The above photo is typically what we see in articles urging us to save the planet from an imminent climate crisis by quickly ending “carbon pollution” from fossil fuels. Such photos of chimneys belching large clouds are misleading because carbon dioxide is invisible. But showing chimneys emitting an invisible gas would not be scary. And scary sells.
A Canadian tax on carbon dioxide emissions is highly controversial among politicians, but less so among economists. My review of the applicable tax legislation showed me that it is a well drafted law. At the current tax level a fully rebated tax may be justified as a step in the right direction because that will help Canada to meet its Paris Agreement commitments. But our government’s justifying its carbon dioxide tax on the “polluter pay principle” are both misleading and confusing.
Calling CO2 a Pollutant is Misleading
It is misleading because CO2 is not “pollution” in the normal way that word has usually been used, for example, by the World Health Organization [WHO. ] The WHO reports that annually some 4.2 million people die from outdoor air pollution and 3.8 million from household air pollution (total of 8 million). Most of the developing world breathes polluted air, especially indoor air, polluted by burning animal dung, wood and charcoal for cooking and heating. WHO lists the outdoor and indoor air pollutants that represent the greatest threat, but CO2 is not on that list. Typical pollutants are, e.g. lead, particulate matter, ground level ozone, nitrogen dioxide, sulphur dioxide and carbon monoxide.
Unlike toxic pollutants in the air in developing countries, 100% of the people in the world breathe air with carbon dioxide in it. None of us get sick or die from breathing the CO2 in the air. CO2 is found in every soft drink and beer. I would hate to think that when I drink my glass of soda water or my beer, I am drinking toxic pollution.
Laparoscopic surgery is now widely performed to treat various abdominal problems like appendicitis. Carbon dioxide is the most frequently used gas for inflation of the abdominal cavity during such surgeries. Are surgeons intentionally pumping pollution into patients’ bodies? Of course not.
CO2 has important benefits for the global environment, even at increased concentrations. Unlike air pollution that damages agricultural crops, CO2 at higher levels than today enhances agriculture, enabling the planet to feed more people. CO2 is added to the air in many commercial greenhouses to increase the growth rate and yield of plant crops while reducing their water consumption. CO2 is the stuff of life for all plants, whether food or forests. Directly or indirectly through the food chain, all the animals on the planet, including humans, rely entirely on plants for life.
There is no disagreement with saying that CO2 is a greenhouse gas, which may have benefits and detriments, depending upon its concentration. But that does not make it a pollutant as we normally use that word.
What is objectionable is governments attempting to justify their taxes with misleading language. The end does not justify the means. If you want to sell a tax, sell it fairly. Call it what it is: a tax on carbon dioxide emissions. Then explain its necessity.
We could propose to redefine pollution to include anything that is actually or potentially harmful to the planet, but that would require us to add so many other things to the list as to make it trite. For example, we could call water vapour a pollutant because water vapour is also a greenhouse gas. In fact, water vapour is the most plentiful and most powerful greenhouse gas on the planet. In large quantities in the atmosphere it can cause harmful thunderstorms and dangerous hurricanes. If greenhouse gases are now going to be defined as pollutants we have no excuse for leaving water vapour off the list. Yet every time we boil an egg or heat a kettle we are releasing water vapour, and many industrial processes release water vapour from their chimneys. For consistency, if we’re going to tax one greenhouse gas, CO2, as a pollutant we should also tax water vapour as a pollutant because it also warms the planet, far more than any other greenhouse gas. Of course taxing water vapour would be ridiculous, but no more ridiculous than calling CO2 a pollutant and taxing it for that reason. If there is a valid public policy basis for taxing CO2 emissions it will have to be on other grounds than mislabeling it a pollutant.
Calling CO2 a Pollutant is Confusing
Calling CO2 “pollution” is confusing to the public and perhaps even to the government itself. If we look at the proposed Canadian solutions to CO2-caused climate change, they sound as if they were based on the theory that CO2 emitted in Canada is like other pollutants which usually contaminate the air above my head or the soil below my feet. A recent federal report that Canada is warming twice as fast as the global average played to the same fear and confusion. The inference is that a Canadian carbon tax will reduce “carbon pollution” in Canada, and therefore reduce the damage caused by climate change in Canada. No one in our government actually comes out and says that, but being that explicit is unnecessary. All we have to do is say that CO2 is a pollutant and announce that Canada will “fight” climate change through a “carbon tax”, a tax on dirty, black, carbon pollution. The association will then be made that this tax is justifiable because it will protect Canadians from pollution damage in Canada.
