Komanoff: The Time Has Never Been More Right for a Carbon Tax (U.S. News)
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Komanoff asks: If efficiency hasn’t cut energy use, then what? (Grist)
Komanoff: Senate Bill Death = Win for Climate (The Nation)
Q&A: Charles Komanoff (Mother Jones)
Editor’s note: On May 31, Vox’s renowned energy-climate blogger David Roberts posted a brilliant distillation of “California Stars,” How California became far more energy-efficient than the rest of the country. Roberts’ post helps explain how California has made energy efficiency and renewables the focal point of the state’s economy, while making clear how far all 50 states still have to go and also placing “California Stars” in the current national political context.
Yesterday the Natural Resources Defense Council released California Stars, my report quantifying and documenting California’s relative success in decarbonizing its economy since the 1970s. I say “relative” because the report’s measure of success involves not one but two relational metrics: carbon reductions relative to economic activity, and California relative to the other 49 states.
California Stars: Lighting the Way to a Clean Energy Future establishes that from 1975 to 2016, the nation’s largest state reduced the fossil fuel inputs needed to support a constant amount of economic activity 18 percent faster than the rest of the country — a difference with enormous climate consequences. Had the other 49 states matched California’s rate of improvement, the report finds, annual emissions of carbon dioxide nationwide would be lower today by nearly 25 percent, or 1,200 million metric tons of CO2 — the equivalent of all carbon pollution from U.S. passenger vehicles.
There’s more about California Stars further below and in a graceful blog post by long-time NRDC attorney and energy strategist Ralph Cavanagh, who oversaw the report. I was principal author, which may come as a surprise to readers who have followed my career of late. For one thing, the report has nothing to do with carbon taxing. Moreover, a decade ago NRDC and I were on opposite sides of an internecine struggle over carbon pricing, with NRDC backing cap-and-trade and me, on behalf of the Carbon Tax Center, insisting on straight-up carbon taxes. More recently, in 2015, in a blog post, What an Energy-Efficiency Hero Gets Wrong about Carbon Taxes, I went to considerable lengths to counter criticisms from an NRDC energy-efficiency superstar that carbon taxing was too blunt an instrument to do much good in cutting down emissions.
All the same, for over 40 years it has been abundantly clear, even from my East Coast perch, that even without a carbon tax, California’s government has steered its economy more assertively toward energy efficiency and renewable energy than has any other U.S. state. (California does have a modest cap-and-trade program.)
Through the California Energy Commission, a first-of-a-kind agency legislated in the last year of Gov. Ronald Reagan’s administration and staffed in Gov. Jerry Brown’s first (1974 and 1975, respectively), California established not just the first efficiency standards for major appliances and buildings but a process for continually updating those standards to align with — and further incubate — technological advances by which cooling, heat and light may be furnished with progressively smaller energy inputs. These policies, along with innovations that enabled electric and gas utilities to bankroll customer “end-use” efficiency investments, later spread to most of the other 49 states, greatly amplifying their single-state impacts. But they took root first and, it appears, most deeply in California.
Needless to say, these policies thrilled me, even from afar. And the policies themselves seemed firmly planted in a statewide culture of energy efficiency and innovation. To be sure, you couldn’t discern that culture in the state’s sprawling subdivisions and freeways, but you could sense it in the passionate conversations about energy that caromed among the policy beehives that were springing up around the state: at the California Energy Commission and the state Department of Natural Resources; at the University of California’s Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory and its Energy Resources Group and at Stanford; at NRDC, which was making efficiency standards sexy not only to other environmentalists but to appliance manufacturers and builders; and at the Environmental Defense Fund, whose pathbreaking analyses were suggesting that investing in efficiency and renewables could make utilities financially stronger.
The font of this activity was Gov. Brown. Whether or not he grasped all of the intricacies — and he probably did — Brown’s personal asceticism and hippie-ish disdain for standard modes of consumption (at least in his first go-round as governor) seemed to furnish the cultural DNA for California’s quiet but consequential energy-policy revolution. This was palpable during my three working trips to the state during Brown’s first term: in 1976 when I campaigned around the state for a ballot measure limiting new reactors; in 1977 when I testified for EDF and NRDC in nuclear power siting cases in San Diego and San Francisco; and in 1978 when I spent a month in Los Angeles with the PhD economist Vince Taylor, workshopping my analyses of cost escalation in nuclear power.
