Concentration of CO2 in the Atmosphere

Carbon Tax

Why it is necessary, and why it is fair

By George Harvey

The US EPA has estimated the social cost of letting carbon dioxide escape into the atmosphere at $12 to $116 per ton. Since this can be hard to understand, it may need an explanation.

The social costs of carbon emissions are all around us. Many of them can be seen in health problems requiring costly medical attention, such as asthma, respiratory distress, and a number of other health issues relating to fossil fuel pollution. Aside from health problems, there are also climate change, damage to property, ocean acidification, and a long list of other issues.

Many people find it hard to envision a ton of carbon dioxide. Burning a gallon of gasoline in a car engine releases about twenty pounds of carbon dioxide. This may defy logic for some people, because a gallon of gasoline weighs less than seven pounds, so they ask how it could produce twenty pounds of gas. In being burned, the carbon in the gasoline combines with oxygen from the air, and the oxygen provides almost three quarters of the weight of carbon dioxide. Because a gallon of gasoline produces twenty pounds of carbon dioxide, the $12 to $116 per ton social cost of carbon dioxide equates to $0.12 to $1.16 per gallon of gasoline.

The social cost of gasoline is not taxed or paid at the pump. Neither the oil industry nor the consumer is charged a fee. Nevertheless, each gallon of gas a person burns means doing $0.12 to $1.16 worth of damage. Other fossil fuels have their own costs, but they are similar or worse in effect.

Perhaps we could think of using fossil fuels as producing charges against a Global Sickness Account. If a car gets twenty miles to a gallon of gas, it may be charging as much as 5.8¢ to the Global Sickness Account for each mile it goes, so some asthmatic kid has 5.8¢ more in medical bills, or a state has to fund forest stewardship with 5.8¢ to address extra damage.

Actually, the issue is worse than that. Fossil fuels spill a long list of pollutants into the air: sulfur compounds, nitrates, nitrites and radon. In the case of coal, the list also includes mercury, lead, and thorium. Here in New England, we have streams and rivers whose fish should not be eaten because they contain excessive mercury from coal-burning power plants in Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and other upwind states. We did not cause the pollution, but it is ours to deal with. In the case of mercury, we have no practical way even to do that, so it is likely to hang around for centuries.

And here is the place where we need to be fair: Fossil fuels create charges against the Global Sickness Account, but the costs are born entirely by victims, including many who do not benefit from fossil fuel use at all. Those who do not benefit include nearly all forms of wildlife and a large percentage of the world’s poor. Fairness means those who created the cost are the ones who foot the bill, and the victims get some relief.

A carbon tax will help make the polluters bear their fair share of the costs. And it can help finance the cure.

As the February issue of Green Energy Times comes out mid-month, our legislators are meeting. Does anything come to mind?

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