Reducing the carbon deficit: a budget approach

by Fran Sussman

Every few years, at the request of the House and Senate Budget committees, the Congressional Budget Office produces a compendium called “Reducing the Deficit: Spending and Revenue Options.” The latest deficit reduction report was released last week and contains over 100 legislative options that, if adopted, would reduce the federal budget deficit. We need to treat the carbon deficit the way we treat the budget deficit.

The options in the deficit reduction report cover an array of policy areas, from agriculture to energy to medicare and medicaid to the space program.  No category in the budget is sacred: mandatory spending programs (like social security, veterans’ benefits, or leasing on federal lands) have their options, as do discretionary spending (like defense, transportation, and education), and programs that generate revenues (like tax code changes or changing limits on social security payroll taxes).

The report provides a little over a page description of each option, including an estimate of the budget effect and some pros and cons of its adoption.  The report is essentially a laundry list of ideas–large and small, good and bad–for how the budget can be balanced.  Suppose you want to propose a bill that builds statues of Jubal Early.  No problem, just tack on a provision in your bill that reduces subsidies for a year or two of school breakfasts, or cuts back benefits for recipients of food stamps (oops, already did that) and your statues are essentially free, from a budget perspective. Or if you want to fund giving higher benefits of food stamps, you can propose to offset the costs by changing the terms of oil and gas leases.

We need a similar report for climate change—one that lists a range of large and small legislative options that lawmakers could adopt to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.  Suppose we want every bill that comes out of Congress to be–at worst–carbon neutral. Then, for example, appropriations that fund new roads that encourage suburban sprawl could be accompanied by other measures that counterbalance the additional emissions, such as an increased tax on gasoline. Preferably they should do more, and should contribute to national emission reductions.

The list of policy options in the deficit reduction report includes good ideas and bad ideas, and the same would probably be true of a similar volume for carbon.  But what such a report could do is encourage explicit consideration of the greenhouse gas emissions of a range of spending and revenue decisions, and facilitate legislation that reduces emissions.

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