Within a year, that work would catapult me to national prominence, when the Three Mile Island reactor outside Harrisburg, PA melted down and I, providentially, had the computer printouts (regression analyses of the relentlessly rising costs to build nuclear plants throughout the 1970s) that answered the question on the lips of seemingly every energy-journalist in America: what would the TMI accident do to nuclear power economics? Almost overnight, my energy-policy work narrowed to a single-minded focus on nuclear power costs — which ended only when I took up urban-bicycling advocacy near the end of the 1980s.
By the early eighties, then, I had to give up my close watch on California’s energy efficiency progress. Last September, however, with Gov. Brown’s fourth and final term drawing to a close and with climate concern skyrocketing in the U.S., the time seemed right to determine how far California had actually gotten off fossil fuels since the start of that quiet revolution in energy governance in the seventies. CTC intern (and U-Chicago rising sophomore) Rohan Kremer Guha and I dug up California-specific fossil fuel and GDP data and placed it alongside data for the U.S. as a whole, which led to a preliminary version of the table above.
In a nutshell, we found that from 1975 (the approximate start date of that revolution) to 2016 (the most recent year with consistent data):
- California’s use of fossil fuels increased by 23 percent, a bit more than the rate for the rest of the U.S. (20 percent)
- During that same period, California’s economy more than quadrupled in size, far surpassing the other 49 states’ tripling
- Adjusting the first figures by the second, California reduced its use of fossil fuels per unit of GDP by 70 percent; for the rest of the U.S., the reduction rate was 60 percent
The last bullet point led directly to the startling finding reported at the top of this post: Had the other 49 states reduced fossil fuel use relative to economic activity at the same pace as California, nationwide carbon emissions would have been lower in 2016 by 1,200 million metric tons, or 24 percent.
Proof indeed, not just of California’s leadership but of the rest of the country’s sluggishness . . . and of the consequences of the gap between the two. Because of that sluggishness, the U.S. missed a chance to eliminate carbon pollution equivalent to CO2 emissions from all 200 million passenger cars and (light) trucks in the country. I pitched a report built on this analysis to our friends at NRDC, and our collaboration produced this report.
I’ll have more to say soon, not just on the report itself but on what it says about Jerry Brown’s climate record. You can download the report (pdf) directly from NRDC’s Web site and comment on it here via the link just below the headline near the top of this post.
CTC policy associate Bob Narus wrote last month that Carbon Tax Advocates Should Embrace a Green New Deal. Here is his mirror-image brief for including a robust carbon tax in a Green New Deal.
The Green New Deal isn’t a policy yet. Right now, it’s mostly an aspirational slogan and a set of bullet points, which is fine for the moment. There’s time to work out the policy details. But it’s important that a robust carbon tax become one of those bullet points, because without it no deal, no matter how new and green, can do everything we need to do to prevent global climate change from spinning out of control.
Whether a carbon tax is part of the Green New Deal depends on whose Green New Deal you mean. The Data for Progress report, A Green New Deal — essentially Document Zero for the Green New Deal movement — doesn’t endorse a carbon tax but does note that “there is new analysis that a carbon tax will not hamper the economy, particularly as revenues are reinvested smartly in communities.”
The Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez/Ed Markey resolution, H.R. 109/S.R. 59, doesn’t mention a carbon tax, or any other potential source of funding for its ambitious goals, but AOC herself has publicly recognized the need for taxes to internalize the externalities of some industries or markets.
The policy details will fall into place over time. In particular, one hopes the many Democratic presidential candidates who have endorsed a “Green New Deal” will say more about what they mean by that — which policies they would include, what they’ll cost, how to pay for it all.
In short, we will have a national conversation about the Green New Deal. To everyone engaged in that conversation, here’s a quick take on why a carbon tax should be part of it:
1. If you believe the IPCC, we have to do everything.
In its most recent report, the IPCC called for roughly halving (from 2010 levels) world carbon dioxide emissions by 2030. Achieving that in the U.S. would require a 5 percent annual decrease in carbon emissions from fossil fuels, which would quadruple the actual rate of decline from the mid-aughts to 2017 (see technical note at end). And right now we’re going in the wrong direction: The Rhodium Group estimates that U.S. CO2 emissions rose 3.4 percent in 2018.
