- by Mike Ewall, Energy Justice Network
Carbon taxes are emerging as a major top-down climate solution enviros would like to see come out of Congress. Plenty of “tax carbon” signs were present in the 400,000-strong People’s Climate March in New York City last month. Even U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is urging nations to adopt either a carbon tax, or the (failed and problematic) “cap-and-trade” model. Cap-and-trade approaches enrich Wall Street speculators, can concentrate pollution in vulnerable communities that lack political clout, and fail to truly reduce carbon emissions, yet elevate lots of sketchy and climate-damaging false solutions from burning toxic landfill gases to running Indigenous people off of their forested lands.
Sadly, carbon tax proposals are riddled with problems as well, making it a “solution” we can’t support. Real solutions would end corporate agriculture and dirty energy subsidies (including massive spending on imperial military adventures) and spell out policies that regulate and mandate what is actually needed to transform the agriculture, energy, materials/waste, and transportation sectors into sustainable climate solutions. Instead, carbon taxes focus on one sector (energy) and hope that the market will choose the right solutions in the right time frame for all sectors. It’s just as likely to elevate false solutions like nuclear power, biofuels, biomass and waste incineration. Some proposals explicitly promote some of these false solutions. If not structured properly, a carbon tax can also be regressive (harming the poor more).
In June 2013, we put together an Open Letter to Citizens Climate Lobby, signed by 86 organizations in 29 states and 11 countries, calling out the problems with the carbon tax legislation they’ve been pushing, which highlighted the following five points:
1) A carbon tax will be insufficient to move the market in a relevant time frame.
Climate change is a genuine planetary emergency. It’s already too late to prevent it, and the best we can do is minimize and brace for its impacts. Any strategy to reduce greenhouse gas pollution needs to do so rapidly and decisively within a mandated timeframe.
The market does not know best. A carbon tax relies on a market price to be enough to do the job in time, even though it would cover just part of the problem, and would surely set the price to low. Setting a price on carbon does not guarantee that changes will be made in a meaningful time frame or that the changes will lead us toward clean solutions.
In 2012, Yvo de Boer, the former chair of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, stated that we need a minimum carbon tax of 150 Euros per tonne (about $212/ton) to drive the price signals we really need. Citizens Climate Lobby (CCL) – the main advocates for a carbon tax in the U.S. – supports a $15/ton tax that increases $10/year, taking 20 years to hit the minimum level needed to drive change. The Boxer-Sanders Climate Protection Act of 2013 that CCL has been supporting, starts at $20/year and rises gradually to $34.49/year after 12 years and stays there, at a level six times lower than would be effective.
This is enough for politicians, Exxon and enviros to claim they’ve done something, but woefully inadequate to actually blunt the impacts of climate change.
2) A carbon tax elevates false solutions
By only punishing fossil fuels, a carbon tax puts nuclear power, “biomass” and waste incineration, landfill gas burning, and crop- and waste-based liquid fuels at a competitive advantage. It even helps push “clean coal” and puts natural gas ahead of coal, ignoring the methane impacts that make it worse than coal. We cannot count on the market to pick the clean solutions (conservation, efficiency, wind, solar and energy storage) over cheap, polluting false solutions, most of which are worse than coal for global warming.
Nuclear power: Everyone from MIT to the Union of Concerned Scientists to industry consultants to the OECD Nuclear Energy Agency seems to understand that a moderate carbon tax would mean a nuclear industry windfall. Sure, a lot of fossil fuels are used in the nuclear fuel chain, but a carbon tax doesn't fully make up for the windfall nuclear power will get as it's put at a competitive advantage with fossil fuels, appearing cheaper than coal for the first time. A carbon tax could include language to ban new nuclear reactors, phase out existing ones, or accomplish the same by repealing the Price-Anderson Act’s nuclear accident insurance liability caps. It won’t, though, because carbon tax advocates won’t touch the issue. Charles Komanoff of the Carbon Tax Center admits: “The fact that a carbon tax would create a price advantage for nuclear power is regrettable, but that’s the way it is.” Citizen Climate Lobby has rabidly pro-nuclear NASA scientist James Hansen on their advisory board and allowed him to be a keynote at their 2013 annual conference, the same year when he’s pushing nuclear power in national media.
Nuclear power is the most expensive, subsidized and slow-to-build form of power and one of the most destructive and racist. It is a false solution that releases radioactive air and water pollution and sucks up all of the economic resources needed to transition away from fossil fuels. It chews up large amounts of land to bring uranium through four energy-intensive steps of processing before it can be used in a reactor.