When our Prime Minister says that spring flooding in Eastern Ontario and wildfires in Western Canada and the hurricane in the Maritimes are all caused by climate change, and tells us that he will fight climate change with his “polluter pay” tax, it is understandable that taxpayers would think that these taxes in Canada will directly reduce these extreme weather events in Canada. If that is what they think they are wrong, confused by our government calling CO2 a pollutant.
Our CO2 emissions are not wrapped in the Canadian flag. Canadian CO2 emissions are soon blended with all of the CO2 already in the planet’s atmosphere and all of the other countries’ CO2 emissions are soon blended with ours. If the Prime Minister is right that CO2 is a pollutant, everyone’s CO2 will pollute the air above Canada. The planet doesn’t care where the CO2 comes from. A molecule of CO2 from Canada is no different than a molecule of CO2 from any other country. To the extent that excessive CO2 may cause some degree of climate change, what matters to the planet is the total level of CO2 in the atmosphere, from all global emitters.
“Carbon Tax” is a Misnomer
Canada, like some other countries, has introduced a so-called “carbon tax”. But that name is emotionally manipulative mislabeling (not just in Canada, but everywhere). There is actually no such thing as a carbon tax because there is no tax on carbon. Carbon is an element, a solid, while carbon dioxide is a gas, a compound of one atom of carbon and two atoms of oxygen. Given its atomic components, we could be twice as honest to call it an oxygen tax, and justify it under a policy of “deoxygenization” rather than the usual expression, “decarbonization”. Of course the tax neither reduces oxygen on the planet nor carbon. But saying that we would be imposing an oxygen tax would result in mass protests and widespread ridicule. Saying that we are imposing a carbon tax because “carbon” is dirty pollution results in mostly passive acceptance.
Carbon, the element, is black, like soot or coal (unless it is a diamond, which is transparent). It is easier for voters to associate black carbon mentally with something dirty, a pollutant. Calling it by its right name – a carbon dioxide tax – makes the tax sound a lot less justified because then it isn’t just making evil, greedy polluters pay a pollution tax on something dirty, it’s making all of us paying a tax on something that has always been part of the air we breathe.
Inhaled air contains by volume around 78% nitrogen, 20-21% oxygen and small amounts of argon, carbon dioxide, neon, helium, and hydrogen. Exhaled air contains 16% oxygen and 4% to 5% carbon dioxide, about a 100 fold increase in “carbon pollution” over the inhaled amount, and is also saturated with water vapour. Using the newly invented “pollution” label, our exhaled air contains massive amounts of two “pollutants”, CO2 and water vapour.
With that said, the label “carbon tax” has been used so often and for so long that I doubt that it will ever be changed. Nevertheless, if we remember the emotional purpose of the label that is at least a partial corrective.
The Single Worst Word in Climate Change Policy is “We”
It is very common to read newspaper articles, online columns and politicians’ speeches demanding that “we” do something to fight climate change immediately. Who is this “we”?
The loose use of “we” has to be one of the most confusing words in climate change conversation. Sometimes “we” refers to all the countries in the entire planet, sometimes to the developed countries, and at other times just to our country or city. For example, speaking at the Paris Assembly on July 23, 2019, Greta Thunberg was referring to everyone on the planet when she said:
“The bad news however is that around the year 2030, if we continue with business as usual, we will likely be in a position where we may pass a number of tipping points. And then we might no longer be able to undo the irreversible climate breakdown.”
Ms. Thunberg was using “we” consistently, to cover everyone on the planet. But in the US, the proposed Green New Deal talks about using World War II style mobilization so that “we” (Americans only) can effectively fight climate change and achieve the target of complete decarbonization by 2050 or even sooner. And if America can put a man on the moon, surely “we” can mobilize to fight climate change effectively in the next 12 years. That is using “we” quite differently from Ms. Thunberg.
This is thinking of “we” as one country, not globally. It is thinking as if the “we” in the US was the entire planet, so that if “we” fix the US “we” fix the planet. The US is not alone in this kind of self-centered thinking about the global climate. One sees similar calls to action in many other countries, including Canada. Even Toronto Mayor John Tory, like mayors in other cities, says “we” can and should fight climate change, meaning climate change within our city.
