What A Real Carbon Tax Should Look Like

I am all for finding solutions for the climate change, but last time I had to buy my textbooks, I did the most sensible thing: I went online to Amazon, despite there being a bookstore five minutes down the street. Thus, the books got shipped from New York (or Timbuktu for all I care); I avoided my sales tax and the world got slapped with a large carbon footprint.

[The Center for Energy and Climate Solutions — a nonprofit closely aligned with corporations — claims in an oft quoted stat that even the most carbon intensive shipping method (overnight) uses 40 percent less fuel than driving roundtrip to the mall. Shipping by truck saves 90 percent, according to the centre. However, the baseline for their research is not clear — and I am assuming it is 40-90% less fuel ‘per km‘. Since most online shipping probably comes from a place at least ten times further than your local mall, the legitimacy of this stat is suspect.]

This simple example underlines the complexities of consumer culture in a globalized society. Some propose a tax on all goods and services bought online but it is not that simple. Downloading music or books actually reduces carbon footprint and is an activity worth promoting. Purchasing goods online locally and collectively also reduces carbon footprint; “each delivery truck replaces a supermarket parking lot full of cars,” announced the organic food delivery service Spud!. [The comparison only works if online shopping actually reduces car usage, which might not actually be the case since people go the mall en route to/from office, school, etc.]

Meanwhile, the supermarkets – decaying monuments to once celebrated urban sprawl — are open long hours, requiring a large amount of empty space that is heated, cooled, and lit. People who had nothing better to do would just hop into their SUVs to do some impulse buys, and the megamalls, always salivatingly anticipating, would stock tonnes of merchandise that would never sell (25-35% according to Ernst & Young), and whose ever growing carbon footprint is testament to everything that is wrong with the modern consumerist society.

We might have to reconsider the international trade too. Let’s take up an issue I am most familiar with: wine. California accounts for 90 percent of American wine and the majority of consumption is east of Mississippi, and the greatest climate impact from the wine supply side comes from transportation. Since ships produce the least (two-thirds less than trucks and trains per km), the carbon footprints of France and South American wines are smaller than those of American wines. (See diagram below, from National Geographic). Exact data here.

There is no silver bullet to it, but right now, I am leaning towards a tax on shipping and handling indexed to carbon footprints (calculated by a package’s weight, dimensions, distance traveled, method of transportation). Such a tax addresses all above issues while simultaneously making corporations unable to wiggle out by claiming non-residency in the state and not punishing Internet services industry.

On the other hand, such a tax will be hideously unpopular domestically, and will be ruled discriminatory international tradewise. So for the time being I think I will continue buying things online.

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