Researchers tackle distrust toward carbon taxes

Cason Hunwick

Republicans and democrats disagree on a lot of things, but they both distrust the carbon tax. Yet a UT study concludes a carbon tax is the best way to kill coal and promote renewable energy.

A carbon tax puts a price on pollution. The more heat-trapping carbon dioxide you emit, the more you have to pay the government via a carbon tax. This system makes for a powerful policy in implementing more sustainable practices, UT law professor David Adelman said.

“Putting a tax on emissions makes it more attractive for renewable sources of electricity and also makes coal much more expensive,” Adelman said. “People that own coal facilities would basically have to shut down their plants.”

Adelman and UT law professor David Spence coauthored a recent study on energy policies. Their goal was to find which policy strategy was best for both the market and the environment.

“The analysis tested and studied the effects of different policies to determine which had the potential to promote renewable electricity generation and lower emissions from energy production,” Spence said.

They found that carbon taxes would be the most effective, since they favor renewable energy and could efficiently kill coal plants. But that’s not the end of the story — renewables have their drawbacks.

“One problem with renewables is that they are intermittent,” Adelman said. “They depend on whether the wind blows or the sun shines. Because of that, you need to have a generation source that you can turn on and off at will.”

Germany represents an example of why switching to all renewables can backfire, Spence said. The German government made it easier to get solar panels, but Germany is a cloudy place with limited sunshine. This resulted in Germans not getting the energy they needed.

The goal, Adelman said, is to create policies that reach a balance between an energy source that can be turned on and off, such as natural gas. It also needs to be clean and free, such as wind and solar, he added.

One thing the researchers don’t see in the future of electricity generation is coal. The best plan might be to get rid of it entirely, Spence said.

“If I had absolute control of all energy, if I was the absolute tzar, I would first try to kill coal,” Spence said. “And make sure it’s dead before I worry about other things. One study estimated that 10,000 in the U.S. die prematurely from inhaling particles coal puts into the air when you burn it.”

Killing coal, however, stands at odds with the current presidential administration’s stance.

“The Department of Energy, at the start of the Trump administration, tried to subsidize coal to make it viable,” Spence said. “And at that point, the approval committee consisted of four Trump appointees and one Obama appointee. All of them said no, unanimously. That’s how dumb that idea is.”

The most effective solution to emissions problems — a carbon tax — faces bipartisan disapproval, Adelman and Spence said.

Opponents to the carbon tax don’t like taxes in general, others don’t like that the tax makes no concrete promises to reduce emissions.

“Republicans would say we hate taxes,” Adelman said. “Environmentalists would say we hate market-based, profit-centered approaches.”

Spence said the success of the carbon tax depends on politics.

“It’s mostly political,” Spence said. “If politics weren’t involved, if it were just ideologies, I think this could get bipartisan support.”