In a well-intentioned effort to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions that cause climate change, the French government announced it would increase fuel taxes to discourage driving and encourage low-carbon transportation. It did not go over well.
Violent demonstrations erupted in Paris and other French cities, forcing the government to delay the tax hike. The protests have now gone on for nine weeks. This backlash against higher fuel taxes suggests it may be hard to get public support for carbon pricing in general, and that’s a huge concern. Putting an effective price on carbon pollution is the single most important tool for reducing the heat-trapping emissions that will inevitably cook the planet in a business-as-usual scenario.
If nations feel they need to set that tool aside, the world has little to no chance of cutting greenhouse-gas pollution enough to avoid the worst consequences of climate change.
But the Yellow Vest protests were not against climate action; they were about social justice
. The tax on fuel was highly regressive and hurt the people who could least afford to bear these costs.
Fortunately, there is a powerful, climate-protecting alternative that avoids the mistake the French government made with its carbon-pollution fee: Give the revenue to people. Late in November, a bipartisan group of lawmakers in the U.S. House of Representatives introduced legislation to place a fee on carbon pollution from fossil fuels and return all revenue to households through a monthly dividend. Under the policy outlined in their bill, known as the Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act (H.R. 7173), a majority of families, particularly low- and middle-income, will receive more money from the “carbon dividend” than they would pay as the cost of using dirty fossil fuels increases.
Politicians across the nation, and in the Philadelphia region, have gotten behind the bill. Its sponsors include Reps. Brian Fitzpatrick (R.,Pa.), Ted Deutch (D., Fla.), Francis Rooney (R., Fla.), John Delaney (D., Md.), Charlie Crist (D., Fla.), Dave Trott (R., Mich.), and Anna Eshoo (D., Calif.). The sponsors who have returned to the new Congress say they intend to reintroduce their bill. As bipartisan support continues to grow, their legislation stands a good chance of moving forward.
Starting at $15 per ton of carbon dioxide and increasing $10 per ton each year, the Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act will push the price of carbon pollution to around $100 per ton within a decade. Such a steep price is expected to slash that pollution by at least 40 percent compared with 2015 levels by 2030. The bill targets 90 percent reductions by mid-century.
Charging a high and steadily increasing pollution fee on dirty fossil fuels will accelerate the transition, already underway, to a clean-energy economy. But France’s experience suggests that citizens won’t accept such an ambitious price without returning revenue to households. Paying a “carbon dividend” also helps the overall economy: A study from Regional Economic Models Inc. found this approach would actually add 2.1 million jobs in the first 10 years.
Climate scientists are clear that to avoid the worst impacts of climate change — coastal cities underwater, food shortages, more extreme weather and flooding, mass migrations, unbearable heat waves — society must dramatically reduce its carbon dioxide emissions. That message was delivered most recently in the fourth installment of the National Climate Assessment, as well as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s report in the fall. The IPCC report specifically mentioned carbon pricing as a powerful tool to reduce emissions and stabilize our climate.
The IPCC warns that time is running out for the world to take the unprecedented steps needed to ward off climate catastrophe. If the rioting in France keeps nations from putting a price on carbon pollution, catastrophe is assured. But with the Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act, American lawmakers have proposed a model that can calm anxious citizens. By returning revenue to households, nations can implement carbon pricing in a way that is good for their people and good for their economies.