We need a global carbon tax

The world burns about 30 billion tonnes of fossil fuel per year. A carbon tax of $30 per tonne would raise about $900 billion/year

Last week on the Opinion pages your editor reported on the shocking amount the Columbia Icefield has receded due to climate change. I called for immediate international action to reduce climate change and mitigate its effects.

What form should that international action take?

A carbon tax is generally accepted as the most straightforward and efficient method to reduce fossil fuel use.

Several nations and jurisdictions around the world have implemented carbon taxes. British Columbia’s, for example, is gradually rising to $30 per tonne this year.

The biggest criticism of provincial or even national carbon taxes is that they simply transfer fossil fuel use to other jurisdictions. There isn’t much point in B.C. having a carbon tax when Alberta has none, because all it does is make more fossil fuels available for Albertans to burn.

To be truly effective a carbon tax needs to be global in nature – everyone in the world needs to pay it.

According to Wikipedia, the world burns about 30 billion tonnes of fossil fuels per year. If the global carbon tax were the same as B.C.’s at $30 per tonne, it would raise about $900 billion per year – comparable to but somewhat more than the U.S. defense budget at $700 billion.

The world’s human population is now just over seven billion. If we assume 4.5 billion of them are adults, then $900 billion would give each of them a guaranteed annual income of $200.

That might not sound like much to you and I, but for an embarrassingly large number of people in the world it would effectively double what they make in a year (a person only needs to have a net worth of $2,161 to belong to the top half of the world’s wealthiest people).

How would it be implemented? In order to get the legitimacy it would require, such a carbon tax would have to go to referendum – a democratic vote by every citizen of the planet.

In many jurisdictions that allow referendums citizens can initiate them through petitions.

In British Columbia our Recall and Initiative Act requires 10 per cent of registered voters in each riding to initiate a referendum. The requirements for every riding plus the time limitations are generally seen as unfair, but people were able to use the Act last year to kill the HST.


Certainly, if organizers were able to get the signatures of 10 per cent of the world’s adult population on a petition for a global carbon tax, the world’s leaders would have to sit up and take notice.

– Keith McNeill