Carbon Taxes

| Thu Aug. 28, 2008 2:13 PM EDT

CARBON TAXES....Will Wilkinson argues that, environmentally speaking, eating food produced in faraway lands isn't really that big a deal:

According to a recent study out of Carnegie Mellon University, the distance traveled by the average American's dinner rose about 25 percent from 1997 to 2004, due to increasing global trade. But carbon emissions from food transport saw only a 5 percent bump, thanks to the efficiencies of vast cargo container ships.

A tomato raised in a heated greenhouse next door can be more carbon-intensive than one shipped halfway across the globe. And cows spew a lot more greenhouse gas than hens, or kumquats, so eating just a bit less beef can do more carbon-wise than going completely local. It's complicated.

There's a lot to be said for this, and one of those things is that it's a good argument for a carbon tax (or a cap-and-trade program, which amounts to much the same thing). Trying to figure out the carbon footprint for everything you do is just too damn hard. In fact, nearly impossible, as Will's example demonstrates. A better solution is to put a tax on carbon, let prices adjust to new levels, and then let the market sort things out. Carbon-intensive products will go up in price and we'll all end up buying fewer of them. Carbon-friendly products will go down in price (relatively speaking), and we'll buy more of them. No muss, no fuss.

There's another side benefit too: guilt reduction. After all, none of us will ever live pristine lifestyles even if we'd like to: maybe you like your SUV and I like my sirloin steak and we really, really don't want to give them up. What to do? Answer: pay the carbon tax and relax. Maybe you'll keep your SUV and eat more tofu, while I'll keep eating meat but buy a Prius. We'll both cut down our carbon use, but we'll each get to do it in our own way. And that way is whatever causes us the least grief. The Prius doesn't bug me much and the tofu doesn't bug you much, so we've both cut our carbon consumption, done it with only modest sacrifice, and held on to the things that we really care about. But despite the collective modest sacrifice, we've cut our carbon consumption.

The biggest problem with all this — and the most powerful argument the climate change skeptics have — is that a carbon tax won't truly be effective unless it's worldwide. Fruit shipped from Chile won't be affected at all, for example, as long as the freighters fuel up somewhere outside the U.S. Ditto for toys made in China and textiles in India, since neither China nor India appears likely to join us in taxing carbon emissions anytime soon.

But this wouldn't be the first time that the United States took a lead in the global sphere and had to wait for others to catch up. It seems worth doing to me anyway, especially since, in the meantime, even a U.S.-only initiative would spur development of green technologies and act as sort of a proof of concept for the whole idea. If not us, who? If not now, when?

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