A Price for Carbon: Ask and You Shall Receive?

coal excavator

Open-cast mining of lignite in Germany. Germany is the world’s largest producer and user of brown coal.

Once again, real life is making it hard to find time to write. It’s a busy time of year—classes winding down, getting the garden in, school activities with the kids, dealing with the new bees, and then, to top it all off, a funeral for an elderly relative and related activities. (Just as an aside—if you find yourself checking this site to see if something new has been posted, then I encourage you to enter your email into the subscription box on the sidebar; it really works well and a little note will get sent to you when something new gets posted. Each email has an unsubscribe link if you decide in the future that you don’t want the notices.)  But in the midst of all of that activity, I’ve had plenty of sustainability thoughts. And I’ve noticed something lately—my musings have been repeatedly taking me to the same end point. To wit—we need a carbon tax.

At the root of this thought is the fact that we’ve had tremendous advances in the sustainability field, on all fronts, in the last decade. A whole array of better products and systems are now proven and available—practical and highly-efficient electric vehicles, net-zero houses, cold-climate heat pumps, permaculture agriculture systems, heat-pump water heaters, micro-inverters for solar panels, electric lawn mowers… the list goes on. I’ve adopted a number of these, and yet we live a totally “normal” life. We’re completely comfortable here, but we use a fraction of the fossil fuel that most families do. Better still, far from being an expense, most of these systems save money, with returns on investment that typically range from as little as 1 or 2 years (air sealing, cold-climate heat pumps) to about 12 or 14 years (deep-energy retrofits, net-zero systems). Once the investment pays itself off, the rest is gravy. Forever. The same is true for us, driving the Leafs. They are fantastic cars, and the fuel savings alone virtually pays for the leases.

So why aren’t more people making these changes? We could all be living in much more comfortable houses, saving money, driving smooth, speedy, quiet cars that don’t smell, AND making dramatically fewer demands on the environment. I’m not sure why it is that people don’t change quickly, but I can venture a few guesses. First, many of these advances are recent, and people just don’t know about them yet (though the word is getting out—cold-climate heat pumps, “mini-splits”, which can cut home heating bills by 40% or more, are being installed left-and-right here in Vermont). Second, many of the systems result in serious savings, but require up-front funding or investment, and many people don’t have the know-how to navigate financing options, or the means to pay up-front. But the biggest reason, I think, is simply inertia. We’re all busy, and the systems that we already have seem to work well enough, and the easiest thing for most people to do is to just keep using them.

In addition to the inertia of individuals, the entire economic system has serious inertia of its own. Millions work and make their livings in fields that need to disappear, and this is a difficult problem. Take for example this shift to cold-climate heat pumps. If done en masse, it would virtually eliminate home fuel oil delivery, and the refinement of that oil, and the manufacturing and servicing of fuel-oil boilers and hydronic systems, and a whole host of other specialties related to heating with oil. On the other hand, it would create other manufacturing, installation and maintenance jobs in the heat-pump field. But while these new jobs will open up, these sort of shifts are difficult, and people resist them.

Speaking of inertia...

Speaking of inertia…

So here’s where carbon taxes work their magic—they help to tip the balance, and to overcome this inertia. Carbon taxes have a whole array of positive effects. They give people the nudge they need to switch away from oil and coal, but carbon taxes also spur efficiency, promote cleaner systems that pollute less, and encourage conservation. On a nation-wide scale, efficiency equates to wealth, and the taxes become a de facto long-term investment plan. Eventually, everyone winds up better off. When the revenue from such taxes are funneled into further efficiency improvements or are used to support renewable energy, the effects compound even faster.

Now, this idea of a carbon tax isn’t new (in fact, about twenty countries in the world already have some form of a price on carbon), and I’ve mentioned it before in various posts. But, despite all the positives that would flow from a price on carbon, I haven’t been expecting to actually see such a tax here in the U.S.; the political headwinds to such a move seem likely to be too powerful to overcome. But last night an article in the new issue of National Geographic caught my eye, “Can Coal Ever Be Clean?” (their answer—not really). In the article it mentioned that the Obama administration was poised to propose new restrictions on carbon emissions, to be enforced via the Environmental Protection Agency. I was surprised, I hadn’t heard about this yet (a good overview at Politico— “President Obama’s Big Carbon Crackdown Readies for Launch” ). While I’d rather have a carbon tax, these other sorts of restrictions on carbon have similar effects, and this promises to be a huge step in the right direction. The details are expected to be announced in just a few days, on June 2nd. Stand by for political fireworks and lawsuits, the big carbon companies probably aren’t going to take this lightly. But, add these carbon restrictions to my list of changes underway. As I’ve said before, it’s like trying to push on the Titanic to start it moving; it isn’t easy. But, the system is indeed moving. Hallelujah.

I’ll close here with a quick return to daily life—a pic of spring flowers, the new bees, and one of the Leafs being charged with solar. And with regard to the latter, we might see a lot more electric vehicles and solar charging in a world where there are taxes on carbon. So when the fireworks begin in a few weeks, jump in to support those advocating a price on carbon. Just like with voting, every voice counts.

bee yard

I added a bear-repelling electric wire since I took this picture–we’ll see if it works.

Image credits: Top photo “Tagebau Garzweiler” by Bert Kaufmann, Flickr Creative Commons at https://www.flickr.com/photos/22746515@N02/2989699245.
Hummer: “Sigh, or grrrr” by Payton Chung, Flickr Creative Commons at https://www.flickr.com/photos/paytonc/824328933.

2 thoughts on “A Price for Carbon: Ask and You Shall Receive?

  1. jeanne johnson

    I agree with almost every word, except what to do with the revenue. A recent study commissioned by CCL and conducted by Regional Economic Models, Inc. found that most spend it on cars, health care, food, travel etc. Some will invest in alternative energy research, development and distribution etc. Please look into this.

  2. Taborri Post author

    With carbon taxes, the revenue accrues to the government, not the individual. How governments spend that revenue is, of course, a political question, but in most places with the political will to put carbon taxes in place, I suspect that there will be a concomitant will to use those revenues in ways that further reductions in carbon emissions.

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