The Reality of Carbon Realities

By Aaron Hersum

A Boston Area Sustainability Group event headlined “Carbon Realities” was bound to be fascinating- full of depth and charged with the emotion that comes with debating carbon emissions. Once again, most of us did a lot of learning. First-time attendee Marissa LaFave, a senior at Boston University also working in socially responsible investing, commented that although she was familiar with Senator Barrett’s carbon fee bill and carbon pricing proposal, she found Johanna Jobin’s input on internal carbon pricing in the private sector highly informative. I am always humbled by the fact that even professionals and students who have dedicated their lives and intellectual pursuits towards a sustainable future gain new insight at each BASG event.

Johanna Jobin, the Director of Global EHS and Sustainability at Biogen, Senator Mike Barrett, sponsor of the MA carbon fee and rebate bill, and Professor Joe Lassiter of HBS were the evening’s main attractions. Jobin spoke about Biogen’s internal carbon pricing, achieving carbon neutral status across its entire value chain, and being the first biotech company to accomplish such neutrality as of 2014. Senator Mike Barrett then explained the carbon fee bill, and Joe Lassiter presented economic perspectives and commentary about market-driven mechanisms such as fees to combat carbon pollution. Both Barrett and Lassiter agreed that because 80% of carbon emissions in Massachusetts come from consumers, a fee is the best strategy to change consumer behavior. Changing behavior such as transportation and investment choices, according to Lassiter, is the real challenge in reducing carbon emissions.

As the Q&A began, I kept returning to that number- 80%. More so than in states with major extraction industries, nodes of commercial transportation, or refineries, residents of Massachusetts must bear the brunt of reducing our emissions. Of these residents, those with lower incomes would likely feel the added cost burden of a fee the most, although the Barrett bill is progressive in its fee structure (more on the bill later). When gas prices rise, when rent increases, when public schools must incur increased costs for using carbon, the people who often have the least responsibility for pollution and the lowest means to combat it, endure a disproportionate amount of strain from solutions to the problem.

This quandary is not unique to Massachusetts, rather, it is a microcosm of the global battle against carbon emissions. Take the two largest carbon-polluting countries, China and the United States, which also happen to be the two largest economies in the world. The burden of climate change mitigation should fall the heaviest on these two countries, and yet, they have been perhaps the two most obstinate countries in the fight against climate change, though China is beginning to evolve. Moreover, the countries most affected by the consequences of climate change such as floods, typhoons, landslides and drought tend to be poorer countries with less resilient infrastructure to cope, and in which most people still depend on the land for sustenance.

It is because Massachusetts is a microcosm for a global dilemma that Senator Barrett’s bill is so critical. The reduction in emissions caused by the fee are important, but perhaps not significant on a global scale. The lessons that we can learn from the outcome and leadership, however, are essential, specifically those related to achieving carbon reduction while maintaining prosperity for poorer families. For example, according to the bill, the fee will be revenue-neutral, meaning 100% of the collected amount will be redistributed to consumers and businesses proportionally to each group. As the total amount collected will be divided based on population and employee head-counts, over time the carbon pricing bill would actually put money back into the pockets of consumers and businesses which decrease their emissions. Furthermore, the rebates would occur at the beginning of the year based on yearly projections, meaning that all parties can use the rebates to pay the fee and invest in efficiency.

I think my ultimate takeaway is this: we cannot forget that sustainability is as much about people as it is about the environment. Anytime I get excited about internal carbon pricing schemes, market-based carbon pricing bills, etc., I must remind myself that while a fee is a necessary push, the ultimate goal is to unite individuals so that we are willing to change our lifestyles and purchasing choices to become more sustainable. In the end, the event left me hopeful, that innovation is occurring, and that carbon reduction can be integrated into society in such a way that both sustainability and prosperity are achieved.

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