Time is running short: We can build political will for a climate-protecting carbon fee

Michael Howard, University of Maine

Originally published in the Bangor Daily News on November 25, 2014.

The U.S.-China deal on carbon emissions reached earlier this month is good news, even though the emission reductions are not nearly enough to preserve a stable climate. The deal calls for the U.S. to reduce its emissions by 26 percent by 2025 and for China to shift 20 percent of its electricity to zero-emission sources by 2030. Even if other countries follow the lead, the volume of carbon emissions between now and 2030 would still push the global average temperature more than 2 degrees Celsius over the global pre-industrial average, a point at which catastrophic consequences are likely.

So the deal is not enough, but it is a significant step in the right direction after years of impasse on global climate cooperation. It will set in motion policies that will make renewable energy more affordable and set the stage for more meaningful global climate negotiations in Paris in 2015. Lest anyone think China is not really on board, consider that its pledge to produce 20 percent of its electricity with zero-emission sources involves creating capacity nearly equivalent to the current electrical generating capacity of the entire U.S. With good-faith efforts, more ambitious targets can be met.

There is no longer an excuse for the U.S. to do nothing about its carbon emissions. In fact, there never was. While China has exceeded the U.S. in total annual carbon emissions, Americans still produce roughly three times as much CO2 per capita as the Chinese, and the U.S. is responsible for a quarter of the total carbon emissions historically. We have a special responsibility to take the lead, and, because we are not still climbing out of absolute poverty, we can better afford to lead. The sooner we improve markets for clean energy, the sooner we can transfer or sell new technology to China and other developing countries, speeding their transition to a non-carbon future.

Most importantly, we don’t have to wait for a treaty. We can adopt policies that will reduce our emissions and, if necessary, put pressure on our trading partners to do likewise.

One of the most important steps, if the U.S. is to go beyond what the president can do through executive action, is to put a price on carbon pollution. One way to do this is to impose a revenue-neutral carbon fee on coal, oil and natural gas and return the revenue to the citizens, as recommended by the Citizens’ Climate Lobby (of which I am a member).

The fee is “revenue neutral” because the government would keep none of the money. It would all come back to the citizens as dividend checks. Think of it as the rent we would start receiving from polluters for using our common atmosphere. The fee also keeps the resource from being destroyed through overuse. For a majority of households, the dividend would exceed the cost of the rising energy prices. When people understand that, the policy becomes politically viable. As the price of carbon fuel rises, most people would decide to make more economical energy choices, clean energy would become more competitive, and many new jobs would be created.

To pressure the Chinese, and others, to reduce their emissions, the carbon fee proposal would include a fee on imports produced with carbon-based energy. This would generate additional revenue for American citizens — revenue that would otherwise go to China if it adopted its own carbon fee, so China will have an incentive to put a price on its own pollution. The fee would also protect American businesses from unfair competition from countries using cheap, dirty technology.

Such trade sanctions may be unnecessary. China, in particular, stands to suffer tremendously from the effects of global warming, including drought and sea level rise, and it suffers now from intolerable pollution from coal burning, so we can reasonably expect China to do what it can. But the carbon fee on imports would apply if needed.

Maine’s senators both recognize the challenge of climate change. Sen. Susan Collins in 2010 co-sponsored the CLEAR Act, which would have put a cap on carbon, auctioned permits and returned most of the revenue as citizen dividends. So she is familiar with and has been willing to support such a solution. We should urge both senators to support a revenue-neutral carbon fee and dividend.

Even if a bill doesn’t pass in the current Congress, we need to begin generating the political will. Time is running out for us to leave a habitable planet to our grandchildren.

Michael Howard is a professor of philosophy at the University of Maine. He is a member of the Maine Regional Network, part of the Scholars Strategy Network, which brings together scholars across the country to address public challenges and their policy. 

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