We’ve got a climate agreement. Now what?

This weekend, the Paris Climate Summit marked more diplomatic progress on the issue than ever before. China, the United States, and other key nations pledged unanimously to greatly reduce their emissions. Of all the solutions discussed, there really is only one reform that has the chance of being a game-changer, and that’s heavily taxing pollution. Even if you don’t believe in global warming, or whether it is man-made, you can’t deny that pollution is harmful in lots of other ways and that we ought to reduce it. The most common objection to this is that it would somehow hurt the economy. The truth is, a tax on carbon and other pollutants would would actually give the economy a great boost. Just ask the Republicans; taxing carbon was the Bush administration’s official policy.

Tax Pollution

Whether you’re a conservative or a liberal, for higher taxes or lower taxes, it doesn’t matter. If we collected the same amount of revenue we do now, it would be better if it came from pollution than wages, sales, etc. By removing taxes from hard work and exchange, business would get a boost, and polluting would become expensive. Therefore, people’s behavior and technological innovation would shift to be more in line with the environmental cost of their actions.

bretweinsteinpollution

President Obama said the following in Paris:

“I have long believed that the most elegant way to drive innovation and to reduce carbon emissions is to put a price on it. This is a classic market failure. If you open up an Econ101 textbook, it will say the market is very good about determining prices and allocating capital towards its most productive use — except there are certain externalities, there are certain things that the market just doesn’t count, it doesn’t price, at least not on its own. Clean air is an example. Clean water — or the converse — dirty water, dirty air.In this case, the carbons that are being sent up that originally we didn’t have the science to fully understand — we do now. And if that’s the case, if you put a price on it, then the entire market would respond.”

Green Technologies

The agreement calls for rich countries to invest in clean energy infrastructure in poor areas of Africa and other regions, but who knows whether it will actually be spent well. That doesn’t make it a bad idea per se. One shouldn’t have a zero rule for misappropriation if the overall aim of the spending is achieved and these results are more beneficial than alternative investments. However, it would make more sense to take the pollution tax revenue and just give it to everyone as a global citizen’s dividend, or basic income as some call it, like Alaskan citizens get when companies extract oil from their state.

Government can be effective in the realm of basic research, but when it comes to creating final products that reduce pollution, the private sector is likely to do a better job. I’m not saying this because I’m some kind of crazy Ayn Rand fanatic, I’m just a pragmatic nerd who wants a clean planet with high living standards and lots of technological innovation. We don’t need to depend on government to come up with clean technologies if we simply give businesses the right incentives. There is no way that even the smartest in government can beat out the collective ingenuity of billions of people actively looking for ways to reduce their carbon footprint in avoidance of paying pollution taxes.

Take Tesla Motors for example. They have beautiful, fast, and completely electric cars already on the market. Sure, most people can’t afford a Tesla at present, but Elon Musk’s long term business strategy is to progressively make less and less expensive models at higher sales volumes, once Tesla’s costs are lower that is. If taxes were shifted off of companies like Tesla who make clean cars, and on to big polluters like Ford, it would naturally lead to more demand among consumers for cleaner vehicles, and car manufactures would need to follow suit to remain competitive. If you’re concerned about raising productive employment in the United States, providing such incentives would enable the US to compete with Asian car manufacturers. The problem at present is that not only do we not tax pollution, we actually subsidize a host of industries involved in a supply chain latent with pollution. If we end the subsidies and start taxing pollution, you’ll see lots of clean economic growth. They taxed energy in Denmark, a way to approximate taxing pollution, and the results have been greatly beneficial.

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1 thought on “We’ve got a climate agreement. Now what?

  1. Of course the biggest flip to climate alleviation would be for the tax shift off the productive sector and onto land. The rapid global urbanization underway is leading to sprawl locking in generations of carbon based pollution. In Australia, waste from housing demolition is one of our biggest pollutants. With much of that waste from the highly energy embedded in concrete, there is a huge need to prioritise efficient use of housing, particularly when there are 13 million empty homes in the US and 11 million in the UK. Let’s hope this important tax shift is proprieties at the next COP climate conference.

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