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A fair dinkum carbon tax debate will show why Tony Abbott is no idiot

By Chris Lewis - posted Monday, 28 March 2011


I was an interested spectator at a recent Canberra public lecture (March 24) by Lord Deben, a former UK Secretary of State for the Environment (under Thatcher) who also helped draw up Britain's recent Climate Change Act with only three of 646 MPs voting against it.

In agreement with Lord Deben, we should do much more to lower greenhouse gas emissions. After all, as the world's population grows and more industry output results, it makes sense for all societies to encourage greater efficiency and innovation in terms of energy use.

But Lord Deben's optimistic speech proved another intellectual disappointment, and hardly any more meritorious than the anti-carbon tax tally (March 24) which he questioned in terms of the size of the crowd and its motivation.

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As I shall argue, there is much evidence to support Abbott's call for a carbon tax debate until the next election as such a policy option may indeed do little to reduce global greenhouse emissions.

Lord Deben's speech, while rightfully noting the UK's can do approach and the right of poorer nations to pursue a better standard of living, mentioned nothing about what is really happening in terms of global greenhouse gas emissions. No surprise here as most people claiming win-win policy solutions are not really interested in data that may complicate their claims, despite the reality of a complex and competitive world.

The truth is that UK efforts to reduce its own greenhouse gas emissions have been tempered by its own contribution to global levels through the promotion of freer trade. Although the UK reduced its greenhouse gas emissions by about 18 per cent since 1990, this achievement does not account for domestic consumption of energy-intensive manufacturing goods produced in developing nations. Hence, while the UK saved 148 million tonnes of carbon dioxide for the period 1992-2004, total emissions related to UK consumption grew by 217 million tonnes for the same period.

The EU (27 countries) may have reduced emissions by more than 17 per cent from 1990 to the end of 2009, yet it is estimated that more than 30 per cent of consumption-based emissions were already being imported in countries including the UK, France, Sweden, Switzerland and Austria by 2004. The inclusion of net imports adds 4 tonnes to "the annual carbon footprint of the average European (currently 11 tonnes a year) and 2.4 tonnes to that of the average American (currently 20 tonnes)".

It also indicated that about one third of China's carbon emissions in 2008 relate to the production of goods for export.

In other words, with the ongoing expansion of the international economy, Western nations have benefited from the import of cheaper manufacturing goods produced in developing nations, yet global greenhouse gas emissions from human activity increased by 70 per cent between 1970 and 2004 (carbon dioxide emissions by about 80 per cent).

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Now I will not pretend that the answers are easy. Indeed the struggle to more adequately balance economic and environmental considerations remains an illusive goal, as suggested by Abbott's stance, although I hope that human innovation and common sense meets the challenge.

In fact, in contrast to the beliefs of so-called progressives now jumping on the carbon tax bandwagon, there are very few government employees willing to be truly honest about recent efforts to reduce rising global greenhouse gas emissions. After all, economic growth remains the dominant paradigm and the easiest option for policy-makers.

Take Ross Garnaut, the Gillard government's adviser on climate change. Should we really take him seriously just because he expresses concern that global carbon emissions will double between 2005 and 2030 if nothing is done given that China's rise is even more rapid than forecast in 2008.

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About the Author

Chris Lewis has an interest in all economic, social and environmental issues, but believes that the struggle for the ‘right’ policy mix remains an elusive goal in such a complex and competitive world.

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