It is past time for the United States to implement a national carbon tax. Over 40 governments around the world have put in place economic mechanisms for pricing carbon, whether through a direct carbon tax or an emissions trading system. The U.S. is the second-largest contributor to carbon emissions, yet it is behind in the fight against climate change. A few individual states have enacted carbon taxes. But if the U.S. wants to remain a world leader, it needs to start taxing carbon at the national level.

The purpose of a carbon tax is to counteract a negative externality that is not already considered by the producer as a cost when considering the costs and benefits of an activity. While people do not intentionally release carbon into the atmosphere, it has negative side effects that impact all of society, such as species extinction, falling crop yields, intensified weather patterns, damage to coral reefs, rising sea levels and more.

Therefore, the government must step in and increase the price of the activity to make the cost accurately reflect the negative societal impacts. One of the largest sources of carbon emissions is fossil fuel combustion from burning coal, oil and natural gas. Humans are releasing carbon into the atmosphere faster than the natural rate. While 40 percent of the carbon dioxide we emit will be removed from the atmosphere in 20 years, 20 percent will remain in the atmosphere after 1,000 years. Already, the parts per million concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has increased from about 280 ppm in 1750 to over 400 ppm in 2019.

However, because the impacts of carbon emissions are not immediate, humans have yet to see how the carbon already emitted will alter the climate hundreds of years into the future. According to a 2019 report from the International Monetary Fund, an increased price on carbon may be the most efficient way to reduce global warming and air pollution. 

The 2015 Paris climate accord aims for a two-degree Celsius warming. However, current trends point to a four-degree Celsius rise in temperature from pre-industrial levels. In order to reach the two-degree Celsius warming level, thus keeping the climate livable for humans, there must be a $75 per ton price by 2030. Currently, the global average price is $2 per ton of carbon emissions, and the U.S. has now withdrawn from the Paris Agreement. As a global leader, the U.S. must set an example for nations across the world and take the fight against climate change more seriously with the implementation of a carbon tax. 

Opponents of a carbon tax argue that U.S. exports would decrease since a carbon tax would increase the price of U.S. goods. However, consumerism would likely just be reallocated to carbon-free or low-carbon goods and services that are cheaper than the carbon-taxed items. Further, some of the revenues from the carbon tax that do not get redistributed can be invested in renewable energy sources and innovation. 

Another possible risk of a carbon tax is that it could disproportionately impact low-income individuals since the price of carbon-intense goods and services would increase equally across income groups. However, a redistribution program would solve this inequity by redistributing tax revenue to American citizens. Therefore, those with a smaller carbon footprint who pay less of the tax would make money from the revenue and be further incentivized to focus consumerism on low-carbon goods and services.

If the U.S. wants to pride itself on being a world leader, larger, concrete steps towards fighting climate change are necessary. Taxing carbon is a feasible and effective method for reducing emissions. Congress must pass a carbon tax with urgency, decreasing the harmful carbon emission activities in the U.S.

Lizzy Peppercorn can be reached at epepperc@umich.edu.

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