I am thankful to University of Lethbridge Philosophy Professor Dr. Paul Viminitz for explaining that reducing CO2 emissions globally is a collective action problem. That is a critically important insight. Collective action problems are difficult to overcome, even if everyone agrees that there is a problem, because all of us must work together to solve it, even if that is not in our immediate self-interest. As Professor Viminitz tells us, in his tongue-in-cheek style:
“I’d prefer to spend the afternoon cleaning up the neighborhood, if but only if enough of my neighbors join in. But if they won’t – and they won’t – then I’d prefer to watch the football game instead. This is what’s meant by a collective action problem. So I can level no charge of hypocrisy at those who would do something about AGW [anthropogenic, i.e., human caused global warming] but don’t, because in the absence of others following suit – which they won’t – their efforts would be wasted. This describes most of my colleagues. And probably yours too.”
So who is the “we” that is causing the CO2 emissions? “We” all are to varying degrees. The US is the planet’s second-largest emitter of CO2 at present, Canada is 10th. Here is a table showing CO2 emissions by country for the most recently available year, 2017 [2017 CO2 Emissions]
China is by far the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitter, [China’s Emissions] now producing almost 30% of global CO2 emissions. China’s heavy fossil-fuel consumption caused its emissions to increase by 2.3% in 2018 and 4% in the first half of 2019 [China 2019]. Not surprisingly, China is the world’s largest consumer of coal, and it continues to finance and build new coal plants on a large scale, both in China and in other countries.
China projects that its greenhouse gas emissions will rise to an unspecified peak until at least 2030, even as Western climate activists are demonstrating in the streets for a global reduction of some 50% (from the 2005 level) by 2030 and zero net emissions by 2050. (Canada has committed to a 30% reduction by 2030, but appears unlikely to reach that level, according to our Parliamentary Budget Office.)
Surprisingly, despite rapidly rising emissions, China is on track to meet its 2030 commitments in its 2015 Paris Agreement’s Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC). How is that possible? Because, contrary to how the 2015 Paris Agreement is usually described in the media, it did not require any country to commit to CO2 emissions reductions. Every country was free to decide for itself how much CO2 it would contribute, whether by increase or decrease in CO2 emissions. Yet journalists consistently misreport what this Agreement actually requires, suggesting that they have not actually read the Agreement and in particular, not read the NDCs of the major emitters.
Here is but one recent example of a well regarded news source, Bloomberg, getting it wrong: Bloomberg:
The Massive Cost of Not Adapting to Climate Change, By Eric Roston, September 9, 2019, 7:01 PM EDT
“In the Paris accord, each country submitted “nationally determined contributions” stating the cuts they’re willing to make in greenhouse gas emissions, largely through carbon pricing and renewable energy. Much less famously, the pact also pushed nations to set policies governing how they will adapt to changing conditions as the planet continues to warm.”
Yes, every country was permitted to determine what its contribution would be, but these contributions were not limited to cuts. That’s why China’s NDC promised substantial emissions increases at least up to 2030 and possibly beyond. China promised to make best efforts to peak by or before 2030, but didn’t promise to limit its peak to any particular CO2 level. That is why China can be on track to keep its non-specific increase promises while Canada is not on track to meet its promised cuts.
It is difficult to understand what India’s NDC promised because it described its emissions as improving its emissions efficiency. (I couldn’t find any specific percentage or tons of emissions increase, although I may have missed it somewhere.) The idea was that India’s GDP would grow more rapidly than emissions, meaning improved efficiency and lower emissions per unit of GDP. Of course if rising emissions are causing a climate crisis India’s GDP growth is immaterial.
In any event, the Paris Agreement is not binding on any country, and is unenforceable. There is no penalty for failure to keep promises. That is why, at least among Western countries, the Paris Agreement appears to have been like an auction of promises to determine which country’s politicians could bid the highest reductions, regardless of whether there was any realistic likelihood that these reductions could actually be achieved.
Of considerable importance, but rarely mentioned by journalists, the Paris Agreement also required massive transfers of income ($100 billion annually) from developed to developing countries, to pay them not to increase their emissions. But most of that money, even for the first year, has not been collected to date. The US was expected to pay about 45% of this annual total. With the US pulling out of the Agreement, almost certainly the $100 billion will not be collected. This breach of promise gives the developing countries the moral justification for saying that if the developed countries are not transferring these promised funds to us, after they have already ruined the planet with decades of excess emissions, why should our people continue to freeze in the dark instead of using fossil fuels to improve their lives to your levels.