With a challenge like that ahead of us, we can’t afford to take any option off the table. As I argued recently, a carbon tax alone will not do the job. But neither will anything else. We need to throw everything we’ve got at the climate crisis, and that definitely includes the most economically efficient tool.
2. A carbon tax will make everyone a partner in the effort.
Addressing the climate crisis is going to demand a heavy dose of government intervention in the economy. But it will require more than that. A carbon tax will deliver economy-wide impact, giving every business and household incentives to change how they produce things and what things they buy. Getting the job done will take billions of dollars in public investments and millions of smaller decisions in the marketplace. A carbon tax will make more of the latter happen.
3. A carbon tax can affect industries that are hard to regulate.
There’s no question that performance standards and other regulations must be a major part of climate policy. But not everything lends itself to such regulation. As energy analyst Hal Harvey explained to Vox’s David Roberts late last year:
It’s hard to set a performance standard that works for glass, pulp and paper, steel, chemicals, and so forth. So in those realms, setting a price is a nice way to handle it. Then businesses can simply internalize the costs and make better decisions.
4. A carbon tax makes everything else we need to do easier.
Want to subsidize renewables? Higher fossil fuel prices will allow smaller subsidies to close the cost gap between carbon-based and renewable power. The same amount of spending on subsidies will then bring more renewables online.
Want to incentivize clean energy investments, like energy efficiency? Higher fossil fuel prices shorten the payback period on those investments. Again, we’ll be able to reduce the degree of subsidies or other inducements required to get households and businesses to make those investments.
Carbon taxes can even replace some regulatory efforts. Citizens’ Climate Lobby argues that its fee-and-dividend proposal could reduce emissions in the power sector more and faster than President Obama’s Clean Power Plan proposal. That means regulatory efforts could concentrate instead on sectors, like transportation and buildings, that are less responsive to energy pricing signals than power generation.
5. A carbon tax can affect emissions beyond our borders.
It’s not enough to reduce U.S. emissions. The rest of the world must do its part. (Of course, right now the rest of the world is saying that about us.) A carbon tax with a border adjustment can pressure other countries to impose their own robust carbon pricing measures. The border adjustment adds a fee to imports tied to the level of carbon emissions required to make that product. (This is, admittedly, not an easy thing to do. Adele Morris of The Brookings Institution treats the complications in a policy brief.)
The border adjustment would be waived on imports coming from countries with carbon pricing equivalent to ours. Each country would face a choice: Pay the U.S. a border adjustment on your exports, or pay yourself the equivalent amount via a carbon tax. For countries that export to the U.S. market, that shouldn’t be a hard decision.
6. A carbon tax will raise revenue that can be used for other climate mitigation programs.
A Green New Deal will create lots of jobs primarily by spending lots of money — rebuilding the power grid, subsidizing clean energy, retrofitting buildings, redesigning cities to be less automobile-dependent, creating an infrastructure to recharge electric cars, etc. That money comes from somewhere, and a carbon tax is a logical source of funds — especially a robust tax that would, in the out years, bring in hundreds of billions of dollars per year.
This is only half an argument for a carbon tax, however, because there are reasons based in economic justice to use the revenue differently. Any carbon tax will hit low-income households proportionally harder than high-income ones, and some or all of the revenue ought to be used to offset the tax’s regressive effects. Fortunately, there are many progressive funding streams — including taxes aimed at high incomes, wealth, or financial transactions — for raising the revenue to fund a Green New Deal. But if the only politically practical way to pay for a Green New Deal requires some carbon tax revenue, the revenue will be there.
* * *
A carbon tax was never an easy sell on its own, and it won’t be an easy sell as part of a Green New Deal either. David Leonhardt at The New York Times just posted a good history of its difficult political fortunes, and comes down about where we are:
The better bet seems to be an “all of the above” approach: Organize a climate movement around meaningful policies with a reasonable chance of near-term success, but don’t abandon the hope of carbon pricing. Most climate activists, including those skeptical of a carbon tax, agree about this.
