First thing this morning, we ran to our polling place to vote in the NY Democratic Presidential primary.  Happily, our new polling place is in running distance, so we killed our morning exercise and civics responsibilities with one stone. I am not disclosing my vote here, but I am sure that either Democratic candidate will be worlds better on climate issues than any Republican candidate.  Let the climate win in November!

Bernie Sanders is probably the biggest climate hawk in a presidential race since Al Gore ran in 2000.  His proposed response to climate change is to

Cut U.S. carbon pollution by 40 percent by 2030 and by over 80 percent by 2050 by putting a tax on carbon pollution, repealing fossil fuel subsidies and making massive investments in energy efficiency and clean, sustainable energy such as wind and solar power.

Putting aside the question whether cutting US emissions just 40% by 2030 is enough to prevent dangerous global temperature increases over 2 degrees C (it is almost certainly not), what would a carbon tax sufficient to achieve an 80% reduction in US carbon emissions look like? Climate hawks don’t like to tell you.  One study suggests that achieving these reductions would require a carbon tax of about $100 per ton in 2030 (to get a 40% reduction), and about $1,000 per ton by 2050, to get an 80% reduction.

OK, that study was produced by the National Association of Manufacturers — blood opponents of a carbon tax — but my gut feeling is that they are not far off. What would it take to get Americans to use 80% less gasoline?  Fifteen dollar gas sounds about right.  Don’t get me wrong – I think that would be a good thing.   Gas is too cheap for the planet. It is too bad that a President Sanders could not just impose a $1,000 per ton carbon tax.  Unfortunately, only the (Republican controlled) house can impose and raise taxes.

My own carbon philosophy holds that living sustainably means means living within global limits NOW, not just making a promise that someone else will manage to live within global limits by 2050.  The average US per capita carbon footprint is about 20 tons of CO2.  My goal is to keep within about 20% of that goal (an 80% reduction).  Right now.

OK, I admit it, I am one of those strange people that does not really mind doing tax returns every year (especially now that computers take care of all the tedious form filling out and calculations). I have a right brained, number crunching, quant side. I even worked as a tax accountant right out of college.  But the existentialist side in me also sees life as our canvas. We get to paint the picture we would like by every choice in our life.  Sometimes, it’s nice to step back and take a look at what picture we have painted in the past year.  Doing your taxes makes you do that for your financial life– what did you earn, what did you spend, what did you donate.

What if you had to fill out a tax return for your carbon footprint for the past year?  What would it look like?  It’s easy enough to do — there are plenty of good carbon calculators out there. I like Carbon Footprint, because it lets you input your actual consumption of gas and electricity (rather than using averages), and it includes indirect impacts, and compares your total to the global emissions target.  Here is the tool:


I think everyone who cares about global warming should take stock of their own footprint once a year.  If your emissions are above the US average, are you really part of the solution, no matter how vigorously you support the political cause of responding to climate change?  Are you ready to cut your own emissions by 40% or even 80%  Would you happily pay $100 or even $1,000 per ton for a carbon tax that you support politically? If you are an average American, and don’t want to change your life style, your tax in 2050 would be about $20,000.

2015 was one of the richest years of my life.  I was on sabbatical during the Spring semester, so I had some time to spend at our cabin upstate (solar powered, wood heated) working on some writing projects.  In March, we flew to Jerez, Spain to pick up our sailboat (we left it there in the summer of 2014), and sailed to Dakar, where I attended a conference of West African waterkeeper organizations.  We then sailed back across the Atlantic to Guadaloupe, on to the Virgin Islands, Turcs and Caicos, the Bahamas, and on home to NY. I took the train to Boulder, Colorado, in June, for the annual Waterkeeper conference, then took a side trip by van to float down the canyons of the Green River in Dinosaur National park. We drove to Toronto that summer to watch our son compete in the Pan American games, with a side trip camping on Parry Sound.  No-one would accuse me of having lived a life of deprivation last year.

Here is my carbon footprint for 2015:


I hit my target of under 4 tons.  This included the one way flight to Spain, round trip train to Boulder, gas to supplement the wood stove in my house, diesel for our sailboat’s engine, driving on weekends. I think that the calculator has understated the carbon impacts of the train travel — .07 tons for a round trip to Boulder seems way too low.  But even if you multiplied by ten, I would be close to my target.

At a $100 per ton, I would owe a $360 carbon tax for the year.  At $1,000 per ton (what is probably necessary to get an 80% reduction), I would owe about $3,600.  I am going to make a $360 contribution to a relief organization for Bangla Desh as my carbon tax payment this year.

But don’t worry.  An actual carbon tax would not require individuals to file another tax return, with intrusive personal details about your life.  The tax would most likely be collected from the fossil fuel producers and utilities, and would be built into the price you paid for gas and electricity.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s