Showing posts with label emissions trading. Show all posts
Showing posts with label emissions trading. Show all posts

Friday, February 16, 2024

We can't escape a carbon tax, which is good news, not bad

When economists are at their best, they speak truth to power. And that’s just what two of our best economists, Professor Ross Garnaut and Rod Sims, did this week. In their own polite way, they spoke out against the blatant self-interest of our (largely foreign-owned) fossil fuel industry.

They sought to counter the decade of damage done by the former federal Liberal government which, for short-sighted political gain, engaged in populist demonisation of Julia Gillard’s carbon tax.

And, by their willingness to call for a new “carbon solution levy”, they shamed the present Labor government, which dare not even mention a carbon price and isn’t game to take more than baby steps in the right direction, for fear of what Peter Dutton might say.

But the two men’s message is actually far more positive than that. In launching a new think tank, the Superpower Institute, they pursue Garnaut’s vision of how we can turn the threat of climate change into an opportunity to revitalise our economy, raising our productivity and our living standards.

Sims, former boss of the competition watchdog, says that, following a decade of stagnant production per person, real wages and living standards, Australia’s full participation in the world’s move to achieve net-zero global emissions is the only credible path to restoring productivity improvement and rising living standards.

Climate change is a threat to our climate, obviously. But it’s also a threat to our livelihood because Australia is one of the world’s largest exporters of fossil fuels. Garnaut points out that, as the rest of the world moves to renewables, two of our three largest export industries will phase out.

This will send our productivity backwards, he notes – as all the big-business people reading us lectures about productivity never do.

The good news, however, is that “putting Australia back on a path to rising productivity and living standards doesn’t mean going back to the way things were”. It’s now clear that “Australia’s advantages in the emerging zero-carbon world economy are so large that they define the most credible path to restoration of growth in Australian living standards.”

Garnaut says that “In designing policies to secure our own decarbonisation, we now have to give a large place to Australia’s opportunity to be the renewable energy superpower of the zero-carbon world economy.”

Other countries do not share our natural endowments of wind and solar energy resources, land to deploy them, as well as land to grow “biomass” – plant material – sustainably as an alternative to petroleum and coal for the manufacture of chemicals.

From a cost perspective, we are the natural location to produce a substantial proportion of the products presently made with large carbon emissions in North-East Asia and Europe.

The Superpower Institute champions a “market-based” solution to the climate challenge. We shouldn’t be following the Americans by funding the transition from budget deficits, nor become inward looking and protectionist.

Rather, everything that can be left to competitive markets should be, while everything that only governments can do – providing “public goods” and regulating natural monopolies – should be done by the government.

Sims notes a truth that, since Tony Abbott’s successful demonisation of the carbon tax, neither side of politics wants to acknowledge, that markets only work effectively if firms are required to pay the costs that their activities impose on others and, on the other hand, if firms are rewarded for the benefits their activities confer on others.

When the producers of fossil fuels don’t bear the cost of the damage their emissions of greenhouse gasses do to the climate, and the producers of renewable energy don’t enjoy the monetary benefit of not damaging the environment, these two “externalities” – one bad, the other good – constitute “market failure”.

And the way to make the market work as it should is for the government to use some kind of “price on carbon” – whether a literal tax on carbon, or its close cousin, an emissions trading scheme – to internalise those two externalities to the prices paid by fossil fuel producers and received by renewables producers.

The price on carbon that Garnaut and Sims want, their “carbon solution levy”, would be imposed on all emissions from Australian produced fossil fuel (whether those emissions occurred here or in the country that imported the fuel from us) and from any fossil fuel we imported.

Only about 100 businesses would pay the levy directly, though they would pass it on to their customers, of course. It would be levied at the rate of recent carbon emission permits in the European Union’s emissions trading scheme.

Imposing the levy on all our exports of fossil fuel, rather than just our own emissions, makes the scheme far bigger than the one Abbott scuttled in 2014. It would raise about $100 billion a year.

But it’s bigger to take account of the Europeans’ “carbon border adjustment mechanism” which, from 2026, will impose a tax on all fossil fuels imported from Australia that haven’t already been taxed.

Get it? If we don’t tax our fossil fuel exports, the Europeans or some other government will do it for us – and keep the proceeds.

What will we do with the proceeds of our levy? Most of them will go to a “superpower innovation scheme” that makes grants to support early investors in each of our new, green export industries. In this way it will lower the prices of carbon-free steel, aluminium and other products, helping them compete against the equivalent polluting products. The positive externality internalised.

Garnaut says we need to have the new levy introduced by 2031 at the latest. But the earlier it can be done, the more of the levy’s proceeds can be used to provide cost-of-living relief of, say $300 a year, to every household and business, as well as fully compensating for the levy’s effect on electricity prices.

Thank heavens some of our economists are working on smart ways to fix our problems while our politicians play political games.


Monday, March 27, 2023

Labor is just pretending to be tough on climate change

Labor talks the talk, but doesn’t walk the walk. Last week’s “final warning” from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – and the Albanese government’s refusal to be moved by it – should be a game-changer in our assessment of Labor’s willingness to do what must be done.

The IPCC’s message – driven home by UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres – was that we’re almost out of time to avoid much of the worst climate change. Whatever plans we had to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, we must step them up, and speed them up.

Regarding last year’s federal election, the message is that Labor’s plan is complacent and compromised, and the Greens and teals were right to demand much tougher, faster action.

But not only did Climate Change Minister Chris Bowen show no sign of getting the UN’s message, he announced his refusal to negotiate with the Greens to make improvements to his “safeguard mechanism” legislation.

You need to know that Albanese Labor hates the Greens more than it hates the Liberals. Bowen could have decided to use the need to win the Greens’ support for his bill in the Senate as cover for making the bill stronger than Labor promised in the election campaign.

Instead, he decided to put the interests of our grandchildren second to this fabulous chance to “wedge” the Greens. They could either vote for Labor’s bill as is, or they could join the Coalition in voting it down – just as they did when they voted down Kevin Rudd’s carbon pollution reduction scheme in 2009.

This would leave the government with no means of achieving its target of reducing emissions by 43 per cent by 2030. And, Bowen bellowed in the House, that would be all the Greens’ fault. (It doesn’t seem to have occurred to Bowen and his boss that if they go to the 2025 election having done nothing to fight climate change, blaming it all on the Greens won’t be a good enough excuse.)

But last week showed that the problem with Labor isn’t just its political cynicism and game-playing. Until last week, it was possible to see the Greens’ demand that no new coal and gas projects be approved as the kind of over the top zealotry you’d expect from those crazies. And, as it happens, the teals.

This is what Guterres said last week in welcoming the IPCC’s final warning. “The climate time-bomb is ticking.” We do have time to defuse it, “but it will take a quantum leap in climate action”.

We must “massively fast-track climate efforts by every country and every sector and on every timeframe”.

He was proposing an “acceleration agenda” with, specifically, “no new coal and the phasing out of [existing] coal by 2030 in [the rich] countries and 2040 in all other countries. Ending all international public and private funding of coal” and “ceasing all licensing or funding of new oil and gas”, as already proposed by the International Energy Agency and “stopping any expansion of existing oil and gas reserves. Shifting subsidies from fossil fuels to a just energy transition”.

That’s not some crazy greenie, that’s the UN secretary-general.

Yet, the very same week, Bowen had the temerity to claim that stopping new projects would be “irresponsible”. That’s now the opposite of the truth.

It’s not by chance that Bowen is the Minister for Climate Change and Energy. It’s not just the Coalition that’s in bed with the fossil fuel industry; Labor is too. Labor just does a better job of covering it up.

Federal Labor will not commit to stopping the proposed 116 new coal and gas projects. When Albanese went to India recently, he took fossil fuel people with him, so they could sell more coal.

The many state Labor governments are committed to approving new projects. That’s another thing that happened last week: on election night in NSW, the new state Labor minister made it clear the Minns government would not be stopping new projects.

Labor wants to be in bed both with those who want real action on climate change and the fossil fuel industries. Someone famous once said, “No one can serve two masters”. One of his saintly followers once prayed, “Lord, make me pure – but not yet”. That’s Labor.

Which brings us to the safeguard mechanism Labor is refusing to improve. Bowen has conned some conservation groups into supporting his plan because, though it’s not perfect, “something is better than nothing” and “it’s a start: get it passed, and seek to improve it later”.

Come in, sucker. What last week shows is that there isn’t time to improve it later. Labor has tried to wedge the Coalition by building its reduction scheme on the base of Tony Abbott’s safeguard mechanism, which was largely for show and did nothing to reduce emissions.

But if Labor is taking over an ineffective scheme from the secret climate change deniers, now’s the time to make it effective, not later. The fact is, the safeguard mechanism is riddled with loopholes.

The first loophole is our fossil fuel exports. Under the UN’s rules, a country is responsible for the emissions that occur on its own territory. Bowen’s renovations would, in theory, reduce the local emissions of our biggest polluting industries. It would also reduce the local emissions from any big new coal and gas export projects.

But it would permit other countries to maintain or increase their emissions from fossil fuels they bought from us. The UN will blame them for those emissions, not us. Great loophole, eh?