The UN tells us that “we” have only twelve years to take effective action to keep planetary warming to less than 1.5°C. If this “we” does not reduce CO2 emissions as the UN advocates, what will happen to the planet? We will have to face the higher costs and risks of irreversible climate catastrophe, caused by another twelve years delay, just as we’ve done for the previous 12 years and long before that. Recall that the Paris Agreement is not the first such international agreement that has failed to reduce emissions, as explained by Danish economist Bjorn Lomborg:
“Promises made in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 and the Kyoto Treaty in 1997 to reduce carbon emissions achieved little or nothing. Three years into the Paris climate treaty, just 17 signatories [out of 195 countries] are on track – including Samoa and Algeria which promised very little [and China and India, which promised emissions increases]. In fact, since climate talks began in 1992, the world has emitted as much carbon dioxide from fossil fuels as all of humanity did before that from the beginning of time.
The reason for this persistent failure, and the cause of today’s exaggerations, is that policies to cut carbon emissions are incredibly expensive. …..
Even as a political strategy, it seems destined to fail, for as costs mount, we will see more street protests such as those in France, or eventual ballot losses like those in Australia, Brazil and the Philippines as voters turn to politicians who promise to reverse expensive climate policies.
[There is] a new survey showing nearly seven-in-10 Americans would vote against spending just $120 each per year to combat climate change.”
It is said that politics is the art of the possible. If so, policies to reduce CO2 emissions have to be politically possible in each country that wants to do so. One way or another, this will require large tax increases to fund the infrastructure adaptations to reduce reliance on fossil fuels. But this can’t be done by repeated trial and error. If a country blows its “climate crisis” budget on unproductive actions voters will not allow it to try again with further tax increases. To get it right the first time, political leaders have to know what they are doing.
If you read through the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) scientists’ recent reports on climate change (not the politician-approved Summaries of those reports) you will not find the words “crisis” or “emergency”. The rapid inflation in language from “global warming” to “climate change” to “climate emergency” to “climate crisis” is the invention of the media, for the benefit of the shareholders of the media. And many politicians are now echoing the media’s language in declaring a “Climate Emergency”. This has now become a political fad, a part of pop culture. But the IPCC uses the abbreviation “RFC”, short for “reasons for concern”. If we persist in escalating “concern” to “crisis” we create emotional stress and even panic. If there really is an “existential crisis”, the “greatest crisis that the human race has ever faced” we want to find the best possible solutions. These will not be found in a climate of panic. If we want rational solutions we have to stop trying to push people’s panic buttons, even if panic is successful click bait and sells media subscriptions.
Canadian partisan political drama attacking our relatively modest CO2 tax is entertaining, even polarizing, but not helpful. Solutions to global climate concerns can only be global, not confined to any one country. If “we” aren’t working on a practical collective action global solution for a 7.7 billion and growing global population “we” aren’t helping the planet. If we aren’t helping the planet we aren’t helping our country either.
Over 1 billion of the Earth’s 7.7 billion people have no access to electricity. They suffer from extreme poverty, and they and their children die from preventable diseases, indoor air pollution, contaminated water and even cold weather. The worst crisis they face is sheer daily survival. Climate change is the least of their worries.
Some 2/3 of global CO2 emissions come from the developing countries. As well, Brazil, Indonesia and others are permitting deforestation to bring their people out of poverty. What is the solution for that? Declare war on China, India, Brazil, Russia, Australia, etc. — anyone who is not aggressively reducing fossil fuel use — and bomb their coal plants? Pretend that the US and Canada can do it on their own? Collect and transfer the promised $100 billion annually?
When politicians in developed countries declare crises and promise to meet impossible targets like net zero emissions by 2050 – targets that our politicians have no idea how to achieve – that may help them to compete for domestic political power. But what will it do for the billions of people in all the other countries on the planet who neither live in our comfort nor vote in our elections, and their increasing their reliance on fossil fuels?
Words matter. If “we” can’t even get the words right, how will we get the actions right? Let’s get the words right first. Then maybe the right actions will follow.
My next post will consider the difference between developed countries looking good and doing good. Some developed countries like Switzerland, Sweden, Britain and even the US can look good in reducing their territorial CO2 emissions by hiring others to do their “dirty” work, i.e., exporting some of their emissions to other, usually developing countries and importing their goods. The consumption in the developed country is actually causing increased global emissions. This may make the developed country look more “green” while making the planet worse off.