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Opinion The carbon tax fallacy

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Wenonah Hauter is the executive director of the national advocacy organization Food & Water Watch and the author of “Frackopoly: The Battle for the Future of Energy and the Environment.”

Recently, a coalition of business and advocacy groups from around Washington gathered to kick off a campaign to enact a carbon pricing program in the capital. Known as the Climate and Community Reinvestment Act of D.C., the plan would place a new tax on all fossil fuels bought or sold, with the hope of ultimately discouraging the use of these polluting energy sources.

The big-picture goal of this campaign (and others like it suddenly sprouting up around the country) is admirable: to address the ever-deepening crisis of humanity-driven climate chaos by dissuading the continued use of coal, oil and gas, the filthy substances rapidly warming our planet. But unfortunately, the approach — one based in a world of financial markets, trading schemes and enticing new public revenue streams — is deeply and inherently flawed. Simply put, carbon pricing is a false solution to climate change and a problematic distraction from real, effective climate solutions we must urgently pursue.

To date, there is scant evidence to indicate that carbon taxes lower greenhouse gas emissions. In fact, the opposite is true. Recently Food & Water Watch reviewed the British Columbia carbon tax program, often cited by advocates as an example of success. We found that taxing carbon emissions did not reduce pollution; greenhouse gas emissions actually increased under the plan. From 2009 (the first full year of the tax) to 2014 (the most recent data available), emissions from taxed sources in British Columbia grew by 4.3 percent. And in the seven years after the carbon tax took effect, total gasoline sales increased by 7.37 percent.

Supporters of such plans like to focus on a deceivingly simple notion that increasing the price of a consumer good will automatically reduce its use. But this just isn’t the case when it comes to the purchase of necessities. People must heat their homes in winter, and they must commute to work, regardless of the cost.

Those backing the D.C. carbon pricing plan like to note that revenue from the new tax would go toward investment in clean energy sources. But only 20 percent of the generated funds would be allocated in this manner. The rest would be divvied up in tax breaks for businesses and rebates for consumers, another factor undercutting the notion that increased costs up front would change consumer behavior in the long run.

Meanwhile, fossil fuel giants such as ExxonMobil are increasingly coming out in support of carbon pricing. This should be cause for alarm for anyone concerned with stamping out the use of the dirty energy sources these corporations profit from. Exxon knows that carbon taxes will do little the change the business-as-usual dependence on oil and gas that it relies on to continue operating and enriching shareholders. Furthermore, corporations such as Exxon rightly view carbon pricing schemes as a means of diverting energy and interest from tougher regulations that might actually encroach on their business plans and bottom lines.

Despite what many well-intentioned activists and community leaders want to believe, there is no clever, convenient, market-friendly solution to our dire climate condition. There is only the hard truth that we must tackle the problem at its source: We must stop using fossil fuels, and soon.

The latest science indicates that in order to stave off the worst effects of deepening climate chaos, society must transition completely to clean, renewable energy by 2035. This will require an immense national undertaking, but it is attainable. And such an endeavor would create countless well-paid jobs in the energy efficiency and renewable energy sectors. All it will take to make this vision a reality is mustering the political will to forge the path.

Thankfully, that political will is steadily growing. In Congress, dozens of members now support the Off Fossil Fuels for a Better Future Act, which would mandate a full transition to clean energy by 2035. And scores of local, state and federal candidates currently running for elected office throughout the country have signed our OFF pledge, committing to the principles outlined in the OFF Act.

The movement to transition the United States off fossil fuels now is growing rapidly. Flawed, ineffective carbon tax plans such as one proposed for Washington only serve to distract focus from what’s really needed: quitting fossil fuels for good.