Recent New York Times polling found that 83% of Americans (including 61% of Republicans) believe that global warming will be a serious world problem if nothing is done about it. The public’s high level of concern about global warming does not translate into willingness to pay more for carbon. The poll found 63% of the public opposed to higher gasoline taxes, and 74% opposed to higher electricity taxes.
One low-cost, high-return approach would be for the government to set and promote voluntary guidelines and targets for individual carbon emissions limits similar to the “recommended daily allowances” the FDA sets for calorie and sodium intake. The Recommended Carbon Limit (RCL) for Americans could be set, for example, at 27,500 pounds (12.5 metric tons) of CO2 emissions per year (30% below the existing U.S. per capita average or more than 50% above the European average), and could be reduced 5% annually from there. Just as with food’s “nutrition facts” box, the RCL could be paired with a labeling campaign, which could, for example, inform consumers at the gas pump that using a gallon of gas emits 20 lbs of CO2, or state on their electric bills how much CO2 was used to generate their electricity.
The purpose of the RCL would be to raise consumers’ awareness of their carbon emissions and how those emissions contribute to the world’s CO2 problem, and to encourage consumers to set limits on their emissions.
Establishing an RCL would generate enormous controversy and debate about the individual’s duty to conserve carbon, the role of government in setting carbon limits, what the appropriate carbon limits should be, and whether there should be different limits depending upon where one lives. These debates would highlight the consumer’s role in carbon reduction and raise awareness of key carbon-reduction issues that receive little public attention. The debates would also highlight key issues hindering carbon reduction efforts, such as many communities’ dependence on coal-generated power, poor mass-transit in suburban and rural area, and the difficulties of financing home weatherization and solar panel installation.
The RCL would likely be more politically popular than carbon taxes. Americans’ visceral opposition to higher taxes would be avoided. The limits would be set without regard to personal wealth, and would therefore be more egalitarian than gas taxes, which fall harder on the poor than the wealthy. The limits would be completely voluntary.
RCLs would bring out into the open the issue that has long been obscured in public debates—whether individuals’ use of carbon should have limits. Carbon limits should have the imprimatur of government, because of government’s unparalleled reach and credibility, and because it is important that the entire population understand that everyone needs to do his or her part in solving the CO2 problem.
We are running out of time to deal with the climate crisis. A clear message from the government to consumers about their role in addressing their carbon emissions is both critical and long overdue. Just as the FDA’s recommended daily allowances help people establish a healthy food diet, RCLs are necessary to help us establish a healthy carbon diet.