Carbon tax advocates claim that we don’t need to worry about nuclear because it’s too expensive to go anywhere, and should be dealt with in separate policies (as if a separate effort to “fix it later” will have the support of the carbon-centric advocates). The fact is that nuclear power is already the most heavily subsidized energy industry, enough that it’s already cost competitive with geothermal and off-shore wind. Half of federal energy R&D went to nuclear power over the past 65 years. The Obama administration is currently providing $8.3 billion in loan guarantees for two new reactors to be built in a black community in Georgia. Nuclear power continues to struggle economically without big subsidies and is stagnant at the moment due to temporarily cheap gas prices, but carbon tax among the backdrop of other subsidies would put nuclear back in the front seat.
Trash incineration is 2.5 times as bad for the climate as coal, and is far worse by every other measure of pollutants as well. New EPA loopholes, as well as Obama’s Clean Power Plan, are poised to allow coal plants and thousands of other boilers to start burning trash without regulation or community notification. Carbon taxes ignore incinerators, even though over half of the CO2 emissions from trash incineration are from the burning of plastics and other fossil-fuel-derived products. The world’s largest waste corporation, Waste Management, is poised to exploit this loophole and move from landfilling waste to sky-filling it by marketing trash fuel pellets to every boiler they can. A carbon tax (coupled with the Clean Power Plan and EPA’s waste deregulation) will drive this climate-killing mass switch from coal to trash burning.
Biomass incineration is 50% worse than coal for the climate, and claims of carbon neutrality have been repeatedly debunked. “Save the climate, burn a tree” doesn’t make for a catchy cause, but forests in the U.S. are being logged for this “renewable” power, and are even being chipped and shipped (with fossil fuels) to Europe to be burned in converted giant coal plants. Ignoring “biogenic” CO2 emissions is just another form a climate denial.
That denial is strong in carbon tax bills.
The Boxer-Sanders Climate Protection Act of 2013 outright makes grants available to biomass and biofuels that are “not sourced from food crops” (which would include burning or liquefying trees, grasses, wood waste, animal waste, trash, sewage sludge and other wastes). Taxing fossil fuels and putting the money into energy sources worse for the climate is as misguided as it gets.
Congressman Waxman’s draft bill also has clear support for biomass. Section 9(5) will probably subsidize biomass just as Section 201 of Boxer-Sanders does. Section 11(b)(5) of the Waxman draft specifically exempts biomass. Section 3 defines “covered entities” with references to 40 CFR 98, which specifically instructs to “exclude carbon dioxide emissions from the combustion of biomass” when GHGs from biomass are calculated. This flies in the face of science.
Recent science tells us that these “biogenic” sources are not carbon neutral in any meaningful time-frame – that it takes several decades for wood burning to become just as bad as coal if trees are grown and left alone to compensate for the extra CO2 released, and centuries to approach carbon neutrality. A 2009 study published in Science reported that measures such as a carbon tax applied to fossil but not to biogenic emissions, would result in conversion of virtually all remaining natural forests, grasslands and other ecosystems to energy crop monocultures by 2065.
Landfill gas burning for energy is even worse than trash incineration, as organic wastes are continually fed to landfills to become CO2 and methane. CFCs and related intensely-potent global warming gases are also released by landfills. Burning the gas for energy, ironically, causes more gas to escape the already pitiful gas capture systems, making it worse to use for energy than to just waste and flare the gas (even if coal were displaced by the small amount of power generated). True zero waste solutions are needed, including keeping organics out of landfills, to tackle this major methane source. Landfills are completely ignored by carbon tax proposals, except where they may be subsidized as clean alternatives, as renewable energy policies already do.
Biofuels are worse than petroleum for the climate, necessitating that we stop trying to grow fuels (using natural gas-based nitrogen fertilizers and other fossil inputs), and move away from burnable fuels altogether.
A growing literature demonstrated that biofuels are very inefficient to produce and when full lifecycle assessments are completed, many have a carbon footprint comparable to, or worse than fossil fuels. Because of the very large land area, soil, water and fertilizer requirements to grow crops and trees for bioenergy, most biofuels result in vast, largely unacknowledged carbon and nitrous oxide emissions, depletion of soils and water resources, biodiversity losses as well as conflicts and human rights abuses, including escalating hunger due to food price increases. Like biomass and landfill gas, a carbon tax both implicitly and explicitly promotes these false solutions.
