Tax Analysts Blog

Carbon Taxes and the White Man’s Burden

Posted on Aug 22, 2014

In July 2012 Australia became the first national jurisdiction to explicitly tax carbon emissions. Last month, Australia achieved another first when it became the first national jurisdiction to repeal a tax on carbon emissions. That decision brought in its wake distress and apprehension. Joining “disheartened scientists and advocates of strong action to control greenhouse gas emissions,” the New York Times editorial board bitterly condemned what it called “Australia’s Retreat on Emissions.”

That retreat is unlikely to turn into a larger setback for carbon tax backers in the industrial nations. Carbon levies of one sort or another appear to be on the ascendancy there. Scandinavian countries led the way two decades ago by disproportionately taxing energy from carbon. In July 2008 British Columbia introduced North America’s first carbon tax—a charge on carbon-based fuels. In 2010 Ireland began taxing most fossil fuels used by homes, offices, vehicles, and farms, based on the fuel’s carbon dioxide emissions.

In the United States as early as 2008, then-presidential candidate Barack Obama had conveyed his determination to “bankrupt” coal-based power plants. His administration now seems to be opening the door for state-level carbon taxes. The Environmental Protection Agency's comprehensive draft regulations mandate that states reduce all power plant carbon dioxide emissions by at least 30 percent over 2005 levels in the next 15 years. The regulations, apparently influenced by academics and think tanks, invite states to explore carbon taxes as one means of reaching their targets.

The threat of climate change is couched in global terms. The feared warming is global, and so is the assured apocalypse if we don’t curb emissions. We are told that rising sea levels could threaten the livelihoods of more than 1 billion people living within 45 miles of Asia’s coastlines. In Africa, recurring heat waves could cause widespread shortages of food and water, leading to large-scale migrations and escalating tensions.

Moreover, each ton of CO2 in the earth’s atmosphere has the same greenhouse impact regardless of the geographical location from where it is emitted. In other words, CO2 emissions are fungible. A ton of Chinese CO2 is just as harmful as a ton of U.S. CO2. It stands to reason that the crusade against climate change can succeed only if it is waged on a global scale. Otherwise, emission reductions in one country, achieved by higher carbon prices, would be offset by emission increases in another country, which would now enjoy a carbon price advantage.

But the clamor for taxing black carbon remains limited to the as-yet predominantly white Western nations. China, which surpassed the United States as the world's largest emitter of CO2 in 2006, has made it clear that it has no intention of agreeing to any reduction quotas “because this country is still at an early stage of development.” India, which now ranks third, behind China and the United States in total CO2 emissions, has similarly rejected the notion of subjecting itself to binding reductions.

Yet the carbon tax lobby in the West remains unfazed in the face of this repudiation of responsibility by the developing world. Among the grounds advanced for pressing ahead with unilateral action is one that relies on the residence time of CO2. For several decades, the West pumped much more CO2 into the earth’s atmosphere than China, India, or any other developing county. Unilateralists argue that those historical emissions and their persisting warming effects ensure that the West will remain the largest contributor to climate change for years to come.

That argument has more than a whiff of reparations. Many in both the developing and developed worlds have long asserted that former colonial powers in the West should pay compensation for the wounds of colonization. Presumably, along with slavery and the loot of natural resources, the effects of which continue to retard development, the West should also be held responsible for the lingering consequences of past CO2 emissions.

At the turn of the last century, Rudyard Kipling wrote “The White Man’s Burden,” exhorting imperialists to “Go bind your sons to exile, to serve your captives’ need.” A hundred years later, that burden seems just as heavy.

Read Comments (1)

just go for itAug 25, 2014

What would you propose as an appopriate response by the developed world in
reducing greenhouse emissions? This is everyone's burden. Someone has to get
the ball rolling.

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