Trouble is, greenhouse gas is a global problem, not a local one. And we’re one of the biggest exporters of fossil fuels in the world. We export far more future emissions than we emit ourselves. So, what we do at home doesn’t add to climate change nearly as much as what others do with the coal and gas we sell them.

Bowen’s version of Abbott’s safeguard mechanism has a second major loophole. The big polluters must either progressively reduce their emissions according to the government’s phase-down, or buy the equivalent carbon credit offsets from someone else – often a farmer who’s planted more trees.

First problem is that there’ll be no limit to the extent that a polluter can resort to carbon credits. So it’s possible they’ll continue pumping out greenhouse gases, and mainly just buy credits from elsewhere.

This could lead to far more reliance on credits than the UN agreements envisaged. Credits were supposed to be used mainly by industries, such as cement and steelmaking, that find reducing emissions exceptionally difficult.

The other problem is that a lot of the carbon credit offsets are dodgy – they’re not like for like as a substitute for genuine emission reductions.

These were the main loopholes in Bowen’s rejigged safeguards mechanism that the Greens, the teals and Senator David Pocock were hoping to see improved by negotiations with Labor.

They make it debatable whether, in this case, something is better than nothing. One advantage of voting down Bowen’s bill would be to stop Labor pretending it had done something meaningful about climate change while actually prolonging the future of our fossil fuel industries.


Friday, October 15, 2021

The 'net' in net zero emissions offers a huge temptation to cheat

Perhaps the hardest part of reaching net zero emissions by 2050 is the “net”. We won’t get to zero emissions without it, but it’s tricky and presents us with a great temptation to turn the whole exercise into a rort.

The goal is “net zero” because it’s neither possible nor sensible for us to eliminate every last emission of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. But that won’t be a problem provided we can offset what few emissions remain by finding ways to remove from the atmosphere an equivalent amount of carbon dioxide that’s already there.

How could we do that? By taking advantage of “carbon sinks”. Before we began burning fossil fuels – coal, oil and gas - for energy at the start of the Industrial Revolution, the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was fairly steady and so had little effect on the world’s average temperature.

There were natural emissions of carbon dioxide, but these were matched by natural processes – carbon sinks - that removed carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

As the Grattan Institute explains in its latest report, trees, vegetation, soils and oceans absorb carbon dioxide as part of their lifecycle, and hold it for a period before releasing it again.

“Sometimes this cycle is short (for example, a plant that grows and dies within a year) and sometimes the cycle is long (for example, a tree that lives for hundreds of years and takes hundreds more to decay).

“Natural cycles tend to balance out: the carbon that is absorbed by a plant will be released when the plant dies, but will be reabsorbed by the new plant that grows in its place,” the report says.

But all our burning of fossil fuels has destroyed this natural balance. The past 250 years have seen a huge build-up of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, which has trapped heat from the sun and caused a rise in global average temperatures, in the same way a greenhouse allows you to grow tropical plants in Europe.

We’ve reached the point where further addition to greenhouse gases in the atmosphere will cause average temperatures to become even more uncomfortable and damaging, as well as causing more extreme weather events.

The obvious solution is to move away from burning fossil fuel and get our energy from renewable sources – sun and wind – that don’t affect temperatures and weather patterns. We don’t have to stop producing and using fossil fuels immediately, but we shouldn’t get in any deeper by building new fossil-fuel power stations, coal mines and oil and gas wells.

But not all emissions come from burning fossil fuels for energy. Some come from, for instance, the coking coal used to make steel, from making cement and from burping and defecating cattle and sheep.

So, some emissions may never be eliminated and others would cost far more to eliminate than to offset by other means.

The obvious way to offset is to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere by beefing up our natural sinks – many of which have been diminished by economic development.

The Grattan report says we can avoid further land clearing, manage our forests better and restore forest to land that’s been cleared. We can manage fires better by doing planned burning earlier in the season.

We can store more carbon in soil by changing management practices – no-till agriculture, crop rotation, stubble retention on cropping land and sowing more productive grass varieties on grazing land. We can store more carbon – “blue carbon” – by encouraging more mangroves, sea grasses and tidal marshes.

But the report warns “there is still considerable uncertainty about the costs, permanence and measurement of many offsetting activities”. For this reason, offsetting should be used as a supplement to, not a substitute for, reducing emissions.

When governments encourage carbon removal by paying farmers and others who do it – or permit a market in which businesses required to reduce their emissions buy carbon credit certificates from others who’ve removed carbon from the atmosphere – they must ensure these transactions have “integrity”. That they’re ridgy-didge.

Grattan lists six requirements for certification: establishing a credible baseline for measuring progress; assessing how long the carbon will stay locked up; assessing whether, without payment, the activity would have happened anyway; ensuring no double-counting by people on both sides of the transaction; ensuring no adverse environmental side-effects; and requiring adequate monitoring, reporting, record-keeping and verification.

Many people fear carbon credits will be used to avoid reductions in the production of fossil fuels. And when you hear Energy Minister Angus Taylor assuring people in the coal, oil and gas industries that they “have a great future”, it makes you think such fears are warranted.

The Australia Institute recently ran a TV ad saying net zero is a fraud if the fossil fuel industries continue expanding. True.

And the sad truth is that Scott Morrison doesn’t have clean hands when it comes to using carbon credits to mislead us. He’s claimed repeatedly that our emissions are falling and we’re on track to “meet and beat” our target of a 26 per cent reduction by 2030.

In truth, emissions from the non-land sectors are continuing to grow. He’s able to say total emissions are down only because of a huge once-only reduction in emissions from land clearing that occurred before the 26 per cent reduction was promised in 2015.

Research by the Australia Institute and the Australian Conservation Foundation has found there was a massive surge in applications to clear native forest before the NSW government imposed limits on land clearing.

Since little of this approved clearing has actually happened, the administrators of the federal Emissions Reduction Fund have counted the difference as “avoided deforestation”, even though it’s quite implausible that anything like that much land could have been cleared in the time available.

Encouraging farmers to remove carbon from the atmosphere is a good idea. But there’s great scope for the unscrupulous to turn it into a fraud and another National Party rort.


Saturday, October 9, 2021

Cheapest, easiest way to reach net zero is to put a price on carbon

If Scott Morrison fails to front for the Glasgow climate conference at the end of the month, his preference to stay home while we’re dismantling the lockdown will be only one reason. The other’s that the conference isn’t looking like it’ll be a roaring success.

You wouldn’t know it from all Morrison’s agonising over signing up to net zero carbon emissions by 2050, but it’s the easy bit. The hard part about Glasgow is the expectation you’ll make an improved commitment on how much you’ll have done to reduce carbon emissions by 2030.

Unlike us, most of the big players have already put their revised commitments on the table. That’s the problem with Glasgow. So far, those commitments add up to much less than needed to hold the global average temperature rise to the “well under 2 degrees” agreed on at Paris in 2015, let alone the 1.5 degrees the poorer countries demand.

As many of us now realise, we wouldn’t be trembling in our boots over the enormity of getting our emissions down to net zero by 2050 – and making big strides long before then – had we not abolished after only two years the perfectly good carbon pricing scheme the Gillard government introduced in 2012.

By 2014, people had realised the carbon tax accounted for only a little of the huge increase in electricity prices we experienced, and that the Coalition’s talk of $100 legs of lamb was just a fairy story.

Of course, the carbon price would be higher by now, and we’d have had to extend it beyond electricity and gas to all other sources of emissions.

The series of studies the Grattan Institute’s Tony Wood is doing on how we can reduce emissions in other parts of the economy – transport, manufacturing, agriculture – shows that without the help of a carbon price it’s much harder going.

And it strikes me that insufficient reliance on a carbon price may explain much of the trouble the other parties to the Paris Agreement are having in making adequate progress. Indeed, it could be we won’t make it to net zero without the biggest emitters making greater use of emissions pricing.

In a recent paper, Ian Parry, of the International Monetary Fund, says more than 60 carbon tax or emissions trading schemes have been introduced at sub-national, national or multi-country levels. In recent months, China and Germany have launched major initiatives, the carbon price in the European Union has risen above €50 ($80) a tonne of carbon dioxide, and Canada announced its price would rise to the equivalent of $185 a tonne by 2030.

Even so, only about a fifth of all global emissions are covered by pricing schemes, and the global average price is only about $4 a tonne. Parry says that’s a far cry from the global price of about $US75 (more than $100) a tonne needed to reduce emissions sufficiently to keep global warming below 2 degrees.

Does $100 a tonne sound expensive? It is in the sense that the price increase built into the prices of emissions-intensive goods and services needs to be big enough to produce sufficient change in the behaviour of consumers and businesses.

But it’s cheap when you realise that the purpose of a carbon tax (or, equivalently, the proceeds from the government auctioning emissions permits to businesses who need them) is not to raise additional revenue but to change behaviour.

So the proceeds can be used to make equivalent reductions in other taxes, especially income tax. Thus people pay more for some of the goods and services they buy, but pay less income tax. People on welfare benefits have them indexed to cover their higher living costs.

As we discovered in 2012, introducing a carbon tax or emissions trading scheme (ours was the former that, after a few years, would become the latter) is a relatively simple business. You don’t tax emissions directly, but use scientific estimates of the average amount of carbon dioxide the production and use of that class of product emits.