It’s not easy to close these “biogenic carbon” loopholes. Carbon taxes focus on the extraction phase (coal mines, oil refineries and gas wells or distribution hubs), so that they don't have to try to measure every smokestack and tailpipe. This isn’t so easily done with biomass and waste-based climate pollution. Will these be treated differently so that smokestack pollution is measured? Will trees cut be counted only when going to markets that would burn them? What about demolition waste and other “biomass” harvested for burning? How would a carbon tax measure the “biogenic” and fossil portions of trash incineration? How would landfills be accounted for so that all gas (collected or leaked) is counted, without encouraging landfill gas burning for energy (which causes more gas leakage)? How would a carbon tax ensure that organics are composted and kept out of landfills in the first place? How to account for biofuels? It gets impossibly complicated, even without getting into the debate over how much to subtract out “biogenic” carbon that is sucked back up in the future as if anyone can guarantee that those trees won't be chopped back down for later burning or use.
Ignoring these emissions is not acceptable. Making these dirty energy climate impacts invisible feeds the perception that these energy sources are valid alternatives to fossil fuels, and fails to educate carbon tax advocates and the politicians they speak to. Nuclear power and incineration disproportionately impact low-income communities and communities of color. Keeping their struggles invisible perpetuates the injustices.
Even Coal and Gas Supported?
So-called “clean coal” could be supported as some bills exempt carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) schemes that attempt to store CO2 underground infinitely. Congressman Waxman’s draft carbon tax, as well as Congressman Van Hollen’s carbon “cap-and-trade with dividend and auctions” bill both exempt CCS. CCS is usually coupled with enhanced oil recovery (EOR) schemes that use the CO2 to get more oil out of oil fields – oil that releases CO2 when burned. The CO2 used to extract the oil also comes back up with the produced oil. Some CCS sites have already shown signs of the CO2 leaking out. CCS loopholes that enable continued coal burning (or oil extraction) have no place in a climate bill.
Even natural gas may benefit from a carbon tax, relative to coal and oil, as the carbon content is lower. However, this doesn’t account for the methane, which is 86 to 105 times as bad as CO2 for the climate over a 20-year time frame. Gas leaks from well to end use are extensive and cause gas to always be worse for the climate than coal. Citizens Climate Lobby’s 2014 policy proposal recognizes this and aims to account for it, but this foresight is unlikely to make it into any bill with a change of passage, as the gas industry is the government’s darling.
3) A carbon tax could be regressive
A straight carbon tax would be regressive, impacting lower-income households harder than higher-income ones, as Food and Water Watch recently argued, citing a Congressional Budget Office report. However, this flips around if the tax is returned to households in a monthly or quarterly dividend check. Dividend checks are part of most carbon tax plans. This would be a progressive wealth-redistributing policy that puts equal-sized checks in the hands of most U.S. residents.
One of the glaring errors in these policies is that the dividend checks would not go to all. Millions of the most poor and vulnerable among us would be left out. The Boxer-Sanders Climate Protection Act of 2013 would – after raising the costs of energy and goods on everyone – provide monthly rebate checks only to “legal residents of the United States.” This would cause a disproportionate hardship on the nearly 12 million undocumented United States residents whose work is fundamental to our economy in important ways, from providing the food on our tables to caring for our children and elders. Congressman Van Hollen’s “cap and dividend” bill does the same and seems to exclude even more people (those lawfully here on temporary work visas, including many agricultural workers).
Environmental Justice demands that any approach to curbing emissions does not shift economic and environmental burdens onto vulnerable communities. To their credit, Citizens Climate Lobby supports dividend checks going to all households. How to fix this, and who will speak up about it is another question entirely. Perhaps CCL needs to make it a talking point in their lobby days.
4) A carbon tax fails to adequately cover all relevant sectors
A carbon tax fails to cover all critical economic sectors that are part of the problem and should be part of the solution. Energy is a major climate culprit, but the agriculture and waste sectors need to be a major part of a climate policy solution as well. It’s inadequate to expect that the indirect impacts on these other sectors will be enough to move them, and to do so in the proper direction. Same goes for transportation, which is an energy sector, but also one that requires specific redirection of policy that a blunt tool like a carbon tax cannot provide.
The transportation bill annually pumps tens of billions of dollars into highways. Known as the “highway bill,” it allocates 80% of funding for highways and auto-centered infrastructure, and 20% for transit. Without reversing this annual allocation, how can a carbon tax truly transform our car- and truck-centric transportation system into one centered around bike-able and walkable communities and fare-free mass transit?