Carbon tax advocates should take this call to heart. Even with a Democratic takeover in 2020 — which is no sure thing — the U.S. is some years away from either a Green New Deal or a carbon tax. We should use that time to make sure the ultimate answer is “both.”
Here’s how we calculated our figures in the first numbered paragraph: CTC’s carbon-tax spreadsheet model (downloadable Excel file) puts U.S. CO2 emissions from fossil fuels at 5,409 million metric tons (MMT) in 2010 and 4,992 MMT in 2017. With Rhodium’s 3.4% one-year increase, emissions were 5,162 MMT in 2018. To cut that to 2,704 MMT (half of 2010 emissions) in 2030 requires a 5.2 percent annual drop (calculated by exponentiating 2704/5409 to the 1/12 power – 12 years – which is 0.948). A similar calculation from 2005 emissions of 5,822 MMT to the 2017 figure of 4,992 MMT yields an average annual drop of 1.3% over those 12 years.
On Monday, The Nation magazine posted “Congestion Pricing Is New York’s Green New Deal,” a piece I co-authored with fellow transit advocate Jeff Blum, casting congestion pricing in New York City as an initial foray of the Green New Deal. Following is the text of the piece, with an addendum instructing Carbon Tax Center subscribers and allies what they can do between now and March 31 — congestion pricing’s legislative deadline — to push the proposal across the finish line in Albany. — C.K.
While the Green New Deal basks in the national spotlight, a different but parallel policy idea is advancing in New York. That is Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s plan for congestion pricing, which will charge motorists to drive in the most car-jammed (and transit-rich) part of the city, Manhattan south of 60th Street.
At first glance the two appear more opposite than related. The Green New Deal is national, congestion pricing is New York-specific. One is expansive, a solar and wind energy-based revitalization of our society and economy. The other seems punitive, making drivers pay for what is now free.
But we believe the two have a great deal in common, both practically and philosophically. Moreover, congestion pricing faces a March 31 legislative deadline to allow initial appropriations for the tolling apparatus to be included in the New York State budget due on that date.
And so we invite Green New Deal adherents — from Massachusetts Sen. Ed Markey and New York Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to the legions of determined climate justice activists who have put the Green New Deal on the political map — to make congestion pricing in New York a stepping stone to the national fight.
To begin, any program to save the climate depends on having cities thrive. Urban residents use only a fraction as much fossil fuels as suburbanites or rural dwellers, not because they are virtuous but because cities, due to their compactness, are inherently lower-carbon. City residents drive less not just because they can take transit but because destinations are close by. Density also dictates that homes and offices use less power and heat. For cities to thrive and grow, automobile traffic must be tamed and restrained, which congestion pricing does with marvelous efficiency.
Congestion pricing shares DNA with the New Deal through emphasis on public investment. Federal spending in the 1930s strung electric wire and conserved the soil, and federally driven investment going forward can decarbonize our economy. In the same way, the congestion toll revenues in New York can pay to modernize the city’s buses and subways — as happened after London adopted congestion pricing in 2003. Thanks to massive transit investment and reappropriation of street space there, nearly 25% more people now enter the center of London daily, mostly on trains, buses and bikes, while car travel speeds have remained stable.
There’s more. Congestion pricing rests upon the Rooseveltian idea to care for the commons — rivers and forests and farmland. Streets and transit are cities’ commons, which America has allowed cars to plunder for a century.
After years of temporizing, transit advocates in New York have finally resolved that the antidote to broken subways and too many automobiles must include charging vehicles to drive in city centers. Both major transit coalitions, the more business-oriented Fix Our Transit and Fix the Subways, led by the impressive grassroots organizing group Riders Alliance, have put congestion pricing at the top of their political agendas. Before long, we predict, Green New Deal supporters will similarly acknowledge that fully unleashing green energy requires a robust carbon tax, not just as a source of funds but to re-set societal defaults, to re-orient incentives and to unlock innovation.
