Google Inc. has a new project, "Renewable Energy Cheaper Than Coal." Google is preparing to bet megabucks, mega-engineers, and its cutting-edge reputation on its ability to propel solar thermal power, wind turbines, and other renewable electricity up the innovation curve and under the cost of coal-fired power, Reuters reported Tuesday. "Our goal is to produce one gigawatt [1,000 megawatts] of renewable energy capacity that is cheaper than coal. We are optimistic this can be done in years, not decades," said Larry Page, Google's cofounder and president of products, according to Reuters. To which we at the Carbon Tax Center say: Good luck, and don't forget to hire the lobbyists. You're going to need them to help win a carbon tax, because without the tax, your goal of renewable energy cheaper than coal is likely to remain out of reach.
New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg declared his support today for a national carbon tax, according to a report posted on the New York Times City Room blog by metro reporter Sewell Chan: Mayor Bloomberg plans to announce today his support for a national carbon tax. In what his aides are calling one of the most significant policy addresses of his second and final term, the mayor will argue that directly taxing emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change will slow global warming, promote economic growth and stimulate technological innovation -- even if it results in higher gasoline prices in the short term. Mr. Bloomberg is scheduled to present his carbon tax proposal in a speech this afternoon at a two-day climate protection summit in Seattle organized by the United States Conference of Mayors. (A copy of the speech was provided to The New York Times by aides to the mayor; the full text is available from The Times, along with the complete Times story.) With his speech today, Mayor Bloomberg joins former Vice-President Al Gore as the nation's leading advocates of a carbon tax to cap and reduce carbon emissions from fossil fuels. French President Nicolas Sarkozy called last week for a national carbon tax on global-warming pollutants and a European levy on imports from countries not complying with the Kyoto Protocol to reduce emissions. In September, U.S. Rep. John Dingell, the powerful chair of the House Commerce Committee, proposed a hybrid carbon tax combining a straight carbon tax on coal, oil, and natural gas with a surcharge on gasoline and jet fuel.
"Man always kills the thing he loves," wrote naturalist Aldo Leopold in the environmentalist bible, A Sand County Almanac. Leopold was referring to Americans' destruction of the wilderness, but he could have been describing the green establishment's hostile reaction to the "hybrid carbon tax" proposed by Michigan Rep. John Dingell last month. Dingell's tax package, combining a carbon-busting tax on fossil fuels, a surtax on gasoline and jet fuel, and a phase-out of subsidies for sprawl homes, should have been greeted by environmentalists like the Second Coming. Extrapolated to 2025, the carbon tax alone would cut annual CO2 emissions by 1.3 billion metric tons (a sixth of current emissions) and curb U.S. oil usage by 2.8 millions barrels a day (mbd). With Dingell's petrol surcharge, the savings swell to nearly 1.6 billion metric tons of CO2 and 4.5 mbd, more than the entire oil output of Iran. Further savings would come from abolishing the tax-deductibility of mortgage interest on houses larger than 4,200 square feet, a loophole that has underwritten millions of McMansions on America's SUV-crazed exurban fringe. (Smaller houses down to 3,000 square feet would also lose some deductions, on a sliding scale.) Taken as a whole, Dingell's proposal would be a giant step toward what Friends of the Earth terms "decarbonizing the tax code." It would also embody the cardinal sustainability precept that keeps Europe's carbon footprint at half of ours: energy prices must tell the truth, even if it requires taxing fuels. Alas, with the lone exception of FoE, leading Big Green groups have gone after Dingell's proposed bill like a clear-cutter on crank.
With a mighty creak of long-rusted hinges, a door is finally opening in Washington. The present Congress will apparently be asked to consider a carbon tax. The measure -- actually, a hybrid carbon and petroleum tax -- will be introduced by the powerful chairman of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.). Today Dingell posted on his website a summary of the bill, which he began drafting in June. The current version would phase in, each year for five years, a charge of $10 per ton of carbon content of coal, oil, and natural gas -- plus an additional 10 cents/gallon for gasoline and jet fuel (kerosene). By the end of the five-year period the charges would reach $50/ton of carbon plus 50 cents/gallon of gasoline and jet fuel. These equate to 63 cents a gallon of gas and 90 cents for one hundred kilowatt-hours, assuming the nationwide average fuel mix. Dingell is asking the public for comments. Here's ours: we think the bill is terrific. It's in line with what we said when we founded the Carbon Tax Center, and as Dingell himself wrote last month in the Washington Post, "[S]ome form of carbon emissions fee or tax ... would be the most effective way to curb carbon emissions and make alternatives economically viable." Moreover, as we elaborate below, his supplemental tax on gasoline and jet fuel has the look of genius.
