Kamel: It's time for a carbon tax

Jonathan Kamel, Columnist
April 23, 2013 •

Recently, I have been thinking about the state of our country and how to make it more secure. We are not on a path for sustainable growth in our economic, fiscal or environmental sectors. As The New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman argued in his most recent column, we need to invest in the future of the United States through infrastructure improvement, education and national security measures. Yet the federal government remains handcuffed to achieve these efforts due to the state of the economy and the national deficit.

In honor of Earth Week, I am suggesting a “green” solution to our nation’s current financial problems. Ladies and gentleman, it’s time for a carbon tax. This flat rate would tax all carbon emissions from industries ranging from oil to manufacturing. I am not the first person to proclaim a carbon tax as a solution to current environmental and fiscal problems, but it’s an idea worth talking about.

I will not get into the specifics of how high or low a carbon tax should be set — that is for the economists to figure out. According to Friedman, a carbon tax has the potential to generate $1 trillion over 10 years based on current consumption of gasoline and electricity. Besides the economic incentives of a tax on carbon, this initiative would lower U.S. reliance on foreign oil by making gas more expensive, encourage industries to cut greenhouse gas emissions and fuel an emerging alternative energy industry that has struggled to compete with coal and natural gas.

What most Americans do not realize is that there remain hidden costs behind every good we purchase. If the price of electricity truly represented all the processes that went into producing electrical power, energy costs would far exceed the standard 12 cents per kilowatt-hour rate.

Current energy rates do not include the hidden costs of pollution, global warming and toxic waste that coincide with the burning of coal, gasoline and natural gas. All the food we buy, the clothes we throw away and the electricity we consume have a carbon price that is not included in its original cost.

A carbon tax would reveal the externalities behind our current energy sector and put us on a path toward a sustainable future. Solar, wind and nuclear power cannot compete in our present day fossil fuel economy. Although tremendous progress has been made to make renewable forms of energy economically competitive with the “Old School” industries, renewables only make up about 10 percent of the global energy consumption. If a carbon tax does its job, the renewable energy sector will see substantial advancement and growth much greater than the current trajectory.

Critics of a carbon tax argue that it would put too much stress on consumers and industries. The government can alleviate the financial burden of increased oil prices and added costs through tax reductions and rebates that could make a carbon tax bill a bipartisan effort. Through a larger tax reform effort, Republicans would be appeased by a decrease in the income tax, while Democrats would receive a long-awaited global warming initiative. Even if such a compromise were revenue-neutral, it would include the added benefit of mitigating climate change, an effect worth millions of dollars in itself.

Despite my optimism that a carbon tax is a possibility in the future, I remain wary that a divided Congress would consider such a remedy. If gun control legislation cannot pass a filibuster despite strong national approval, there is little hope that a carbon tax could as well. Yet it is Earth Week, and as sustainability-themed events occur throughout campus, I found it my duty to present an optimistic approach to our environmental future.

With the past week bringing sadness and a period of solace to many Americans, it is a perfect time for spring’s warmer weather to bring warmth back to our lives. Yet in doing so, we must not forget our planet in times of chaos and uncertainty. This world is our one and only home, and we must all continue to think positively to keep it that way. Happy Earth Week, everyone!

Jonathan Kamel is a Weinberg freshman. He can be reached at jonathankamel2016@u.northwestern.edu. If you want to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to opinion@dailynorthwestern.com.

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