Carbon Pricing is a Stepping Stone to Sustainability

In light of the recent national election, we might agree that climate change and environmentalism will not be a top priority come 2017. This is not to say that the climate will be ignored completely. As CNN reported, President-elect Donald Trump “conceded [that] there is ‘some connectivity’ between human activity and climate change and wavered on whether he would pull the United States out of international accords aimed at combating the phenomenon, which scientists overwhelmingly agree is caused by human activity.” But, in reality, it is to say that climate adaptation and mitigation efforts will be temporarily stymied as environmental lobbyists, legislators and climate activist groups scramble to restructure their goals on a crumbling social and political foundation.

Amherst has had its own experiences with impeded climate action, sending its Divest Amherst campaigners back to the drawing board more than once. The campus has made progress in mitigating its carbon footprint with its recently successful trayless initiative, which will save tremendous amounts of water by removing the need to wash trays after student use and reduce food waste by promoting awareness of individuals’ food volume consumption. There is, however, more work to be done. In the impending political attitude, it will be more crucial than ever for climate action to take place at the local level and for the generation who will inherit the country to begin collecting the stepping stones that they might one day arrange to achieve social and political change.

This change can start with carbon pricing. Very specific, yes, but Mother Nature Network reports that carbon pricing is the “most cost-effective way to reduce emissions and should be ‘at the centre of government efforts to tackle climate change,’ according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development [OECD].” It is so effective, in fact, that prominent universities have formally come out in favor of carbon pricing: Yale and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are part of an international carbon pricing leadership coalition, and many other schools including Tufts, Swarthmore and Texas Tech are working towards public endorsements for carbon pricing. Yale has even implemented a campus-wide carbon tax to raise awareness of their carbon footprint and reduce their CO2 emissions.

Let me pause for a moment to explain why carbon dioxide, or CO2, is relevant to the current climate crisis and why putting a price on the carbon dioxide we release can mitigate the molecule’s adverse effects. We know that greenhouse gasses like carbon dioxide are contributing to the general warming of our planet and that CO2 is the most commonly blamed culprit for the fast-paced rise in global temperatures. A natural gas in the atmosphere, carbon dioxide absorbs and remits the sun’s energy. The heat produced in this transfer of energy between greenhouse gasses and the sun keeps the planet at a normal temperature, that is, unless there is too much of the gas. With a steady surplus of carbon dioxide injected into the atmosphere via human activity, the global balance has shifted, preventing the earth from regulating temperatures as it has done for most of organismal history on the planet.

Since the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere has increased from 270 ppm (parts per million) to over 400 ppm since the Industrial Revolution, we have seen numerous adverse changes in global systems including rising sea levels, melting glaciers, ocean acidification, heat waves and droughts, upsets in seasonal timing and a higher prevalence of forest fires. The warming caused by increasing levels of greenhouse gasses also threatens to melt northern stores of permafrost, or frozen soil, which hold immense volumes of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses. “Current research estimates that permafrost in the Northern Hemisphere holds 1,672 billion tons (Petagrams) of organic carbon. If just 10 percent of this permafrost were to thaw, it could release enough extra carbon dioxide to the atmosphere to raise temperatures an additional 0.7 degrees Celsius (1.3 degrees Fahrenheit) by 2100,” NASA explains. This rise in temperature is enough to harrowingly exacerbate drought conditions and flood risks of rising sea levels along with the other previously mentioned hazards of global warming. In fact, it has been projected that “a one-degree increase [in global temperature] would eliminate fresh water from a third of the world’s land surface.”

