Editorial of The Times: Best Way to Fight Climate Change? Put an Honest Price on Carbon
Will voters in Washington state breathe new life into the idea of taxing carbon emissions? Plenty of people worried about the Earth’s future certainly hope so.Posted — Updated
Will voters in Washington state breathe new life into the idea of taxing carbon emissions? Plenty of people worried about the Earth’s future certainly hope so.
Climate scientists and economists have long argued that the single best way to slow global warming is to put a price on greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels and raise that price over time, thus creating a sensible market incentive to reduce emissions and invest in cleaner energy sources. Carbon pricing was also high on the list of urgent recommendations of the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which warned in a major report this month that without swift action to control emissions the world will begin suffering global warming’s worst consequences — including, but not limited to, the displacement of millions of people by drought and sea-level rise — as early as 2040, much sooner than previously forecast.
It is thus encouraging that in this time of torpor and climate denial at the highest levels of the federal government, voters in the state of Washington will soon be given the chance to adopt, by initiative, a carbon pricing plan that would charge polluters like refineries a fee for emitting greenhouse gases. This would be what economists call a Pigovian tax, after British economist Arthur Pigou. In this case, the fee would factor in the now unaccounted for costs of more frequent and intense hurricanes, wildfires, droughts and other natural disasters linked to climate change. In the words of George Frampton, a senior environmental adviser to Bill Clinton and co-founder of a group that favors carbon taxes, Partnership for Responsible Growth, it’s an overdue stab at “honestly pricing carbon,” which industry has until now been able to hurl into the atmosphere pretty much for free.
Polling suggests a close vote. Opponents of the measure, including such big oil companies as BP and Chevron, have raised more than $25 million to get people to vote no; in addition, Washington voters soundly defeated a carbon tax the last time it appeared on the ballot, in 2016. But other powerful forces, including Bill Gates and Michael Bloomberg, the former New York mayor, have ponied up in support this time.
If the proposal, Initiative 1631, wins — as we hope it does — the result could ripple beyond Washington’s boundaries. No state can match California’s impressively broad suite of clean-energy programs, but the initiative, if successful, could catapult Jay Inslee, Washington’s governor, into the climate leadership role long occupied by the outgoing California governor, Jerry Brown. More important, it could provide a template, or at least valuable lessons, for other states to follow; and (let’s dream for a moment) it might even encourage Congress to take action on a national program.
Initiative 1631 is substantially different from the measure that failed spectacularly two years ago, and which Inslee voted against. That measure was advertised as revenue-neutral (meaning no net gain to the government). The money raised through carbon taxes would have been mostly returned to state residents through a reduction in the sales tax. This was intended to appeal to conservatives who didn’t want the tax to underwrite new government programs, but it turned out that many conservatives, like a lot of others, wanted real programs for their money, not just a tax shift.
Initiative 1631 aims to do that. On the revenue side, it would impose a $15 per metric ton fee on carbon emissions starting in 2020, increasing by $2 per year until the state’s 2035 carbon reduction goals are met. The state estimates that the levy would generate $2.2 billion in its first five years. The initiative’s supporters say that gasoline prices would rise about 13 cents a gallon in 2020, and would, overall, cost most citizens about $10 a month.
As for spending the money, about 70 percent of the proceeds would be invested in projects to accelerate the state’s transition from fossil fuels — public transportation, energy efficiency, wind and solar plants, and so on — and the rest on protecting forests and streams and shielding low-income ratepayers from higher electricity bills. There are exemptions — for the state’s only operating coal-fired power plant, which is scheduled to close in 2025, and for the state’s largest employer, Boeing, which competes in foreign markets. All in all, the initiative covers about 80 percent of Washington’s climate-warming emissions.
Groups that opposed the 2016 initiative, like the Sierra Club, have flocked to this one. As David Roberts has noted in Vox, “Tying the revenue from a dirty-energy tax to clean-energy investments is intuitively appealing.” He has also noted, however, that carbon pricing is no cure-all.
The dream among many carbon-pricing enthusiasts is that a smoothly functioning carbon tax will eliminate the need for messy government regulations like those imposed by the Obama administration after Congress failed to pass a cap-and-trade program. Carbon pricing would help, and could do wonders to drive private investment toward cleaner energy. But it won’t eliminate the need for government involvement; as the IPCC report made clear, rapidly decarbonizing a global economy is a gigantic undertaking, and will require government involvement and an array of responses.
And in the meantime, of course, and indeed into the foreseeable future, all present strategies to reduce emissions must continue, including the kinds of things Trump refuses to do — build out the electric vehicle fleet, reduce emissions from power plants, clamp down on methane pollution from oil and gas wells.
As of now, about 40 governments around the world, including the European Union and California, have put a price on carbon, some through cap-and-trade programs, with an average price per ton of $8, nowhere near the level the IPCC thinks necessary (at least $135 a ton by 2030, if not much higher) to cause meaningful reductions. But lately the idea of carbon taxes is showing signs of life in many parts of the world. Portugal launched a carbon tax in 2015, and Chile followed in 2017, and just last week Justin Trudeau, the Canadian prime minister, announced a sweeping plan to tax industrial emitters.
A yes vote in Washington state would add further momentum — and possibly focus a few minds in the other Washington.
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