Here's Why a Carbon Tax Helps Fossil Fuel Companies, Not the Environment

Next month, voters will decide whether Washington State implements the first-ever statewide carbon tax in the U.S. Meanwhile, there are lessons to be learned from a carbon tax across the border.


On Monday, Food & Water Watch issued a report debunking what carbon tax supporters have held up as the model for addressing climate change—the British Columbia carbon tax implemented in 2008—revealing that evidence fails to demonstrate that it has reduced carbon emissions, fossil fuel consumption or vehicle travel, as it purported to do.

“This report debunking the claimed climate impacts of the British Columbia carbon tax is being released at a critical time not only for Washington State, but also for Canada,” stated Maude Barlow, National Chairperson of the Council of Canadians. “With Canada recently proposing a national carbon tax, it’s important that all Canadians understand that merely putting a price on carbon isn’t going to save our planet from catastrophic climate change.”

Proponents of the British Columbia carbon tax often look to emissions reductions that occurred after the tax was passed. However, according to the report, most of the modest and short-term emissions reductions seem to be related primarily to the 2008 global recession, not the tax. In fact, more recently, British Columbia’s emissions have resumed their rise, which the Seattle Times also noted in its recent editorial urging voters to reject the Washington initiative, I-732.

According to the report:

  • During the years that the tax was in place for the entire year, from 2009 to 2014, greenhouse gas emissions from taxed sources rose by a total of 4.3 percent. During this same time period, emissions from non-taxed sources fell by a total of 2.1 percent.
  • The one-time drop in emissions from 2008 to 2009 does not appear to be driven by the carbon tax. The average annual year-to-year change in taxed greenhouse gas emissions barely changed after the carbon tax went into effect.
  • According to the most recent data released by the province, from 2011 to 2014, the total taxed greenhouse gas emissions rose by 5.3 percent. Meanwhile, total untaxed emissions decreased by 2.5 percent, and the annual average growth for taxed emissions rose by 1.7 percent annually and exceeded untaxed emissions.
  • Canada projects that British Columbia’s total greenhouse gas emissions will increase over coming years even with the tax in place.

“This data from British Columbia, where a carbon tax has been in place for the better part of a decade, is not inspiring,” said Julia DeGraw, Northwest Senior Organizer for Food & Water Watch. “There is no compelling reason to believe that a carbon tax would work to reduce emissions in Washington either.”

Instead of a carbon tax or other market-based approaches, Food & Water Watch suggests that a more straightforward approach to regulating carbon emissions would be modeled on the success of the Clean Air Act, which successfully stopped and reduced many forms of air pollution by establishing limits on industrial pollutants, and effectively regulating polluting industries.

This is perhaps why even the industry is throwing support behind carbon taxes as an alternative to the prospect of strong regulations to limit carbon emissions. ExxonMobil, in its statement on the 2015 United Nations climate talks in Paris, said a carbon tax was “the best option” to address climate change, “let[tting] market prices drive the selection of solutions.”

“Scrutiny of this program shows that carbon taxes don’t actually reduce emissions, but instead provide cover to keep spewing climate-altering pollution,” said Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food & Water Watch. “It’s really no surprise that even ExxonMobil has endorsed a carbon tax, preferring a more deregulatory, free market approach to the alternative—capping emissions, and moving swiftly to policies that keep fossil fuels in the ground.”

This article was originally published on Food & Water Watch.

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