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Emissions indecision déjà vu

By Geoff Carmody - posted Wednesday, 13 July 2011

Will the Government's 'carbon tax'/emissions trading scam (ETS) policy work? Specifically, will it (i) help reduce global emissions, and (ii) do so cost-effectively? If not, why bother?

The policy announced on 10 July 2011 is complex, partial, and, possibly, not fully resolved. It has large coverage exemptions and concessions: permanent, temporary and/or of uncertain duration. Despite Government criticism of the Coalition's position, it also has loads of 'direct action' as well. It has extra layers of regulatory and other elements, and new bureaucracies, covering emissions permits, monitoring, renewable energy, etc. It makes our now-abandoned wholesale sales tax look simple. It's the antithesis of the 'broad base, low rate' golden rule for tax design and 'pricing carbon'.

It's not cost-effective.


At $23/tonne, rising in real terms by 2.5% for three years, the real pre-ETS emissions tax is about $24.77/tonne in 2015. In nominal terms, at 2.5% inflation, that's about $26.7/tonne in 2015. It's unlikely to induce large shifts in the way stationary energy is produced in Australia. Don't we need at least $A40-$A60/tonne to reduce emissions production significantly? Marginal efficiency savings, at best, are likely.

The Treasury estimates an initial 'carbon tax' CPI effect of only 0.7%. What about after 2015? The proposed income tax cuts exceed initial compensation requirements for about 4 million lower and middle income households, giving them a net income 'buffer'. For these households, incentives to reduce consumption of emissions will be countered by higher income incentives to increase it.

Australia's production-based emissions pricing will discourage our trade competitors from following us. Why? Because their competitive gift from our own-goal will shift activity, jobs (and emissions) to them.

This initial version of the policy won't measurably affect net global emissions, still less global warming. Any minuscule (gross) reduction in Australian emissions will come partly at the cost of reduced economic activity and jobs here, plus redistribution of a smaller, less efficiently produced, economic 'cake' to lower income groups.

Large uncertainties about how this policy will evolve remain. These include uncertainties about coverage, Government-determined emissions caps (and resulting emissions prices under the ETS), and how all these relate to the bipartisan 5% reduction target (relative to 2000 levels) to be delivered by 2020.

Emissions caps after 2015 under the ETS haven't been decided. We don't know what emissions prices these will induce. We don't know if emissions caps and prices under the future ETS will be consistent with the bipartisan 5% (really 25-30%) 2020 emissions reduction target. Investment certainty? Hardly.


The Government claims its policy will cut emissions by 2020 by roughly enough to meet its 5% target. We don't know what emissions price is required to get this result. Is there an underlying emissions price assumption or has the Government just made an emissions 'cap' assumption? If the latter, what emissions price is required to do the job?

The parties to the 'agreement' are nurturing these uncertainties. Labor says there's no pain for the punter; only (net) tax cuts and government handouts. Windsor disputes Labor's (undeliverable) promise that punters' petrol will be exempted forever. Oakeshott says Australia should 'go low, go slow', like NZ. Hasn't the Productivity Commission confirmed we're already doing that, albeit very inefficiently? Bandt says the package is 'a platform for upwards flexibility', meaning more ambitious emissions reduction targets and much higher emissions prices. Who can believe any of them?

The ostensible purpose of this policy – reducing emissions cost-effectively – is lost in its complexity. Buying off competing interests, income redistribution, and slipping in (otherwise generally desirable) Henry Review reforms encouraging workforce participation, dominate its 'design'. This is a new tax to finance other policies.

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An edited version of this article was first published in the Australian Financial Review on July 11, 2011.

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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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