It has been a very long time since there has been a post here on the Stubborn Mule. Even now, I have not started writing again myself but have the benefit of a return of regular guest poster, James Glover.
This is a post to explain the Australian Government’s policy called “Direct Action”. I will spare you the usual political diatribe. So here is how it works. The government has $3bn to spend on reducing carbon emissions. At a nominal cost of $15/tonne that could be 200m tonnes of Carbon.
Okay so how does it work? The government conducts a “reverse auction” in which bidders say: “I can reduce carbon emissions by X tonnes at a cost of $Y per tonne”. You work out what is the biggest reduction for the least cost. You apportion that $3bn based on the highest amount of carbon reduction. Easy peasy. That $3bn comes from government spending so ultimately from taxpayers. [Editor’s note: while not directly relevant to the direct action versus trading scheme/tax discussion, I would argue in true Modern Monetary Theory style that the Australian government is not subject to a budget constraint, beyond a self-imposed political one, and funding does not come from tax payers].
As our new PM Malcolm Turnbull says why should you have a problem with this? There is a cost and there is a reduction in carbon emissions. There will always be a cost associated with carbon reduction regardless of the method so what does it matter if this method isn’t quite the same as a Carbon Pricing systems previously advocated by the PM and his Environment Minister Greg Hunt? As long as there is a definite amount, Xm tonnes reduced.
Well here are a few thoughts:
1. if a company is currently making a profit of, say, $500m a year, producing electricity using coal fired power stations then why would they participate in this process? There is no downside. Maybe.
2. Okay it is a bit more subtle than that. Suppose the difference between the cost of producing electricity using coal or renewables works out at $15 a tonne. You might reasonably bid at $16/tonne. In reality there is a large upfront cost of converting. There is a possibility that an alternative energy provider takes that $15/tonne and uses it to subsidise their electricity cost. That could work. That encourages a coal based provider to move to renewables. But so might a coal based electricity provider at $14/tonne to undermine them. What we call a “race to the bottom”.
3. It seems to be an argument about who exactly pays for carbon pollution. Well here is the simple answer: you pay. Who else would? And you pay because, well, you use the electricity.
4. There is no easy answer to this. Which approach encourages more electricity providers to move to renewables? That is hard to say. Every solution has its downside. I decided while writing this I don’t actually care who pays. As long as carbon is reduced.
I started out thinking Turnbull was just using the excuse “as long as it works who cares?” but I have moved to the view that it doesn’t matter. All carbon reduction schemes move the cost onto the users (of course). There are many subtleties in this argument. I personally think a Cap and Trade system is the best because in a lot of ways it is more transparent. But in the end, as PM Turnbull says who cares, as long as carbon is reduced. Presumably as long as that is what really happens, eh?