Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Garnaut Review favours carbon price over direct action

Those fighting tooth and nail against the carbon tax found their justification on Page 17 of Ross Garnaut’s 2011 Climate Change Review released today. “Australian households will ultimately bear the full cost of a carbon price,” said Garnaut. The country's biggest selling newspaper, the Herald-Sun’s report on the review chose this sentence as their first direct quote from the review. Opposition leader Tony Abbott also used it as his headline quote from the 40-page summary update to the review. The reason why is obvious: it is the line that causes maximum political damage to Prime Minister Julia Gillard as it runs counter to her promise householders would be shielded from the tax.

That this quote is taken out of context is no surprise in the light of similar shenanigans, nor it is that the one sentence that has immediate political implications be lifted above all others in a considered economic tract about the future. As British former Tory MP Iain Dale found out when he went to parliament today, this country does a poor line in genuine debate and the response is as Professor Garnaut must have feared. When the political game is expediency above everything and the media game is primarily about conflict, a reasoned document such as this will get short shrift. The future seems very far away when there is so much shit-stirring to do in the present.

The future is very much on Garnaut’s mind. He begins by bringing the science up to date from his last review in 2008. There is a statistically significant warming trend and it did not end in 1998 or in any other year. If anything science says matters have gotten worse since 2008 and its prognosis of drastic global warming is now established beyond reasonable doubt. The projection of Australia’s emissions trajectory if nothing is done to change behaviour has grown to 24 per cent above 2000 levels (a 4 per cent above the levels expected in 2007). As Garnaut says “this will not be easily understood by other countries and is likely to bring Australian mitigation policy under close scrutiny.”

All countries will closely examine each other’s efforts to confirm that each is contributing its fair share. China is on a fastpath towards climate action and has also achieved considerable success in the implementation targets with widescale regulatory changes in energy and innovation. The Cancun Agreement has pledged Australia to 2020 targets of –5% to –25% of 2000 emissions with a review in 2014. Garnaut said it was in the country’s national interest in in effective mitigation to make the emerging arrangements work.

He then went on to look at the two models to reduce carbon emissions: a market-based approach, built on a price on emissions; and a regulatory approach, or direct action. In the market-based approach, carbon can be priced either by fixed-price schemes (carbon taxes) where the market decides how much it will reduce the quantity of emissions or by floating price schemes (ETS) win which permits to emit are issued up to a set limit. The permits are tradeable so the market sets the price. In the alternative route, regulation or direct action, there are many ways that government can intervene to direct firms and households to go about their business and their lives.

Garnaut much prefers the carbon price option. For one, it raises considerable revenues that can buffer the transition. Much of this revenue could be used to reduce personal income tax rates on households at the lower end of the income distribution and would encourage labour force participation. Some revenue should also be used to purchase carbon credits from the land sector and also to support the business sector to innovate emissions-reducing technologies. It has less short-term negative effects on productivity growth and incomes than "direct action". The other problem with direct action is that it relies on the ideas of a small number of politicians and their advisers and confidants who would be subject to lobby pressure. “While some of these ideas might be brilliant,” Garnaut said, “they would not be as creative or productive as millions of Australian minds responding to the incentives provided by carbon pricing and a competitive marketplace.”

Electricity prices will go up in that marketplace, but not as much as they went up after 2006 due to distortions in price regulation of distribution networks. There would also be compensation, which did not occur in 2006. Garnaut suggests a starting price of carbon in mid-2012 as $20-$30 rising at 4 percent a year. An ETS of some sort will be needed to be administered by an independent authority such as a Carbon Bank. By 2015 agriculture will need to be brought into the fold, perhaps in line with New Zealand’s plans to do exactly that.

Garnaut does indeed say householders will bear the full cost of a carbon price as international markets will determine returns to capital. But this is why “it makes sense from equity and efficiency perspectives for households to ultimately receive the vast majority of the carbon pricing revenue.” Tax cuts will assist household to spend money on goods and services that embody low emissions and at the same time the carbon price will set off a supply side adjustment to enable low cost emissions reductions.

Its not in the review papers but Garnaut has this to say about those who say Australia is a small contributor to the world's emissions and should not take the lead. “We matter even on climate change, even though our emissions are only 1.5 per cent of the world’s, just like the UK matters with its 1.7 per cent.” The Tory-led British Government has pledged to cut carbon emissions in half by 2025. That is “direct action” Tony Abbott and the anti-carbon tax cheer squad would have nightmares over.

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