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Taxing Carbon in Boulder, CO
Ted Rose, 28 Nov 06
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My hometown of Boulder passed a carbon tax with 60 percent of the votes on November 7, apparently making it the first in the country to do so.

The Boulder tax targets home and business electricity use, authorizing an extra charge based on the number of kilowatt hours used by residences and businesses. City officials say the tax will add $16 a year to the average homeowner’s electricity bill ($46 for businesses). The ballot language also gives City Council the flexibility to more than double the rates on residential and commercial usage after the first year, if it chooses. In order to reward people doing the right thing by other means, it includes an exemption for people and businesses who voluntarily purchase wind from the local monopoly utility Xcel or other green marketers.

The money will go to fund city programs to encourage energy efficiency, increase renewable energy usage, and reduce automobile emissions. You can find out a lot more on the City of Boulder’s website.

Oregon assesses a similar fee on electricity users, but the revenues are distributed by a non-profit agency, not a government agency.

The media has characterized the tax’s success as a triumph of extreme liberalism, but I’m not convinced. Former Bush speechwriter David Frum has been advocating for a carbon tax since the election. Slate’s Tim Noah says taxing carbon is gaining more supporters in the Republican ranks, too. I suspect the Boulder case study will attract policy wonks of all stripes, and that carbon taxes are less a partisan issue than a practical one.

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This tax is not large enough to have any impact on behavior; it is mainly a symbolic act intended to raise revenue so Boulder can put together a plan to actually do something about greenhouse gases. When the plan comes out, we will then see whether or not Boulder is serious about greenhouses gases.

As it is, despite the positive aspects of things like the Pearl Street Mall and the bicycle friendly nature of Boulder, Boulder has a traffic problem that has gotten worse over the years with its fair share of yuppies driving SUVs to Whole Foods.

Don't get me wrong. Boulder is to be commended for this effort. But I think it is overstating the case to call this a carbon tax.

The main reason for Boulder's traffic problem is the large number of people who commute into and out of the city. If only they could somehow exchange jobs. Seriously, though, how can Boulder cut down on the number of people who choose the auto as their transportation mode of choice. Until Boulder finds a way to fix this problem, it will be green primarily by reputation and not in reality.

Perhaps Boulder needs to gradually convert part or all of its major thoroughfares to bus only lanes. Just keep squeezing autos until the use of the auto becomes unbearable and people start leaving their autos behind. Carbon taxes or higher gas taxes, even if legal for a city, would do little because much of the traffic comes from outside Bouder and people could just start buying their gas outside Boulder.

Posted by: t on 28 Nov 06

This is not a real solution.

Take look at it from another perspective:

In de 15th and 16th century the Portugueze and Spanish conquerors managed to wipe out 95% of the population of South-America because they imported various deadly contagious diseases, which resulted in massive natural reforrestration. And that resulted in the mini ice-age which lasted from 1600 until 1900.

In the past century we've been burning an old stock of trees and cut a whole lot of living trees.

The real solution to the global warming problem is to:

1) Quit using oil etc. altogether.
2) Plant lots of trees. Any desert is a candidate and we've got a surplus of them these days.
3) Store a massive stockpile of wood so it won't rot.
4) Use wood for energy.
5) Quit listening politely to fools who claim this won't work. You can't eat money, especially not if you're dead.

Posted by: Han on 28 Nov 06

A tax can be a part of the solution. People do think about their choices when it hits them in the pocket book. I can't tell you how many people I know started thinking about more efficient transportation when gas prices rose above $3 a gallon. A regional tax, however, is largely symbolic and, as stated above, a way to raise money to fund increased awareness and other choices.

We need a national, and significant carbon tax. I'd seriously consider alternate transportation if my gasoline costs were over $4 (or more as they are in Europe). Some of the revenue can then be used to rebate people on their income taxes. Also, this tax should not just affect transportation, but all forms of energy production. Let's get serious about energy conservation and alternative energy production. One way to do that is to reflect the true costs of these things through taxation.

Posted by: Melissa Drakeford on 28 Nov 06

I live very near Boulder and have spent much of my life there.

The carbon tax is not enough to really get people to change, I agree it's just a nicer way of getting some more money for Boulder. Wind power where I live now (Fort Collins, CO) costs more than the yearly tax Boulder has. Also of note - Boulder has a very high average income, so $12 a year is literally nothing at all.

And the driving: I agree, the sheer amount of SUV's at Whole Foods (and Pearl Street, and the terrible new 29th Street "shopping district") has passed the ironic level and is somewhere around hypocritical.

Boulder has a VERY nice bus system, but it seems to be mostly used by students. I think restricting the traffic into and out of Boulder to buses would be a mistake, what the Front Range really needs is a full light rail system connecting cities.

Posted by: Andrew on 28 Nov 06

Quitting oil is a pipe dream. EVERYTHING in our society is dependant on oil. Unless that is you want most of the population to starve, freeze or at a minimum massive unemployment. Carbon tax is a joke. People must get food, must heat their homes, must get to work. All you do with carbon taxes is take away disposable income, which puts people out of work. (how does the poor benifit from more taxation? They can barely pay for power now!)

The real threat is not global warming, but peak oil. Within 20 years we will be on the down side of oil production, then you'll get your CO2 emission reductions as civilization collapses.

Posted by: Richard on 29 Nov 06


If only if were that easy. Coal is becoming the fossil fuel of choice and will be more so as oil passes its peak.

A carbon tax doesn't have to be a net reduction in disposable income if other taxes are reduced as compensation. Those who choose to engage in less energy intensive activities could actually profit from such a scheme.

I think we have lot of low hanging fruit before we negatively impact the economy. In fact, money spent on conservation and renewable energy shows up in the national GDP accounts just as well as polluting activities.

Besides, on a seriously overheated planet, we will have a lot more to worry about than a reduction in GDP.

FASTRACKS is in the process of building a system which will eventually connect front range cities.

In the mean time, we will need a fast and efficient bus system if we are going to make an impact on the automobile.

Putting aside global warming, if Boulder doesn't put in a system to supplant the auto, it will soon reach gridlock on its major thoroughfares. I don't think the citizens of Boulder will choose to expand those thoroughfares in an attempt to speed up the traffic flow.

Boulder used to be a very pleasant town to get around in. While they pretty much fixed the people growth problem, they forgot to prevent the auto growth problem.

Posted by: t on 29 Nov 06

Nothing I said will be easy, on the contrary, the collapse of civilization as we currently enjoy is not going to be easy, but very hard. 50-75% in population reduction is not going to be easy.

Other taxes will not be reduced to offset carbon taxes. What's the point of a carbon tax then if it is just a replacement to existing taxes? Taxes of any kind are a leach on GDP. You reduce car use you reduce the number of cars sold, cars repaired, and that will have a trmendous impact on the auto sector. Look at the layoffs now in the Big Three because of car imports. You want to compound that?

No one will voluntarily want to send the world into a depression that will make 1929 look like a garden party. But it will happen soon enough all on its own. So why not just let us all enjoy what we have while we still have it.

Besides, we will need the global warming to help extend the growing season and keep us warmer in Winter.

Posted by: Richard on 1 Dec 06



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