The state climate commission has unanimously agreed to back legislation next session that would establish a carbon tax geared toward reducing greenhouse gas emissions in Hawaii’s ground transportation sector.

State Land and Natural Resources Director Suzanne Case, who co-chairs the 22-member commission, said the group made a “powerful statement” Tuesday by reaching a consensus on the concepts needed to “transform our society.”

Recognizing the environmental consequences of the myriad fossil-fuel burning cars and buses in Hawaii, the commission emphasized the urgent need for a carbon fee program as the most effective single action to reduce emissions.

DLNR Director Suzanne Case, co-chair of the state climate commission, said the support for a carbon fee program makes a “powerful statement.” Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat

The commission — officially called the Hawaii Climate Change Mitigation & Adaptation Commission — was created in 2017 and includes eight state agencies, the planning directors of all four counties and six key House and Senate lawmakers, among others.

While it stopped short of spelling out the specific language for a program to put a price on carbon, it did provide guidance. Any carbon-pricing mechanism should be “equitable” and “appropriate” for the people of Hawaii and be “adequate to change behavior.”

The commission had considered asking that it be “practical” as well, but Sen. Karl Rhoads convinced the members that was a bad idea. He acknowledged the challenges in implementing such a program, but said what’s more impractical is having “our roads underwater.”

Commissioner Justine Nihipali of the Hawaii Coastal Zone Management Program said she was “very cautious” about making such a powerful statement but went along with the majority.

The state climate commission said a carbon fee is the best method to help lower emissions in ground transportation. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

“How is adding taxes going to hit the bottom line for all of us?” she said.

Other members quickly pointed out that it will be far more costly to taxpayers to kick the proverbial can down the road.

“It’s evident that the dire need for action is greater than ever and this conversation should have begun 20 or 30 years ago,” Rep. Chris Lee said. “We are running on a very limited and tight clock.”

He said he wouldn’t want to look back and be pinned as the person who delayed action out of “immediate self-interest or greed.” He described it as a “pollution fee,” rather than a carbon tax.

“We’re already as taxpayers paying tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars for climate change,” Lee said, underscoring that it could be billions of dollars in the future without action now.

The commission recommended carbon-pricing mechanisms that minimize regressiveness, suggesting structures such as equity-based tax credits or carbon fees and dividends.

The commission also urged the state to adequately fund the following actions through legislation or executive action:

  • Partner with counties and local organizations to develop and undertake a multi-year educational/public service announcement campaign to address the link between the need for a price on carbon, and highlighting the importance of clean transportation in Hawaii — which will increase quality of life, and address climate change impacts by decreasing congestion, commute time and costs, and emissions.
  • Explore and develop statewide polices and partner with counties to modernize parking policies and parking management, which will reduce overall emissions, congestion and vehicle miles travelled from driving, and increase biking, walking, and transit use, to achieve state goals.
  • Transform state and county fleets to reduce vehicle miles travelled, congestion and emissions — especially through electrification, renewable fuels, car-share, and supporting infrastructure development and deployment.
  • Amend laws, such as the state procurement laws, to better align them with clean transportation priorities.

The commission leaned on state, federal and international reports as the basis for supporting a carbon tax program.

Specifically, it looked at the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports that a price on carbon is central to prompt mitigation, and global emissions of carbon dioxide need to fall by 45 percent by 2030 and to zero by 2050.

The commission also highlighted the International Monetary Fund’s finding that “carbon pricing is crucial in reducing emissions, and carbon taxes are more effective than other mitigation instruments.”

And it pointed at the state’s 2015 Transportation Energy Analysis that supports an increase in the barrel tax “to fund government actions to support clean energy, specifically in regards to the bunker taxes in the marine sector and the inclusion of aviation fuel in the barrel tax.”

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