Same goes for the waste and materials economy. Solutions are far too nuanced to expect a carbon tax to properly lead us to a zero waste paradigm. In 2006, EPA estimated that provision of goods accounts for 29% of U.S. greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, and that provision of food accounts for another 13%, totaling 42% of emissions attributable to materials management. Considering how EPA ignores biogenic emissions from waste incineration, underestimates GHG emissions from landfills, and didn’t have the latest science on methane, this is surely an underestimate. Minimizing waste can reduce at least 37% of U.S. GHG emissions. Since a carbon tax doesn’t address methane, CO2, or CFC emissions from landfills, or even the CO2 emissions from trash incinerators, municipal officials may react to a carbon tax by cutting truck trips, dropping separate recycling or composting collection to save fuel and let the waste be buried (or burned, then buried), rather than see the larger picture.
Agriculture has the most promise to transform from being the largest climate problem to the largest climate solution. As the recent Cowspiracy documentary shows, animal agriculture (to feed meat and dairy consumption) is the leading cause of global warming, rainforest destruction, land use, water use, water pollution, and species extinction, while contributing to world hunger and numerous health problems. The film draws attention to 2006 research by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization showing that the world’s livestock contribute more to global warming (18%) than the world’s entire transportation sector (13%). It then introduces 2009 research by analysts at the World Bank Group showing that animal agriculture, viewed more holistically, is actually responsible for at least 51% of global warming!
While this 51% figure has been debated back and forth, it seems more credible than the lower figures, as it accounts for various oversights and also looks at methane’s impacts over a more relevant 20-year time horizon, rather than the 100-year figure. At the time of the study, methane was understood to be 20-some times as potent as CO2 over 100 years and 72 times over 20 years. We now know, from more recent research, that methane is 35 times as potent as CO2 over 100 years and 86 to 105 times over 20 years. Even if the 51% figure (which the researchers say is conservative) is a bit inflated, it’s also still underestimating the true impacts of methane.
No matter how you cut it, animal agriculture is the largest contributor to global warming. Because much of the impact is from methane, reducing meat and dairy consumption can have the most rapid effect on the climate. After all, methane has a 7-8 year half-life and persists in the atmosphere for a short enough time to make a quick impact. CO2, on the other hand, persists for over 100 years, so reductions in methane are far more important to avoid short-term global warming tipping points.
One U.N. agency, using the lower GHG estimate for animal agriculture’s impacts, stated in 2010 that: “A substantial reduction of impacts would only be possible with a substantial worldwide diet change, away from animal products.”
Carbon tax policies, even if intended to cover methane, are likely to ignore agriculture as a sector, focusing primarily on CO2 from fossil fuel sources. Congressman Van Hollen’s “cap and dividend” bill specifically exempts animal agriculture. A carbon tax would drive up the costs of food – most especially meat and dairy – due to higher costs of oil and of nitrogen fertilizer (which is produced with huge amounts of natural gas). However, the true global warming impacts of agriculture will be drastically downplayed.
Just as the transportation bill puts mega-subsidies into highways each year, the farm bill does the same for corporate agribusiness. A carbon tax that only partially impacts this sector won’t be enough to shift to the solutions we need.
Can regenerative organic farming reverse climate change?
2014 Rodale Institute research shows that we can reverse climate change with decentralized, local, no-till, organic farming using compost, cover crops and enhancing crop rotations. These practices, known as regenerative organic farming, can sequester more than 100% of current annual CO2 emissions using widely available and inexpensive organic management practices.
Citing 75 studies from peer-reviewed journals, including its own 33-year Farm Systems Trial, Rodale Institute concluded that if all cropland were converted to the regenerative model it would sequester 40% of annual CO2 emissions; changing global pastures to that model would add another 71%, effectively overcompensating for the world’s yearly carbon dioxide emissions.
Even if modest assumptions about soil’s carbon sequestration potential are made, regenerative agriculture can easily keep annual emissions to within the desirable range necessary if we are to have a good chance of limiting warming to 1.5°C by 2020.
For more info on this topic, see websites on “carbon farming” here, here and here.
We must replace animal and industrial agriculture with farming practices like permaculture, biointensive, and regenerative organic farming. It must be decentralized, with community gardens, farmer’s markets, and community supported agriculture becoming wide-spread. It won’t be enough to focus on individual change (but you should still click the previous link and find a CSA near you!). We need institutional changes to encourage all of these practices and to replace the farm bills’ big ag policies with these green solutions. A carbon tax will help a bit, but to truly make this shift, we need to transform agriculture policies and subsidies, focusing in on the details of how to do it right. As the Rodale report explains, it takes all of the pieces, not just some, for soils to become the carbon sinks we need them to be.
