based, cross-border, mobile digital wallets from Chinese tech giants, including Ant Financials’ Alipay and Tencent Holdings Ltd.’s WeChat Pay, which collectively have 1.5 billion users.
Solar Energy Policy: China is determined to shift to a low-carbon economy by committing to reach the peak of CO2 emissions around 2030 and to phase out inefficient fossil fuel subsidies. With the U.S. pulling out of the UNFCCC Paris Agreement, China clenched the mantle of world leadership on climate change. Accordingly, China’s choice between coal and solar energy is likely to have an impactful and lasting effect on global warming.
Since 2013, China has been the world’s leading installer of solar photovoltaics (PV). In 2015, it became the world’s largest producer of photovoltaic power, narrowly surpassing Germany. China launched the largest floating solar energy plant in the province of Anhui. Up until June 2019, China held the record for largest operational solar project at Tengger, which was overtaken by a larger solar plant—Noor Abu Dhabi—built in United Arab Emirates in a joint venture between the Abu Dhabi Government and a consortium of Japan’s Marubeni Corp and China’s Jinko Solar Holding.
On Nov. 2, 2012, the China National Space Agency (CNSA) proposed a space collaboration with India Space Research Organization (ISRO) that includes building an SPS by 2030, and a commercial-scale solar power plant in space by 2050. A receiving station will be built in Xian—the regional space hub—to develop the world’s first SPS power farm.
Environmental Tax Policy: The U.S. is the world’s number two in CO2 emission, owing 84% of its greenhouse gas emissions to fossil fuels. In 2017, the U.S. pulled out of the Paris Agreement and does not impose a federal carbon tax (although Boulder, Colo., implemented a carbon tax in 2006).
According to the IMF report, the U.S. ranks number two in subsidies to the hydrocarbon industry at $649 billion and is number one in the world in terms of total coal reserves, which are larger than remaining natural gas and oil resources. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, in stark contrast, 2016 subsidies for renewable energy totaled $6.7 billion, dropping 56% from 2013 levels. About 80% (or $5.6 billion) of the 2016 renewables subsidies came in the form of tax breaks, half of which went to biofuels like ethanol and biodiesel, while the other half benefited wind and solar in the form of tax credits that are set to expire at the end of 2021, although a permanent 10% investment tax credit for solar and geothermal installations will remain.
Digital Technology Policy: The U.S. is in the forefront of blockchain and AI technology adoption both by the government and private industry. Facebook, with 2.7 billion users, has recently announced that it will issue a cryptocurrency named “Libra” that could compete with China’s blockchain-based mobile payment system. JP Morgan Chase has announced that it will be issuing a settlement cryptocurrency coin and Clearway Energy Group is launching a pilot program for trading renewable energy credits on a blockchain.
Solar Energy Policy: Renewable projects in the U.S. are expected to benefit from state-level policies for distributed solar panels in the coming years. The world’s largest renewable energy company Nextera forecasts that even without tax support, the declining costs of renewable technologies combined with battery storage will still be lower than the cost of production for existing coal and nuclear, and will compete with natural gas, post-2023, at $30 to $40 per watt.
In 2017, during the height of the cryptocurrency bull market, the use of SPS systems was proposed to electrify cryptocurrency mining to cut down on CO2 emissions. This proposal came ahead of scientists from the California Institute of Technology announcement that they had succeeded in creating a prototype capable of harnessing and transmitting solar energy from space to Earth as the cryptocurrency market crashed in the beginning of 2018. Other new technologies being developed in this area include in-space assembly. Given that the U.S. launched the world’s first Solar Probe—Parker—on Aug. 13, 2018, a NASA spokeswoman said that they are studying SPS for several advanced power and energy technologies to enable long-duration human exploration of the Moon and Mars, and support astronauts, rovers, and surface operations. Recently with the first picture of a black hole being published, the future may even entail using solar energy to explore black holes for alternate energy sources.
Environmental Tax Policy: The European Union is the world’s number three producer of CO2 emissions. Fossil fuels provided the 28 Eurpean Union (EU) nations and Norway more than 400 billion euros ($450 billion) in gas and oil taxation revenues in 2017, according to the report Update on Energy Taxation and Subsidies in Europe: An Analysis of Government Revenues from and Support Measures for Fossil Fuels and Renewables in the EU and Norway, by the International Association of Oil and Gas Producers.
The EU ranks number four in subsidies to the hydrocarbon industry at $289 billion, failing to decrease despite the bloc’s commitment to the Paris Agreement on climate change, which is targeting net-zero emission levels.
Digital Technology Policy: Blockchain will play a key role in this digital transformation of the EU, according to the report Tokenization of physical assets and the impact of IKoT and AI, by Dr. Tim Weingärtner of Lucerne University of Applied Sciences & Arts. For example, EU banks could have a blockchain payment system by 2020, to compete with China’s and the U.S.’ blockchain based payment systems.
Solar Energy Policy: PV solar systems were first mass-produced in 2000, when German environmentalists and the Euro solar organization got government funding for a 10,000-roof program.
Demand for solar energy continued to grow in the EU in the single-digit range during 2018, as China, the world’s largest market, suddenly decided to restructure its incentives scheme to make solar fit for the next growth phase.