The Markey–Ocasio-Cortez Green New Deal resolution is adamant about labor rights and economic justice. So too is the movement for congestion pricing. New York City’s most venerable anti-poverty advocate, the Community Service Society, examined congestion pricing and found that for each low-wage New Yorker who regularly drives into Manhattan, nearly 40 will benefit from better trains and buses paid for with the congestion-toll revenues. In the same vein, the right-of-center Manhattan Institute concluded last year that extending New York’s decade-long jobs boom depends on massive and effective investment in mass transit to allow immigrant and other workers to access jobs.
These considerations appear to have finally pushed New York’s Mayor Bill de Blasio off the political fence last month to proclaim support for congestion pricing.
The iconic New York progressive centrist Daniel Patrick Moynihan understood this thirty years ago. As a powerful Senate Committee chairman, he found a way to use a portion of federal gas taxes to decouple urban mobility from automobiles, spurring a rise in transit and bicycling and making cities cleaner and more dynamic.
There is this difference, however. Unlike the Green New Deal, which is open-sourced by design, congestion pricing for New York is being finalized by the state’s governor, who seems intent on keeping the toll levels and other key plan details under wraps till the last minute.
Attempts to toll the entrances to Manhattan’s central core have come up short so many times that any leader worth his Machiavelli might rightly presume that iron-fisted control is the only way to get it done. But that approach is out of step with both the current political era and the enormous momentum to pass congestion pricing in the state budget this month and finally cure the dysfunction of the city’s streets and subways that daily afflicts millions.
A fifth of the way into our new century, awareness is spreading of the folly of giving away for free a finite resource, whether it’s the atmosphere’s capacity to remain temperate or Broadway’s five travel lanes through Times Square.
A Green New Deal, like its illustrious antecedent, can start in New York. Today, congestion pricing can revitalize and unsnarl New York’s subways and streets. Tomorrow, a nationwide mobilization can turn our carbon economy green.
Komanoff, an energy and transportation economist, was “re-founder” of the bicycle advocacy group Transportation Alternatives. Blum was founding executive director of USAction and leader of multiple state and national pro-transit campaigns.
Whether you live in NY State or somewhere else, please visit the Fix The Subway campaign to find out how you can donate time, money or both to pass congestion pricing for New York City now. Or, text DELAY to 52886. Remember, the vote for the budget bill that will include initial allocations for congestion pricing is expected between Friday March 29 and Sunday March 31. Thank you.
This post was has been updated to include a video link to Rep. Ocasio-Cortez’s extended conversation with writer Ta-Nehisi Coates and to provide the full quote of her endorsement of externality pricing.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the newly installed Congressmember from parts of Queens and the Bronx in New York City and the Democratic Party’s brightest new star in at least a generation, breathed fresh life into carbon taxing today from the stage of Manhattan’s fabled Riverside Church. Her remarks came during “MLK NOW,” a day celebrating Martin Luther King’s life and work combating militarism, materialism and white supremacy.
The commemoration was held six days after what would have been Dr. King’s 90th birthday, and more than a half-century after King ascended the Riverside pulpit to deliver perhaps his most prophetic speech, Beyond Vietnam. Ocasio-Cortez alluded to the condemnation that rained down on King in the last year of his life for demanding the U.S. end the Vietnam War, saying “King didn’t just sacrifice his life; the way he lived his life was a sacrifice.”
Ocasio-Cortez spoke in an extended on-stage conversation with renowned author and public-intellectual Ta-Nehisi Coates. Their full, 51-minute conversation may be viewed on YouTube (from the 14:00 mark to 1:05:30). Covering a broad range, the two discussed her call to raise the marginal tax rate on high income to 70 percent; “the case for reparations” — a matter that Coates brought to prominence in his 2014 Atlantic Monthly article with that title; and her conviction that what’s immoral about billionaires is not them as individuals but the system that allows and valorizes them.
Toward the end, Ocasio-Cortez steered the conversation to the climate crisis and called for “structuring an economy that is sustainable, where “the externalities of the damage of some industries or markets get internalized.” (at 1:00:56, emphasis added) There, in a nutshell, is the polluter-pays principle that underlies the idea of taxing carbon emissions.
The remark is noteworthy given Ocasio-Cortez’s prominence in advocating a Green New Deal, the idea of a wartime-style mobilization of government and business to build a net-zero-carbon economy over the next decade. We at the Carbon Tax Center believe that a robust carbon tax must be a pillar in any Green New Deal, not just as a “pay-for” but as a means to incentivize the massive changes in behavior, investment and societal defaults necessary to move U.S. society off fossil fuels.
