Silver Donald Cameron

Posts Tagged ‘emissions’

The Return of the Carbon Tax

Monday, November 23rd, 2009

November 22, 2009

Lemme tell you about a carbon tax you’re gonna love. Two such taxes, actually. I tell you, kid, Stephane Dion had the right idea, but the wrong sales pitch.

The fun starts with the government giving you maybe $2000 as a carbon dividend. You like it so far? Thought so. And the government gets the money by imposing a tax on everything that emits carbon dioxide into the air. The total amount raised by the carbon tax is the same amount that’s being distributed as a dividend. So it’s a wash. The government is no better off at the end of the day.

But you’re better off, if you’ve been frugal with energy, living in a snug house with solar hot water and wood heat, travelling on public transport, eating local food. You lose a bit of your dividend in taxes on gasoline and electricity and what-not, but you get to keep a good chunk of your carbon dividend. Let’s say you pay $400 more in taxes. That money just reduces your windfall dividend. The carbon tax still leaves you $1600 ahead. You like it so far, sonny?

Fred Foulwater doesn’t.

Fred’s a carbon glutton, so he’s definitely worse off. Sure, he also gets his $2000 dividend — but he lives in a huge house in the outer suburbs, he doesn’t turn down his thermostat, and he commutes 60 km. to work in a monstrous SUV. He has a penchant for exotic tropical fruit in midwinter, and he flies a lot, so in the end he pays a lot of tax — which doesn’t exactly feel like a tax, but feels like higher prices. Let’s say Fred’s profligacy adds $3600 to his overall tax bill. So the new taxes have eaten up all of his $2000 dividend and another $1600 besides. That’s the $1600 that ended up in your pocket, buddy.

Pollute if you want. Buy junk if you like. Emit as you choose. But it’s going to cost you — and the money captured from you goes directly to your clever neighbours. As time goes by and the whole society becomes more serious about slashing emissions, the taxes and the dividend go up. Stupidity becomes more and more expensive.

Now this is simple stuff. Basic economics, kid. Raise the cost of bad behaviour. Lower the price on good behaviour. Watch things change. Why do you think cigarettes — which once cost $3 a carton — now cost $100?

That’s the first tax — easily administered, totally fair, a boon to the poor and the smart. The second one is equally simple. (It comes from the celebrated economist Jeff Rubin, who recently spoke in Halifax.) Put a hefty tax on factory emissions in the US and Canada, which will run up the price of, say, steel — but tax imported steel, too, by imposing a tariff based on the carbon emitted during its manufacture overseas.

Since North America tends to have cleaner plants, the carbon tax gives an immediate advantage to our steelmakers. And once we add the true costs of the emissions into the price of the steel, it turns out to be cheaper to make the steel where it’s going to be used. Even if the final price were identical, we still have the advantage — because we don’t have to pay, in cash and in carbon credits, to ship our steel halfway across the world.

So the jobs that used to migrate away to low-wage havens overseas start coming back. Apply the same principle to food, and food imports slow to a trickle, while local farms start making money. Our whole economy turns green and wakes up.

Environmentalists and trade unionists discover that they’re allies. They start working together. They form organizations like the Blue Green Alliance in the US — the Steelworkers, the Communications Workers, the Utility Workers and the Laborers Union on the one hand, and the Sierra Club and the National Resources Defence Fund on the other. Their slogan is Good Jobs, Clean Environment, Green Economy.

More jobs, a green economy, better air, better food. All brought to you not by magic, but by the astute application of taxes. Taxes, kid! Gotta love ‘em!

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In Dyer Straits

Sunday, November 15th, 2009

November 15, 2009

As a writer and analyst, Gwynne Dyer’s greatest strength — disregarding his formidable intelligence — is his ruthless realism, his relentlessness in pursuing a body of evidence or an argument to its inevitable conclusion, however disquieting that may be.

And his most recent book, Climate Wars (Random House, $34.99) is a disquieting volume indeed.

Most climate change books describe the impacts on the planet in geophysical terms — melting glaciers, rising sea levels, expanding deserts, more hurricanes. But the planet is not just a ball of land and water. It’s also a quilt of societies and nations that will be individually affected, with unpredictable results. Perhaps Mexicans starve and Siberians thrive, while the sea covers Holland and Bangladesh.

Their people won’t go quietly. Dyer — who spoke last week at Dalhousie University’s new College of Sustainability — is an expert on war, and his departure point is his realization that the first major effect of climate change will be “an acute and permanent crisis of food supply.” Countries that can’t feed their people “are unlikely to be ‘reasonable’ about it.” Northern European countries, for instance, may have enough food for themselves, but nothing to share. If the starving countries of southern Europe and Africa have nuclear weapons, the outlook is grim.

Military planners everywhere are already reviewing such scenarios, says Dyer, having visited leading international scientists, soldiers, bureaucrats, scholars and politicians. The experience produced some sobering conclusions. First, only fools and rascals doubt that global heating is a reality — and it’s happening much faster than expected. If we don’t eliminate global emissions of carbon dioxide by 2050, the last half of this century will be almost unimaginable chaos.

Will we meet that ambitious target for 2050? Not likely, Dyer says. To do it, we’d have to be cutting emissions by 4% annually right now, but in fact emissions are increasing by 3% a year. The only way to hold temperatures down while emissions rise (thus preventing “runaway warming” that’s entirely beyond human control) is through “geo-engineering” — seeding the sea with iron to encourage plankton growth, seeding the clouds with mist or the stratosphere with hydrogen sulphide, to make them more reflective.

But geo-engineering is fraught with “moral hazard,” the risk that people will believe that geo-engineering is an alternative to slashing emissions. It’s not. Geo-engineering, Dyer argues, is just an umbrella to shield us from sunburn while we enable the earth to re-build its natural defences. It merely buys us time.

And we need time, because the greatest risk is a major failure of politics. We have wasted twenty remarkable years of relative international tranquillity. With luck, we may have twenty more. After that, Dyer believes, huge climate disasters could produce failed states, mass migrations of starving people, and vicious wars, both civil and international.

The catastrophic casualty in those wars will be the very possibility of global co-operation which is the only way to bring down emissions and contain global heating. That possibility dies in a world where India and Pakistan nuke it out over the feeble trickles remaining in their shared rivers, where Britain and Japan hunch behind nuclear shields, where an automated killing wall along the US-Mexican border provokes an internal insurrection from Hispanic Americans.

In this nightmare world of blood, radiation, disease, starvation and chaos — ungovernable, seething with demagogues and fuhrers and apocalyptic prophets — human beings will never agree on anything, ever. Their failure potentially leads to runaway global warming and a world as toxic as Venus.

But Gwynne Dyer is not fundamentally a prophet of doom. He believes that the risks are huge and real, and that our odds of sneaking through the environmental mine-fields are not good. But he notes that human beings have made great social progress over the past two centuries — democracy, education, the welfare state. He has watched humanity get through its “mid-term exam,” avoiding the risk of destroying civilization through nuclear war. The final exam is about our ability to salvage our world by exercising the adult virtues of self-restraint and co-operation.

We have, he thinks, “at least some chance of passing it. And how interesting the long future that stretches out beyond it will be, if we do pass.”

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