But almost all economists recommend using a carbon price to decarbonise the economy also because they think it’s the policy instrument likely to achieve the objective with the least disruption to the economy and least loss of growth in the production of goods and services.

That’s what economists really mean when they say a carbon price is the cheapest way to get to net zero. They know that sufficiently large changes in relative prices will change people’s use of fossil fuels.

Get this: a carbon tax is a tax the government actually wants people to find ways to avoid having to pay. It’s intended to discourage people from using fossil fuels. How? By using electricity, gas and petrol less wastefully.

By switching to renewable energy (which is untaxed) because it’s relatively cheaper. By making sure that the next car or appliance or production machine people buy is more energy-efficient than the last. By increasing the monetary incentive for businesses to come up with less-polluting ways of doing things and inventing less-polluting machines.

To save face, Morrison has set his face against using the price mechanism to save the planet. But economic reality – or pressure from other, more sensible countries, or even voters – may yet change his tune.

One worry about putting a price on carbon is whether it would put our exporters at a disadvantage. A new and opposite worry is whether countries that have one when we don’t will protect their industries by slapping a “carbon tariff” on our exporters.

But the International Monetary Fund has come up with a solution to these worries that would also allow every country to use carbon pricing to make greater progress towards net zero. It proposes that the G20 countries (including us) phase in a uniform carbon minimum or “floor price” of $US75 a tonne of CO2 by 2030. Smart idea.


Wednesday, October 6, 2021

Farmers have most to lose - or gain - from climate change

Doesn’t it strike you as strange that the born-again Scott Morrison – by now, presumably, deeply ashamed of his public fondling of a lump of coal during his unregenerate days – is being held back from signing up to the target of net zero carbon emissions by that fierce defender of farmers and rural Australia, the National Party?

Farmers are, if you’ll forgive the expression, at the coal face of the damage climate change is doing and will keep doing to Australia. They’ll also be among the chief beneficiaries of successful international action to stop further increase in global warming.

By now there’d be few farmers who didn’t understand that. Certainly, all the main farming lobby groups, from the National Farmers Federation down, have endorsed the net zero target and want to get on with it.

So what’s the National Party’s problem? Just that it sees itself as champion of two regional industries, agriculture and mining. Trouble is, the miners have always seen their interests as lying in fending off action to reduce the use of fossil fuels for as long as possible.

The Nats’ allegiance to mining gets stronger as you move north, and reaches its peak in Queensland. And it’s not hard to guess which of the two industries has the deeper pockets when it comes to generous support for the party cause.

But not to worry. The Nats’ method of operation within the Coalition has long been to blackmail the Libs into shifting more money from the city to the bush. It doesn’t have to be well spent as long as there’s more of it. And all the nudging and winking coming from the chief national Nat, Barnaby Joyce, suggest the Nats (or most of them) will surrender their principled position as long as the price is right.

One part of the price could be to exempt agriculture from any effort to reduce its own emissions. But a recent report from the Grattan Institute says that would be a mistake for two reasons. Agriculture accounts for 15 per cent of our total emissions, so we won’t make it to net zero if it isn’t pulling its weight like other industries.

But also, now the big countries are serious about climate change and are requiring their own industries to shape up, they’ll be using a carbon tariff to punish exporters from those countries that aren’t doing likewise. Any excuse to protect their own farmers from our more-efficient operators would not go unused.

So let’s start at the beginning. Farmers are disproportionately affected by climate change, including by higher temperatures, changing rainfall patterns and increasing drought, bushfires and floods.

As Grattan’s James Ha reminds us, federal government research says changes in rainfall have cut farm profits by 23 per cent compared to what could have been achieved in pre-2000 conditions.

Cropping farmers have done worst, but if global warming reaches 3 degrees, livestock in northern Australia are expected to suffer heat stress almost daily. As the climate continues to change, the value of some farming land may fall considerably and some properties may become increasingly expensive to insure.

Agriculture’s emissions of greenhouse gases have fallen somewhat in recent years, but this is a result of the drought. As herd size is rebuilt, emissions will increase – until the next big drought.

About three-quarters of agriculture’s emissions come from cattle and sheep. Most of this is our 24 million cattle and 64 million sheep burping methane (which causes a lot more warming than carbon dioxide), and then the nitrous oxide (also worse than CO2) that comes from their poo.

Then come emissions from the use of diesel to fuel most farm equipment, emissions from the use of chemical fertilisers and lime, and emissions from plant matter left after harvest.

All this makes farm emissions difficult to reduce. There are vaccines and dietary supplements to reduce methane belching, but they are not yet well developed and are hard to use on wide-ranging animals.

Farm equipment has not yet been adapted to use electric motors. Even so, there are practices that could be changed to manage farms more efficiently and with fewer emissions.

State agriculture departments have spent much over many years teaching farmers how to bring their practices up to date, and they need to spend a lot more teaching farmers how to adapt to climate change and reduce emissions.

Similarly, the CSIRO has spent taxpayers’ money on advancing farm technology over many decades. We should be investing in technological solutions to limit methane emissions. Where farmers need to buy expensive new equipment, the government could help them with “income-contingent” loans similar to HECS loans to uni students.

Farmers will gain directly from emission-reducing practices that also increase their productivity. They’ll be enormously better off from whatever the global effort does to limit further warming.

And, remembering the “net” in net zero, they’ll benefit greatly from doing things that allow them to sell “carbon credits” to firms in other industries – so long as it’s not just another National Party boondoggle.


Saturday, July 18, 2015

All we should be doing to protect land and water

You get the feeling Tony Abbott doesn't lie awake at night worrying about what our economic activity is doing to our natural environment.

In which case, those of us who do care about ecological sustainability – including many Coalition voters and, in all probability, Abbott's successor, whether Liberal or Labor – will have a lot of catching up to do.

This looks like being true of our excessive contribution to global greenhouse gas emissions. But it also applies to the more mundane problems of protecting and restoring our degraded land, water systems and native flora and fauna.

So what should we be doing, even if we aren't yet? The Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists have produced a paper on Using Markets to Conserve Natural Capital. As the name implies, it has economists' fingerprints all over it.

In many cases the adverse environmental consequences of economic activity aren't reflected in the costs faced by producers and their customers, a classic instance of "market failure" – where the operation of market forces does not produce satisfactory outcomes for the community.

For instance, industries will continue to emit excessive greenhouse gases if there's no market value placed on retaining a stable climate system. And farming may cause land degradation if there's no market value placed on preserving the services the ecosystem provides to society by allowing us to grow food and fibre.

All this is a way of saying that the economy and the environment are inextricably linked but, left to its own devices, the market isn't capable of ensuring we don't stuff the environment and thereby stuff the economy.

Most economists accept this truth, but argue that the least economically costly way to fix the problem is to intervene in markets in ways that harness market forces to the service of the environment.

Often this can be done by getting the social (community-wide) costs of environmental damage incorporated into the private costs borne by producers and consumers. This was the rationale for the Gillard government's policy of using a hybrid carbon tax/emissions trading scheme to put a price on emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.

The concerned scientists accept this logic and propose four market-oriented interventions to reduce future damage to the nation's "environmental assets" and to fix past damage.

Their first proposal is to change the law to impose on all landowners, public or private, a "duty of care" to prevent further damage to their land and water resources. Developing codes of practice would give landowners greater certainty about their obligations.

This reflects the principle that the community's right to a clean and sustainable environment overrides the rights of individuals to unrestricted use of their private property.

Actions of great environmental value that go beyond the standard of care required – such as fixing damage done in the past – could be purchased by governments from private owners using programs that use market-based instruments, such as Victoria's BushTender​ program.

The scientists' second proposal is for the federal government to supplement our efforts to reduce carbon emissions by paying farmers, Indigenous communities and other landowners to engage in "carbon farming" – doing things that improve the rate at which carbon dioxide is removed from the atmosphere and converted to plant material or soil organic matter, where it stays.

If you do this right, it can also be used to restore degraded land. But it involves having a price on carbon so farmers can be rewarded with valuable "carbon offset" certificates.

However, there are risks if the market for carbon offsets isn't properly regulated. "Without complementary land-use controls and water accounting arrangements in place, carbon forests could take over large areas of high quality agricultural land and affect water availability," the paper warns.

"This could create adverse impacts on food and fibre production, and affect regional jobs that are dependent on these industries."

The scientists' third proposal is that we reform the tax system to make it one that doesn't encourage unsustainable practices, but rather encourages the conservation and repair of the natural environment.

"Subsidising or providing economic incentives for fossil fuels makes no sense because it results in increased costs to the environment, costs we will all have to bear sooner or later," the paper says.

It particularly makes no sense when at the same time we're using a tax on carbon to discourage the use of fossil fuels or, as now, spending taxpayers' money to pay for "direct action" to reduce emissions.

And yet our miners and farmers are exempt from paying petrol excise on fuel used off-road. It's the obvious tax break to get rid of – and save the government money.

The paper also recommends establishing a broad-based land tax to provide long-term, equitable funding for paying farmers, Indigenous communities and other land holders to restore and maintain environmental assets in a healthy condition.

Finally, the scientists propose government action to encourage sustainable farming practices. They say farmers need to receive a financial reward for managing their farms sustainably and suppliers, retailers and consumers need to have confidence that their products satisfy rigorous standards.

