OPINION
07/25/2018 05:06 pm ET Updated Jul 26, 2018

Don't Let This Republican's Carbon Tax Proposal Fool You

Rep. Carlos Curbelo's (R-Fla.) proposed carbon tax bill is progress from outright denial of reality, but that'
Tom Williams via Getty Images
Rep. Carlos Curbelo's (R-Fla.) proposed carbon tax bill is progress from outright denial of reality, but that's about it.  

Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R-Fla.) recently introduced a new carbon tax bill, dubbed the “Market Choice Bill.” It would charge polluters for emitting harmful gases by taxing $24 per metric ton on industrial carbon-dioxide emissions beginning in 2020 and increasing annually. Specifically, this plan would tax coal mines, refineries and gas processing plants.

On the face of it, this kind of legislation helps bring emissions down to within the safe range determined by science and agreed upon by the international community in the Paris Agreement. This specific bill ― which has been harshly criticized by Curbelo’s fellow House Republicans and is already perceived as dead in the shell by most commentators — would see a 27 to 32 percent reduction of greenhouse gas emissions by 2025 and a 30 to 40 percent reduction by 2030, outpacing current policy, according to analysis by Columbia University.

Curbelo’s bill is the first piece of Republican-proposed legislation that takes into account the reality of climate change and its effects on human health, our well-being, the economy and future generations in about a decade. And it’s the first piece of such legislation by a lawmaker from one of the most vulnerable regions in the U.S. ― Southern Florida, where land surface is sinking, inland flooding is increasing and insurance premiums are rising. Pricing carbon has historically gained the support of companies like HSBC, BP, Shell, Cemex and Coca Cola, among hundreds of others, and praise from the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Environmental Defense Fund.

Sure, this bill is progress from outright denial of reality, but anyone who understands the urgency and necessary scale of climate action cannot celebrate this as a victory.

So things should be looking up for Curbelo and his proposed bill (even though it’ll likely be overwhelmingly rejected). But a closer look at the legislation dispels any notion this bill would have the kind of impact necessary to stave off climate change’s worst impacts and alter the course of climate disruption; it misuses taxation as a powerful incentive on behavior change necessary to the transformation of the transport sector.

First, Curbelo’s carbon tax comes at the cost of the federal excise tax on gas, meaning that federal revenue will be reduced by $35 billion in 2020 and by $24 billion in 2030. This wouldn’t necessarily have a devastating financial impact after accounting for the incoming revenue from the carbon tax; however, research out of Columbia University shows during this time period, GDP would decrease, electricity prices would increase and energy expenditures per capita would increase.

Up to 70 percent of Curbelo’s carbon tax revenue is dedicated to updating existing infrastructure like roads, bridges or highways. Yes, U.S. infrastructure is in dire need of repair ― this isn’t news. But channeling the vast proportion of this tax’s revenue to infrastructure that prioritizes fuel-based transportation, while offering only a tiny portion of it to decarbonizing the transport sector, is one step forward and several miles back.

In a quid pro quo sleight of hand, this legislation also comes at the cost of gutting most of the Clean Air Act, which is aimed at improving air quality and controlling pollution both from stationary sources and from motor vehicles, by proposing a temporary performance-based moratorium on enforcing its regulations should the goals of the bill be met. And though the bill suggests vulnerable populations, like the poor and workers in affected sectors, are amongst the proposed legislature’s main beneficiaries (which links the social and economic impacts of climate change to harmful emissions), the reference is ultimately so brief and vague in its description, it’s almost meaningless.

It’s not even worth comparing Curbelo’s proposed bill with international efforts, since the U.S. government deliberately excluded itself from global efforts to address climate change.

Companies are open to pricing carbon at the source (where choices about fossil fuels are made) not only because of the positive impacts on health, development and economic costs, but also because this tends to generate further finance for research into innovative alternatives. But Curbelo’s proposed bill wouldn’t do that. It fails to promote scale of investment in renewable energy and alternative transport modes like electric vehicles, and it wouldn’t support advances in energy efficiency; less than 1 percent each is dedicated to these and related areas of research.

While the Market Choice Bill marks some progress for federal policy, it pales in comparison to many state-level and local efforts to address greenhouse gas emissions. And it’s not even worth comparing Curbelo’s proposed bill with international efforts, since the U.S. government deliberately excluded itself from global efforts to address climate change. When France, Ireland, the Netherlands and Costa Rica are the ones leading the way in long-term decarbonization plans, I can only wonder what exactly piecemeal policies like the one proposed by Curbelo are supposed to achieve (and what outcome they are intended to promote).

So what are the 163 Democrats who officially recognized a carbon tax as an effective tool to reduce emissions to do, then? How are the countless climate action advocates, who have despaired at the erosion of the climate change debate over the last three decades, supposed to react when our predicament is finally recognized but enshrined in a proposed law by a member of the climate-skeptic GOP? If Democrats criticize the bill, they risk being perceived as partisan and sectarian. But their support, even though the bill is unlikely to become law anyway, lowers the bar of ambition to a level they’ll never be able to adequately build from going forward.

What the U.S. needs is not only ambitious climate policy that stands the chance of curbing the largest polluters and supporting sectors of the economy and segments of society most in need of finance, but to hold decision-makers to higher standards than the low ones they’re forcing upon the electorate.

Sure, this bill is progress from outright denial of reality, but anyone who understands the urgency and necessary scale of climate action cannot celebrate this as a victory. A successful carbon tax bill, whether it is proposed by Democrats, Republicans or both, would not only impose a levy on fossil fuels but steer the economy toward innovation, less-polluting alternatives for high-emitting sectors, and fairness to consumers and citizens.

Emilie Prattico, Ph.D., is director of development at We Mean Business, a coalition of non-profits working to mobilize the private sector in favor of climate action. She has worked in similar positions for a decade and has taught philosophy, sociology and sustainability at global universities for almost twice as long. This piece reflects her own views and not those of any affiliated organization.

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