Tax on Carbon Emissions Could Save the Future

Bryce Thompson, Contributing Columnist

Humanity is at a crossroads, facing the gravest crisis in its history. Although the climate is constantly fluctuating due to natural factors such as solar variability, orbital position alterations and volcanic activity, the shifting climate is increasingly caused by human-induced variables. The effects of climate change have been unprecedented; according to NASA and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration analyses, “17 of the last 18 hottest years since modern record-keeping began have occurred since 2001.”

This is caused in large part by the concentration of carbon in our atmosphere being maintained at 411 parts per million in 2019 (46 percent above the 280 parts per million before the Industrial Revolution in 1750.) Additionally, the average temperature on Earth has risen nearly one degree Celsius since 1850, and the heat brings a host of its own problems, according to Henry Fountain of The New York Times. Would it not be wise to reduce our carbon output? One would think. But as of the summer of 2019, the world’s carbon emissions are rising at the fastest rate since 2011. The earth is hurting, and we are taking notice of its symptoms, so why aren’t we doing much about it?

The answer is simple: greed. Americans are stereotypically big and blubbery. Just as its citizens are gluttonous, its corporations (and corporations around the globe), tend to have a similar lust, but for money, not food. In all, the world emits over 36 billion tons of carbon into the atmosphere every year. The United States (population of nearly 330 million), emits as much carbon as the entirety of Europe (population of over 740 million) per year, and produces 15 percent of the world’s emissions, according to Thomas C. Frohlich of USA Today. And while the United States is not leading the list of per-capita emissions, trailing oil-rich countries like Qatar and Bahrain, it ranks 11th, producing a whopping 16.2 metric tons per person, far more than India’s 1.8 metric tons per-capita.

Currently, methods of production, extraction, and transportation are cheaper when using fossil fuels and coal, which tend to produce a lot of carbon dioxide. Unfortunately, many companies are unwilling to switch to renewable resources because of the monetary benefit posed by the consumption of fossil fuels and coal. 

There will always be people who simply do not care. But for those who don’t care because of an ethical motivation, we can make them care because of another reason: money. Everyone cares about money. If we can monetarily punish corporations for harming the environment, they will certainly take notice and begin to care.”

Carbon emissions are the most influential aspect of human-caused climate change, specifically as it pertains to global average temperature increases. A major component of carbon emissions is the burning of coal for energy, especially in the electrical industry. In fact, Louisville Gas and Electric derives the majority of its power from coal; five of its eight operating power plants utilize coal in some fashion. This, combined with other major sectors like transportation and extraction of resources (such as oil), all take a heavy toll on the atmosphere.

The extra heat trapped by greenhouse gasses has another detrimental effect: increasing the amount of aerosols in the atmosphere. Aerosols, “tiny solid particles or liquid droplets suspended in the atmosphere,” are a major source of pollution, and typically originate from industrial and transportation emissions. These aerosols cause a plethora of problems, ranging from the disruption of the water cycle to smog that leads to respiratory problems for humans, animals and plants, according to The Economic Times.

Not only does climate change pose threats for the long-term health of humans and the earth, it also brandishes an immediate threat, especially to those with pre-existing respiratory illnesses such as asthma. Even disregarding air pollution, humanity is witnessing horrific effects among wildlife: wildlife populations have declined 60 percent in a little more than 40 years. According to Fountain, climate change plays the third-largest role in the extinction of species, just behind geographic changes and natural resource exploitation. Warming temperatures brought by the changing climate especially affect coral reefs, which in turn affect the fish populations that inhabit the coral reefs. When coral reefs are consistently exposed to warmer water, they become bleached and die.

How do we solve this catastrophe while making greedy corporations pay for their egregious exploitations? Carbon taxes. By taxing the carbon emissions of a company, we can hold it accountable for its actions. The plan would work like this: a simple tax would be levied on every ton of carbon released by a company, rather than taxing the raw material being burned to produce this carbon. This way, corporations are incentivized to use cleaner fuel, as they will pay much more for a kilowatt hour of power from coal than they would for a kilowatt hour of power from natural gas. However, the tax must be rather imposing, as mega-companies tend to have enough margins in their revenues to pay off a small tax. If taxes are large enough, companies will be forced to ease off the burning of dirty fuels and switch to cleaner, renewable energy. Additionally, the revenues gained from the tax can be returned to consumers through rebates and dividends, so as not to hurt them for the errors of the enterprises.

Carbon taxes are a viable option. Part of the reason people oppose them is because of the stigma associated with the word “tax.” However, according to Brad Plumer of the New York Times, “Economists have long suggested that raising the cost of burning coal, oil, and gas can be a cost-effective way to curb emissions.” After all, it seemed to work in Great Britain. Following a $25 per ton of carbon dioxide tax in 2013, Great Britain saw its lowest carbon emission levels since 1890, according to Emma Newburg of CNBC. And this only covered 23 percent of all emissions. Imagine if it had covered even more emissions. How much greater would the impact have been?

This is what needs to be implemented in the United States and the rest of the world. The governments of the world can no longer sit idly by and hope that companies will be guided by their own virtues and morals. Because, as it turns out most of the time, the morals of companies are non-existent, at least for now. For far too long, communities and governments around the globe have waited for a mass social change that will save the world. And while, according to Mr. Michael Budniak, an advanced placement environmental science teacher at Trinity High School, “we absolutely need to have a mandatory course on environmental science,” this is not happening yet.

We need to do something, and we cannot wait any longer. We are humans, and what do we care about? Money. We might not notice every tragedy happening in the impoverished communities and in the wilderness where no one is there to observe them, but we do notice when we reach for some money in our wallet and find nothing left, or when we go to withdraw from the bank and our account reads zero.

And while this won’t solve everything – it would be foolish to think so – it is a start, which is what humanity needs. However, it is far too idealistic to assume that every CEO, every president, every member of Congress, every business owner, and every citizen will magically drop their carbon emissions to zero. That will likely never happen. There will always be people who simply do not care. But for those who don’t care because of an ethical motivation, we can make them care because of another reason: money. Everyone cares about money. If we can monetarily punish corporations for harming the environment, they will certainly take notice and begin to care.

Carbon taxes should take effect immediately. Mr. Wayne Kraus, an advanced placement economics teacher at Trinity High School, agreed, saying “Carbon taxes make sense if you’re trying to balance climate concern with economic impact.” The sooner we can curb carbon emissions, the less irreversible damage we can inflict on our environment. On top of being recognized by economists as an economically viable remedy, carbon taxes are relatively easy to implement, provided you have a price in mind, and you are able to get enough bipartisan support for the new legislature. Carbon taxes could save the future.