I wrote this piece linking NYC Mayor Bloomberg's congestion pricing proposal with a carbon tax, in June. I shopped it around but none of the big papers took it. Now, NY Times columnist Tom Friedman -- perhaps the second-most visible supporter of carbon taxes (after Al Gore) -- has written a column backing the Bloomberg pricing plan. "Crunch time" for the plan may come as early as the next day or two. So it's time the piece saw the light of day. Every so often there arises an environmental controversy that tests the capacity of Americans to face reality. One such case is emerging in New York City, where Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg has proposed a "congestion fee" on cars and trucks driving into Manhattan. Backers from the mayor on down tout the fee as a cure-all: it will unsnarl traffic, relieve pollution and create a revenue stream to upgrade subways and buses, while also cutting global warming emissions. These claims are a bit overstated. More probably there will be a single-digit increase in traffic speeds, a one percent drop in emissions citywide, and perhaps a $400 million revenue infusion for a transportation system whose annual costs top $30 billion. But even though the immediate benefits of the congestion charge are relatively modest, the act of imposing such a charge is transformative in itself.
Yesterday's L.A. Times ran an odd op-ed calling carbon taxes an ineffectual antidote to global warming. Unlike other critiques that brand carbon taxes politically unpalatable, this one argued that they're simply not up to the job of cutting carbon emissions: Carbon taxes -- taxes on energy sources that emit carbon dioxide (CO2) -- aren't a bad idea. But they only work in some situations. Specifically, they do not work in the transportation sector, the source of a whopping 40% of California's greenhouse gas emissions (and a third of U.S. emissions). I've known Daniel Sperling, the author of the op-ed, for decades. As the long-time director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at UC Davis, Dan probably knows as much about automotive engineering as anyone in the world. What's more, he's conscientious, tireless, and concerned. So why do I think he's wrong about carbon taxes? Actually, Dan is part right, but his message is wrong. Let me explain.
For most of us who care about ecology and the environment, there was some personal experience that brought us there. For me, it was wilderness hiking, beginning 30-plus years ago in the Grand Canyon and continuing across the American West. Two books helped instigate my journeys and those of thousands of fellow adventure-seekers and nature-lovers. The Welshman who wrote them, the intrepid and blessedly individualistic Colin Fletcher, died earlier this month, at 85. I can't recall which I read first -- The Man Who Walked Through Time, in which Fletcher chronicled his 400-mile hike through the Grand Canyon, or his compulsively detailed guide to backpacking, The Complete Walker. That's probably because I read them both repeatedly and obsessively.
Can any of Environmental Defense's three main points stand up to scrutiny? ED: A carbon tax can be gamed as easily as a carbon trading scheme. CTC: A carbon tax may be subject to gaming, but cap-and-trade positively invites it. USCAP concedes that some allowances will be given out (not auctioned) at the outset, which means protracted, high-stakes negotiations ("a giant food fight," a leading utility executive called it) over free allowances that will be worth billions. How will these be allocated? What baseline year? Watch earth burn as the polluters jockey for the baseline giving them the most allowances! With a carbon tax, by contrast, any tax preferences or exemptions will at least be visible and locked in, and thus potentially removable. This difference is part of why former Commerce Undersecretary Robert Shapiro wrote recently that carbon taxes, compared to cap-and-trade, "are much less vulnerable to evasion and market manipulation, providing a more stable and transparent system for consumers and industry alike."
Did lefty pundit Alexander Cockburn and corporate behemoth General Motors secretly agree to swap climate positions? It looks that way. GM, swallowing hard, recently joined the U.S. Climate Action Partnership, the elite enviro-business coalition pushing cap-and-trade -- a so-called "market-based system" for controlling carbon dioxide emissions. Meanwhile, the famously acidic Cockburn lacerated global warming orthodoxy in his column in the Nation magazine, deriding it as a "fearmongers' catechism [of] crackpot theories" ginned up by "grant-guzzling climate careerists" and opportunistic politicians looking to ride the greenhouse "threatosphere" all the way to the White House. (Whew!) But there's less here than meets the eye. For as the inconvenient details of cap-and-trade schemes start to surface, USCAP is looking less and less like a CO2 control lobby and more like a corporate club seeking to cash in on the rising clamor against free carbon spewing. And Cockburn, it turns out, has been raining on the climate crisis parade for years.