A global carbon tax
Ralph Nader and Toby Heaps make an excellent case for a global carbon tax. With an Obama administration there is the possibility of such a thing happening, and it would be much more sensible that a complicated cap-and-trade system that will take years to get up and running. Even if a North American cap-and-trade system emerges that does not fall prey to its many shortcomings (price fluctations, gaming by big companies, cheating, enforcement and monitoring issues), there is still the risk that carbon-emitting production will flow to countries not subject to the system.
President Obama can define his legacy in the first 100 days by laying the groundwork for a global tax on carbon dioxide emissions that is effective, efficient, equitable and enforceable. An effective, harmonized tax on C02 emissions must stabilize the growth of atmospheric concentrations of GHGs by no later than 2020. The tax must also be adjusted annually, by a global body, according to this objective.
The IPCC has crunched the numbers and says this means a tax of about $50 levied on every metric ton of GHGs, or carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e to use their terminology). In the short-term, consumers would feel the pinch. But the tax would pave the way for cheaper, cleaner energy and ways of getting around.
The most efficient way to apply a carbon tax is at a relatively small number of major carbon bottlenecks, which cover the lion’s share of GHGs. The key points where flows of carbon are the most concentrated include: trunk pipelines for gas, refineries for oil, railroad heads for coal, liquid natural gas (LNG) terminals, cement, steel, aluminum and GHG-intensive chemical plants.
Collecting and spending the bulk of revenues from a carbon tax must remain the sovereign right of participating nations. For instance, nations could decide to make the tax revenue-neutral by reducing taxes on income or helping finance industrial retooling for a green economy.
However, we in the rich world must recognize our culpability for creating three-quarters of this global warming mess, as well as our greater capacity to finance industrial retooling. Thus, there could be a carrot for developing-world nations which commit to applying the phased-in carbon tax: Access to a portion of the carbon tax levies from rich countries to help preserve forests and to prepare for climate change through flood walls, improved irrigation, drought resistant crops, desalination facilities, and the like. This is no small change: 10% of $50/metric ton CO2e carbon tax levied in all rich countries would be $100 billion per year. The stick for carbon free-riding countries would come in the form of incrementally severe penalties, leading up to countervailing duties on carbon-intensive imports.
For what it’s worth, the Democratic platform calls for a cap and trade system, not a carbon tax.