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As Biden's Climate Summit Approaches, Carbon Pricing Remains Uncertain

In this file photo made July 14, 2009, wind turbines line a ridge on Stetson Mountain in Washington County, Maine.
Robert F. Bukaty
AP file
In this file photo made July 14, 2009, wind turbines line a ridge on Stetson Mountain in Washington County, Maine.

President Joe Biden is inviting world leaders to join him later this week for a virtual climate summit, where the president is expected to announce a new, lower target for U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.

The reduction is seen as essential for slowing climate change. Biden has also pledged to adopt new regulations for fossil fuel producers but, so far, he has not signaled support for carbon pricing, which some say ought to be part of the package.

For years, the fossil fuel industry has argued that any kind of carbon tax would be the kiss of death for the economy. Then last month the American Petroleum Institute, the leading oil and gas lobbying group, said it could support putting a price on carbon emissions as a substitute for regulating greenhouse gases.

Environmental groups called the about-face "self-serving." Members of the Citizens' Climate Lobby welcomed it with open arms.

"We know that carbon pricing is on the table. Even people who argue against it are proving that carbon pricing is at the center of the argument," says Peter Monro, a steering committee member of the Portland, Maine chapter of the Citizens' Climate Lobby, a national, bipartisan, grassroots organization that favors carbon fee and dividend legislation as one important step to address the climate emergency.

This month, the latest version of that bill was unveiled by Democratic U.S. Rep. Ted Deutch of Florida at a virtual press conference. He says a robust plan to cut rising carbon emissions is necessary to help save the planet.

"The pandemic may have temporarily interrupted the scale of global carbon emissions, but it didn't create the kind of lasting change that we need," he says.

Backed by 28 Democratic co-sponsors, his bill is known as the Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend plan. Deutch says it will achieve net zero emissions by 2050. It calls for an aggressive fee schedule starting with $15 per metric ton of CO2 and increasing the amount by $10 per year.

"That will get us a 95% reduction in harmful air pollutants by 2030, which is particularly important for the communities who have long suffered the downside of pollution, disproportionately low-income households and communities of color," he says.

The plan would also return 100% of the net revenue back to the American people as a monthly dividend payment. Deutch says by 2030, that would amount to $1,470 per adult per year. The goal is to ensure that higher costs aren't shouldered by low-income families.

Scientists, economists and Republican elder statesmen James Baker and George Schultz, who died earlier this year, are among those who've backed the idea. Other Republicans, including U.S. Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, are reluctant to endorse it.

"The dividend is certainly an improvement over a straight carbon tax, but it's not clear how it would work, how you could get it to people quickly enough so that they're not bearing the upfront costs of the carbon tax," she says.

Collins says carbon fee and dividend legislation does not appear to have much momentum in the Senate. She also thinks it's notable that President Biden has not included a carbon tax in any of his recent climate initiatives. Instead, Collins says there should be more emphasis placed on figuring out ways to efficiently store solar and wind energy.

Derek Walker, vice president for U.S. climate at the Environmental Defense Fund, says in the short term his group wants the administration to tackle emissions from the biggest sources of pollution: power, cars and methane from oil and gas. But down the road?

"I think that there's broad agreement that some sort of a price on carbon should be part of a package that drives toward the long-term climate goals that we have. It certainly would be a great tool," he says.

"I would say that both are necessary. Carbon pricing is not a silver bullet. We need that price and that market signal but we also need regulations," says Jordan Stutt, the carbon programs director for the Acadia Center, a nonprofit that works on clean energy solutions across New England. "I'm glad to see some strange bedfellows starting to embrace the notion of carbon pricing. But we need to make sure that we're doing it in a sensible, responsible and equitable way."

Stutt says he's encouraged to see states like Massachusetts focused on accelerating the transition to electric vehicles. Bay State Republican Gov. Charlie Baker has proposed banning the sale of new combustion engines by 2035.

But putting a price on carbon is a proven way to transition away from fossil fuels, Stutt says. And it's why the Citizen's Climate Lobby and others are anxious to hear what comes next from the Biden administration.