Articles by Adam Stein
Adam Stein lives in Chicago.
This sort of flew under the radar, but a few weeks ago a federal commission floated the idea of eventually replacing the gas tax with a tax based on the number of miles driven each year. What happened next was odd: progressives, conservatives, and wonks banded together to proclaim a mileage tax to be a stupid idea.
A mileage tax is not a stupid idea. It may prove to be unworkable for technical, political, or even cultural reasons, but at root a mileage tax is both a very good idea and also possibly a necessary one as we undertake a shift away from the internal combustion engine. It's no surprise to see politicians (like Obama) run screaming from this proposal, but why are the pundits piling on?
Before delving into the specific arguments for and against a mileage tax, it's worth noting that the entire country of Holland is doing exactly what commentators have deemed stupid or impossible: starting in 2011, the Netherlands will phase in a vehicle-tracking scheme that applies dynamic pricing to every mile driven. Pricing will vary by vehicle type, time of day, and location, in order to curb both congestion and carbon emissions. The program is designed to be revenue-neutral, and because the government is simultaneously phasing out a steep motor vehicle tax, the plan should end up reducing the burden on low-income drivers. I mention this not to suggest that the U.S. can or should do exactly as Holland does, but just to point out that the concept isn't quite as crazily unworkable as some seem to think.
Eager to find new ways to trivialize the warming of the planet, the New York Times has been reporting on the carbon footprint of individual politicians and legislatures.
They are abetted in this effort by Terra Eco, a French environmental magazine that has calculated British Prime Minister Gordon Brown's footprint to be -- quelle horreur! -- 8,400 tons of CO2 per year. By my calcs, that's about 0.0001 percent of America's carbon footprint, so as soon as Brown buys a bicycle, we should have the climate problem pretty well licked.
In the meantime, I applaud Terra Eco's work on this important issue, and look forward to their upcoming report on the size of Al Gore's swimming pool.
President Obama recently announced a plan to cut the federal deficit in half by the end of his first term, in part by raising revenue through the auctioning of carbon permits under a cap-and-trade system. In one sense, there's no new information here. Obama campaigned heavily on cap-and-trade and he's always favored auctioned permits, so the plan is just a restatement of some prior campaign pledges. Right?
Sort of, but this is still a very big deal. The new budget has at least four big implications.
The first is purely political. By including carbon revenue in his budget projections, Obama is not only presenting cap-and-trade as a fait accompli, he's also casting it as a matter of fiscal responsibility. Deficit reduction is the ultimate bipartisan fetish object, and with this announcement Obama has performed an effective flanking maneuver on opponents who are going to try to worry a climate bill to death over economic concerns. Don't get me wrong: the political battle over cap-and-trade will be bruising. But the rhetorical ground on which it will be fought just tilted more heavily in the favor of environmentalists.
Although rumors of its death may be exaggerated, the Kyoto Protocol hasn't so far been anyone's idea of a rip-roaring success. The question remains: is the international treaty fundamentally flawed, or is it a fixer-upper that bureaucrats are slowly tweaking into an effective carbon-fighting regulatory framework?
Two pieces of recent evidence boost the fixer-upper view. The first is a report from a prominent research group suggesting that a large part of the European Union's drop in carbon emissions last year are attributable to the cap.
EU emissions dropped by 3 percent in 2008. According to New Carbon Finance, 40 percent of this drop is due to Kyoto. Another 30 percent is due to the recession. Much of the drop came from a switchover from coal to natural gas.
To be sure, this is a modest improvement. The drop itself is small, and natural gas is still a fossil fuel. Nevertheless, this is how a carbon price works: gradual, steady pressure yields incremental movement toward cleaner technologies. The mechanism appears to be sound, and legislators are presently engaged in the political task of making the cap more stringent.