Downtown View:Reducing Your Carbon Footprint

Let’s pretend. It is 2024. Senate bill 1747, An Act Combating Climate Change, passed the Massachusetts legislature and was signed by the governor in 2017. The bill made Massachusetts a leader in combating carbon emissions.

A couple who lives in downtown Boston spent $419.61 on natural gas fuel for heat and hot water in April of that year. That is about average for them for a month, since during winter they need more heat and, in warmer months, only hot water.

The bill for their fuel, however, is a bit higher. They also pay a carbon fee—$40 for every metric ton of carbon dioxide their fuel emits. In their case, for April, that amount is 1.65 metric tons of carbon dioxide, triggering a fee of $66. So their April bill is actually $485.61. Over 12 months, their household natural gas will emit over 11 metric tons of carbon dioxide, increasing their annual fuel bill by $446. That’s a lot of money for heat and hot water.

The couple doesn’t drive much because they live downtown, so their one car guzzled only 35.8 gallons of gasoline in March. Ordinarily they would have paid $2.41 per gallon at the pump, totaling $86.26. Again, this is about average for them.

But it is year seven after An Act Combating Climate Change passed. So for gasoline that month, they’ll pay an extra fee of 36 cents per gallon or $12.89, calculated at .009 metric tons per gallon, for the carbon dioxide their car emits. Yearly, the fee would cost them approximately $150.

That’s not the end of the story, however. Under this act, each person in their household will receive a rebate of $225. They will still be out of pocket for $146—money they’d like to save.

The obvious place for this couple to save money is not with their car—they don’t use it that much. But their heating and hot water bill is on the high side. They’ll figure out some way to save on heating costs, perhaps insulting pipes or walls, replacing leaky windows, maybe even replacing their furnace for a newer, less polluting one.

The result: not only does the couple save money in the future, but their consumption emits fewer pollutants. That means slowing down global warming. The polar bears survive.

State Sen. Michael Barrett sponsored this legislation after he ran in a contested primary in 2012. When he asked his future constituents what they wanted him to work on it was health care, the economy and climate change. “People were freaked out at the weather,” he said. The same message came from all income groups and every town.

“I wanted to find a game changer,” he said. “A carbon fee would get all of us in the game. It’s the single most effective thing a state government can do.”

How does he know if no state has tried it?

Look at what’s happened in British Columbia, he said. That province’s carbon fee began in 2008, increasing every year until 2012. BC’s fuel consumption per person has dropped by 16 percent, according to The Economist. Using less fossil fuel has not hurt BC’s job growth or its economy, proving wrong Republicans who make such claims in opposing such fees.

Proponents point out some things to consider in this legislation:

* The fee would start small and rise over a period of seven years to give householders time to adjust their practices and usage.

* Households will face a penalty if they use MORE fossil fuels, and they will enjoy a benefit if they use less. This motivates people to change their behavior.

* Low and moderate income families will NOT be burdened, since rebates will typically equal or be greater than the fee they pay.

* A formula will protect residents in rural areas, who must drive more than urbanites, from excessive fees.

* Most economists agree that a carbon fee is the most effective method to cut carbon pollution.

* State Sen. Marc Pacheco has also introduced a bill to put a price on carbon. It would set aside a small percentage of the fee to invest in clean energy.

* A carbon fee has been proposed in both Congress and the US Senate. It didn’t get far. But carbon fee legislation is now under consideration in 12 states or provinces.

* The fee requires no new bureaucracy, regulations or taxes, which could help it gain support from some Republicans, at least those who acknowledge climate change and the role fossil fuels play in the phenomenon.

Several Republicans already have come out in favor of it, including Greg Mankiw, a Harvard economics professor and a George W. Bush advisor. He claims that most economists agree with him.

It may be the cowardly way out—to let Canada experiment with new ideas before we try them. But taking this step with Barrett’s legislation or something like it, seems a good way to motivate all of us to change our behaviors. Stay tuned.

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