Fresh Ideas: A carbon tax would have numerous benefits
August 21, 2013
I have faith that Republicans will wake up someday to the challenge of climate change — especially if they see a way forward that's consistent with their cherished small-government beliefs.
That's why I was eager to hear what former Congressman Bob Inglis had to say at the Clean Energy Summit in Las Vegas last week. Inglis served South Carolina for six terms before he was defeated in a Republican primary race by a Tea Party challenger, after he said that he believed climate change was real and that we had a responsibility for action. This is not a man afraid to say what he thinks.
After leaving Congress, Inglis established the Energy and Enterprise Initiative at George Mason University to "promote conservative alternatives to big-government mandates" and to "take the lead on energy and climate by embracing solutions that are true to conservative principles."
What does that mean, exactly?
Inglis is stumping for a carbon tax, seeing it as the simplest small-government way to put a price on carbon. Wait, I can hear you saying, a pro-tax Republican? No wonder he was defeated.
But Inglis believes that conservatives can take the lead on climate change. He explains, "A sensible solution is a revenue-neutral tax swap, accompanied by a phase-out of all energy subsidies. A tax swap would, dollar for dollar, ratchet down anti-growth income taxes and shift the tax onto carbon pollution: Tax the bad, quit taxing the good, and let the free-enterprise system deliver the fuels of the future."
High-carbon fuels including coal, gas and oil would be taxed at the source, and producers would pass down the cost to consumers. Low-carbon energy — solar and wind, geothermal — would not be taxed, making these sources cheaper. This would lead to a shift in the economic system toward low-carbon technologies for electrical generation, transportation and manufacturing — all the tasks in which we use energy. Economist Adele Morris of the Brookings Institution estimates that a $16-per-ton carbon tax would raise about $100 billion a year and reduce carbon emissions by one-third.
So a carbon tax would raise a lot of revenue for the federal government — not, to put it mildly, a primary goal of any Republican I know. What makes Inglis different from, say, Vermont's Bernie Saunders, who has introduced carbon-tax legislation in Congress, is that Inglis insists that a carbon tax must be revenue-neutral — that is, for every dollar raised by a carbon tax there must be a dollar-for-dollar reduction in the income tax.
Swap my income tax for a carbon tax? Sounds like a good idea to me. Then if I want to pay less in taxes I'll consume less carbon — bike more and drive less, heat and cool my house with solar energy — and use other technologies that clever entrepreneurs no doubt will come up with to use less energy and produce more zero-carbon energy. Let energy entrepreneurship blossom! It makes a lot more sense than paying an accountant to search through the tax code to find ways to lower my income tax.
Anne Macquarie blogs about clean energy and climate change in Nevada at nevadanscleanenergy.org.