Can A Carbon Fee Save The World’s Oceans? Senator Whitehouse Says ‘Yes”

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The world’s oceans are overheating due to climate change, and their chemistry is being altered. Hundreds of millions of people who live along the coasts are now at risk, as is the entire network of systems that depend on the ocean. The ocean has absorbed over 90% of the heat from climate change and is the conduit for roughly 30% of human-caused carbon dioxide emissions.

That means without the ocean as a buffer, heating from climate change would already be, right now at this moment in time, intolerable for much of life on earth. Yet the oceans are still being destabilized by carbon pollution.

What can be done to save the world’s oceans?

In an exclusive comment for CleanTechnica, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) says that a carbon fee is the best method to limit emissions and mitigate ocean quality loss.

“Our oceans are warming and changing quickly as they absorb so much of the carbon dioxide and excess heat trapped in the atmosphere. The warming of the oceans is a massive threat to coastal communities, the global ocean economy, and marine life. The ocean acidifying like this is unprecedented in the history of mankind. A carbon fee like the one I’ve introduced is the single most important action we can take to curb emissions on the scale needed to prevent catastrophic changes.”

What is the answer to saving our oceans? Is it placing a price on carbon emissions so average global temperatures stay below 2º C above pre-Industrial Revolution levels?

the world's oceans
“Egret at Low Tide,” photo by Carolyn Fortuna, CleanTechnica (permission to use freely if correctly attributed)

There’s no doubt that every nation must sharply reduce greenhouse gas emissions. It’s the only way to lessen the severe threats to ocean and terrestrial life.

Of course, countries will need to adapt to many now unavoidable changes due to the climate crisis. That’s been made quite clear from the newest IPCC report. An increase 2º C above pre-Industrial Revolution levels will change the world’s oceans and frozen landscapes unalterably. Coral reefs will continue to die. Global sea levels could still rise another 1 to 2 feet this century as glaciers melt. Fish populations will shift to different regions to chase the habitat they need to survive.

We need to reduce carbon in the atmosphere so levels are much lower than an increase of 2 degrees C. Can carbon fees make such an impact that we could actually save the world’s oceans?

The American Opportunity Carbon Fee Act

Back in April, Whitehouse, along with Senators Brian Schatz (D-HI), Martin Heinrich (D-NM), and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) reintroduced legislation to place a price on the emissions driving climate change and putting Americans’ health and the global economy at risk. The American Opportunity Carbon Fee Act would reduce the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions by an estimated 51% by 2029 compared to 2005 levels. It would simultaneously generate an estimated $2.3 trillion over 10 years to boost the economy and aid American workers and consumers.

The fee would start at $52 per metric ton of emissions in 2020—the mid-range of the Obama administration’s 2016 estimates of the “social cost of carbon,” which measures the long-term damage done by carbon pollution—and increase annually by 6% over inflation.

The fee would be assessed on fossil fuels when mined, processed, refined, or imported; on large emitters of non-fossil-fuel-based greenhouse gases; and on producers and importers of certain industrial gases with high global warming potential. It would be adjusted to account for methane emissions from venting, carbon dioxide from flaring, and other greenhouse gas emissions that escape throughout fossil fuel supply chains. The Treasury Department would assess and collect the fee, and impose border adjustments to level the playing field for manufacturers of energy-intensive goods.

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The Citizens Climate Lobby: How Carbon Fee & Dividend Works

More than 40 governments worldwide have now adopted some sort of price on carbon, either through direct taxes on fossil fuels or through cap-and-trade programs. The Citizens’ Climate Lobby has advocated for Carbon Fee and Dividend for nearly a decade. They outline 3 steps that help us understand the carbon fee and its consequences.

1. Place a steadily rising fee on fossil fuels: Like Whitehouse and colleagues, they propose a fee per metric ton on the CO2 equivalent emissions of fossil fuels that escalates by $10/metric ton each year. The fee would be imposed upstream — as near as feasible to the mine, well, or port of entry. Accounting for the true cost of fossil fuel emissions would not only creates a level-playing field for all sources of energy; it would inform consumers of the actual cost comparison of various fuels when making purchase decisions.

