The following editorial published on July 16 in the Houston Chronicle.
The world is in a race against time to slow the warming of the planet before climate change does irrevocable damage to the nearly 8 billion people who call it home — and America is behind. An idea that has been floating around Congress for years, but with much greater urgency and bipartisan support lately, could help change that — if only President Biden would ignore many loud voices within his own party and embrace a carbon tax.
On Wednesday, the European Union pulled into the lead with an ambitious proposal to aggressively reduce carbon emissions among its 27 member nations. The detailed plan, on top of strong laws already in place, aims to reduce carbon emissions there by 55 % from 1990 levels by 2030. President Biden in April committed America to reducing its emissions by 43 % by then — and immediately business interests and others who hold sway in a gridlocked U.S. Senate protested under the banner of gradualism, as if Earth itself weren’t running out of time.
Both sets of goals are aimed at moving the world closer to net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, the drop-dead date most scientists agree will give Earth at least a fighting chance to survive the accelerating climate changes that threaten our coasts, our cities and many of our lives. Neither will be easy to reach, not the just-announced EU goals nor even the more tepid pace Biden has set. Especially in Houston, the nation’s energy capital, the inevitable shift away from fossil fuels will involve new costs and choices for consumers and industry alike, and they will require sometimes painful trade-offs.
That’s true even though there are also enormous opportunities. The United States is also falling behind China in the race to sell the expertise and infrastructure to reduce carbon emissions. Representatives of the Houston area, where a highly trained workforce stands ready to help develop green products, should be advocating for a mix of regulation and incentives so companies based here lead the next energy revolutions. It’s about jobs, and America’s ability to promote democratic values in the face of China’s growing dominance in renewable technology.
The EU plans will add taxes to some products and regulate others out of existence. One eye-raising example? Tighter emissions standards will effectively outlaw new sales of gas- and diesel-powered automobiles by 2035.
The EU will also seek to impose tariffs on goods imported from other nations, including the United States, that are not aggressively seeking to reduce their own carbon footprint. After years of proclaiming how unfair the world will be if the United States “unilaterally” reduced its carbon footprint while India and China continue to pollute at alarming rates, policymakers in Washington should now reflect on the fact that the EU is making the same argument about this country.
“We’re going to ask a lot of our citizens. We’re also going to ask a lot of our industries, but we do it for good cause,” EU climate policy chief Frans Timmermans told Reuters. “We do it to give humanity a fighting chance.”
The path ahead for Europe will be bumpy. Already France is warning about a return of the yellow-vested protesters in Paris and across the continent, if higher taxes on heating fuels are enacted. In addition, nations like ours affected by the tariffs may well allege protectionism before the World Trade Organization, and companies with vested interests in the status quo will fight back.
But all these challenges notwithstanding, what Europe has and America lacks is a broad consensus among voters, companies and governments that climate change is a dire — even existential — threat that requires aggressive response, changed behaviors and new energy sources.
Despite Biden’s promise in April, there’s little to show for it. Congress’ latest budget outlines include massive spending on social and physical infrastructure as well as a carbon tariff of our own but little detail and many crucial votes ahead. Biden should seize the moment and adopt the carbon tax idea that Democrats have been fighting for on and off for decades and which now has the blessing of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the American Petroleum Institute and a growing, if still too-small, list of Republican lawmakers.
At its core, a carbon tax would impose a fee on coal, natural gas and petroleum, including gasoline and other products, based on how much carbon is released when they are burned. That tax would in most cases be passed onto consumers, and — to varying degrees among the rival bills awaiting hearings in Congress — consumers would be paid a check each year to offset those higher costs. As carbon-emitting options get more expensive, consumers will vote with their wallets for cleaner ones — and pocket the savings that come through the rebate. Consumers who keep using the more heavily polluting products, perhaps out of necessity, can use their rebates to partially offset their higher costs.
As opposed to outright bans on drilling, a carbon tax would extend a lifeline to fossil fuel companies leaving open options for reducing emissions including carbon sequestration, utilization and storage.
So what’s the problem? Environmentalists who have Biden’s ear offer two reasons why the carbon tax should remain on the shelf. First, they say, with the need so dire, the administration must focus on more aggressive changes — such as the ones proposed by the EU — and actively push Americans away from fossil fuels. Attaching a tax to carbon will, they argue, legitimize a continued place for fossil fuels in our economy.
On the second point, they note that support by industry should be a warning sign, not a reason to cheer. The carbon tax in principle is easy to love — it only gets tough when it’s a big enough tax to actually change consumer and industry behavior alike.
On both points, the environmentalists make sense. No, a carbon tax is not enough to make America a leader in the world’s race to avoid climate catastrophe. And yes, the support from sources such as the American Petroleum Institute and Big Oil mean little until they put muscle behind specific, meaningful bills. And recent leaked conversations with former Exxon lobbyists who claimed the company’s much ballyhooed support for a carbon tax was simply a public relations ploy do nothing to ease those concerns.
Still, these objections risk making the perfect the enemy of the good. The EU already has a carbon-pricing mechanism that has helped reduce emissions, and its latest proposals would build on that. America can do the same, even after it passes a carbon tax. As for the concern that the API, the Chamber and other business-friendly voices are hiding behind generalities and have no interest in supporting reform with teeth — well, there is only one way to find out.
Biden has the bully pulpit — and his party leads both chambers in Congress. He should use his fragile advantage to put America back in this race. The clock is ticking.