On a personal note, the Riverside Church event was my first time seeing Ocasio-Cortez in person and hearing her speak extemporaneously and at length. What I saw, heard and felt easily surpassed the hype. Throughout her 50 minutes on stage, she came off as grounded, determined, forceful, informed, fluent and thoroughly conversant with the history and vocabulary of U.S. popular protest and social movements. And, somehow, commanding yet modest.
Not long after Ocasio-Cortez began, I whipped out my pen and pad and jotted down some of her most telling sentences as best I could. Here are some, concluding with the “externality” quote.
Activism is part of governance.
People think of elective office as a leadership position [yet] the real leaders are the writers, journalists, activists and artists.
Marginal tax rates are an economic question, but they’re also a moral question.
Where do we draw the line in material excess is a question that King asked, that Gandhi asked.
We think of reparations as repairing the damages of slavery, but it’s also the reparation of the damages from the [exclusionary] New Deal and redlining.
I use social media as much to listen as to speak.
We don’t have to compromise our values to find common ground with other people.
The world is going to end in 12 years [due to climate change] and you’re worried about how we’re going to pay for it?
Until we all start pitching in and holding people accountable, I’m going to let [our enemies] have it.
There was once almost a consensus among our great thinkers [including] Einstein and Dr. King that capitalism had an expiration date.
Democratic Socialism means introducing modes of democracy beyond just elections and throughout the economy . . . structuring an economy that is sustainable, where the externalities of the damage of some industries or markets get internalized.
In bookends to her remarks, Ocasio-Cortez explained why she’s not fearful about taking strong stands. As a Puerto Rican teen in a white suburban high school, she said, she learned not to pay attention when someone tried to put her down. Now, in Congress, she sees herself not as an individual seeking to rise in politics who must practice caution but as a participant in an unstoppable movement to advance democracy and create a just society.
Note: Dr. King’s 1964 speech referenced in my tweet may be found here.
Were the midterms “pretty good for the climate-concerned,” as The Atlantic’s Robinson Meyer said in his election post-mortem? It would seem so, with the 40-seat “blue wave” ushering in Democratic control of the House and an opportunity to restore climate policy and facts to the political agenda. But for carbon taxes in particular? Maybe not so much.
Two contrasting carbon-tax varieties — “revenue-neutral” and “just transition” — were dealt serious beat-downs on Nov. 6. As CTC director Charles Komanoff reported in this space last month, only 20 of the 43 current Republican members of the Climate Solutions Caucus will be returning to Congress next month, an obliteration that dimmed prospects for bipartisan, “fee and dividend” carbon tax legislation. Among the fallen: Caucus-founder Carlos Curbelo (R-FL-25), who lost two percentage points to newcomer Debbie Mucarsel-Powell.
Evidently, the mild climate concern expressed by the vanquished Republicans couldn’t inoculate them from voters determined to put Democrats in charge of the House. In Meyer’s telling, the Climate Solutions Caucus may simply have been inherently unstable. Republicans have to be at least somewhat centrist to want to join the caucus, but the purple districts that might elect centrist Republicans are going to be less secure for Republicans than hard-right districts.
Confounding the obituaries, or perhaps as a last hurrah, the Caucus introduced its first meaningful carbon tax bill in November. As previously reported here, the Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act of 2018 (H.R. 7173), co-sponsored by Reps. Ted Deutch (D-FL-22), Brian Fitzpatrick (R-PA-08), Francis Rooney (R-FL-19), Charlie Crist (D-FL-13) and John Delaney (D-MD-06)), would set an initial tax rate of $15/metric ton, rising briskly by at least $10/tonne annually thereafter. Several weeks later, retiring Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) and returning Sen. Chris Coons (D-DE) introduced an identical bill in the Senate.
At the same time, the similarly aligned Climate Leadership Council is rumored to be building a bipartisan push for its $40/ton “carbon dividend” bill sometime next year. So it may be too early to count out team revenue-neutral.
