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Principle Meets Wallet On Warm Paris Streets

December 15, 2018
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Principle Meets Wallet On Warm Paris Streets

The Paris climate agreement, signed in 2016 by 195 nations, pledged these countries to reduce carbon admissions in order to offset the consequences of global climate change. It is a given that industrialized countries emit more carbon than others. In fact, China and the United States produce 40 percent of the world’s emissions between them. The U.S. is no longer a member of the climate agreement but will participate in discussions about how to reach stated targets. France, the host of the Paris agreement meeting, is among those industrialized countries that has a long history of emissions reduction, but for reasons not related to the 2016 agreement. Faced with few oil or coal resources, France was forced to develop one of the world’s largest nuclear energy programs long before the climate accord. Today France derives 75 percent of its electrical power from nuclear energy and is the largest exporter of electrical energy. French leadership, in substituting carbon-based fuel for nuclear power to produce electricity, encouraged many to believe that the French would lead the way in reducing overall carbon dioxide. Yet when French President Emmanuel Macron imposed a carbon tax on gasoline to reduce its use, Frenchmen could not have disagreed more. The “yellow vest” movement spontaneously rose up in protest literally closing the Champs-Elysses, Paris’ famed shopping mecca. The spontaneous revolt caused Macron to rescind the tax increase. Why would the country of Jacques Cousteau, that leads the world in low-polluting energy, react so negatively to a new policy designed to help better comply with an agreement named for their capital city? The answer lies not in the general acknowledged reasoning that taxing of carbon emissions reduces them, but rather in the inevitable human trait of agreeing in principal to a policy yet rejecting it when it impacts individuals directly. In France, generating low-emissions electrical power by nuclear fission was not an immediate event. It happened over time. The cost of building nuclear power generating capacity was paid for by the public by gradually increasing taxes and utility bills. On the other hand, Macron used a strategy in the quiver of most countries that hope to reduce energy consumption. He immediately placed higher taxes on gasoline to discourage its use. The use of a carbon tax in any country on gasoline, natural gas and electricity will result in many unpleasant outcomes for consumers. Yet the U.S. Congressional Joint Committee on Taxation, the Congressional Budget Office and the Treasury Department’s Office of Tax Analysis concluded that a steep carbon tax alone may not even be enough to mitigate carbon emissions at a level commensurate with those recommended in the Paris agreement. Hence even more drastic steps will need to be taken. For instance, everyone living near coastal areas will have their ocean views disrupted by windmills. Those who fought against nuclear electrical generation in the U.S. will need to reconsider their positions. Solar panels will cover land previously used for recreation, and those opposed to gas pipelines will need to adjust their approach when natural gas, which emits relatively few carbon molecules, is no longer transported. These are but a few examples of the real costs of compliance, but are they enough? The U.S. government’s latest National Climate Assessment report released in late November concluded that climate change has cost the nation $400 billion since 2015 because of the fires, hurricanes and storms it has caused. What is not so evident is the estimated costs — monetary and otherwise — that citizens will realize when energy reduction policies are put into place. Most everyone is generally in favor of reducing emissions, but at what cost and who will bear those costs? If the recent French experience is any indication of what may happen politicians may find that even environmentalists will react very negatively to new policies designed to reduce emissions especially if they are inconvenienced or harmed in any way.

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