Now, I have always looked at carbon emissions from the perspective of the food industry (as a vegan, this is unavoidable). With that in mind, here are some numbers to conceptualize just how much each individual can influence carbon emissions: on average, one gallon of gasoline produces a little over 18 pounds of carbon dioxide. Consider that by exchanging a “regular” car for a hybrid, a person can reduce their emissions by 1 ton per year (about 111 gallons of gasoline). Now consider that exchanging meat and dairy for a vegan diet reduces carbon dioxide by 1.5 tons per year – that’s 3,000 pounds of carbon dioxide or 167 gallons of gasoline! And if you’re not willing to give up the cheesecake or the cream puffs, think about this: if every American dropped just one serving of chicken per week from their diet, it would save the same amount of greenhouse gas emissions as taking 500,000 cars off the road.

The reason these small-scale proxies are so significant is that they are dwarfed by the larger impact that companies and industrial practices could have if they adhered to carbon taxation. “For the U.S.,” writes the Carbon Tax Center, “carbon dioxide released by burning oil, coal and natural gas makes up 82 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions (weighted by climate-change impact).” The World Resources Institute writes, “The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) found that if the country had set a carbon tax of $25 per ton in 2015 and increased it by 5 percent each year, carbon emissions would have fallen to 32 percent below 2005 levels by 2030.” But new research suggests that this may underestimate the impacts carbon pricing can hav e on greenhouse gas emissions.

There are several methods of pricing carbon, which is significant given the widely varied economic and political structures of national and global regions. The two main ways to implement a price on carbon is through a cap-and-trade system and a direct carbon tax. As its name would suggest, a cap-and-trade system caps the emission amount for industries at a practical level but allows the industries with lower carbon dioxide emissions to trade their carbon remainder to larger emitters. In this way, a market price for greenhouse gasses is established, one that also ensures that companies will not exceed carbon emission standards. The second prominent carbon pricing strategy, a carbon tax, directly controls the price on carbon by setting a tax rate on greenhouse gas emissions or on the carbon content of fossil fuels. This differs from cap-and-trade in that a carbon tax does not pre-define the reduction in CO2 emissions but rather fixes a price for carbon that incentivizes emission reductions. The Carbon Tax Center continues, “To avoid burdening the less affluent, carbon tax proceeds should be returned to Americans through periodic pro rata “dividends” or dedicated to reducing the tax burden of regressive taxes such as the federal payroll tax or state sales taxes (depending upon whether the tax is imposed at the federal or state level). Shifting the tax burden to pollution and pollution-generating activities will create powerful incentives to use less energy and emit less CO2 into the atmosphere while simultaneously promoting tax equity and minimizing the impact of the carbon tax on those with lower incomes.”

On a local level, a conversation I had with one of Elizabeth Warren’s congressional staffers made it clear that Massachusetts, despite its various environmental efforts, has not been a pioneer of carbon pricing projects. This is due to the complications of putting together a coalition that agrees on exactly which type of carbon pricing to implement state-wide. In fact, the Warren camp was surprised that carbon pricing had gained the traction that it has here at Amherst, at MIT and on campuses outside Massachusetts. Despite the state’s focus on promoting renewable energy and preventing pipeline projects, Massachusetts does have several bills in progress that address carbon pricing. Most of these posit a tax on carbon with associated returns to the taxpayer or reinvestment in renewable energy sources; fewer suggest that the government keep the tax returns and reinvest in something other than green energy.

With this information, it is now the responsibility of local communities to prove that carbon pricing can work and to garner support from students, teachers, schools and all institutions. After the Amherst Divest rally in mid-October, an event that produced a very successful student turnout but a very disappointing response from the administration (re: drawing board), it now seems apt to introduce carbon pricing to Amherst. Members of the Green Amherst Project and Divest Amherst have begun a campus-wide campaign called Put A Price on It (PAPOI). The campaign is affiliated with a nationwide movement in many of the schools mentioned above. Finally, the motion to form this carbon pricing coalition is, of course, not in competition with Divest Amherst, but supplementary to it: a stepping stone, if I might return to that metaphor, to generate the symbolic (and hopefully one day physical) actions from the administration that will dismantle Amherst’s relationship with fossil fuels and cement its support for a more sustainable future.