2. Give 100% of the fees minus administrative costs back to households each month: Held in a Carbon Fees Trust fund, 100% of net proceeds would be returned directly to households as a monthly dividend. As a result, about 2/3 of people in the US would receive more in Dividends than they will pay in higher prices. This feature could inject billions of dollars into the economy, protect family budgets, free households to make independent choices about their energy usage, spur innovation, and build aggregate demand for low-carbon products at the consumer level.

3. Use a border adjustment to stop business relocation: Importing a product from a country without a carbon fee? Pay an import fee and deter “leakage.” Exporting US goods to countries without a carbon fee? Get a rebate. A carbon fee can discourage national businesses from relocating  countries that allow higher CO2 emissions. It can motivate other countries to adopt similar carbon pricing policies. Building upon existing tax and trade systems will avoid complex new institutional arrangements.

The World's Oceans
“Propane Flame,” photo by Carolyn Fortuna/ CleanTechnica (permission to use freely if correctly attributed)

Could the Economic Push behind a Carbon Fee Really Work? Researchers Say “Yes”

Researchers at the Carnegie Institute for Science and the University of Waterloo conducted a study to see if induced energy-saving efficiency improvements influence energy use and climate change. Modifying an existing model of economic productivity, they found that a 1% rise in energy cost share increases energy-use efficiency by about 1.2% in the following 20 years, a higher gain compared to previous bottom-up estimates.

When they incorporated this relationship into an integrated assessment model, they found that carbon prices save up to 30% more energy by 2120, relative to model configurations without the inducing mechanism. They concluded that carbon tax induces energy-saving efficiency improvements and could, therefore, be a more effective mitigation tool than previously recognized.

“By correcting a well-known market failure, a carbon tax will send a powerful price signal that harnesses the invisible hand of the marketplace to steer economic actors towards a low-carbon future,” 43 of the world’s most eminent economists agreed earlier this year.

What Reduced Carbon Living Could Look Like

Innovative new approaches are emerging to combat the effects of climate change in the oceans. And much of that work could be done on land. The Guardian gave a shout-out to its readers, asking for their tips in cutting carbon. From individuals to institutions, here are some of the most innovative responses.

  • Sweden’s Helsingborg Symphony Orchestra doesn’t employ any musicians or conductors who travel by air. Aviation accounts for just over 2% of global greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Producing some of best folk productions in Ireland, the Siamsa Tíre National Folk Theatre assumed a greening initiative that has reduced its energy usage by 41% since 2016. “Remarkably the election of Donald Trump spurred me into action,” said Catríona Fallon, CEO of the theatre. “We have 40 solar photovoltaic panels on the roof and replaced our oil-fired heating system with an air-to-heat pump which is run on electricity sourced from renewables. We’ve also halved our waste to landfill in the last year, which has saved us €1,000.”
  • Costa Rica’s emissions peaked in 1999 due to a switch to hydropower, and in 2017 its power system ran for a record 300 days on clean sources. Carlos Alvarado, the president of Costa Rica, pledges to eliminate net greenhouse gas emissions totally by 2050 — the country is determined to produce no more emissions than it can offset through activities such as expanding forests.
  • AB InBev requires about 6.6 terawatt hours of electricity each year – about the same as Latvia. Half its power in the US comes from renewables, and its next goal is to generate that power solely through renewable means by 2025. To do so, it will engage in power purchasing arrangements – direct contracts with renewable suppliers — in addition to installing its own solar and other generators on its sites.

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Carolyn Fortuna

Carolyn Fortuna, PhD, is a writer, researcher, and educator with a lifelong dedication to ecojustice. Carolyn has won awards from the Anti-Defamation League, The International Literacy Association, and The Leavey Foundation. Carolyn is a small-time investor in Tesla and an owner of a 2022 Tesla Model Y as well as a 2017 Chevy Bolt. Please follow Carolyn on Substack:

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