On the other end of the carbon tax advocacy spectrum, Washington state’s “just-transition”-oriented Initiative 1631, which would have funded a suite of measures for renewable energy, forest protection and worker transition, went down to defeat by a resounding 56%-44%. As a laboratory of democracy, Washington has now performed yeoman service for carbon tax watchers for three years running: the revenue-neutral Initiative 732 was defeated by an even wider margin (59-41) in 2016, and a legislative carbon tax earmarked to fund public schools failed in 2017.
Clearly, no carbon tax faction has yet earned any bragging rights. As reported here, I-1631 had widespread backing from environmental, civil rights and labor organizations, as well as heavy hitters such as Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, Bill Gates and Michael Bloomberg. No matter, that combination proved no match for massive opposition funding bestowed by mostly out-of-state fossil fuel interests, including $12 million from BP, a Climate Leadership Council founding member.
Nevertheless, the midterms are bound to make the overall political environment far more hospitable to climate concerns, as Meyer argues. The question now is how the ascendant Democrats will put their powers to use on climate issues more generally, not just carbon taxes.
Last month, not just the Blue Wave but wildfires, drought and other climate calamities held public attention in much of the U.S. A new generation of activists and incoming Congressmembers began demanding a full-press climate policy agenda that could be enacted once the Trump Administration and its climate-denying allies are put out to pasture.
Hopes were high that House Democrats would use their new position to advance a Green New Deal — the policy rubric prominently advocated by incoming Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and the emerging Sunrise Movement (and that from its earliest conceptions has always included carbon taxation or other carbon pricing). Those hopes receded somewhat last week when their caucus formed a select committee on climate headed by Rep. Kathy Castor (D-FL-14), a 12-year member who hasn’t voiced support for a Green New Deal or any other climate policy idea. (There’s no mention of climate on Castor’s Wikipedia page.)
There also appears to be a growing sense that carbon taxes may belong to an older policy playbook from an earlier, more technocratic era. In that period, a carbon tax could be considered a premier policy tool favored by economists and other well-informed advocates across the political spectrum. Now it may need to take its place as one of an array of options on a newly broadened playing field.
If so, we carbon tax advocates will need to expand our horizons in our search for allies. Rather than “staying in our lane” in the climate change arena, we may need to join a broader discussion that includes issues of tax fairness, efficiency and income inequality. A New Yorker magazine profile of the Sunrise Movement this week notes that “like other activist movements of their generation, they see their cause as inseparable from the broader issues of economic and social inequality.”
Rather than just check the boxes on those issues — as carbon tax organizers did dutifully in both the 2016 and 2018 Washington state initiatives — in the new emergent period of progressive ascendancy we may need to commit our energies to these issues as fully as we do for carbon taxes.
Indeed, it may have been precisely the failure to consider the broader social equity context that doomed France’s recent fossil fuel surcharge at the hands of the Yellow Vests — many of whom express climate concern and engagement but reject being made to bear the brunt of wonky policy measures while their economic betters glide by.
It’s a conundrum as old as environmental policy itself — to do its environmental work, a policy has to work economically but be accepted politically. By making common cause with advocates of economic fairness, as embodied in the Green New Deal movement, we carbon tax proponents may ultimately win a more secure position for carbon taxation than we have done to date.
Such a discussion needs to go beyond the polarized internecine debate among carbon tax proponents over whether such a tax should be revenue-neutral or used to fund new initiatives. It will need to extend into considerations of how the tax functions, whom it impacts as compared to other taxes already in use, and the many ways our society raises revenue for public purposes.
In other words, carbon tax advocacy may have to embody a sweeping re-consideration of current tax and fiscal policies, including an examination of whose interests those policies serve.
Andrew Ratzkin, an attorney and co-chair of the Hastings-on-Hudson Conservation Commission in New York’s Westchester County, is author of the report, Case for a New York Carbon Tax.
This post from Oct. 24 was amended on Oct. 25 to add the map and reference to David Roberts’ Vox post on the Trudeau carbon pricing plan.
The government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau yesterday announced a national carbon pricing plan that it hopes will yield annual CO2 emissions cuts of 50 to 60 million metric tons by 2022, around a 10 percent drop from Canada’s current emissions.
