Now that we’ve stepped into the twenty-first century, environmental problems have become the top priority of every country. In the democracy we live in, living healthily is a part of every individual’s basic rights, which cannot happen without a green low-carbon environment. Recently, many countries are proposing, while many other countries already possess, a carbon tax. A carbon tax is a tax levied on the carbon content of fuels.

Carbon taxes offer a potentially cost-effective means of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Its presumed effects are to reduce carbon emissions, incentivize innovation and stimulate the economy. While all of these sound beyond ideal, a carbon tax can actually act as a violation against human rights instead of supporting them.

A carbon tax isn’t a tax placed on individuals but on industries. However, that can only have a bigger effect on the people economically. With an additional tax, the production cost of industries will rise, causing the price of the commodities around us to rise as well. Since carbon fuels are currently a necessity for every household and industry, therefore its demand and price are inelastic, meaning no matter how high the price of carbon becomes, factories would still have to purchase it. Therefore, the anticipated tax would have to be very high to reduce demand significantly.

In other words, in order to achieve the goal of having a clean environment, the prices are going to get very high, including the necessities, at least in the short term. Poor people, which are also the majority in less developed and more polluted countries, aren’t going to have the ability to afford some of the things they used to.

Some might argue that this is far from the violation of human rights, and that human rights only include living healthily, not living richly. However, that’s not the case if prices get so crazy that the poor can’t even afford food anymore. Most of the heavy polluters we have today are either the rich or the fancy factories that make high-end gadgets for the rich.

So the question is, why should the poor give up their rights to the necessities in life to remedy something that’s mostly caused by the rich? Is that just? Is it just for the rich and the poor to be even more divided? Is it just for the poor living in lesser developed countries with nearly no insurance to not be able to fulfill their rights to living healthily? Of course not.

To make matters worse, there’s now a phenomena called carbon leakage. Carbon leakage occurs when there is an increase in carbon dioxide emissions in one country as a result of an emissions reduction by a second country with a strict climate policy. The reason is that capital flows to places where the cost is low.

For instance, if China were to impose a carbon tax, then the cost of production would increase significantly. Factories, instead of choosing the expensive way of changing into a clean renewable energy source, might just move their locations to somewhere where the cost is lower, like Vietnam for example. The only difference is locations, not emissions.

As a country that’s not economically strong enough to impose a carbon tax, Vietnam would have no choice but to become more polluted while other countries become cleaner and more developed. Is it fair for the people living in Vietnam to not be able to enjoy fresh air that’s part of their human rights because they live in a third-world country?

And in this case, it’s not just Vietnam that’s suffering. Capital outflow can also lead to domestic industry shrinkage and job cuts. These job cuts won’t be directed at bankers or CEOs, but rather at cheap labor that is the poor. How that’s anything but just and against human rights is self explanatory.   

Then why are leaders of the lesser developed countries proposing a carbon tax? It’s because they believe that this measure can save the environment, and that will allow people to exercise their rights better. However, as argued above, not only is there the possibility of a carbon tax violating human rights, it actually can’t reduce the amount of carbon emissions on a global scale. Therefore, if a carbon tax can’t really increase the overall well-being of the people in third-world countries, why impose it just to catch up with the developed countries’ trend?