What If a Tax on Carbon Emissions Isn’t the Right Goal?

Perhaps planting one trillion trees through a tree-planting program would be equally or more effective…


Economists favor a carbon tax as the most efficient way to forestall global warming because they assume that the goal should be to reduce the amount of carbon. But what if that assumption is wrong?

David Henderson gives three reasons why it may be wrong: (1) controlling methane emissions appears to be far more important than controlling carbon, (2) geo-engineering (e.g., emitting sulfur dioxide to counteract the effects of warming) may be more economical than reducing carbon and (3) it may be more cost effective to remove carbon from the atmosphere by planting trees.

According to a July 4, 2019, article in The Guardian, planting one trillion trees would be much cheaper than a carbon tax and much more effective. At an estimated cost of 30 cents per additional tree, the overall cost would be $300 billion. That’s large, but it’s a one-time cost. Moreover, writes the Guardian’s environment editor Damian Carrington, such a tree-planting program “could remove two-thirds of all the emissions that have been pumped into the atmosphere by human activities, a figure the scientists describe as ‘mind-blowing’.”

A carbon tax, by contrast, would simply slow the rate of emissions into the atmosphere.

5 Replies to “What If a Tax on Carbon Emissions Isn’t the Right Goal?”

  1. Carbon dioxide and methane are colorless and odorless gases. It is these gases and others that provide the greenhouse effect, not their carbon components. To keeping calling them a carbon problem conjures up visions of nineteenth century dirty factory smokestacks and gives a propaganda edge to the radical enviros.

  2. Bill, I agree one hundred percent. Smokestacks are used to convey the idea of “carbon emissions” when 1) they are really carbon dioxide emissions as you say, and 2) it’s very hard to find smokestack images–they are always steam, not smoke.

  3. The first problem with considering a carbon tax as the most efficient way to forestall global warming is in assuming that such a phenomenon, to the extent that it may exist, needs a solution. It doesn’t. And there has been no warming for the past few years.

    Another matter concerns the fact that the oceans produce some 50% – 85% of the planet’s oxygen, which is produced via phytoplankton photosynthesis. (The wide range estimate is a result of the fact that the ocean’s photosynthesis cannot be accurately measured.) So, forestation is a minor factor.

    Assuming that limiting CO2 emissions in the U.S.A. will have a meaningful effect takes an enormous amount of hubris. For perspective, the U.S. covers but 6% of the Earth’s land mass. Sure, we emit more percentagewise, but we do not rule the world. A reduction of CO2 emissions in the U.S. by a tiny fraction will result in de minimis effect on the world, if it happens, which it probably won’t.

    Then, there’s the fact that CO2 is plant food—farmers pump it into greenhouses to make their crops grow faster. It has been estimated that the small amount of atmospheric CO2 growth over the past several decades has greened the earth by the equivalent of a continent the size of America.

    Rather than fall for the leftist environmental religion—faith and emotion—it would be more productive to pursue fact and reason. Citations on request.

  4. Ed, I think I can even strengthen your points here. The United States has already reduced its greenhouse gas emissions significantly. They are at their lowest levels since 1992! But as you point out, the U.S. represents a small portion of the globe and some countries continue to increase their emissions.

  5. Here is how to approach this issue from the economic point of view.

    We have a goal and let’s say 4 instruments to achieve it. Under the optimal solution, all four instruments would be used. The only exception would be a corner solution — where one of the options might not be used. But that is virtually inconceivable in this case

    So, if we are optimizing there is almost no possibility that we would not have some kind of carbon tax and there is almost no possibility that that a carbon tax would be the only instrument used.

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