Opinion: A carbon tax is not enough—we need an energy overhaul

Photo credit: Adam Kamran via Flickr.

By guest contributor Matt Owens

This is a counter argument by Matt Owens from Fairfax Climate Change to the opinion article: Is the falling oil price an environmental victory?


In short, I largely agree with Anders: the volatile price of oil is not good for the world’s economies, even though lower fuel prices are, of course, better than higher prices. However, a carbon tax is not sufficient, in my estimation, to bring about significant change in the global energy system. The relative price of fossil fuel energy compared to renewable energy is not the primary factor holding renewables back. The most important factor is social convention.  


When an individual or group of people choose between two options, they pick the less expensive option when the two are otherwise essentially equal. However, renewable energy is not equal, and—no—reliability of supply has nothing to do with the difference. The difference is simply that renewable energy looks different because it is new. And different means ‘ugly’ or ‘scary’ to most people.


Moreover, being distributed, renewables are visible to many more people than fossil fuel energy. As for those telephone/utility poles everywhere—we’ve all grown used to seeing them, so they don’t count. Wildlife gets electrocuted by electric lines, and our roads are coated in flattened creatures, but all of that is just fine because we’re used to it. But the threat to birds from windmills is a bridge too far, apparently.


With fossil fuel energy, the power stations are usually built in impoverished neighborhoods where the residents are too tired or disenfranchised to object (or poor neighborhoods develop around preexisting infrastructure). To completely overhaul the global energy system, however, requires installing a substantial number of wind turbines and solar arrays, and it will not be possible to build all of them in the poor parts of town, at least not until a lot more of us are poor (which might be sooner rather than later at the current pace of things—in no small part because of the rising and volatile price of fossil fuels).


This probably sounds silly, but it’s the truth. How can you build something if local voters (property owners) refuse to allow it? According to our existing laws, local citizens can stop the construction of just about anything as long as it isn’t related to fossil fuels.


Most people do not want to see wind turbines built anywhere within their line of sight. Nor do they want to have solar arrays constructed near them. Often, they cite “damage to nature” or damage to “natural/scenic beauty” as the cause for objection. And they aren’t joking either!

As I’ve proposed in a new book, the way to stop using fossil fuels is to profitably overhaul the global energy system. With an overhaul, change would be quick and obstructing social preconceptions would be confronted and overcome at once. A carbon tax simply cannot overcome the substantial social hurdles facing renewable energy. Now, with the price of oil lower for a short while, is an ideal time to start an overhaul.

Another version featuring both opinions was originally posted on Fairfax Climate Watch.
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