Daily RC Article 53

Impose a CO2 Tax?


Paragraph 1

One way governments can decrease air pollution is to impose a tax on industrial carbon dioxide emissions. But why should governments consider a carbon tax when they could control emissions by establishing energy efficiency and conservation standards, by legislating against coal use, or by increasing investment in nuclear power? The great virtue of such a tax is that it would provide incentives for industry to achieve emission reductions. Because oil emits more carbon dioxide per unit of energy generated than does natural gas, and coal more than oil, a carbon tax would vary with the type of fuel. Such a tax would induce industry to substitute less-polluting fuels for those carrying a higher tax, and also to reduce the total use of energy.

Paragraph 2

However, it is not clear how high such a tax should be or what its economic and environmental implications would be. At first glance, it is not difficult to estimate roughly the size of the tax needed to effect a given level of emission reduction. One writer estimates, for example, that a tax of 41 percent on the price of coal, 33 percent on oil, and 25 percent on gas would reduce the United Kingdom’s emissions by 20 percent (using 1988 as the base year) by the year 2005, the target recommended by the 1988 Toronto Conference. It should be noted, however, that these numbers ignore the effect of the tax on economic growth, and hence on emissions, and assume that past responses to a price rise will be replicated in the future. These numbers are also based on the assumption that all countries will behave cooperatively in imposing a carbon tax.

Paragraph 3

There are very strong reasons to believe that cooperation would be difficult to win. If most countries cooperated, then any country that chose not to cooperate would be advantaged: it would have no abatement costs, and the effect on the environment of its defection would be relatively small. Because of this “free rider” effect, cooperation on a scale needed to reduce carbon dioxide emissions might prove elusive.

Paragraph 4

Should countries act unilaterally to curb emissions? If a country were to act unilaterally, the benefits would be spread across the globe, whereas the costs would fall solely on the country taking the action. The action would reduce emissions globally, and the effect of this would be to reduce the benefit other countries would receive if they reduced emissions. As a consequence, other countries would have less incentive to reduce emissions and would probably emit more carbon dioxide than they would have if the unilateral action had not been taken. The entire effect of the emission reduction may not be lost, but it would surely be diminished by this free-riding behaviour.

Topic and Scope:

A tax on CO2 emissions as a way of reducing air pollution; specifically, whether and how governments should impose such a tax.

Purpose and Main Idea:

The author’s purpose is fairly clearly announced in the second paragraph, and expanded in the last paragraph overall, he wonders, what are the issues involved in imposing that pollution tax? A flat-out conclusion that the tax is, or is not, desirable would act as a strong main idea, but the author falls short of providing one; he sees the upsides and downsides of the idea, but makes no final recommendation.

Paragraph Structure:

Paragraph 1 announces the issue quite blatantly, and the rhetorical question sets the tone for the rest of the inquiry: Why impose a CO2 tax rather than any number of other ways to control pollution? The rest of paragraph 1 describes the advantages of the tax.

Paragraph 2 explores the uncertainty over how high a tax would need to be, to be effective; and then the new issue it introduces, that of cooperation between nations, turns out to drive Paragraph 3. That Paragraph lists the difficulties in convincing all nations to impose the tax, a topic that segues (make a smooth transition from one thing to another) neatly into Paragraph's consideration of the pros and cons of unilateral imposition of the CO2 tax.

The Big Picture:

  • Not every passage contains a “main idea.” Don't strain to find one. Some passages (like this one) simply explore the pros and cons of an issue, or lay out a narrative with no real persuasive purpose. The best clue that a passage can be boiled down to one “big idea” is the presence of a question explicitly asking for one.
  • Not every passage contains a main idea, but every passage has a purpose. Every author has a solid reason for writing what she does. Explore that, first and foremost.

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