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I was driving back from a camping trip on Mount Desert Island (the trip cut short by hurricane Lee), Maine, and I started listening to Kim Stanley Robinson’s speculative novel The Ministry for the Future. When the book starts it is the mid-2020s and there is a devastating heatwave in India which kills 20 million people. The world has not been meeting its goals of carbon reduction or putting the amount of money that was pledged into the fund to help developing nations decarbonize. The developed countries are somewhat concerned about all those deaths, but even more concerned that India spends seven months making high-altitude flights to geo-engineer some heat reduction by adding sulfur dioxide particles into the atmosphere. India calls it a double Pinatubo, referring to the 1991 volcanic eruption that cooled the planet for a few years. Meanwhile, in Switzerland, a small think tank called the Ministry for the Future is trying to identify policies or actions that can quickly effect large reductions in greenhouse gasses. They are looking for the leverage points.
I am a volunteer with Citizens Climate Lobby (CCL), a non-profit that organizes volunteers to actively lobby our members of Congress, in person if possible, to pass bi-partisan legislation to address climate change. CCL is all about leverage points. Scientists and economists and the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (UN IPCC) all agree that a carbon fee is one of the most effective leverage points – charging the fossil fuel industry a fee for carbon pollution will result in less of it. CCL’s preferred policy is to return all fees to households, thus mitigating any cost increases that arise from putting a carbon fee on fossil fuels. In the 2022 omnibus spending bill, which became the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), Democrats had approval from the House, 49 Senators, and from Vice President Harris as a 50th vote, to add a carbon fee to that bill. They were one vote short.
Senators Sheldon Whitehouse and Brian Schatz had introduced comprehensive climate legislation, the Save Our Future Act of 2021, that included a carbon fee, a methane fee, a host of renewable energy incentives, and robust protections for energy communities and low-income communities (https://bit.ly/3PLTs8f). Much of that bill was included in the IRA – but not the carbon fee. Senator Whitehouse and his colleagues also introduced the Clean Competition Act of 2022, which would place a fee on carbon-intensive imports like steel or aluminum. As part of a Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism (CBAM), a fee would be charged on imports which have a higher carbon intensity than comparable U.S. products, and the fee would be based on the differential between the carbon emissions created by the manufacture of the imported product and those of products made in the U.S. A discount payment could be made to U.S. manufacturers who export lower carbon intensity products.
How do we know what that carbon intensity differential is? That’s where the PROVE IT Act comes in. Introduced by Senators Chris Coons and Kevin Cramer, the bipartisan Providing Reliable, Objective, Verifiable Emissions Intensity and Transparency (PROVE IT) Act would collect the data to establish the relative carbon intensities of products made in different countries or by different manufacturers. The data would be updated every five years and could be used as part of a CBAM. The products that would be studied include, steel, aluminum, cement, hydrogen, solar cells and panels, wind turbines, lithium-ion batteries, plastics, crude oil, and more (https://bit.ly/3ENo4jo).
The U.S. is somewhat behind the rest of the world on carbon emissions legislation. Canada and the E.U. have had carbon fees in place for several years. The Canadian system is customized by each province, but many return the revenue from the carbon fee to households in a quarterly cash payment. “Through these payments, the majority of Canadian families receive more money back than they pay, with low-income Canadians benefitting the most” (https://bit.ly/3Rs82my). The E.U. has also approved and begun to implement a CBAM. The recent Africa Climate Summit 2023 ended with a unanimous call for a global carbon tax. To find out more, the World Bank has a website that tracks various carbon pricing initiatives around the world (https://bit.ly/3RxuKtB).
As soon as I started thinking about the PROVE IT Act, I started to see articles about new low-carbon or carbon-neutral technologies for some of the products that now produce the most carbon. In Sweden, a company called H2 Green Steel is set to produce low-carbon steel in 2025, using sustainably produced hydrogen and electric arc furnaces instead of coal- and coke-fired blast furnaces, reducing the carbon emissions by more than 95% (https://bit.ly/3PN2QbY). In the U.S., a research group has demonstrated carbon-neutral cement, where the necessary limestone is made by microalgae in the same way coral reefs are formed, and a start-up company is already testing the product (https://bit.ly/3PikAu0).
Enacting the bi-partisan PROVE IT Act might just provide the necessary leverage that leads to creating a Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism, and the CBAM might provide the leverage to pass a Carbon Fee and Dividend bill – and then the U.S. will be catching up to the rest of the world.
If you want to play with a well-validated interactive model to see where the policy leverage points are in the climate system, Climate Interactive has an easy-to-use simulator to test to your heart’s content (climateinteractive.org).
Judy Davis is the volunteer state coordinator for CCL Vermont who lives in Craftsbury Common. After a career in information technology, Davis went back to school for a master’s degree in environmental management and sustainability. As a board member of the Federation of Vermont Lakes and Ponds for many years, she advocated for nature-based solutions for lake health and climate change mitigation.
Carbon pricing around the world – IMF
Source: WBG, IMF staff calculations and national sources. Note: The boundaries and other information shown on any maps do not imply on the part of the IMF any judgement on the legal status of any territory or any endorsement or acceptance of such boundaries.