Political Climate Change: Why We Need Carbon Taxes

by Lorna Salzman

PRESENT CONDITIONS: The present carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere is 370 parts per million, compared to the pre-industrial level of about 280 parts. According to US and international scientific experts, using a best-case scenario, global annual emissions of carbon dioxide must start declining by 2020 in order to stabilize atmospheric CO2 at 450 parts per million, a level that will still cause ecological upheaval. If the emissions do not start declining until 2033, CO2 concentrations will reach 550 parts per million, almost double the pre-industrial concentration.

ECOLOGICAL IMPACT: Unless greenhouse gases are curbed, peak in 2033 and fall thereafter, there is a high risk that the West Antarctic ice sheet will disintegrate – the worst consequence of global warming - causing sea levels to rise 15 feet or more. Even before that, half the world's population will be living in areas vulnerable to severe weather conditions such as storm and drought cycles, at risk of loss of freshwater supplies, and destruction of coastal-based livelihoods. Already global warming is forcing species to alter their behavior and move into new ranges. Coral reefs are already at risk and are suffering from heat and climate change, and by 2100 will still be at risk of extinction even if emissions are curbed starting in 2020.

THE URGENT NEED TO CURB FOSSIL FUEL USE AND MOVE TO RENEWABLE ENERGY: Emissions from electricity generation and transportation  increased by almost 25% between 1990 and 2000, while carbon sinks (where carbon is absorbed) have absorbed 18% less in this period than before. In 2001, renewable energy use fell by 12% to its lowest level in 12 years.The curbing of fossil fuel use is imperative, with a rapid shift to renewable energy sources such as solar and wind power. Even aside from global warming, the environmental impact of continued fossil fuel exploration such as massive coastal oil spills, destructive deep and surface mining, as well as of dangerous nuclear power, makes this shift a matter of urgency. While some people question the aesthetics and possible impact of offshore wind energy projects, they should understand that all energy production has some impact, and those from fossil fuel and nuclear reactors are vastly greater than those of wind generators, particularly with regard to the threat of climate change, which must be our main concern.

THE BARRIERS TO RENEWABLE ENERGY: Besides bureaucratic inertia and institutional barriers, the underpricing of fossil fuel energy continues to exacerbate the problem of global warming while effectively preventing renewable technologies from competing in a free market. People are almost entirely dependent upon fossil fuels for transportation, the largest user of fossil fuels. Because of the mulitiplicity of fossil fuel uses and political jurisdictions, government regulation is complicated and difficult. Other means must be found to drastically curb fossil fuel combustion and allow renewable energy to develop.

PRICE AS THE KEY TO SLOWING GLOBAL WARMING: Environmentalists and scientists as well as many economists have long favored the internalization of the costs of energy production:environmental, social and  health. Full-cost pricing of energy is the simplest and fairest way to achieve this. Carbon taxes are taxes imposed on all fossil fuels in proportion to the carbon content of the fuel. Coal would be taxed the highest, followed by oil and then by natural gas. The fuel burned by utilities to produce electricity would be taxed and  the cost passed on to consumers in their electric bills. Gasoline prices at the pump would include the carbon tax.

WHY CARBON TAXES ARE EQUITABLE: With taxes on fossil fuels, those who consume the most would pay the most. Those who consume the least would pay the least. Thus, those people owning large houses or SUVs or power boats or several cars would bear, finally, their fair share of the burden and pay more into the carbon tax fund. Those with compact cars or who use bicycles or public transportation would pay less. Carbon taxes are thus equitable and progressive, unlike sales taxes, which are regressive and penalize the poor more than the wealthy.

WHY CARBON TAXES ARE THE MOST PRACTICAL WAY TO SPUR REDUCTION IN ENERGY USE: Attempts to regulate energy efficiency and reduce consumption are only randomly effective and cannot contribute to the urgent need to reduce fossil fuel consumption in the next two decades, the period in which such consumption must be curbed and reversed if we are to mitigate the most serious impacts of global warming. Carbon taxes are the easiest and clearest way to reduce fossil fuel use  and they also conform to the "free market" philosophy of minimal government interference and regulation. They also conform to two other norms: that people pay for the goods or services they want or need, and that The Polluter Pays. In this case, the largest energy consumers are the largest polluters and thus pay the most.

POTENTIAL TAX AND PUBLIC BENEFITS OF CARBON TAXES: Even with an initially modest carbon tax of $37 per ton of carbon (equal to about 10 cents per gallon of gasoline), US CO2 emissions could be reduced by 5% over time, and could raise an estimated $60 billion revenue, equalling the 2004 budget deficits of all fifty states. Over time this tax would be gradually increased, thus bringing in more revenue while allowing the development and application of renewable energy technologies. Carbon taxes could be used in various ways: either returned as tax rebates or credits, or placed in a dedicated fund for things like education, energy efficiency, public transportation, health, etc. Thus, continual funds would be made available for the programs and services most used by the less affluent. They could also substitute for regressive taxes like the sales or property tax, and would, if used to spur renewable energy, create new jobs.

Sources: New York Times; Charles Komanoff, Komanoff Energy Associates; Scientific American; New York Times; The Ecologist

© 2002 Lorna Salzman. All rights reserved. Material may be quoted with permission.