Want systemic change? Make clean choices cheaper than dirty ones.
I read a thoughtful article by freelance writer Katarina Zimmer this week, suggesting that human beings might still turn the tables back on the climate emergency. The author cites research by Tim Lenton of the University of Exeter in the United Kingdom, suggesting that we’re not living up to our potential in terms of actively changing course.
The key is money. Make “dirty” choices cost more than clean ones, and change will follow. For example, in the UK, operating coal plants became unprofitable in 2015. Since then, the island has almost completely evolved beyond coal, faster than most believed possible. In Norway, EVs account for 80 percent of new car sales, despite climate skepticism. The key? Remove taxes for purchasing one, and reduce what commuters pay for tolls. Bada bing.
We live in an upside-down world. Let me give you just two examples of destructive normalcy that could be “flipped” into positive results in the U.S.: electricity production and transportation, the two biggest polluters in the nation.
Flying is cheaper than trains. Airlines received $43.97 billion in federal subsidies in 2022. Amtrak got $4.3 billion the same year. Going by train emits about 30 times less CO2, not to mention the high-altitude impacts of plane travel. Yet, you can fly from Boston to Houston round trip for about $124. The lowest-priced train trip would be about $441. Flip it.
Fossil fuels are far more subsidized than solar or wind. Although it’s tough to get an accurate read, fossil fuel subsidies in the U.S., based on our percentage of global pollution, add up to about $1 trillion in 2022. By comparison, solar got about $15.6 billion. That’s double what it got in 2021, thanks to the infrastructure bill passed by the Biden Administration, but it’s still only 1.56 percent of what finite fossil fuels gobbled up. Flip it.
Let’s talk about carbon taxes. Nobody likes taxes, but without them, our increasingly inequitable society would look even more polarized. Real-world use of carbon taxing shows a rapid impact on corporate behavior. CEOs can turn on a dime, it turns out, when profits are on the line, converting to “greener” modes of traveling, transporting goods, packaging and manufacturing almost overnight.
In the UK, Zimmer notes that “the nail in [coal’s] coffin was a carbon tax the government introduced in 2013, charging companies around $14 and later $27—for every ton of carbon it burned. Though modest, it was just enough to create a tipping point where coal, the most carbon-intensive form of energy, became more costly to burn than gas.”
Coal plants soon were sitting idle, as companies sought to avoid the tax. That’s what we call a positive tipping point. Hitting one is not some distant milestone. It’s as simple as a policy change that makes burning fossil fuels more expensive than installing solar; eating meat more expensive than buying organic vegetables; flying to Walt Disney World three times as costly as taking the train; building a net zero house 20 percent cheaper than one that just barely squeaks past the code (not to mention the lifetime savings on operation and maintenance).
It’s not fair to blame homeowners and builders for the brunt of climate woes. We play a part in the problem (and the solution), but a relatively small one when compared with transportation, agriculture and energy. Big business needs to make big changes, even if we convert all of the nation’s housing stock to net-zero, low-impact living.
So the next time you hear a talking head on your TV use the term “carbon tax,” don’t dive for the remote. As I’ve said for many years, we need carrots and sticks to get industry to change rapidly. Right now, however, it’s time to double down on sticks. Make bad behavior hurt. The reality is that our old system of living and making things isn’t just dirty, it’s mired in inefficiencies that are costing us more every year. Flip it.