Say what we want!
Blunt economic instruments won’t get us where we need to go. We need to be blunt about what we want, and not expect “invisible hands” of the marketplace to move us to wind and solar rather than nuclear and incinerators, for example. A real climate policy would mandate drastic (at least 75%) reductions in demand through energy conservation and efficiency throughout the economy, including a reversal in transportation priorities. It would mandate that the rest of our energy needs be met by solar, wind and energy storage. It would set a national zero waste policy. The Farm Bill would become an engine for a climate-friendly regenerative organic agriculture system. It would shift the $74 billion in annual dirty energy subsidies, and most of the gigantic military budget into making these solutions possible. Finally, it would radically change our foreign policy from an imperial war-based conquest for our “economic interests” into one of reparations and support for other countries to follow this path to clean solutions. …and then I woke up:
5) Better solutions are more politically realistic
“Political realism” is not usually part of my vocabulary. It’s the term usually used by mainstream environmental groups to justify why they’re supporting rather compromised legislation – because, after all, the corporate controlled state or national legislators simply aren’t ready to pass something good, so we have to start with something not-so-good because it’s the best we can get. The prominent environmental leader, David Brower, responded to this best:
“Compromise is often necessary, but it ought not to originate with environmental leaders. Our role is to hold fast to what we believe is right, to fight for it, to find allies, and to adduce all possible arguments for our cause. If we cannot find enough vigor in us or our friends to win, then let someone else propose the compromise, which we must then work hard to coax our way. We thus become a nucleus around which activists can build and function.” – David Brower
We must recognize that a carbon tax is a non-starter, politically – though this can eventually change and is slowly shifting. Near-term, however, we’re not talking about something that can pass Congress. Even a filthy cap-and-trade bill that we, Greenpeace, Dr. James Hanson and others called “more harm than good,” couldn’t pass in 2009 when foundations poured about $1 Billion into big enviro groups to push it. …and that was before the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, the Tea Party takeover of Congress and other legal decisions that cemented corporate control over the federal government.
So, the choice is between one politically unrealistic solution and the others that we propose, which wouldn’t carry the several problems that a carbon tax would. In 2009, a federal Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) law almost passed Congress, and similar laws have been passed in over 30 states. That is far more politically viable than any tax marketed as a “fee” – especially where any progressive dividend would sadly be red-baited for its wealth redistributing aspects.
RPS policies are mandates for utilities to phase in a certain percentage of “renewable” energy in their mix. While these aren’t defined cleanly like they should be, they still mandate a shift to a new electricity mix with specified technologies in a clear time frame. The legislative structure and political momentum is there. The main problem is ensuring that the concept of “renewable” is defined cleanly, being limited to non-burn technologies, prioritizing conservation, efficiency, solar, wind and energy storage. Most state RPS laws (and federal bills) consider burning trash, biomass and landfill gas to be renewable. Some get worse, counting “advanced” nuclear power, or the burning of coal (in gasification plants), waste coal, coal mine methane or tires. These bad precedents in state laws have been pushed into federal bills and are likely to be redefined as “Clean Energy” Portfolio Standards so that nuclear power and coal mine methane is included.
…Which brings us to the problem with doing anything at the federal level. Corporations control our government. They do this at all levels, but getting meaningful policy passed without major compromises is only possible at the local level – and sometimes at state levels, but they’re pretty corporate controlled, too. It’s critical to recognize that people power is strongest at the local level, and that social change comes from the bottom up. That’s why we see success rates in our grassroots base ranging from 60 to 99%, depending on which industry is being fought, whether it be coal or gas-fired power plants, nuclear reactors, landfills or incinerators.
It’s unreasonable to expect top-down major national legislation that isn’t so horribly compromised that it begs the question of whether it’ll make any difference or do more harm than good. That’s why we need to be pushing for clean election reforms at all levels of government. It’s also why the movement and its funders need to be putting more energy into the grassroots, where we’re decimating entire industry sectors one community at a time, rather than into top-down strategies that expect major changes out of a corporate-puppet Congress.
As our open letter to CCL stated last year: “We must unshackle our democracy from corporate control and political bribery before we can achieve success. Meanwhile, we must continue to build our power and advance the policies and projects from the community, municipal, state and regional levels, which is what grassroots organizing has been doing for decades: shutting down and preventing polluting facilities from coming online at the source while creating vibrant real solutions right at the community level.”
Mike Ewall is founder and director of Energy Justice Network, a national support network for grassroots activists fighting dirty energy and waste facilities.