The evidence for global warming is overwhelming and largely beyond dispute. On the other hand, our industrialized world is highly dependent on the fossil fuels which produce it. This is what makes global warming such a hot political potato. Yesterday the New York Times columnist Eduardo Porter described a carbon tax which has been implemented in British Columbia and has gained wide political acceptance. Its general features are:
It was introduced in 2008 by the Liberal Party which is actually quite conservative. It survived a challenge by the left-leaning New Democratic Party in 2009.
The economy in British Columbia grew faster than its neighbors even as its greenhouse gas emissions declined.
The tax rose from $10 (Canadian) per ton of carbon dioxide in 2008 to $30 (Canadian) in 2012. It raised the cost of a gallon of gasoline by 19 cents (U.S.)
Despite the price increases, voters warmed to the tax. In 2015 only 32% of British Columbians opposed it, down from 47% in 2009.
Every single carbon tax dollar is returned to families and businesses through a variety of tax breaks.
British Columbia’s experience shows that a carbon tax can work in practice. Here are a couple of reasons why such a tax should appeal to a broad political cross spectrum in the U.S.
A properly calibrated carbon price in the United States could effectively replace all the climate-related regulations businesses hate so much, including renewable fuel mandates and President Obama’s Clean Power Plan.
A carbon tax could become part of a broad fiscal overhaul, using the revenue, for example, to offset cuts in payroll taxes.
Conclusion. The rapidly changing climate and weather patterns caused by global warming are a threat to human civilization. Reasonable measures can be taken to mitigate the effects with minimal economic disruption. As the world’s strongest economy and leading superpower, the U.S. should be providing more leadership towards addressing this very serious problem.
The United Nations climate conference has just opened in Paris. The pledges that countries are making fall way short of what many say is needed to solve the problem of climate change. The Deep Decarbonization Pathways Project based in Paris and New York describes what will be needed to get the job done:
The 2 degree C temperature increase benchmark is used even though it is an arbitrary threshold. “Hell is not going to break loose at two degrees – it will take hundreds of years to unfold.” The world has so far warmed .9 degree C since 1880, halfway to the threshold.
The technologies available today, such as solar power and wind turbines, while good enough to get a running start on the transition, are not good enough to finish it.
Many countries will need to keep burning coal or natural gas to generate power while capturing the carbon dioxide emerging from smoke stacks, compressing it and injecting it deep underground. In fact most fossil fuel energy producers do not appear to be putting much effort into this approach.
Governments could easily flub the energy transition by failing to plan far enough ahead. Most countries are setting 10 and 15 year targets that can be met with incremental changes.
To achieve emissions goals, entire economies, including transportation, needs to be electrified as much as possible. Spending a lot of effort, as the U.S. is doing, trying to make gasoline cars more efficient, may be going down a blind alley.
Another potential dead end would be an overreliance on natural gas, which emits only half as much carbon as coal. This helps in the short run but gas has to go away within a few decades. Thus heavy investment in natural gas pipelines and power plants now could undermine long term goals.
The point is that the DDPP, designed to hold a global temperature increase to just 2 degrees C from preindustrial times, is extremely demanding. It will require massive governmental interference in the energy economies of both developed and developing countries all over the world. A far, far better approach is for leading world economies such as the U.S., Western Europe, China and Japan to provide leadership by implementing a tax on carbon emissions and thereby create an economic incentive for the fossil fuel industry to decarbonize itself.
Most people agree that global warming is for real and that it is caused by a buildup of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, mostly from carbon dioxide. We need to respond to this existential threat and the U.S. should lead the way. The Environmental Protection Agency’s new regulations call for a 30% reduction in carbon emissions, from 2005 levels, by 2030. Since fracking has led to a natural gas boom in the U.S. and the burning of natural gas only emits half as much carbon as the burning of coal, it is very likely that the new EPA rules will lead to a major replacement of coal by natural gas in U.S. energy production. But there is a downside to this approach as pointed out in yesterday’s New York Times, “The Potential Downside of Natural Gas,” as follows:
Natural gas is starting to replace nuclear power which has no carbon footprint. Last year five reactors announced that they would close because of the low cost of natural gas. This will increase CO2 in the atmosphere.
Fracking for oil produces natural gas as a side product which may not be easily marketable. This excess natural gas is either burned off or escapes unburned releasing methane which causes even more damage than CO2.
The low cost of natural gas is also slowing down the development of renewable energy sources such as wind and solar power.
A far more efficient system of reducing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere would be to tax its emission from any fuel source. The most commonly mentioned amount is $20 per ton which would raise the price of gasoline by about 10 cents per gallon. This way the use of all forms of fuel, including coal, oil and gas, would be taxed equally based on how much carbon they emit. This would create a huge economic incentive for developing carbon capture in fuel combustion, which is the ultimate solution to eliminating CO2 emissions.
In other words, we have a huge problem on our hands which needs an effective solution. Half measures will not get the job done and will just cause lots of confusion and political controversy in the meantime. It’s time for some real leadership!
A few days ago I made the argument that “we need a carbon tax” because global warming is real and our response to it should not be defaulted to regulatory action by the EPA and individual states acting on their own. Just two days ago the U.S. Global Change Research Program released a voluminous new report, the “Third National Climate Assessment”, giving many examples of how dramatically global warming is already affecting life in the United States as well as all over the world. Perhaps the most direct effect in the U.S. is an increase in average temperatures of almost 2 degrees Fahrenheit since 1900. This means that summers are longer and hotter and that winters are shorter and warmer, on average. Hotter temperatures mean that there is more moisture in the atmosphere and rain comes in heavier downpours. It is going to be harder and harder for doubters to deny the accumulating evidence. Global average temperatures have also increased by almost 2 degrees F in the past century. The most dramatic, and visible, evidence worldwide for climate change is the shrinking of the artic polar icecap measured each year in September. Although the ice extent fluctuates from one year to another, the pattern of decline, as shown below, is clearly evident. A worldwide response is urgently needed and the wealthiest country in the world should step up to the plate and lead the way. A carbon tax does not mean an end to using to using fossil fuels but simply provides a strong incentive, without government picking winners and losers, to cut back on carbon emissions. We can be confident that, with a strong economic incentive, American technology will figure out how to remove carbon from fossil fuels during combustion.
The sooner we begin a program along these lines, the better off we will all be in the very near future as the world continues to get warmer.