In Australia I see essentially two political choices for taking action on climate change. Vote for a party committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions and implementing an emissions trading scheme (ETS) or vote for a party not committed to an ETS and relying on ‘direct action’ to reduce carbon emissions. The major political parties are in essence providing these two choices to the Australian public – Labor for an ETS and the Coalition against an ETS. The two key minor, but still influential parties offer the same choice – Greens for an ETS and the Nationals against.
But what is an ETS and what is direct action? If people don’t understand the choices how are they to make an informed decision?
Direct action is essentially funding measures and initiatives through tax payer’s money that will reduce carbon emissions. Sounds simple enough, and of course voters can be led to believe that the government is taking control and doing something immediate to tackle Australia rising greenhouse gas emissions. The Liberal party is promoting direct action and refers to an ETS as a ‘great big tax’, but surely direct action could be termed the same – after all, direct action is still using tax payers’ money!
Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS)
What is an ETS and what advantage does it offer over direct action? The Department of Climate Change refers to its ETS policy as a Carbon Reduction Pollution Scheme (CPRS). An ETS is also commonly referred to as a cap and trade system or simply carbon emissions trading. What this means, is that the Government basically sets a cap or limit on the amount of pollution (carbon emissions) that can be emitted. This cap is sold to participants (the big polluters) in the form of carbon emission permits, which each are worth a specific amount of specified pollutant – in the context of tackling climate change, carbon dioxide. Holders of the permits are then allowed to trade the permits within each trading period set by the Government. The total amount of permits cannot exceed the cap, which over time is reduced by the Government, forcing the market to adjust and carbon emissions reductions to be achieved.
Essentially, participants of the trading scheme are allowed to pollute a certain amount within each period. If they exceed this amount (the cap), then they must purchase permits to allow them to pollute. So participants below the cap can choose to sell their permits to participants who require them. This puts a price on carbon pollution and if well designed, provides an incentive for participants to reduce their emissions.
The Labor Government came very close to passing an ETS, however it was blocked in the Senate twice in 2009. The Greens Party played a key part in the failed policy adoption of a ETS as they viewed the scheme as watered down, with a target to reduce Australia’s net carbon emissions by only 5 percent. To some degree I agree that the targets need to be much higher if Australia is to really move towards a low-carbon economy, however being too ambitious too early must have implications for our economy.
Labor is still committed to implementation of an ETS, but has postponed any commencement until 2013, claiming a divide on the issue due to a lack of consensus on climate change. They are offering direct action initiatives in the short-term, and a so called Citizens Assembly to form consensus for a future ETS. I get the feeling the lack of consensus is within the political realm, because I get the feeling most Australian’s want action on climate change, but just aren’t sure what the best action is.
Are you for an ETS or against?
I see the choice as simple – vote for a potential ETS or vote for no ETS. So what’s the advantage of an emissions trading scheme over direct action? An ETS is market-based, which from an economic perspective is more efficient and results in reducing carbon emissions at lowest cost. So the claim by the Liberal Party that an ETS is a ‘great big tax’ is not directly true. The problem lies in Government intervention in the form of subsidies and other exemptions, which are funded through tax payers’ money. Australia is a carbon emissions intensive nation, due to key sectors including the energy sector and aluminium smelter industry. An ETS without government intervention would mean these sectors would be the hardest hit, such that they would need to invest dramatically to improve energy efficiency and where above the cap, pay to pollute. This is argued to impact Australia’s global competiveness and will most likely increase the cost of commodities affected.
So, the argument against an ETS is that participants will have to spend money to reduce their carbon emissions and this expense will partly be passed on to consumers. While this may be true, at the end of the day, someone needs to foot the bill and if climate change is everyone’s problem then we should all be contributing.
Getting the balance right
The question is, do we contribute through direct government expenditure, or indirectly through a market-based scheme? Governments do not exactly have a good reputation for spending tax payers’ money efficiently so I would argue an ETS is the way to go. However, the success of an ETS really comes down to its overall design. Yes, we want to reduce emissions, but we don’t want to endanger Australia’s economic competitiveness. Like anything, it’s a balancing act, but if we get so bogged down in analysis paralysis, we’ll never achieve any real outcomes.