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Smoky air hangs over the Wasatch Mountains on Tuesday, Aug. 10, 2021.
Smoky air hangs over the Wasatch Mountains on Tuesday, Aug. 10, 2021.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

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What is carbon pricing? Could it clean Utah’s air?

Utah roundtable explores whether carbon tax could cut pollution

Taxing polluters as a way to drive clean energy solutions in Utah was explored in a roundtable discussion Tuesday involving both Republican supporters and their Democratic counterparts in the state Legislature.

The event hosted by the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute at the University of Utah follows an opinion piece published June 4 in the Deseret News in which 25 GOP members of the Utah Legislature urged support for such a measure.

The discussion also builds momentum after the Utah congressional delegation led creation of the Conservative Climate Caucus in June when Rep. John Curtis, R-Utah, said climate change must become a GOP cause that delivers market-based solutions derived from innovation and technological advances.

There are more than 65 GOP members in that caucus.

During the roundtable discussion, three Utah lawmakers and an atmospheric scientist at the University of Utah detailed how carbon pricing might work in both this state and as a national policy to reward pollution reduction strategies and put money in people’s pocketbook.

Here’s how it would work.

Polluters would be “taxed” on emissions that foul the air and ultimately be priced, or “encouraged” to reduce those pollutants.

The revenue collected by government from the polluters would then be distributed to taxpayers as a dividend to offset the higher cost of products, such as the price per gallon at the gas pump or manufactured goods.

While regulatory controls and incentives for clean energy investment have been the traditional path to achieve emission reductions in the United States, carbon pricing would drive more innovation in the marketplace, said Rep. Ray Ward, R-Bountiful.

“The simplest way is to send a price signal,” he said. “We are asking polluters to pay some of the cost for their pollution. ... Consumers would be able to choose products based on price.”

Supporters in Tuesday’s discussion said such an approach, if implemented on a national scale, would not chase away jobs and industry because the pricing would come with a border import fee on international trading partners who don’t tax carbon.

“If we raise prices here, domestically, it is just going to export (industry and pollution) to other countries,” said Logan Mitchell, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Utah. “We actually have cleaner manufacturing than the rest of the world.”

While the United States accounts for just 15% of global emissions, Rep. Joel Briscoe, D-Salt Lake City, said the country can’t be content to wait for other polluting nations to catch up.

“This is a national security issue. We can’t sit on our laurels and say we are better. ... Are we going to acquiesce in leadership? I don’t want to give up world leadership to anyone else.”

Ward added that a carbon pricing policy can’t make it so hard that industry can’t thrive in the United States because that equates to a punch to America’s economic gut and is not effective at reducing emissions.

“With CO2 emissions, it does not matter where they are made,” he said, pointing out a policy that moves production to elsewhere in the world is not helpful in the global fight on climate change.

Mitchell said that Utah has the opportunity to be a leader in carbon pricing and institute a model for other states and the country to follow.

“The states are where we should be trying things out,” he said. “Utah ought to have an entrepreneurial view of this. ... The question is who is going to get there first.”

He said the state needs to do nothing more than look to the drought and extreme wildfires in the West as an example that action needs to be taken.

“Obviously these impacts are being felt in our daily lives. A lot of these impacts are more severe and happening sooner than some of us expected.”

Rep. Kera Birkeland, R-Morgan, said it is imperative that more members of the GOP embrace climate change goals with an eye toward innovation and free market solutions.

“I do believe that for too long Republicans have pushed this conservation off,” she said. “For too long we have let the Democrats take control of it.”

Consumers, she said, want a clean environment and would be willing to pay more if they knew the product was produced with fewer emissions.

“It is a free market approach.”

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