A student from Washington Latin Public Charter School speaks in favor of a carbon fee and rebate program at the John A. Wilson Building. Image by the author.

Advocates of cutting carbon pollution rallied outside the offices of the DC Council and the mayor last week to call for legislation that puts a price on greenhouse gas emissions.

On the steps of the John A. Wilson Building, environmental activists, students from the Washington Latin Public Charter School debate team, college students, and others argued that assessing a fee on carbon pollution would combat climate change, expand renewable energy, and provide a financial boost to most DC residents.

Here’s what the policy would do

Greenhouse gas pollution — mostly carbon emissions from burning fossil fuels — has enormous costs to society and the planet, such as extreme weather like flooding and deadly storms, sea level rise, and massive heat waves. But those costs, both financial and in terms of public health, aren't paid by polluters — they're paid by everyone on the planet.

The rationale behind a carbon fee is to assign those costs to polluters while at the same time reducing carbon pollution from dirty energy sources like coal, oil, and gas. The fee would assess a rising per-ton price on carbon pollution.

Of the revenue generated from the fee, some would go to energy efficiency and renewable energy programs — focused largely on low-income residents — to reduce consumption of dirty energy. Some of the revenue would help businesses adapt to higher energy costs, which could include expanding rooftop solar, weatherization, energy efficient appliances, and other measures to lower energy bills.

Most of the money — 75% in the DC proposal — would be rebated directly back to each resident of the District. The same dollar amount would be rebated to people regardless of their energy consumption. The fee would mean non-renewable energy would be more expensive. Those who see higher bills from dirty energy would be incentivized to expand their use of clean energy, like wind and solar. But even after using less dirty energy, they’d receive the same rebate check as those who continue to rely on fossil fuels.

The result: a financial reward for using clean energy, with dirty energy sources paying the costs they’ve been able to avoid for decades. This would encourage everyone — from electric utilities and owners of large buildings to condo associations and individual homeowners — to make the transition to renewable energy. And with 25% of the carbon fee revenue going directly to help residents and businesses move to clean energy, the transition would be accelerated further.

Though people who use large amounts of fossil fuel-based energy would pay more, most would come out financially ahead. The Center for Climate Strategies found that for an average family of four in DC, the fee is estimated to cost $300 a year, but that family’s annual rebate would be $516. For low-income families (those earning less than 200% of the federal poverty level would receive a larger rebate) the cost still averages $300 a year, but the rebate would be $888.

Supporters of carbon pricing in DC, many of them students, meet with DC Council Chairman Phil Mendelson. Image by the author.

The politics of pollution

After last week’s rally at the Wilson Building, activists fanned out to councilmembers’ offices to distribute copies of draft legislation and talk about why they support a carbon fee. Some of the group — roughly 40 people, about half of them students — met with DC Council Chairman Phil Mendelson that afternoon to discuss carbon pricing. At the meeting, some advocates expressed frustration at the slow pace of introducing a bill, but others were impressed that Mendelson met with such a large group, including young people, for a policy discussion.

The recent rally was the second time carbon pricing supporters gathered on the steps of the Wilson Building. In October of last year, climate change activists were joined by Councilmembers Robert White, Charles Allen, and David Grosso, who spoke in support of carbon pricing in DC.

DC Councilmember Robert White calling for a carbon rebate in DC in October 2017. Image by the author.

Since then, Councilmember Mary Cheh, who chairs the Transportation and Environment Committee, has convened meetings with advocates of carbon pricing and representatives of the business community.

Supporters of the policy have formed the Put a Price On It, DC coalition, which consists of more than 70 environmental organizations, religious groups, DC businesses, and community, social justice, and labor organizations.

Ben’s Chili Bowl, solar installation companies, the rooftop farm Up Top Acres, Cork Wine Bar and Pleasant Pops, are among the small and local businesses that support carbon pricing. Trade associations for larger businesses, such as the DC Chamber of Commerce and the Apartment and Office Building Association of Metropolitan Washington, have expressed concern about the cost of the proposal, but not offered any alternate ideas for getting DC’s carbon emissions under control.

The commitment and the challenge

The District has made laudable — and ambitious — promises to combat climate change. The Sustainable DC plan calls for the District to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 50% below 2006 levels by 2032 and 80% by 2050. Mayor Muriel Bowser increased DC’s commitment even further in December, pledging to make DC carbon-neutral by 2050.

Despite the impressive pledges, DC isn’t on track to meet these targets. The DC Department of Energy and Environment’s Climate and Energy Plan outlines how the District could reduce emissions by 50%, but at least a quarter of the emissions reductions in the plan are unrealistic.

The Climate and Energy Plan says 12% of expected emissions reductions would come from new fuel efficiency standards for cars. Those tougher auto emissions standards were established under the Obama administration. Trump administration Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt plans to roll them back.

Another 13% of the emissions reductions cited in DC’s climate plan would result from replacing current electricity supply contracts with a mix that includes long-term renewable energy power purchase agreements. It’s unclear whether those agreements require legislation from the Council or whether DC’s utility regulator already has the legal authority to make such agreements. Either way, they are not in the works.

The work of the Department of Energy and Environment should be commended. But the District is falling short on the goal of 50% emissions reductions by 2032. To fulfill the mayor’s pledge to completely zero out carbon emissions only 18 years later, even more aggressive action is needed.

Carbon pricing can close the emissions reduction gap. Economic analysis by the Center for Climate Strategies found that a carbon price starting at $20 per ton (rising $10 a year until 2032, when it would be capped at $150) would cut greenhouse gas emissions by 23%.

Mary Cheh, who heads the Council’s Transportation and Environment Committee, has made clear we need progress to meet DC’s climate goals. There’s not yet a consensus on carbon pricing legislation, but Cheh has indicated she’d like to have a bill ready to introduce by June 5.