CO2 Smokestack | iStockphoto

Is the California CO2 tax a sign we will kick the carbon habit?

The terminal illness is progressing. Will we change our habits and choose a treatment in time?

Just as lifetime smokers get plenty of warning about the link between smoking and lung cancer, our civilization has had plenty of warning that the burning of fossil fuels transfers into the atmosphere carbon that had been safely ensconced beneath the ground.

During combustion, these fuels are primarily converted into carbon dioxide – a potent heat trapping gas. Just as the smoker may express regret at getting the fatal diagnosis, we will grieve upon recognizing we have not stewarded the created world and the life placed into our care. The smoker might say: “I guess I should have quit smoking 30 years ago,” and enter a hospice.

Unless we significantly reduce our burning fossil fuels (coal, oil, and natural gas) we will also find ourselves in the position of saying: “I guess we should have gotten off of fossil fuels 30 years ago, now it’s too late.” Will there be a hospice for civilization?

What will we tell our grandchildren about the world that we handed off to them?

It’s simple math. We can burn 565 more gigatons of carbon dioxide and stay below 2°C of warming. Anything more is not just risky, but deadly. The only problem is that fossil fuel corporations now have 2,795 gigatons in their reserves, five times the safe amount. And they’re planning to burn it all unless we rise up to stop them.

There are some healthy changes towards kicking the fossil fuel habit recently implemented in California. In November 2012, the state launched its new, landmark cap-and-trade program with an auction of greenhouse gas pollution permits. The cap-and-trade plan is a central piece of the state’s 2006 global warming law, AB32, a suite of regulations purposed to reduce dramatically emissions of heat-trapping gases.

The program places a limit, or cap, on emissions from individual polluters, starting with the largest offenders. Businesses are required to cut emissions to cap levels or buy allowances from other companies for each ton over the cap that is discharged annually. If a business were to cut emissions below the cap, it could profit by selling its extra allowances.

The idea has been used since the early 1990s to cut the sulfur dioxide emissions behind acid rain, doing so at a far lower cost than critics predicted.

For the first time in California’s history there is now a price on carbon pollution. Only the European Union has implemented a similar plan in terms of scope, and it currently operates the world's largest carbon marketplace. A much less inclusive cap-and-trade plan covers only electricity producers in the northeastern United States.

This market-based approach to cutting greenhouse emissions gives California businesses the flexibility to best decide how to reduce their emissions.

Many are hopeful that a successful roll out of the California cap-and-trade system will encourage other states to follow suit and spur economic growth by strengthening the clean technology business sector.

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