UW News

December 12, 2014

Online tool lets Washington residents calculate carbon tax impacts

UW News

University of Washington computer scientists have partnered with members of the Carbon Washington grassroots campaign to create an online tool that lets residents calculate how a state carbon tax swap proposed by the organization would impact them financially.

The calculator offers information users can’t find elsewhere and is meant to be a neutral, unbiased tool.

“The tool should be very useful to voters trying to decide their position on the carbon tax policy. Many people will have broader societal motivations to vote one way or the other, but some may have serious worries about the impact of the tax on their own finances,” said the tool’s creator, Justin Bare, a UW doctoral student advised by Alan Borning, a professor of computer science and engineering.

A screenshot of the calculator tool.

The Carbon Washington proposal — the only one currently on the table in the state — would impose a carbon tax and use the revenues to lower sales and business taxes and fund a working family rebate for low-income households. The non-partisan grassroots group wants to get its carbon tax proposal, modeled after British Columbia’s tax shift, on the 2016 state ballot.

The UW researchers worked with local economist Yoram Bauman and others involved with Carbon Washington to make sure the tool’s policy calculations are correct. The calculations and accompanying documentation are intended to be as neutral as possible and not advocate for or against this proposal — or any other carbon tax, cap-and-trade or related proposals that might be offered in the future.

Instead, the tool is meant to provide facts that could help voters make a more informed decision.

“Our tool provides a ground truth that people can trust to give a good estimate of how they might be affected,” Bare said.

Here’s how it works: Users are prompted to provide information about their annual household income, gasoline usage and mileage driven, yearly air travel miles and home utility information. The calculator then estimates tax savings and payments, along with the bottom-line impact, for households under a carbon tax swap.

The questionnaire takes about 10 minutes to complete and information from each session isn’t saved anywhere.

Other online tools, such as the University of California, Berkeley’s, CoolClimate Calculator and the Nature Conservancy’s carbon footprint calculator, use similar user information, but they estimate how much carbon dioxide people are putting into the atmosphere due to their lifestyle choices. The UW’s tool specifically looks at how much money people will save or pay in taxes as a result of the Carbon Washington policy proposal.

The team hopes to find ways to better visualize and present the data for users. With more funding, researchers hope to add tools for comparing alternate proposals and also make the software more adaptable so that it could be used in other states considering such a tax swap.