Pay to Play?

At last week’s “Advancing Climate Justice” conference in New York City, the carbon tax vs. cap-and-trade debate continued.

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A key policy that bound environmental and climate justice constituents at last week’s “Advancing Climate Justice” conference was the carbon tax, a tax on companies that emit carbon dioxide. It was introduced as part of a 2007 bill authored by Rep. John B. Larson (D-CT). Supporters of the bill, which was referred to the Ways and Means Committee and has not yet been reintroduced under the 111th Congress, believe it would be a direct incentive for big polluters to decrease to their carbon output, and that revenues could be used to offset other taxes or support environmental causes.

Critics of the carbon tax, such as the Natural Resources Defense Council and the New York State Department of Conservation, participated at the conference. They support a different system, cap-and-trade, which has gained the support of many high-profile environmental groups, including the Sierra Club and the Environmental Defense Fund, which says that a cap-and-trade system stopped acid rain. Under cap-and-trade, limits are set for carbon emissions, but when those emissions are exceeded, companies must purchase carbon credits from other companies that do not exceed the limit.

David Doniger, a lawyer for the NRDC, said that a cap-and-trade system would directly and effectively cut pollution. He said the NDRC doesn’t support the carbon tax because it would be difficult to determine which industries to tax and how much, and the tax would need to keep changing. The NRDC believes, he said, that a cap-and-trade system will create an immediate drop in carbon, thus tackling climate change faster. And revenues from cap-and-trade, he said, would go to consumers and/or environmental causes. (The first major carbon cap-and-trade bill was introduced in 2007, but is in the “ordered to be reported” stage, which means it made it through committee hearings and is on its way to the floor of the Senate.)

Critics of the cap-and-trade system, including environmental justice constituents, argue that it would make carbon a commodity to be traded in the market, that the initial cap allocation and methods are debatable, and that it is difficult to monitor and enforce and too complex for the general public to understand. A sort of continued chorus on this side of the debate is that cap-and-trade did not work in Europe and so there is no indication that it will work here. Deeohn Ferris, from the Sustainable Community Development Group, said the E.J. movement sees cap-and-trade as rewarding the private sector for carbon emissions. Amy O’Donnell, speaking on behalf of Rep. Larson, compared the cap-and-trade system to Wall Street trading, saying that, “when investment banks come to Washington to lobby for cap-and-trade, it makes us sort of suspicious.”

For more on the conference, click here.

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Hamida Kinge has written about everything from food security to ocean acidification to luxury cell phones. She was a 2009 fellow of the Scripps Howard Institute on the Environment and a 2008/09 reporting fellow of the Metcalf Institute for Marine & Environmental Reporting. She has contributed to Next American City, Grist, Philadelphia City Paper and U.R.B. domestically as well as Europe-based magazines Essential Macau and Straight No Chaser. For the past year, she has been teaching English as a foreign language to international students and business professionals. Hamida has also been a volunteer English tutor for the International Center in New York.

Tags: new york city

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