The European Space Agency (ESA) has been evaluating the possibilities of SPS and formulating a European strategy along with a satellite fleet to monitor the CO2 level of all countries around the world.
Environmental Tax Policy: India is the world’s second most populous country and fourth-highest CO2 emitter. On July 1, 2010, India introduced a nationwide carbon tax of 50 rupees per ton ($1.07/t) of coal both produced and imported into India. Currently the carbon tax stands at 400 rupees per ton ($5.73/t).
According to the IMF report, India ranks number five in subsidies to the hydrocarbon industry at $209 billion and has an expanding energy deficit—energy consumption in India is the third biggest after China and the U.S. According to the report India’s Energy Transition, by the International Institute of Sustainable Development, India’s subsidies for renewable energy were $2.2 billion for 2017.
Digital Technology Policy: India invests in blockchain technology, including in the payments area, in coordination with banks in the BRICS economic bloc.
Solar Energy Policy: India has an increased focus on developing alternative sources of energy, particularly nuclear, wind, and solar energy, and has become the world’s lowest cost producer of solar power at 3 to 4 cents a watt.
The Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) has partnered with the U.S. National Space Society and China to harness solar energy via SPS. During 2019, ISRO will launch the Aditya (Sanskrit for “sun”)-L1, a satellite designed to study the solar corona.
Environmental Tax Policy: Russia is the world’s fifth-largest producer of CO2 emission. Russia taxes 13% of CO2 emissions from energy use.
According to the IMF report, Russia ranks number three in subsidies to the hydrocarbon industry at $551 billion and holds the world’s largest natural gas reserves (27% of total). It has the second-largest coal reserves, and the eighth-largest oil reserves. Approximately 60% of the subsidies go to natural gas, with the remainder spent on oil extraction and electricity, including renewable power generators.
Digital Technology Policy: Russia considered launching the world’s first multinational cryptocurrency jointly with BRICS and Eurasian Economic Community member countries to reshape their economies by spurring technological innovation for income growth and economic prosperity.
Solar Energy Policy: The country is the sixth largest producer of hydroelectric renewable energy in the world with solar energy being virtually nonexistent.
Russia’s Znamya SPS project began in the late 1980s and consisted of a series of orbital mirror experiments that were intended to beam solar power to Earth by reflecting sunlight to increase the length of a day, with the goal of boosting productivity in farms and cities. On July 14, 2017, the Russian Space Agency (Roscosmos) unsuccessfully launched Mayak satellites that focused the sun’s solar rays onto Earth. Mayak—with a built-in android tracking app—circled the planet at about 600 kilometers (372 miles) at low Earth orbit (LEO) moving in a pole-to-pole orbit.
Environmental Tax Policy: Japan is the world’s sixth largest CO2 emitter. In Oct. 2012, Japan introduced a carbon tax with the goal of taking action to mitigate dangerous climate change. The government plans to use the revenues generated from this tax to finance clean energy and energy saving projects.
According to the NRDC report G7 Fossil Fuel Subsidy Scorecard, Japan was the second-worst performer when it came to reforming fossil fuel subsidies because Japan provides billions in taxpayer dollars for building highly-polluting coal plants in some of the most climate-vulnerable countries overseas alongside China and South Korea.
Digital Technology Policy: Japan is taking ambitious steps to become a worldwide leader in blockchain technology. Japanese megabanks are collaborating with and funding FinTech startups not only in Japan but also in foreign countries. Competing with Chinese, U.S., and EU blockchain payment systems, Mitsubishi UFJ Financial Group (MUFG)—Japan’s largest financial group and the world’s fifth largest bank by assets—is launching a blockchain-based payments network in a joint venture with U.S.-based fintech firm Akamai Technologies to develop the platform by the first half of 2020.
Solar Energy Policy: Japan’s government plans to increase both renewable and nuclear power. Solar, wind, and other non-hydrocarbon renewables produced 10% of Japan’s electricity in 2017, more than triple their production in 2012. The expansion of large-scale solar farms, in particular, has been helped by the green energy law. Japan is the world’s third largest solar energy producer, behind China and the U.S. but ahead of Germany.
The Japan Space Agency’s (JAXA) SPS program started in 2009. It transmitted condensed solar power via wireless power reception antennas in 2015 and has a 35-year roadmap to set up a solar farm that can transmit energy back to Earth by 2030.
Solar energy is a clean, constant, and globally distributable energy supply—unmatched by any Earth-bound source. Switching to clean energy has become a survival concern, so much so that investors, via their investment advisors who manage nearly half the world’s invested capital of more than $34 trillion in assets, are urging the G20 for compliance with the Paris Agreement to save the global economy $160 trillion over a 30-year period. However, transitioning to solar energy from fossil fuels in an economically feasible way may necessitate removing the technological/infrastructural, financial, and regulatory/tax policy barriers in a globally coordinated fashion.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. or its owners.
Selva Ozelli, Esq., CPA is an international tax attorney and CPA who frequently writes about tax, legal, and accounting issues for Tax Notes, Bloomberg Tax, and other publications, plus the OECD.