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The Green Highway

The changing climate and a much-needed carbon tax

Special to The Globe and Mail

Two interesting issues that in the banality of the U.S. presidential campaign will likely never be discussed:

1. the extent of the sea ice covering the Arctic Ocean is now the smallest observed in the three decades since consistent satellite observations of the polar cap began, according to scientists from NASA;

2. an important study finds a carbon tax would enable the United States to find the means to both close the deficit gap and revive the economy.

While the two contenders are slanging each other about tax returns and birth certificates both surely know that NASA and MIT have to be taken seriously. Mitt Romney (not MIT) made his fortune in Boston and Barack Obama went to Harvard. MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) has more new technology patents than most countries on Earth. Harvard has been lucky enough to have had among its alums a well-known billionaire who created Facebook plus eight who have became President of the United States.

When evidence becomes undeniable you have to wonder why those who make big decisions won’t discuss the evidence. Intelligent public policy matters. Yet the news is always obsessed about whether the teachers get their new raise or not. Meanwhile there are policy options that make a huge amount of sense that are never discussed, or even mentioned, in the daily news cycle.

The MIT study found that taxing carbon at $20 a ton in the U.S. would generate $1.5-trillion in revenue in a 10-year period, which would reduce corporate and personal income taxes, maintain social services spending and reduce the deficit.

“With the carbon tax there are virtually no serious trade-offs. Our analysis shows the overall economy improves, taxes are lower and pollution emissions are reduced,” said John M. Reilly, co-director of MIT’s Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change. The study said the carbon tax would lower pollution by 20 per cent by 2050 and prevent oil imports from rising. It would also, most importantly, shift energy markets to clean technology.

Some Republications are coming around to the fact that the United States is facing the expiration of the “Bush” tax cuts in 2013 – the fiscal cliff. Even supply-side economists are reluctantly embracing a fee on carbon emissions. There are many global warming deniers in the GOP but others believe if the U.S. needs to raise revenue, why not just tax global warming pollution? The MIT analysis suggests that a carbon tax would be a more economically beneficial way of raising revenue than payroll or income taxes.

Additionally, the MIT report argues that a carbon tax would accomplish other important objectives. Fossil-fuel use would go down, oil imports would shrink slightly and U.S. carbon-dioxide emissions would decline. A carbon tax is tax levied on all carbon content of fuels. Carbon dioxide is a heat-trapping "greenhouse" gas. Carbon is present in hydrocarbon fuels – coal, petroleum, and natural gas – and is released as carbon dioxide (CO2) when they are burned. In contrast, non-combustion energy sources – wind, sunlight, hydropower and nuclear – do not convert hydrocarbons to CO2.

Yet, even with a carbon tax, the United States would still fall short of its long-term climate goals, which involve an 80 per cent cut in emissions below 1990 levels by mid-century. According to MIT calculations, a modest carbon tax, on its own, wouldn’t get the United States close to that longer-term mark; however, it would still make sense as a more economically efficient way of raising revenue.

If an intelligent public policy can improve the economy, reduce trade deficits, help the environment and keep the U.S. from going broke – why wouldn’t it at least be discussed in the election of the so-called most powerful person on Earth?