Going Beyond a Carbon Tax

I think it is fairly inevitable that the United States and most other industrialized countries will implement carbon taxes within the next ten to twenty years.

A carbon tax can make wind, solar, geothermal, and energy efficiency even more competitive than they are now. It could transform our economy and, if done properly, stop climate change. It would reward today's green pioneers with money which would encourage them and impress their friends.

While a carbon tax is better than a cap and trade system, it has numerous short-comings.

1. Not counting carbon emissions from biomass and ethanol
An increasing number of scientific reports on biomass are exposing the fact that burning biomass emits carbon both from incineration and from the disturbing of the soil. If a carbon tax fails to count the emissions from biomass and ethanol than it is not a carbon tax! I think the solution is to tax the emissions when they happen, and credit back the money if the forest grows back and re-absorbs the carbon (though monitoring that could get very messy).

2. Not counting methane
Methane emissions need to be properly counted and accounted for (as do other greenhouse gases). The tricky part with methane is that most of its impact is in a ten or twenty year period. So the carbon equivalent of one ton of emitted methane is a lot more over a twenty year time period than over a hundred year one. This could be solved by adopting the twenty year period.

3. Encouraging nuclear power
A carbon tax will encourage the development of new nuclear power plants. The solution to this problem is to end federal subsidies for nuclear waste disposal and to require that plant operators insure their own plants (currently the federal government is liable for a major nuclear disaster).

4. The tax can be too low to stop climate change
While a small carbon tax is better than no tax, if it is too small we won't be sending a strong message to everyone that they need to switch energy sources and kick their conservation efforts into high gear.

The carbon tax needs to increase on an annual basis until we achieve our climate change goals. I'm not sure what this will take, but I'm guessing we might need a $100+ per ton carbon tax to get the institutional and behavioral change we need.

5. A carbon tax hurts low-income people
Low-income people pay a greater share of their income to energy costs than other classes. The solution is to return the money both directly to people on a per capita basis and through green infrastructure programs (ex. retrofitting houses, apartments, and businesses). A carbon tax that redistributes the wealth and increases economic justice is the best thing we can do to transform the environmental movement into an environmental justice movement.

6. A carbon tax ignores other effects of burning fuel
This tax does not address the particulate matter, ozone, Nox, So2, mercury, lead, and many other pollutants that are created by power plants and other energy sources. It doesn't address the harmful impact of mining, drilling, and the immense amount of waste that is created by those processes. These issues of environmental justice are best dealt with by people power -- which in practice in our current political situation leads to referendums, legislation, and regulation.