A farm is sustainable when environmental assets located on the farm are being maintained in a condition that contributes to the overall health and resilience of its surrounding region.

Environmental assets – not all of which will be on farms – include soil, native vegetation, native fauna, water resources (rivers, aquifers, wetlands, estuaries) and carbon.

The financial reward doesn't have to come from the government. Consumers will pay a premium for food that has been grown sustainably, provided they have some assurance this is so.

The government's role is to support the development of voluntary, industry-based sustainable certification of farms and to ensure such schemes are trustworthy. The government should also be active in the development of international sustainability standards so our exporting farmers can participate and benefit.

All very sensible stuff. Now we just need a sensible government.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Ignoring climate change will cost the economy

Sometimes I fear Australia has decided to go backwards just as the rest of the world has decided to go forwards. Take climate change. If the repeal of the carbon tax gets through the Senate this week there will probably be celebrations in the boardrooms of all the business groups that lobbied so hard for its removal.

But if they imagine the lifting of this supposedly great burden on them and the economy will mean it's back to business as usual, they'll soon find out differently.

They may have rolled back the economic cost of doing something about climate change, but now they'll face the increasing cost of not doing something about it. As Martijn Wilder, an environmental lawyer with the Baker & McKenzie law firm, finds in a new report for the Committee for Economic Development of Australia, we're going to be hit from all sides.

There are the costly physical effects of climate change we've already started experiencing, there are the consequences for us of measures our trading partners are starting to take to limit their emissions, there's the growing reluctance of foreign institutions to fund new coalmines and power stations and there's the threat to our fossil fuel industries from ever-cheaper renewable energy.

In case anyone's forgotten, Wilder reminds us that the physical effects of climate change include a rise in the sea level, acidification of the ocean, change in rainfall patterns and an increase in the frequency of natural disasters, including droughts. Extreme weather may lead to more bushfires, while heavy rainfall and cyclones may lead to flooding.

Do you think all that generates no costs to business, no disruption to the economy? Take the Queensland floods in 2011, Wilder says. They not only hit insurance company earnings, they also halted production at various coalmines. This forced up world coal prices, with adverse effects for industries reliant on coal.

Since we've always had cyclones and floods, no one can say climate change caused this particular disaster. But the scientists tell us events such as these will become more frequent. And the insurance industry's records tell us the number of catastrophic weather events is already increasing, with the economic losses associated with weather rising.

As for the idea there's no hurry in preparing for problems that may not become acute until later this century, consider this. Had a levee to protect Roma, in Queensland, been built in 2005, it would have cost $20 million. Since it wasn't built, $100 million has been paid out in insurance claims since 2008 and a repair bill of more than $500 million incurred by the public and private sectors since 2005.

This sort of thing is happening in other countries, too. Hurricane Sandy, in October 2012, caused widespread damage in New York, crippling electricity infrastructure and leaving downtown Manhattan without power for four days. The record-breaking storm surge alone cost the local electricity company $500 million and New York businesses $6 billion.

Perhaps such events explain why many other countries are moving forwards rather than backwards in their efforts to combat climate change. Australia's coal and natural gas industries won't escape being affected by tougher regulation of the use of fossil fuels in the countries to which they export.

While Europe has had a weak emissions trading scheme since 2005, the Chinese are trialling such schemes in six provinces. South Korea, one of our main trading partners, is to introduce a scheme next year. The US is taking direct action to cut power station emissions.

China is moving to limit coal to 65 per cent of energy consumption by next year and has banned new coal power generation in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou. Wilder says this will cut demand from the largest importer of Australian coal and thus affect the value of big mining and loading assets in Australia.

The more the rest of the world seeks to reduce its use of coal and other fossil fuels, the more Australian businesses need to contemplate the possibility of their mines becoming "stranded assets" - assets that suddenly become unprofitable and so lose their value.

Until recently, foreign investors and financiers haven't taken climate-change risk into account. Now they're starting to worry not just about the morality of emitting more greenhouse gas, but the risk that investments in new mines and power stations will lose their value before they reach the end of their useful lives. The change started with international agencies such as the World Bank, but is spreading to pension-fund investors.

Then there's the threat from the rise of renewable energy. China's goal of becoming a world leader in renewable energy has made it the world's largest maker of renewable energy equipment and the single largest destination for investment in renewables.

Wilder says renewables are reaching a "point of disruption" and will displace coal and gas power stations in many parts of the world. In Australia, the sharply rising price of gas is increasing the cost-competitiveness of renewables.

"Unlike natural gas and coal, the input for renewable energy is not subject to the volatility of global energy markets and with renewable costs continuing to decline, renewable generation represents a safer long-term investment," he says.

I know, let's get the government to put the kybosh on renewables. That would be a smart move.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Death of man who inspired the emissions trading scheme

The man who first thought that governments should auction off rather give away the rights to such things as broadcast spectrum or taxi licences, and who started the thinking that led to the invention of emission trading schemes, died last week at the age of 102.

He also inspired the joke economists tell each other as a warning against reading too much into statistics: "If you torture the data long enough, it will confess."

He was British-American economist Ronald Coase (rhymes with rose), of the University of Chicago, who in 1991 was awarded the Nobel prize for his trouble.

The first of his discoveries came in 1937 and launched a whole sub-field of economics, but now seems pathetically obvious. He asked why firms exist. Why do capitalists employ people to make or do lots of things for them, when most of those things could be bought from the market?

Why are many of the things produced by a "market economy" actually produced inside firms - some of them employing many thousands of people - where employees have to do as they're told by the boss and the rules of the market don't apply?

His answer was that buying things from others in the marketplace involved hidden costs, which he dubbed "transaction costs" - the cost of finding the best deal, checking quality, negotiating a price, writing a watertight contract and then, if necessary, enforcing that contract.

Business people would do things "in house" whenever this was cheaper than incurring all the transaction costs involved in buying from the market. (But once you start thinking like that, it eventually occurs to you that there will be times when it's cheaper to "outsource" the provision of services you formerly provided in-house.)

In a paper on the US Federal Communications Commission, written in 1959, Coase argued that the transaction costs faced by the commission in deciding which of the many applicants for a broadcast licence would make the greatest contribution to the economy were impossibly high.

But this did not justify the commission continuing to give away licences to whomever it saw fit. It would be better to replicate market conditions by auctioning the licence to the highest bidder. This way, the licence would go to the firm most likely to put the licence to its "highest-valued use".

Do you see how this led to the invention of the tradeable permit? Say the government is trying to limit to a certain level the catching of a particular type of fish, or limit emissions that cause acid rain, or those that cause climate change.

It issues permits for firms to catch or emit up to that level. Because this level is lower than the market would otherwise produce, it has thereby increased the item's "scarcity value", allowing firms with permits to get away with charging a higher price.

If it gives the permits away to firms, it's effectively allowing them to levy a tax on their customers. If it auctions the permits, it's ensuring the proceeds of the disguised tax are collected by the taxman.

The firms that get the licences by bidding highest can be expected to pay no more than allows them to continue profitably producing whatever it is. They'll also have a monetary incentive to find ways to continue producing their product while generating fewer emissions.

And by allowing firms to trade their permits - say, to sell any they discover they don't need - you increase their incentive to find ways to reduce their emissions, as well as ensuring the burden of reducing emissions is shifted to those firms that can do so at the lowest cost.

But Coase's greatest claim to fame came from a paper he wrote in 1960, The Problem of Social Cost, which became the all-time most cited paper by other academic economists and made him the darling of libertarians and free-market conservatives.

Social costs - also known as "negative externalities" - are costs imposed on third parties by transactions between people in the marketplace. Say I run a factory that imposes a lot of noise on my neighbours, emits fumes and puts gunk into the local river. Since this polluting costs me nothing it represents costs borne by the community, not by me and my customers. It's a cost that's "external" to the market.

What should governments do about this problem? The traditional answer was for them to protect the victims of this action by imposing restrictions or obligations on the perpetrator.

But Coase argued that, simply by clarifying the property rights involved, governments could leave it to the affected parties to negotiate a satisfactory solution. Again, the solution could be left to the market.

What's more, this ability to reach a privately negotiated solution meant it didn't matter to which side the government awarded the property rights. The libertarians loved this so much they called it the "Coase theorem".

What they liked was that it appeared to justify a greatly reduced role for governments in solving environmental problems. That it would also favour the rich and powerful was, of course, purely coincidental.

Over the years, however, Coase made it clear the libertarians had taken him out of context. For one thing, he'd argued that to whom you awarded the property rights made no difference from the perspective of economic efficiency. Obviously, it made a big difference from an equity or fairness perspective.

And his theorem had been based on the explicit assumption that the transaction costs involved in negotiating a solution were negligible. Not surprisingly, the man who had discovered transaction costs thought that, in the real world, transaction costs would be significant and often prohibitive.

Is it easy for all the people affected by a factory's pollution to get together and negotiate a satisfactory solution with a rich factory owner? Sounds to me like a case for government intervention.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Carbon tax is nothing to object to

When psychologists study those sects that predict the end of the world on a certain day, they find the leaders rarely willing to admit they were wrong and their true believers rarely willing to admit they were duped.

