By Valerie Nikolas, Nov. 13, 2018 –
“We have to put a price on carbon,” Columbia University scientist Wallace Broecker, the geoclimatologist who coined the phrase “global warming” in a 1975 study, said at the Comer Climate Conference held in southwestern Wisconsin in early October.
The latest United Nations’ climate change report and the Nobel Prize in economics, both announced days after the conference, confirmed his remarks.
The dire U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report warns that the world has just 12 years to massively curb carbon emissions or risk unprecedented consequences including extreme weather events, drought, food shortages and widespread displacement. To fight the IPCC’s grim findings hope may lie in economic measures to incentivize the use of cleaner energy.
“I think it has to be a tax,” Broecker said. “And that money should go to taking carbon dioxide out of the air.”
Each year the world currently emits about 41 billion tons of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas that holds heat in the atmosphere and causes global warming. At this rate of emissions, the United Nations IPCC estimates that “global net human-caused emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) would need to fall by about 45 percent from by 2030, reaching ‘net zero’ around 2050” to avoid catastrophic effects on the earth’s climate. The difficult question of how to accomplish that is only exacerbated by international and political tensions.
The 2018 Nobel Prize awarded two economists who have evaluated the economic cost of carbon emissions. William D. Nordhaus’s theory of the “social cost of carbon,” or SCC, is a concept used to evaluate climate change investments that has influenced $1 trillion in renewable energy and other carbon-reducing initiatives. Rooted in this theory is the idea that a crucial way to combat climate change is through economic growth that de-incentivizes activities that emit fossil fuels.
The essence of a carbon tax is to, “reward everything that every human or institution does to use fewer carbon fuels,” said energy policy analyst Charles Komanoff.
A carbon tax would be directed upstream, at companies that emit carbon as a byproduct, like the coal, natural gas and petroleum industries. These companies would be taxed a predetermined amount, which economists estimate would start low—around $10 per ton to begin with, Komanoff estimates.
Many companies are already investing in alternative energy such as solar fuels. Both Bill Gates and Exxon announced separate $1 million donations to clean energy initiatives in October.
“A carbon dividends policy that returns proceeds to consumers will unleash innovation and investment in new and existing technologies, putting us on course to reduce emissions in the fastest and most economical way possible, while also protecting American jobs and the security of our energy supply,” said David Fein, senior vice president of state governmental and regulatory affairs at Exelon Corporation.
Nordhaus’s Nobel Prize-winning work has found that the social cost of carbon required to stop at the Paris Agreement’s cap of 1.5°C degrees of global warming would be $184 per ton of CO2 . A more realistic rate of $50 per ton could be achieved with a tax of $1.07 per gallon of gasoline.
Komanoff said even $10-$15 per ton of CO2 would be a feasible starting point. Initially, the tax would start low and increase incrementally as time went on. Proponents believe this will incentivize other forms of energy.
“Innovators will feel the price signal,” according to Komanoff, which would spur more new ideas for cleaner energy.
Other areas of the world, like Sweden and the British Columbia, have imposed similar taxes. But in the United States, tax efforts, especially those regarding something as daunting and seemingly nebulous as climate change, are difficult to push forward and typically met with stark political opposition.
In September, lawmakers in Washington State proposed an initiative to tax carbon $15 per metric ton, becoming the first in the United States to do so. Voters struck down Initiative 1631 in the Nov. 6 elections by 13 percentage points (43.7 percent in favor and 56.3 percent opposed).
“All serious analyses of the energy climate nexus show that wise policies to address it will improve the economy compared to ignoring it,” said Richard Alley, another scientist who attended the 2018 Comer Climate Conference.
Alley has previously guided the UN on climate change issues and was a lead author on the Fourth Assessment Report of the IPCC.
“I truly believe that if we use our scientific knowledge and what we know with respect for where we came from and commitment to where we’re going, we will end up better off,” Alley said. “We can’t afford not to.”
Photo at top: Using observations from NASA’s Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2, scientists have developed a new model of carbon behavior in our atmosphere from Sept. 1, 2014, to Aug. 31, 2015. Such models can be used to better understand and predict where carbon dioxide concentrations could be especially high or low. Credit: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center/K. Mersmann, M. Radcliff, producers. Atmospheric carbon dioxide acts as Earth’s thermostat. Rising concentrations of the greenhouse gas, due primarily to the burning of fossil fuels for energy, have driven Earth’s current long-term warming trend. The visualization highlights the advances scientists are making in understanding the processes that control how much emitted carbon dioxide stays in the atmosphere and how long it stays there — questions that ultimately will determine Earth’s future climate.