A Tax On Carbon



The industrial revolution, with its dramatic shift from primitive power sources to coal-powered machines, marked the onset of the process that is now viewed by most scientists as a road to a global crisis. Machines have indeed raised the world's standard of living, but as a result of the burning of fossil fuels, the planet's supply of life-supporting oxygen is being depleted while, concurrently, the increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide portends unacceptable changes in the earth's climate.

One of these results, the so-called greenhouse effect, seems already to have warmed the earth's average temperature by a disturbing amount. The eventual consequences, such as the melting of the polar ice cap and the rise in the level to the world's seas, are, at least theoretically, precursors to catastrophe. A rise of even a few feet would inundate the world's lowlands, including its ports and many of its largest cities.

Groping with the problem, several European nations have proposed a so-called carbon tax on the users of fossil fuels, principally oil and coal. This would be designed to curb the use of fossil fuels and encourage development of alternate energy sources and thus to slow down and, eventually, reverse the frightening increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide -- 14 percent between 1860 and 1960, and now amassing at an even faster rate.

The carbon tax would appear to be, for the present, a sensible, feasible and relatively painless remedy for environmental deterioration -- if the revenues from it are specifically directed to redress the damages already suffered.

The proposal would impose a tax of $1 to $3 per gallon on a barrel of oil. This would gradually be increased to $10 a barrel, or more, which is to say at least 24 cents a gallon on gasoline and other petroleum products. By the turn of the century it would bring in an estimated trillion dollars for Europe alone; perhaps double that if the tax is also imposed in North America and Japan.

What is still vague in this discussion is a plan to put to constructive use the vast sums of money that would be generated by such a tax. Among the reasons that the survival of humanity is in jeopardy are not only the increase in carbon dioxide, but the depredation of the world's forests, the ''oxygen factory'' that, through the process of photosynthesis, replenishes the supply of the life-supporting gas.

Therefore one of the principal uses of the carbon tax receipts ought to be a worldwide reforestation program, and extraordinary efforts to save the rain forests that remain -- principally in South America and Africa. A proportion of each country's carbon-tax revenues should be donated for this LTC purpose to an international agency under the United Nations.

Other receipts should be directed toward intensive development alternate sources of non-polluting energy. Again, this would be best achieved through an international agency, or at the very least through international cooperation.

What are the economic pitfalls en route to such a carbon tax? For one thing, it would require a degree of international agreement seldom achieved in the past.

If, for example, the tax were imposed in Europe but not in the United States, the comparatively inexpensive fuel on this side of the Atlantic would give America an unfair economic advantage. To work, the tax would have to be levied at the same rate in every industrial country. Given America's current tax phobia, that is a tall order.

At the Rio conference the world learned that the Bush administration was not ready to assume the initiative in taking dramatic steps to halt environmental degradation. Despite the environmental record of Vice President Gore, the Clinton administration will face the same tax phobia. In Europe the tax has at least been formally proposed. In America there is scarcely even talk of it.

At the same time, people who walk the streets of Los Angeles, Denver, Cleveland or Baltimore are becoming aware of the putrid state of the urban environment, no less than Europeans confronting the appalling smog in Athens, Marseille or Berlin, or Asians in Seoul or Tokyo. Everywhere, pollution is becoming intolerable from both a local and a worldwide perspective. Global warming is no respecter of continents.

One can imagine the resistance, not only from the rank and file of tax-hating Americans and their timorous representatives, but from the business community, seeing only next year's bottom line, not the next generation's disaster. In the long run, however, there will be no choice.

Stanley A. Blumberg is a Baltimore writer. Gwinn Owens is a retired editorial writer for The Evening Sun.

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