Rather, the sect members find some dubious rationalisation. It was our prayers, brothers and sisters, that interceded for this wicked world and persuaded the Good Lord to stay his hand.

Since the day he won the leadership of the opposition on the strength of his willingness to switch from supporting to opposing putting a price on carbon, Tony Abbott has been predicting the carbon tax would wreak devastation on the economy, wrecking industries and destroying jobs.

To be fair, running scare campaigns against new taxes has always been accepted as a legitimate tactic by our ethically challenged political class.

Labor was happy to exploit the fears of the ill-informed in its opportunist opposition to John Howard's ''great big new tax on everything'', the goods and services tax.

The biggest difference is that Abbott's misrepresentations have been so much more successful.

But with the carbon tax taking effect from Sunday, the moment of truth approaches. Soon enough it will become clear that, for consumers and the vast bulk of businesses, the dreaded carbon tax will have an effect much smaller than the GST.

The retail prices of electricity and gas will rise about 9 per cent, but the increases in other prices will be very small.

Whereas the GST increased the consumer price index 2.5 per cent, the carbon tax is expected to raise it just 0.7 per cent.

Whereas the GST is expected to raise revenue of $48 billion in the new financial year, the carbon tax is expected to raise about $4 billion in its first year and about $7 billion in subsequent years.

Julia Gillard and her supporters have been hoping against hope that, as soon as this reality dawns on a fearful public, as soon as the magnitude of the Liberals' hoax is revealed, voters will switch back to Labor in droves.

I don't see it happening. It rests on an unrealistic view of the lack of self-delusion in human nature.

Political parties and their cheerleaders don't like admitting they've been dishonest - even to themselves. And you and I don't like admitting we've allowed ourselves to be conned by unscrupulous politicians and shock jocks.

So we look for rationalisations, no matter how tenuous. And in these the carbon tax abounds. With the GST, the object of the exercise was clear and simple: to raise more revenue. With the carbon tax the object is far from clear to anyone who hasn't done their homework.

For a start, it's clear the object is not to raise revenue, because much of the revenue raised is being returned to households as ''compensation'' in the form of a small cut in income tax for most people and small increases in pensions, allowances and family benefits.

But if the object is simply to discourage people from using emissions-intensive goods and services - which it is - why give back to most people the extra tax they'll be paying?

Because economists believe that to change people's behaviour it's necessary only to change the relative prices they face: to raise the prices of fossil fuels (particularly electricity and gas) relative to all other prices. It's not necessary to leave people out of pocket by keeping the proceeds from the tax you used to bring about the change in relative prices.

You may say you can't see how such a relatively modest rise in the price of electricity could make much difference to households' use of power. That's probably true, though it may encourage people to buy a more energy-efficient model next time they're replacing an appliance.

Actually, the price increase is aimed mainly at big industrial users of energy and, more particularly, the generators of electricity.

If the industrial users can be induced to eliminate wasteful use of power, this will make a difference. And if power companies can be induced to replace their present generators with less emissions-intensive models when the time comes, this will make a big difference. Raising the price of electricity produced by burning fossil fuels helps make the price of power produced from renewable sources more competitive.

But if those objections to the tax don't wash, there are plenty more. One is that the tax of $23 per tonne of carbon dioxide is way too high. I discuss this one in my little video on the website.

Yet another objection is that, since there's nothing an individual country can do to have a significant effect on global emissions of greenhouse gases, in the absence of a binding agreement to act by all the major countries there's no point in us doing anything.

Trouble with that argument is it increases the likelihood of failure. Only if enough countries demonstrate their good faith by getting on with it is effective global action likely to eventuate. We should line up with the good guys, not the bad guys - and we're far from the only good guy.

But if all else fails - if you can't find any other argument to confirm the wisdom of your original conclusion the carbon tax is a terrible thing - just tell yourself that, when the vast majority of scientists specialising in the area warn us continued emissions of greenhouse gases will lead to devastating climate change, they've got it all wrong.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Politics of self-interest feeds the inner beast

Barring the start of World War III, we may never hear an Australian politician repeat John Fitzgerald Kennedy's unforgettable line, "Ask not what your country can do for you - ask what you can do for your country".

Nobility be hanged. There was a time when our leaders saw it as their job to bring out the best in their followers. These days, they see their best chance as pandering to our dark side - our fears, our weaknesses, our selfishness.

These days, self-centredness not only comes naturally, it's officially encouraged. On what basis should you decide which politician to support? The one that's offering you the best deal, of course.

Why do our leaders have such a low opinion of our motivations? Perhaps for the same reason people who lie a lot always expect other people to be lying. Despite their protestations to the contrary, most politicians seem motivated less by a burning desire to make the world a better place than by ambition for personal advancement. They simply assume we are like they are.

Then there's the influence of economists. The doctrine of economic rationalism not only assumes self-interest to be normal and altruism to be non-existent, it sanctifies self-interest as a civic virtue.

Adam Smith, founder of modern economics, said a lot of noteworthy things, but few are quoted more than this: "It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our necessities but of their advantages."

Be as selfish as you like because selfishness is what makes the economy work.

But here's a balancing quote from the great man that's much less often repeated: "How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it, except the pleasure of seeing it."

There are two sides to our nature; we do have our "better angels" as Abraham Lincoln put it, but at present our lesser selves are in the ascendancy.

Perhaps another influence on the politicians is their resort to the techniques of marketing to further their pursuit of power. Marketers have no hesitation in appealing to our envy, lust or greed.

In their world, use of the word "indulgence" is taken to be enticing, not a condemnation. "You deserve it" and "because you're worth it", advertisers assure us. My favourite is an ad for a cinema candy bar: "in the dark, no one can see you". Go ahead, guts yourself.

Marketers use focus groups to test products and make sure they're giving the customers exactly what they want. Politicians use them to make sure they're telling voters exactly what they want to hear.

At least since John Howard's last days, people in focus groups have been complaining about the rising cost of living. Really? That's a new one. When the most people can do is complain about the cost of living it's a sign they've got nothing bigger to worry about. I suspect it's the product of our having gone 20 years without a severe recession. When you're worried about keeping your job, you don't complain about the cost of living.

And yet both sides of politics are perpetually echoing back to the electorate their professed concern about how tough times are. Tony Abbott's remarkably successful scare campaign against the carbon tax - it's actually not half as bad as the goods and services tax, and certainly far less disruptive than the effect of the high dollar on manufacturing and tourism - preys on people's worries about the cost of living.

When Howard was introducing the GST a lot of people's attitude was: "I don't like the sound of it one bit, but if you're insisting on it I suppose it must be in the best interests of the country." Much the same could be said of the carbon tax, yet far fewer people are saying it - nor are they being encouraged to think that way.

As it's understood by scientists, our preoccupation with our own interests usually extends to the protection of our own family. But there seems little sign of concern for the wellbeing of our children and grandchildren in the carbon tax debate. We've been encouraged to focus only on our immediate worries about balancing the household budget.

But for unbridled selfishness there could surely be no more egregious example than the success the licensed clubs have had in stirring their members' opposition to the Gillard government's reluctant championing of compulsory pre-commitment on poker machine use.

If ever there was an action that could be said to be "un-Australian", it's profiting from the addiction of gamblers and all the misery caused to them and their families. The killer statistic is this: according to the Productivity Commission, about 15 per cent of regular poker machine users contribute about 40 per cent of all the money put through pokies.

So the whole edifice of the licensed club industry rests heavily on the exploitation of a small minority of their own members. All the cheap meals and shows, all the grants to local sporting groups - much of that money is coming from the pockets of the spouses and children of problem gamblers.

But those fighting to keep their cheap meals mustn't feel guilty. You're only doing what our politicians, economists and advertisers urge you to do: putting your own interests ahead of other people's, including the less fortunate.


Monday, July 18, 2011

Decarbonising economy is not such a big deal

To a lot of thoughtful people, Julia Gillard's plan to virtually ''decarbonise'' our economy represents one of the most radical attempts at reform in our history.

It will present a profound challenge to the Australian way of life, we're told, requiring changes to our lifestyle, spending patterns, taxation burdens and possibly even people's chosen field of employment.

As well as changing our everyday practices, it will change the structure of the country's fiscal and industrial systems and the way we trade with the rest of the world.

Fortunately, however, the adjustment needed to achieve a low-carbon economy won't be nearly as drastic as the thoughtful observers expect.

The first point is that the very reason economists advocate the use of the price mechanism is their confidence this will be the least-cost way to bring about the desired changes. Least-cost primarily refers to least reduction in the rate of improvement in our material standard of living (which reduction Treasury's modelling estimates to be less than 0.1 percentage points

a year, totalling about 0.5 per cent by 2020).

Something that has such a modest effect on our standard of living is unlikely to have much effect on our way of life. If it doesn't, that will be by design.

Decarbonising the economy isn't as radical as it sounds. It's not too much of an oversimplification to say the main change we need to achieve is just in the means we use to generate electricity.

It's not likely to involve any reduction in our use of electricity, nor much reduction in the rate of growth in that use. That's true despite all the talk about the higher price of electricity encouraging householders and businesses to use it less wastefully. By definition, wasting electricity contributes nothing to our standard of living.

The majority of the economy will be largely unaffected by carbon pricing. Get this: Treasury estimates that industries employing more than 90 per cent of the workforce account for less than 10 per cent of emissions.

