We may look back at 2018 as a tipping point in our climate conversations. Sobering stories of record-breaking wildfires, devastating hurricanes and extreme downpours captured headlines while two new climate assessments warned of the urgency and magnitude of the climate challenge we face. Their message? Serious climate impacts are happening; they are a result of how we live, and we can expect much worse if we do not act.
In late December a glimmer of hope appeared at the end of the 115th Congress: The bipartisan Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act (EICDA) was introduced in both the House and Senate. This accomplishment demonstrated growing bipartisan support for meaningful climate action and it mirrors the increasing awareness among voters that climate change affects them and requires action.
Two weeks ago, the House bill was reintroduced in the new Congress. Designed to achieve large-scale emissions reductions, the EICDA would levy an annually increasing fee on fossil fuels where they enter our economy, returning that money to individuals in equal monthly dividends.
This is not a “gas tax” like the one that precipitated riots in France recently. Instead of taxing consumers at the pump it levies a fee on the companies selling coal, oil or natural gas based on the amount of CO2 in those fuels. This simplifies collection by reducing the number of entities covered and it places the cost of harm caused by burning fossil fuels where it more fairly belongs, on those profiting from it.
We can expect the fossil fuel industry to pass on their increased cost of doing business and for that to ripple through the economy. By returning the dividend to households, the EICDA protects personal budgets while allowing people to spend the dividend as they see fit. Studies examining household financial impacts have concluded that, with the dividend, between 58 and 70 percent of households (mostly lower- and middle-income ones) will come out ahead or break even despite price increases.
In addition to the dividend checks on our bank accounts, we will see air pollution decrease even in the first year — along with pollution’s associated illnesses and costs. In the first 12 years, emissions will drop by 40 percent; by 2050 they will have dropped by 90 percent. These results align with recent IPCC recommendations for staying below a 1.5-degree Celsius rise in average global temperature. That’s a goal worth striving for because every fraction of a degree over it heightens our risk significantly.
To ensure we stay on track reducing emissions, the bill includes a provision for increasing the annual fee hike if data show we are not on target. While it mandates a pause in some environmental regulations, it allows them to be reactivated if after several years the fee alone does not result in adequate reductions.
This bill also includes provisions to minimize cost and discourage government expansion. Under this bill, the primary role of government is to collect the fee and distribute the dividend using existing processes and infrastructure. The law establishes a strict limit on administrative costs and requires they be paid from the fees collected. All other money must be returned to households.
A common fear is that the EICDA would stymie economic growth but that’s not what economists say. They are virtually unanimous that we need to move away from fossil fuels and a price on carbon is the most efficient way to do that. Furthermore, multiple economic studies have concluded that a carbon price would have a “trivially small” effect on GDP.
And those studies may actually underestimate the bill’s economic benefits because they don’t factor in the high cost of doing nothing. Climate-related events are already causing large hikes in insurance premiums in some areas and California wildfires recently forced PG&E into bankruptcy. Burning fossil fuels is now costing our economy $250 billion annually; that cost will quickly grow if we do nothing.
Jobs are another common concern. While some mining and drilling jobs will be lost, job gains in the rest of the economy are expected to exceed those losses. Even without a carbon price we’re experiencing a growth of clean energy jobs 13 to 15 times the U.S. average and we can expect that trend to continue. In fact, widespread job growth is anticipated across the economy in sectors as varied as education, construction, finance, retail and health care.
Will this bill alone address the challenge we now face? It will not. Global climate is a vast, complex system with many interacting parts; preserving a habitable planet will require multiple interacting solutions. Putting this bill’s proposals into effect will steadily slow CO2 emissions. It will send a market signal that will encourage the advancement of other solutions. It is one step of many we must take, and soon.
Scott, of Eau Claire, is co-leader of the local chapter of the Citizens’ Climate Lobby.