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Who is really fiddling while the climate burns?

By Geoff Carmody - posted Wednesday, 18 March 2009


Ross Gittins sprayed most economists on climate change policy last weekend ("Economists fiddle while climate burns", the Sydney Morning Herald, and The Age).

Unsubstantiated assertions about motivations behind (unnamed) economists favouring a carbon tax over the emissions trading scheme (ETS) embodied in Australia’s Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme (CPRS) dominated his piece. I can’t read other economists’ minds, but I can speak about my own motivation, and my reasons for opposing ETS in general and the CPRS in particular.

Gittins (correctly) notes a carbon tax or an ETS can deliver the same emissions reduction and price of carbon. One does so by putting a price on carbon (and forcing a reduction in emissions). The other does it by limiting the supply of permits to emit, raising the price for (scarce) permits. In principle, either approach could work.

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But then Gittins asserts “most” economists favour a carbon tax because “they believe it would be easier politically”. Really? Most economists understand politicians hate new taxes. Taxes are (or can be) transparent. It’s also clear who’s to blame for them.

Most economists understand the CPRS, with permits issued mainly high up the supply chain, is easier politically. It’s less transparent. It panders to misapprehensions that nasty big polluters will pay, and blurs the reality that increased costs will flow to consumers.

Most economists also understand that the CPRS is likely to be ineffective in reducing emissions (more on this shortly) and inefficient (consuming excessive resources).

Second, most economists would agree with Gittins on political courage (i.e., there’s not a lot about). Europe’s ETS experience shows it hasn’t had the courage to limit permits enough. European Kyoto targets have been more honoured in the breach than in the observance. The carbon price has tanked as permits are flogged by cash-strapped companies during the global financial crisis. European permits are a new “sub-prime” asset (sic).

Third, Gittins claims trading in permits via the CPRS “fits in better with what other countries are doing”. What are they doing? The European ETS covers about half its CO2 emissions and 40 per cent or less of its total greenhouse gas emissions. Most other countries (so far) aren’t “on board”. In terms of new contributions to emissions, major industrialising countries almost certainly will not “come on board” at Copenhagen in December 2009. International trade in permits is just another form of “carbon leakage”.

Fourth, Gittins recycles the fallacy much favoured by Minister Penny Wong. This is that an ETS delivers certainty about emissions reductions (by controlling the supply of permits). A carbon tax (which sets the price, but not the quantity, of emissions) doesn’t.

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This emissions reduction “certainty” is only true if:

  1. Australia is a closed economy, or
  2. the CPRS is adopted by all nations at the same time. Neither describes climate policy reality.

Unilateral adoption of the CPRS will deliver neither emissions reduction certainty nor price predictability. Globally, our CPRS could as likely raise emissions as lower them due to “carbon leakage” as industries at the margin shift to jurisdictions not adopting such a policy. It’s the worst possible option.

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An edited version of this article was first published in The Australian on March 17, 2009.



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About the Author

Geoff Carmody is Director, Geoff Carmody & Associates, a former co-founder of Access Economics, and before that was a senior officer in the Commonwealth Treasury. He favours a national consumption-based climate policy, preferably using a carbon tax to put a price on carbon. He has prepared papers entitled Effective climate change policy: the seven Cs. Paper #1: Some design principles for evaluating greenhouse gas abatement policies. Paper #2: Implementing design principles for effective climate change policy. Paper #3: ETS or carbon tax?

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Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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