Note, too, that Treasury expects about half the eventual reduction in emissions achieved by our big polluting industries to be brought about in other countries, where reducing emissions is cheaper. This, too, is a design feature intended to minimise the cost and disruption to our economy.

Remember that the decarbonising of the economy won't happen overnight. It will be brought about over the next 40 years. And much of it will happen relatively smoothly as electricity producers install emissions-efficient generators when their old power stations come to the end of their useful lives.

This is why it's so important to leave those producers in no doubt that the cost of emissions will be high and rising. Paradoxically, the more they believe that, the more their actions will cause it to be less true.

Tony Abbott claims the scheme obviously involves the end of the coal industry because Treasury's projections envisage coal accounting for less than 10 per cent of electricity production in 2050.

This is dishonest for several reasons. It ignores the 15 per cent of production expected to come from coal that's been subject to carbon capture and storage. More significantly, it ignores the high proportion of coal produced for export, including coking coal for steel-making. (And this guy calls Gillard a liar.)

Decarbonisation should also involve a major reduction in our use of fossil fuels for transport, of course. But, if the world price of oil keeps rising, over time that change will come about regardless of Gillard's carbon pricing.

The assertion that decarbonisation will bring marked and disturbing changes in our way of life reveals a lack of appreciation of how much things are always changing - especially over a period as long as 40 years.

Our spending patterns change over the years as we buy proportionately fewer goods and more services, as new electronic gismos are invented, as more women leave the home to work and as enterprising businesses dream up new services to sell us. Do we notice? Not really.

It's funny to have some critics asking why they're levying a new tax then giving back most of the proceeds (including by reductions in income tax) and then have others talking about significant changes in the tax burden and the fiscal structure.

The beauty of taxes that are used to change the relative prices people and businesses face is that you can then use the proceeds to reduce other, ideally more inefficient, taxes. This, too, is a design feature.

John Howard used the surge in company tax revenue associated with the resources boom to cut personal income tax five years in a row then proposed increasing it to eight years (with the Rudd government obliging). This significant change in the mix of taxes was brought about without anyone much noticing.

It's true the carbon price will cause employment in the small proportion of the economy that's emissions-intensive to grow less quickly than otherwise, while employment in the small proportion of the economy producing renewable energy grows more quickly than otherwise.

While ever the overall economy is growing, such modest changes in employment shares won't cause much angst. And get this: each year about 2 million people change jobs, including about 500,000 who change industries.

The structural change the carbon price will bring isn't likely to be all that history-making. According to Treasury, ''the changes to the Australian economy from pricing carbon are [projected to be] small by historical standards and small compared to the changes we are already seeing in our economy as it adjusts to accommodate the pressures of mining boom mark II''.

A carbon tax is nothing compared with an exchange rate that stays above parity with the greenback.


Saturday, July 16, 2011

Gillard's flawed scehme worth doing

In this far from perfect world, no reform that makes it into law is ever ideal. It's always flawed and internally inconsistent, a product of the compromise necessitated by our democracy. Of course, some reform attempts are more flawed than others. So the question for Julia Gillard's carbon tax package is: is it too flawed to be worth bothering with?

In this far from perfect world, no reform that makes it into law is ever ideal. It's always flawed and internally inconsistent, a product of the compromise necessitated by our democracy. Of course, some reform attempts are more flawed than others. So the question for Julia Gillard's carbon tax package is: is it too flawed to be worth bothering with?

With Kevin Rudd's carbon pollution reduction scheme in 2009, the compromise was negotiated with the Liberals. But they reneged at the last minute, sacking Malcolm Turnbull and turning to Tony Abbott because so many of them doubted that climate change was real.

The Greens, who were excluded from the negotiations, helped the Coalition vote it down in the Senate, arguing it would do too little to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases and gave too much compensation to the big polluting industries. Knock this one back and they'd have to come up with something better.

With Gillard's package, the compromise has been done with the Greens and the independents. In the meantime, Abbott has had so much success arousing opposition to action on climate change that the continuing supporters of action aren't in a mood to be picky. They'll take what they can get.

But the question remains: is the new package worth all the angst it's causing? And is it much better as a result of the Greens' ministrations?

For starters, it's just a modified version of the Rudd scheme, not radically different. So the ''big polluters'' will still get as much compensation, if not more. But although most economists agree they're getting more compensation than is justified (those competing in export markets against foreign producers not burdened by a carbon tax do need some relief), most economists would also agree the compensation isn't likely to greatly diminish their efforts to reduce emissions.

Non-economists seem to think you can't get people to change their behaviour unless you punish them. Take money from them and they'll change their ways. Economists think the main way to discourage a particular activity is to raise its price relative to the price of other activities. You don't have to take money from them (the ''income effect'' as economists call it) to get them to respond to the changed price structure (the ''substitution effect'').

Most of the compensation will go to the ''emissions-intensive, trade-exposed'' industries, in the form of free emission permits. But each firm's compo will be based on the average emissions of firms in their industry. So those with above-average emissions, which they'll need to cover by buying extra permits, have a clear incentive to find ways to reduce their emissions.

But even those with average or below-average emissions also have an incentive to reduce emissions. Why? Because they'll be able to sell to other firms any of their free permits they don't need.

Thus, just as the Rudd scheme would have done more to discourage emissions than many people imagined, so this package will also discourage emissions.

Gillard's package is widely described as a carbon tax but, strictly speaking, it's an emissions trading scheme in which the price of emission permits is fixed for the first three years and permits made freely available, after which the price is set by auction, with an ever-declining quantity of permits made available each year.

So it's not hugely different from the Rudd scheme, which itself planned to start with a price fixed at $10 a tonne of carbon emissions in the first year. This time the price will start at $23 a tonne, increased in each of the two subsequent years by 2.5 per cent in real terms - an improvement.

The reductions in the trading scheme's cap on emissions - needed to reduce total emissions over time and thus likely to gradually raise the price of permits - will now be set by the government on the basis of recommendations by an independent climate change authority, chaired by a former Reserve Bank governor, Bernie Fraser. An improvement.

Another improvement is that the independent Productivity Commission, no soft touch, will review the levels of assistance provided to trade-exposed industries with a view to reducing them as other countries limit the emissions of their own industries.

The Rudd scheme was widely criticised because its guaranteed reduction in emissions to 5 per cent below 2000 levels by 2020 was considered too small. It's actually more demanding than it sounds because, without action, our emissions would grow a lot between 2000 and 2020. Achieving the 5 per cent target will require emissions in 2020 to be 23 per cent lower that they'd otherwise be.

However, both the old scheme and the new allow for the target reduction to be increased to 15 per cent or 25 per cent of 2000 levels if other countries tighten their own targets. The old scheme aimed to reduce emissions in 2050 to 60 per cent below 2000 levels, whereas the new one aims for 80 per cent below.

Rudd included transport fuels in his scheme while excluding cars and farm vehicles for three years and heavy road vehicles for one year. Gillard's scheme excludes cars and farm vehicles ''forever'' and imposes the equivalent of a carbon price - just 6 cents a litre - on aviation, mining and shipping, extending this to heavy road vehicles after two years.

But nothing is forever in politics and, in any case, does anyone expect the world price of oil to do anything but keep rising?

Gillard's scheme provides substantially more support for innovation, mainly through a $10 billion clean energy finance corporation, which will give a partial subsidy to those firms that win the assistance by proposing better schemes to reduce emissions.

Her scheme also includes (at the behest of an independent, Tony Windsor) a land-sector package worth $1 billion over four years, which will improve biodiversity (the preservation of species) and encourage more eco-friendly farming practices.

Gillard has roundly attacked Abbott's plan for ''direct action'' on climate change rather than ''putting a price on carbon'', but her package also includes direct action - such as buying out the hugely polluting brown coal power stations.

There's nothing wrong with a two-pronged approach in principle, so long as the direct measures aren't too wildly expensive per tonne of carbon avoided or just disguised handouts to rent-seeking industries (as the brown coal buy-out seems to be).

Rudd's flawed scheme was always worth doing; this one is better - just a bit.


Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Give and take: The new tax is a piece of cake

Years ago, the Keating government had a problem with pensioners wasting taxpayers' money on prescriptions. Knowing their elderly patients got their prescriptions free, doctors were happily issuing ones their patients might or might not end up needing and pensioners were taking them to the chemist and getting them filled, just in case. Many of these often very expensive drugs were not used.

So the government decided to impose a nominal fee on pensioner prescriptions of $2 a pop, just to make people think twice about whether they'd be needed. But, anxious though it was to save big money by reducing the waste of taxpayer-subsidised pharmaceuticals, the government had no desire to leave pensioners out of pocket. It worked out the average number of prescriptions pensioners had filled, multiplied it by $2, and increased pensions by that amount.

I dredge up this story because it may help you understand something about Julia Gillard's planned carbon tax that many people find puzzling.

If Gillard is imposing a carbon tax to raise the price of electricity and gas, with some flow through to the prices of other items, so as to discourage us from using so much fossil fuel, why is she undoing the effect by giving us back most of the tax we'll pay as cuts in income tax and increases in pensions and family benefits?

What's the point of this money-go-round, as Tony Abbott calls it? How can it do any good?

