Will carbon taxes ever be enacted in Washington?

Carbon taxWhether or not Congress and the president will enact a carbon tax occasionally becomes a topic of heated debate with strong arguments made on both sides. Lawrence Summers has stirred the pot lately writing commentaries making the case for enacting carbon taxes. Summers, a Harvard professor and past university president, and treasury secretary from 1999 to 2001 and previous economic adviser to President Obama, says that cheap fossil fuels exacerbate energy overuse. Carbon taxes would help curb that problem and reduce emissions. “Carbon emissions exacerbate the global climate change problem. In many cases they contribute to local pollution problems which immediately harm human health,” Summers wrote in the Washington Post.

The basic idea behind enacting carbon taxes is to raise the price of fossil fuels high enough in the US that it becomes much more expensive. It would be similar to Europe’s high motor fuel prices; that gives incentives to consumers to use less fuel and produce less carbon during transportation. Carbon taxes would also regulate other sectors with high carbon emissions such as energy power plants. Summers says that the issue becomes compelling when oil prices drop dramatically, as we’re seeing now, giving incentive to over-consuming motor fuel and other fossil fuels.

Variations on carbon taxes do exist in the US now through the federal Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) and California’s cap-and-trade system. Oil importers and refineries pay for and trade Renewable Identification Numbers through the RFS. California’s cap-and-trade market sets a firm limit (or cap) on greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) from the oil industry, utilities, and other carbon producers. Compliance costs are minimized by trading carbon credits on the market, and through reducing their own carbon emissions by changing over to clean, renewable energy.

President Barack Obama has been calling on the world to follow the US and China alliance in reducing GHG – a point made last fall while speaking before the United Nations Climate Summit. The US has not supported the summit’s plan to set a global price on carbon, signed by 74 countries and more than 1,000 businesses and investors. That comes from a lack of support in Washington for carbon taxes now that the majority of both the House and Senate have changed hands – and which had failed to gain any real support in Washington in recent years when Democrats led both branches of Congress. As for now, California has a cap-and-trade system in agreement with the Canadian province of Quebec; other states are considering it. The Obama administration is going the route of enforcing Clean Air Act rules and forming an overseas alliance with China to deal with the carbon reduction challenge.

Steve Cohen, executive director at Columbia University’s Earth Institute, says that it’s time to “abandon the delusion of a carbon tax.” While it makes for interesting cocktail party chitchat and impassioned blogging, it’s not going to gain enough political support with so much at stake. “No political leader responsible for ensuring the material well-being of his or her people in the modern global economy is going to willingly raise the price of something so central to that economy as the price of energy,” according to Cohen. He sees the solution coming from setting up incentives and government-funded research to make renewable energy technologies more advanced and cost efficient. That would mean renewables would become cheaper, more reliable, and more convenient than fossil fuels. The debate would be over.

As for now, the best US trend we’re seeing is corporations and governments choosing to reduce their own carbon/GHG emissions voluntarily. That usually starts out in adopting energy efficiency, waste management, and renewable energy – such as powering a building through solar panels. We’re starting to see fleets become more engaged in those policies – reducing their emissions and fuel consumption through alternative fuel and advanced technology vehicles. Making the business case is a bit challenging with gas prices dropping down so far and acquisition costs for these clean vehicles many times much higher than traditional vehicles. Hats off to those fleets taking on the challenge.

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