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Tuesday, March 17, 2020, 11:36
Raise gasoline prices while crude’s down to fight global warming
By Paul Stapleton
Tuesday, March 17, 2020, 11:36 By Paul Stapleton

Amid the blanket media coverage of COVID-19, a news story that came and went with little fanfare or notice was a weather event in Moscow, or rather a non-event. The city known for its brutal winters had almost no snow. Moreover, the temperature for the winter so far has been 7.5 degrees warmer than usual. This record-breaking temperature is astounding when one considers that during normal times, temperatures beyond the average are measured by a few tenths of a degree.

Clearly, these are not normal times.

As for all of Russia, this winter has broken a 140-year record on the warm side by 1.3 degrees. Given China’s proximity to Russia, we should not be surprised to soon hear news about an extraordinarily warm winter from Chinese authorities. Indeed, Hong Kong’s average temperature for the February just past was 2.5 degrees above normal.

So while we are totally absorbed by a virus that has a fatality rate that may well end up below 1 percent, and those who do succumb are mostly elderly with underlying health issues, the big existential issue — our cooking planet — gets short shrift. As much as the present global pandemic is alarming, we know that no matter how bad it gets, within a certain number of weeks or months, it will disappear.

Not so for global warming.

The bigger issue here is our impending climate crisis and what we can do to combat it. It is far too late to expect people to voluntarily change their behavior by eating less meat or avoiding driving or flying. Even if large numbers were to do so, the impact would probably be too little too late

Of course, this does not diminish the gravity of our current predicament with the virus. One premature death due to the virus is one too many. And as one who has just been knocked out cold for several days by the seasonal variety, I can attest that adding another new coronavirus to our existing repertoire is the last thing we need.

Having said that, the bigger issue here is our impending climate crisis and what we can do to combat it. It is far too late to expect people to voluntarily change their behavior by eating less meat or avoiding driving or flying. Even if large numbers were to do so, the impact would probably be too little too late. And besides, realistically, it is not part of human nature to sacrifice for the greater good, as the tragedy of the commons has reminded us time and again throughout human history. Rather, large-scale change has to come via collective government action.

At the top of many lists discussing the most efficient and powerful ways to fight climate change is the carbon tax, which again recognizes human nature, and in this case, our extraordinary desire to preserve what’s in our wallets.

One of the most successful recent efforts to change the behavior of the public using a tax incentive has occurred with smoking. The price of a pack of cigarettes has gone up several times over the past two decades around the world, and with each rise in price, the rate of smoking has dropped.

The questions then are: How can a carbon tax be implemented, and when would be the best time to begin?

The answer to the second question is obviously easier than the first: The sooner the better.

Coincidentally, this answer, in other words, “now”, happens to be the same time that the price of crude oil has sunk to a two-decade low, which is presently being reflected at gasoline pumps around town.

Clearly, there is no good time to raise the price of gasoline, at least as far as drivers are concerned; however, raising it when the world crude price is low is certainly better than when it is high. And right now, it is remarkably low. What other product can you buy these days whose price is the same as it was at the turn of the millennium?

In the case of Hong Kong, a 3-to-5-cents-a-liter increase in the tax on gasoline would have several positive effects. First, it would signal that our government is showing leadership in the fight against climate change. Second, it would also serve as a signal to drivers that the precious commodity they are burning in order to get around town, despite our marvelous transportation network, will no longer stay cheap. Third, it would set a precedent for further tax hikes on gasoline.

Of course, there will always be detractors, some legitimate, others not. Among the legitimate are those drivers and companies whose businesses depend on vehicles. Taxi drivers and delivery companies come to mind. Well, surely the government can work out a solution via rebates for those unfairly affected, using the extra revenue from the tax hike.

Obviously, the present viral crisis precludes an immediate tax hike on gasoline. However, history shows that the price of oil swings wildly over time. The government should put in place a plan to take advantage of the present low price of crude while it is still scraping the bottom of the barrel.

COVID-19 will kill a few of us and make many others miserable for a few days. Continuing to nonchalantly burn carbon threatens our very existence.

The author is a commentator on local and environmental issues.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.


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