B.C.’s carbon tax seen as model in the U.S

James Hansen has studied climate change for over 30 years. Over that time his alarm has grown steadily about the world his grandchildren will live in, as the accelerating climate crisis takes hold. The recently retired NASA climatologist has been speaking about climate change since the 1980s. He now confesses that his earlier projections, while accurate about increasing global temperatures, “failed to explore how quickly this would drive an increase in extreme weather”.

What does Hansen think can be done? A steadily rising carbon tax is one of the best ways to limit carbon pollution, Hansen told an international conference of Citizens Climate Lobby in Washington, DC.

B.C.’s carbon tax is an example, and conference delegates were eager to hear details. At the conference, which included over 450 meetings with U.S. senators, members of congress, and their aides, B.C.’s carbon tax, with its six year track record, was portrayed

as a success , supported by 64 per cent of B.C. residents.

The three B.C. residents at the conference found themselves being asked a lot of questions about the carbon tax. B.C.’s emissions have declined about 9.9 per cent per capita since 2008, while the economy has grown slightly more than the Canadian average in the same period.

A carbon tax is one of the tools that could possibly gain support from both Republicans and Democrats in the polarized world of U.S. politics. Republicans are typically against taxes, and anything that increases the size of government. However, a revenue neutral carbon tax, such as B.C.’s, would return all the funds collected to residents and not increase government revenues.

The “revenue neutral” aspect appeals to both sides of the political spectrum. Many Republicans would consider the idea of a market-based tax as a way to address carbon pollution. However some aren’t so sure they can trust the government to actually return carbon tax revenues to the people rather than adding it to government revenues.

There is a long way to go to reach any sort of agreement on a carbon tax bill in the U.S., but the debate is on. Across the political spectrum, there is growing acknowledgement that climate change is a looming crisis that will have to be dealt with. As one conservative member put it, “You can’t pollute the atmosphere for free.” If we don’t clean up our own garbage, our children and grandchildren will, under much more difficult conditions.

The carbon tax is more than simply an incentive to use less gasoline and other fossil fuels. It also acts to level the playing field for providers of wind, solar, and other alternative energy. Oil, gas and coal companies still receive large taxpayer subsidies. However, once the market factors in a steadily increasing carbon tax, renewable energy alternatives can become steadily more economically competitive. Interestingly, several oil company CEOs have spoken out in favour of a tax. Suncor CEO Rick George called for a carbon tax of $40/ton in 2011, and Lars Bacher,

CEO of Statoil Canada, suggested reaching a ton $50/ton in March 2012.

They know the science and they know that climate change – more droughts, floods, increasing impacts on air, water, and food – means that governments will ultimately be forced to act to reduce emissions. The oil companies would like this to be done in a way that is fair and predictable, and allows them to factor it into their business plans.

Finally, it’s clear that B.C.’s carbon tax could be improved. Exports are not subject to the tax, so B.C.’s significant coal exports get away with polluting for free. Some of the U.S. proposals would address this. Secondly, if B.C.’s tax was gradually ramped up beyond its current level of $30 a ton, the incentive to reduce carbon pollution would be greater. Again, there would be no overall cost to taxpayers as long as revenue neutrality is maintained.

Blaise Salmon of Shawnigan Lake was in Washington, DC as a volunteer with Citizens Climate Lobby.