It's Time to Pick Up the Pace

The big Paris conference that is supposed to move the world closer to solving the climate change riddle starts just after Thanksgiving. If, like most people, you’re a bit confused about the past quarter-century’s efforts on this front, read Elizabeth Kolbert’s terrific story in The New Yorker:”

There’s something in Kolbert’s account for both optimists and pessimists. The former will nod as they read that economic growth is possible even when less carbon is burned. Here’s an excerpt:

In some parts of Europe, what has been called “conscious uncoupling” is already well along. Sweden, one of the few countries that tax carbon, has reduced its emissions by about twenty-three percent in the past twenty-five years. During that same period, its economy has grown by more than fifty-five percent. Last year, perhaps for the first time since the invention of the steam engine, global emissions remained flat even as the global economy grew, by about three percent.

Optimists might also take heart from stepped-up U.S. efforts to wrestle with climate change, including vehicle mileage standards and the new proposal limiting emissions by power plants, which Kolbert summarizes as follows:

According to the Administration’s calculations, these new rules, coupled with stricter energy-efficiency standards for equipment and appliances, will lower U.S. emissions by at least twenty-six per cent by 2025 (this is against a baseline of 2005). President Obama has said that this is an “ambitious goal, but it’s an achievable goal.”

She follows those numbers immediately with the cold water that pessimists are so mindful of:

Still, it will leave the world on track to burn through its two-degree budget within a matter of decades.

Later, Kolbert reports:

Even those who, like Figueres [the Costa Rican tapped by the UN to lead this effort], argue that the goal is still achievable acknowledge that the (nations’ emission-reduction pledges) aren’t nearly enough to achieve it.

Obama himself said in late August, “We’re not moving fast enough.”

So how do we pick up the pace? Let’s take a cue from Sweden and put a price on carbon.

Politically, the most significant question is how to allocate the proceeds of the fee, which would be sizable. About half of the revenue could be used to bring the corporate tax rate from 35 percent (the highest in the industrialized world) to 25 percent. In recent years Japan, Canada, and the United Kingdom have reduced their top rate to increase their competitiveness. Most of the balance of the revenue could be returned to low- and low-middle-income families through the Tax Code.

Bottom line: A carbon fee is the fastest, most efficient, most politically feasible way to avert the damage that climate change is bringing.