The plan employs a national carbon price benchmark of $20 (Canadian) per metric ton beginning next year, rising by $10/tonne per year to reach $50 in 2022, according to tables published by the Canadian Department of Finance. Factoring in the 9.3 percent lesser weight of a short ton vis-a-vis a metric ton and the 23 percent lesser value of a Canadian dollar vs. a U.S. dollar, the price trajectory in U.S. terms is $14 per (short) ton, rising by $7/ton per year to reach $35 in 2022.
Perhaps the most innovative element of the plan is the “return” of virtually all of the carbon revenues as dividends to households rather than using the monies to pay for tax swaps or green investments. The plan thus embodies the fee-and-dividend idea long espoused by Citizens Climate Lobby and more recently re-branded as carbon dividends by the Climate Leadership Council, the group fronted by retired Republican officials James A. Baker III and George Shultz.
Ottawa’s dividends proposal includes these provisions:
- The dividends, called “climate action incentive payments,” will be provided annually to federal-taxpaying households by the Canada Revenue Agency.
- Residents of small communities and rural areas get a 10 per cent revenue supplement “in recognition of their specific needs” — presumably, higher fuel needs for heating and driving.
- The dividend amounts will vary by province, presumably with individuals and families of high-carbon provinces receiving larger payments.
“Canada needs to cut its greenhouse gas emissions, and the best way to do that is to put a price on carbon pollution,” declared the country’s Department of Finance in a statement yesterday. “Experts, including Nobel Prize winning economists, have made it clear that pollution pricing is the most effective and efficient way to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions that are giving rise to climate change,” said the statement, which added:
Carbon pollution is not free. Canadians see its effects when extreme weather threatens their safety, their health, their communities, and their livelihoods. They pay for it in the form of structural repairs and higher insurance premiums, food prices, health care costs and emergency services. Climate change is expected to cost Canada’s economy $5 billion annually by 2020.
Several Canadian provinces have already implemented carbon pollution pricing, via a tax (British Columbia) or permit systems via cap-and-trade (Quebec, Ontario, most of the Maritime provinces). The fuel levies published this week by the Trudeau government will now undergo a consultation process expected to last at least several months.
Yesterday’s Finance Dept release includes these three “quick facts”:
- Carbon pollution pricing is the most effective and efficient way to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions associated with climate change.
- Carbon pollution pricing delivers economic benefits because it encourages Canadians and businesses to innovate, and to invest in clean technologies and long-term growth opportunities that will position Canada for success in a cleaner and greener global economy.
- Once in place, carbon pollution pricing could cut Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions by 50 to 60 million tonnes [metric tons] in 2022.
Total Canadian CO2 emissions from burning fossil fuels were estimated at 549 million tonnes in 2015, according to an international listing compiled by the Union of Concerned Scientists. Assuming the targeted reductions in the last bullet point above are all CO2, the 50-60 million tonne reduction would amount to 10 percent of those emissions. (U.S. 2015 emissions were estimated at 4,998 million tonnes in the UCS listing, though our figure for that year was 2 percent greater.)
By 2022, annual carbon revenues under the plan could be as much as $27 billion (Canadian) or $21 billion (U.S.), although exemptions for trade-exposed energy-intensive sectors and for aviation fuel used in indigenous communities might reduce those figures.
The plan is a daring gambit for PM Trudeau, as David Roberts of Vox explained in a post today, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is betting his reelection on a carbon tax.
The Canadian government’s embrace of household dividends could also provide a shot in the arm for dividends advocates in the U.S., whose credibility has faltered as Congressional Republicans have disdained the supposedly GOP-friendly dividends approach. This morning, Thomas Friedman, a leading champion of bipartisan climate action among U.S. pundits, called on readers of his New York Times column to “vote for a Democrat, canvass for a Democrat, raise money for a Democrat, drive someone else to a voting station to vote for a Democrat” in the midterm elections.
Echoing Friedman’s call, a constituent of Rep. Carlos Curbelo, the Republican Congressmember who broke ranks with his party in July by introducing a carbon-fee-and-dividend bill, told a Times reporter that Curbelo’s climate concern wasn’t enough to win his vote on Nov. 6: “He is unable to overcome the extreme wing of his party. We need to change the team.”
For more information on Canada’s carbon-pricing plan: