Carbon Tax: A Primer on What It Is and Why We Need It

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As I write this on the heels of our 2016 presidential election, discussing climate change and ways to forestall its effects seems like an especially relevant topic. We have seen how, in our country, climate change has become a partisan issue fraught with misinformation. We need to find common ground and take care of this issue while we still can. One of the ways we can combat climate change is to come up with a strong carbon tax. But what exactly is it, why do we need it … and is it possible that it’s not enough?

First Things First: Does Climate Change Matter?

Photo: Ryan Rodrick Beiler / Shutterstock.com

Photo: Ryan Rodrick Beiler / Shutterstock.com

That climate change is real and is a direct result of things we have done is difficult to dispute if you look at the scientific evidence. A study published in Scientific Reports in April 2016 says that “since the Industrial Revolution, changes in the timing of freeze and thaw have accelerated, and suggest that the yearly rhythm of the ice in both places has become more closely tied to the concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.”

According to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), “97 percent of climate scientists agree that climate-warming trends over the past century are very likely due to human activities, and most of the leading scientific organizations worldwide have issued public statements endorsing this position.”

Some additional reading/viewing:

What a Carbon Tax Could Look Like

Basically, a carbon tax would put a price on greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) to encourage a faster changeover to clean energy. This isn’t a new idea; carbon pricing programs have been around for decades. For example, Denmark instituted a carbon tax in 1992 and, according to a report from the U.S. National Renewable Energy Lab, emissions per person in Denmark went down between 1990 and 2005 by 15 percent.

One of the tricky parts of instituting a carbon tax is to figure out how the tax would actually be applied.

In a recent article in Sierra magazine, former Republican Congressman Bob Inglis describes how he has gone from denier to believer when it comes to climate change. He thinks we should eliminate all fuel subsidies, an idea Al Gore has been behind for a long time. Both men believe this will level the playing field and encourage competition. Inglis also thinks there should be a carbon tax on imported products.

The article goes on to says that while the Sierra Club favors “putting a price on carbon, it has concerns that a carbon tax could be regressive and fall most heavily on poorer citizens. The Club also prefers tax credits and incentives for wind and solar development, partly in the belief that legislators aren’t inclined to make the playing field truly level or eliminate the hidden subsidies for the fossil fuel and nuclear energy industries — such as below-market coal and oil leases and exemptions from federal pollution standards for fracking.”

Why Do We Need a Carbon Tax?

Photo: Shutterstock.com

Photo: Shutterstock.com

An aggressive carbon tax would be one tool to make using fossil fuel less attractive. Giving it a financial cost sends a message to everyone that they will pay a price on allowing carbon to be put into our atmosphere. Since most of what makes up our modern life involves the use of fossil fuel, a carbon tax could really incentivize new clean energy innovations.

Would a Carbon Tax Be Too Little Too Late?

Author and activist Bill McKibben, who warned about climate change in his 1989 book The End of Nature, believes we’ve come too far to be able to control climate change with just a carbon tax.

In an op-ed for Yale Environment 360, here’s what McKibben says needs to happen now:

Not just a price on carbon, but dramatic subsidies for renewables to speed their spread. Not just a price on carbon, but an end to producing coal and gas and oil on public land. Not just a price on carbon, but a ban on fracking, which is sending clouds of methane into the atmosphere. Not just a price on carbon, but a dozen other major regulatory changes that have some chance of cutting emissions the six or seven percent a year that’s now required, a rate far greater than we’ve ever seen before.

This is just a brief overview of what is a very complex issue, but what’s simple is that climate change is real — and a carbon tax might just provide a small step toward forestalling its effects on our planet.

Feature image courtesy of Shutterstock.com

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Wendy Gabriel

Wendy Gabriel

Wendy Gabriel is a freelance eco-writer based in California. Wendy's work has been featured in numerous publications and websites, including the Chicago Sun-Times, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Fox Business News and Mashable.com. For nearly six years, she was a weekly contributor on a popular radio talk show in the Upper Midwest with a segment titled “Simple Tips for Green Living.”
Wendy Gabriel

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