Trying to understand carbon pricing is overwhelming – the more you learn, the more questions you have. So after some light internet research, my head’s swimming with questions both profound and inane: If Australia only contributes 1.5% of the global emissions, how will our actions make a difference? Why, apart from looking after the grandkids, do we feel such loyalty to our species? What would a world affected by runaway climate change actually be like? What’s trade-exposed mean? How many zeros in a billion?
As an inner-Melbourne leftie, I’m thoroughly versed in the pro–carbon price arguments, but light on detail. I could tell you, for example, that it’s not really a carbon tax; it’s a price on carbon that will become a trading scheme in 2015. On the other hand, I couldn’t begin to explain to you how a trading scheme works differently from a tax, or which is better. There’s another reason for avoiding the word tax, too. People don’t like the word because it makes them think they’ll have to make personal sacrifices.
In reality, compensation and tax cuts mean that most people don’t lose out at all, many come out on top, and people who can afford it (like me) still don’t pay much. In some respects, this aspect of the scheme is something that irks me a bit too, because it reinforces a ‘have your cake and eat it too’ attitude, whereas I suspect that one day we’ll have to actually curtail our consumption.
How does this scheme differ from the ETS proposed in 2007? The consensus seems to be it’s better, but not by much. Yet the Greens and environment groups have almost unanimously been uncritically supportive of the scheme: no doubt it was a choice between that and nothing. Still, some question whether this scheme, with its exemptions and compensation for polluters and the omission of petrol, is so weak as to be completely ineffective.
Even if the scheme does work, Australia can’t stop climate change by itself – we’re only responsible for 1.5% of global emissions. But it’s hoped that we will inspire the biggest polluters – China, India, and the US, to adopt similar policies. At first glance, this seems overly optimistic – since when did a country like China care what we did? Yet some policy leaders in China and India say that they are paying attention. And what else can we do? If we are to resolve what Garnaut calls the ‘prisoners dilemma’, where each country waits for others to bear the cost of climate change mitigation, countries will need to cooperate and share the responsibility, and someone needs to start.
To an extent, other countries already have. China, for example, has made huge investments in renewable energy and concrete commitments to decouple carbon emissions from economic growth, and has developed a plan to cap total energy use by 2015. The European Union, one of the few places with an emissions trading scheme, will next year impose a 15% tax on Qantas simply because Australia doesn’t have a carbon tax. So the pro-carbon tax people argue that if we don’t adopt a tax, we will be left behind or face penalties.
The current resistance toward a carbon tax is partly explained by the difficulty of actually imagining a climate-change affected future radically different from the status quo. It is an invisible, complicated, slightly uncertain threat, and the carbon price is a difficult-to-understand answer to that question which doesn’t convince, particularly given people’s lack of faith in the government. It doesn’t help that politicians and lobby groups on both sides distort the issues, sometimes by necessary simplification but often deliberately, to serve their own interests.
So basically, if you’re looking for a climate change guru, don’t follow me. To an extent, my support for the carbon price is an act of faith, based on a judgement that supporters – the Greens, most economists, most scientists, environmentalists – are more likely to share my values, and thus represent my interests, than opposers – Tony Abbott, a few economists, and even fewer scientists. More fundamentally, I hate the idea that humans are so intellectually myopic and have such a narrow conception of self-interest that we’ll risk the world simply because we’re waiting for someone else to pay.
A version of this article was originally published at gelp.com.au