Though the carbon tax will raise about $9 billion a year in revenue, raising revenue is not its primary purpose. Rather, its purpose is to change people's behaviour. And one of the most basic ideas in economics is that the best way to change people's behaviour is to change the prices they face. If there's some activity you wish to discourage, raise its price relative to all the other prices people pay.

When, after a cyclone, the price of bananas shoots up relative to the prices of other fruit, people tend to buy fewer bananas and more apples and oranges. When the price of beef rises more than other meat, people buy less beef and more chicken.

The thinking is that if you raise the price of fossil fuels and emissions-intensive goods relative to the prices of all the other things people buy, they'll change their spending in ways that reduce the use of fossil fuels.

It's not necessary to leave people worse off to get them to change their spending patterns. And since the primary purpose of the carbon tax is to change relative prices rather than to raise revenue, you may as well return the revenue to people by cutting income tax and increasing benefits.

(You can't give back all the revenue because you're using part of it for other purposes, so you favour low- and middle-income households and let higher-income households take it on the chin. Since your calculations about how much the carbon tax will cost people are based on averages, and not everyone fits the average, you give low-income households a bit more than the average so fewer of them are undercompensated.)

Now, you may say finding ways to cut your use of electricity and gas isn't as simple as buying apples rather than bananas, and you'd be right. There are ways to reduce energy use around the house, but I suspect the main way people will respond is by buying a more energy-efficient model the next time they're replacing an appliance.

If you think no amount of energy saving in the home is likely to bring about the degree of reduction in fossil fuel use we needed to achieve, you'd also be right.

People have an automatic tendency to apply government moves such as this to themselves and their homes but, in fact, the relative price change is directed mainly at the big industrial users of electricity and, more particularly, the generators of electricity.

It's when their existing power stations come to the end of their useful lives and are replaced by less-polluting generators that the big steps forward will be made.

The government claims the changes it will make to the income tax scale - lifting the tax-free threshold from $6000 a year to $18,200 - is a major reform, meaning about a million people will no longer have to submit tax returns.

Tony Abbott counters that it's a terrible change: "This is the first time in a generation that marginal tax rates have been increased." The bottom tax rate of 15 per cent is to be increased to 19 per cent, and the second rate of 30 per cent increased to 32.5 per cent.

Both sides are playing on the public's ignorance of the complexities of the tax system, in particular the operation of the "low-income tax offset" of $1500 a year, which lifts the present effective tax-free threshold from $6000 to $16,000, but is then clawed back after people's incomes exceed $30,000 a year, at the rate of 4? in the dollar.

Under the new arrangement, this offset will be cut to $445 a year and its rate of withdrawal cut to 1.5? in the dollar. When you take this into account, Labor's grand reform becomes a minor reform. Most of the million people aren't paying tax under the present system, they just have to put in a return to claim the offset.

As for Abbott, the change will involve no increase in anyone's effective marginal tax rate. All it means is that the hidden 4 per cent rate at which the offset is withdrawn will no longer be hidden.

The carbon tax is neither as good as Gillard claims nor as bad as Abbott claims. Funny, that.


Monday, July 11, 2011

It will be neither as good nor as bad as we're told

So now, supposedly, we know exactly what to expect when, as seems likely, the carbon tax comes into effect on July 1 next year.

The average household's costs will increase by about $10 a week. All but the top 10 per cent of households will receive tax cuts and benefit increases to compensate them for this higher cost and two-thirds of households will be fully compensated.

Uncertainty over? Don't you believe it. Now begins the search for the devil in the details. And what a frantic, spine-tingling, imaginative search it will be, led not by seekers after truth but by all those who stand to gain by convincing us disaster is about to befall us and our economy.

There is much distrust of Julia Gillard and her assurances, particularly since she has broken her election promise not to introduce such a tax in this term. But how much trust can we place in her critics? Since the Coalition, in its day, has supported putting a price on carbon emissions, can we be sure Tony Abbott's change of heart isn't motivated primarily by desire to win back government?

We will be assailed by business people telling us how devastating the tax would be for jobs in their industry. Can we be sure they aren't exaggerating as they jockey for concessions? If we doubt the word of politicians, can we trust the predictions of business people?

This scheme is hellishly complex, so it contains much scope for apprehension, justified or otherwise. It is designed to change our behaviour without penalising most households - itself a puzzle to many people - so this will in time change the shape of the economy.

In truth, some industries will gain while others lose. We will hear at full voice from those fearing they will lose, while the winners stay mum, as do the great majority of industries that will be little affected.

Psychology sheds as much light on these questions as does economics. The safest prediction is that the tax won't be as bad as its critics fear, nor as benign as its defenders claim.

We can be sure of this because of humans' well-researched inability to accurately predict the future.

We almost always expect bad things to be worse than they prove to be and good things to be better than they prove.

And psychology teaches us another lesson: once the tax starts we will get used to it very quickly.


Monday, June 20, 2011

Let punters beware of business carbon claims

Sometimes I suspect many business people regard it as quite ethical to lie and mislead the public, provided they're lying in the shareholders' interests. And when you're laying it on thick to pressure some government into giving you a special deal or an exemption from some measure, you're always doing it for the shareholders. What's in the nation's interests - and whether your special deal would damage the nation's interests - is not your concern.

Often, any special concession you screw out of the pollies will come at the expense of those businesses and industries that don't get a similar concession, but there seems to be an honour among thieves that requires those who'd lose from the success of another industry's lobbying to keep their traps shut.

For a rival industry to point out how exaggerated or self-serving the lobbying industry's claims are is just not done. Governments - and the citizens, taxpayers and consumers whose interests they represent - are regarded as fair game. If the totality of business's success in ducking its responsibilities leads to the country being badly governed, that's just bad luck for the country.

Businesses on the make invariably seek to pressure governments by putting the frighteners on the public. And this means they often claim the government measure they're objecting to would lead to huge job losses. This has the additional advantage of frightening their own employees, and so getting the union to join them in the fight.

In the old days, businesses would pluck some big-sounding figure out of the air, but these days the fashion is to pay one of Canberra's many firms of economists-for-hire to do some ''independent'' modelling.

Any economist who can't juggle the assumptions until they get the kind of findings their client is hoping for isn't trying. And economists have no code of ethics that might inhibit them in making sure their customers are happy with the ''independent report'' they paid for.

If you come up with a big-sounding figure for supposed job losses, you can be reasonably sure the media will trumpet the figure in shocked tones. You can also be sure few if any journalists will subject your claims to examination to see how credible they are. Why spoil a good story? I didn't say it, they did. If it's wrong, blame them, not me. All I'm doing is acting as a messenger, recording both sides of the debate. It's not my job to act as a censor.

(This is tosh. Messengers don't decide which messages they'll deliver and which they won't; which they'll shout from the rooftops and which they'll whisper. Every aspect of the reporting and editing process involves judgments about what goes in and what hits the cutting-room floor. It's clear the media is often happy to pass on to its paying punters without comment information it either knows is misleading or hasn't bothered to inquire into.)

With Julia Gillard, the Greens and the independents busy deciding on the precise form their hybrid carbon tax/emissions trading scheme will take, it's open season for industries lobbying for special favours.

Last week it was the turn of the Australian Coal Association, which produced a report prepared by the economic consultants ACIL Tasman claiming that putting a price on ''carbon'' (greenhouse gas emissions) would lead to the loss of 4700 jobs by 2020-21 from existing coalmines in NSW and Queensland. Counting the flow-on effects to other industries would increase the loss to 14,100.

As well, applying emissions pricing to potential new mines would eliminate 25 to 37 per cent of potential new jobs. This, too, would cause much larger losses to the wider economy when flow-on effects were taken into account.

I suspect the key assumption driving these results is the assumed rise in the real price of carbon. After starting at $19 a tonne in 2012-13, it would leap to $47 a tonne in 2016-17, reaching $57 a tonne in 2021-22. But these figures are pure supposition.

The next thing to remember is that almost all the estimates of ''lost'' jobs you see don't involve any actual decline in the number of people employed in an industry. Rather, they refer to the extent to which employment grows by less than it otherwise would.

Whether deliberately or through ignorance, this distinction is almost always lost in translation - as the ''independent'' consultants surely know it will be. But if these job ''losses'' were labelled more carefully the punters would find them much less alarming.

We're in the early stages of a resources boom, which will involve the establishment of new coalmines and the expansion of existing mines. It's no doubt true the imposition of a significant carbon price will cause there to be less expansion than otherwise. But the notion we could see a lot of out-of-work coalminers is fanciful.

If I had enough money I'd happily pay for every industry lobby group in the country to commission an ''independent'' report on the wider, multiplier effects of their industry. I reckon they'd add up to a mighty lot more than 100 per cent of gross domestic product or total employment.

So never take notice of such claims. They're mere puffery. In the coalminers' case they're built on the assumption that money not invested in mining would be left under the bed rather than invested in some other value-adding and job-creating activity. And that everyone who loses their job as a result of the closure of a mine never works again.

In any case, 4700 job ''losses'' may sound a lot, but in the context of an economy of 11.4 million workers, with hundreds of thousands of people moving between jobs and total employment growing by at least 250,000 a year, it's microscopic.


Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Stop crying poor and fix the climate mess

Like most people, I'm an instinctive optimist. In any case, I see no margin in pessimism. If you concluded the world was irredeemably wicked, or destined for certain destruction, what would be left but to curl up and die? Since we can never be certain the end is nigh, much better to keep living and keep plugging away for a better world.

I confess, however, I've needed all my optimistic instincts to avoid despair over the hash we're making of the need to take action against global warming. We're exhibiting everything that's unattractive about the Australian character.

We pride ourselves that Aussies are good in a crisis, but until the walls start falling in on us we couldn't reach agreement to shut the door against the cold.

This week's report from the Climate Commission - established to provide expert advice on the science of climate change and its effects on Australia - tells us nothing we didn't already know, but everything we've lost sight of in our efforts to advance our own interests at the expense of the nation's.

Its 70 pages boil down to four propositions we'd rather not think about. First, there is no doubt the climate is changing. The evidence is overwhelming and clear.

The atmosphere is warming, the ocean is warming, ice is being lost from glaciers and ice caps and sea levels are rising. Global surface temperature is rising fast; the last decade was the hottest on record.

Second, we are already seeing the social, economic and environmental effects of a changing climate. In the past 50 years the number of record hot days in Australia has more than doubled. This has increased the risk of heatwaves and associated deaths, as well as extreme bushfire weather.

The sea level has risen by 20 centimetres since the late 1800s, affecting many coastal communities. Another 20-centimetre increase by 2050 is likely, on present projections, which would more than double the risk of coastal flooding.

Third, these changes are triggered by human activities - particularly the burning of fossil fuels and deforestation - which are increasing greenhouse gases, with carbon dioxide the most important of these gases.

Fourth, this is the critical decade. Decisions we make from now to 2020 will determine the severity of climate change our children and grandchildren experience. Without strong and rapid action there is a risk climate change will undermine society's prosperity, health, stability and way of life.

That scientists still need to repeat these long-established truths is a measure of how much we've allowed short-sighted and selfish concerns to distract us from the need to respond urgently to a clear and present danger.

In this we haven't been well served by our leaders. The Labor government's decline dates from Kevin Rudd's loss of nerve after the defeat of his carbon pollution reduction scheme in the Senate in late 2009, following the success of the Coalition's climate-change deniers in overthrowing Malcolm Turnbull and replacing him with a man whose record showed him willing to take whatever position on climate change he thought would advance his career.

Had Rudd the courage of his professed convictions, he would have taken the question to a double-dissolution election, fighting in defence of his "great big new tax on everything". Instead he dithered, eventually yielding to pressure from those in his party - including Julia Gillard and Wayne Swan - wanting to put the government's survival ahead of its duty.

Oppositions play a vital role in a parliamentary democracy and opposition leaders are given considerable licence. They're not expected to speak the unvarnished truth. Dishonest scare campaigns have long been used by both sides.

I don't like using the L-word, but Tony Abbott is setting new lows in the lightness with which he plays with the truth. He blatantly works both sides of the street, nodding happily in the company of climate-change deniers, but in more intellectually respectable company professing belief in human-caused global warming, his commitment to reducing carbon emissions by 5 per cent by 2020 and the efficacy of his no-offence policies.

He grossly exaggerates the costs involved in a carbon tax, telling business audiences they'll have to pay the lot and be destroyed by it, while telling the punters business will pass all the costs on to them. He forgets to mention that most of the proceeds from the tax will be returned as compensation to businesses and households.

He repeats the half-truth that nothing Australians could do by themselves would reduce global emissions, while failing to correct the punters' ignorant belief that Australia is the only country contemplating action. Last week's news that Britain's Conservative coalition government has pledged to cut emissions by half within 15 years is ignored. Economists call this mentality "free-riding"; the old Australian word for it is "bludging".

But it's far too easy to blame our failure to face up to climate change just on our hopeless politicians. Our increasingly partisan media have failed to hold Abbott to account over his duplicity. Many have sought to increase circulation or ratings by joining in the fear-mongering and denial. The media's love of controversy has led them to give doubters of the science of climate change a credibility they don't deserve against the weight of scientific opinion.

Australians are proud of their inbuilt bulldust detectors, but on this issue they seemed to have turned them off, happily believing whatever self-serving nonsense is served up to them. The one thing humans are meant to care about above all is the survival of their young. Yet people with the highest standard of living in history are whingeing that they couldn't possibly afford to pay a bit more for their electricity.


Saturday, March 12, 2011

A way to tackle carbon and keep everybody happy

As if we needed any reminding, the latest flare-up of politicking over putting a price on carbon shows just how difficult it will be to gain sufficient community agreement to take effective action against climate change.

With a government lacking the numbers in both houses, the Greens demanding a sackcloth-and-ashes scheme and an opposition determinedly putting short-term partisan advantage ahead of the national interest, how are we to reach agreement?

Well, Dr Frank Jotzo, of the centre for climate economics and policy at the Australian National University, thinks he's found a way. In a forthcoming paper he proposes a strategy that would respond to each of the conflicting interest groups' key concerns while still producing a scheme that stacks up economically and environmentally.

He starts by ignoring the political parties and identifying four key constituencies. First are environmentally concerned citizens and groups. These are deeply concerned about climate change and convinced of the need to reduce domestic emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. They'd like to see Australia making a constructive contribution to global action.

Second are the general citizens, who accept that more needs to be done about climate change, but are concerned about the possible effect on their cost of living, thus making them vulnerable to scare campaigns.

Third is the general business community, which is only weakly engaged in the public debate because it doesn't see climate change as a core concern. But it accepts that something must be done and sees an effective government response as a sign of commitment to reform and good government.

Fourth are emissions-intensive industries, which now seem to have accepted some form of emissions reduction policy is inevitable, but are focused on minimising the financial impacts on major emitters. The success of their lobbying resulted in the Rudd government's emissions trading scheme granting them many free emission permits and much permit revenue.

While some of these businesses would be happy to see policy action delayed, more of them want to reduce the effect of uncertainty about policy on electricity generators' decisions on new investments. The present hiatus creates a risk of disruption in electricity supply over coming years.

How could you come up with an arrangement that offered enough to each of those groups to achieve their support for action? Jotzo thinks the key to it is the leeway provided by a little-understood feature of the Rudd government's scheme, or any other plausible scheme.

Australia is a relatively small open economy whose carbon reduction scheme would be part of a global collection of national schemes which, collectively, would significantly reduce global emissions. It's the level of global emissions, not the efforts of any particular small country, which influences climate change.

Because the problem and the solution are global, the Kyoto Protocol and, no doubt, its eventual successor provide for the trading of emission permits between countries. This helps to minimise the economic cost of reducing emissions by allowing emissions to be reduced in those parts of the world where the cost of doing so is lowest.

If it's more expensive for me to reduce my emissions than it is for you to reduce yours, let me meet my obligation by paying you to reduce yours on my behalf.

Under the Rudd government's scheme it was always intended that Australian producers who needed permits to cover their emissions would be free to meet their obligations by purchasing emissions permits from overseas. This means the international price of emissions permits would set a ceiling for the market price of permits in our scheme.

It also means that, until the domestic price of permits reaches the international price, the domestic price and the rate at which it's set to rise can be detached from the achievement of the target for Australia's contribution to the reduction in global emissions.

Should the reduction in domestic emissions fall short of the target, the government can simply buy sufficient overseas permits to ensure the target is met. This decoupling allows us to phase in the carbon price - thus making it easier for firms and households to adjust to it - while still setting and achieving an ambitious target.

And this allows Jotzo to propose a strategy that "has the potential to deliver a worthwhile long-run policy outcome while working within the major concerns and interests of the four interest groups".

The strategy builds on last month's agreement between the government and the Greens to set a government-determined carbon price from next July, with provision to shift to a trading-determined price over the medium to long term as international uncertainties are resolved.

The first step is to ensure that, wherever the initial carbon price is set, it should be increased over time so that the price in the medium term (from 2015 to 2020) is high enough to create confidence that Australia's domestic emissions will begin to trend downwards within the next few years.

Remember, the expected future price of carbon is the major driver of present new investments in the assets - such as power plants, business machinery, transport infrastructure and vehicles, buildings and household appliances - that will shape future energy use and emissions.

The simplest way to achieve this is to legislate the path of the fixed price and then, once the switch is made to an emissions trading scheme, legislate the path of a minimum price below which the market price won't be allowed to fall.

The second step is to set the initial price at a level low enough to give people confidence the short-run effects on the economy will be manageable and to give households and businesses time to adjust.

This would reassure general citizens and the two business constituencies, demonstrating that a carbon price won't cause major economic disruption.

The third step is to ensure any assistance to emitters is tightly limited, determined by transparent rules, subject to sunset provisions and, above all, doesn't reduce their incentive to cut their emissions.

In using the proceeds from the sale of permits, the highest priority should be compensating households - particularly low- to middle-income households - for the rise in their cost of living but, again, this must be done in a way that doesn't reduce their incentive to cut emissions.

Finally, the scheme should include provision for the government to steepen the path of the carbon price, and lift the target to a 25 per cent reduction in emissions by 2020, in response to any increase in global ambition beyond what individual countries promised to achieve following the meeting in Copenhagen.