Friday, July 18, 2008

Why do we pay people to waste our most precious resource?

It's one year today since the contract to build Sydney's desalination plant was signed and ANU environmental economists Quentin Grafton and Michael Ward have run the numbers on whether it was a good deal.  Their conclusion: the net benefit to Sydney households of the plant is negative one billion dollars.  Ouch.  The decision to build it will cost each Sydney household on average more than $700.

What's the alternative though?  Well how about just letting people pay the actual cost of water so that they have an incentive to economise?

When most things get scarce, their price goes up.  This sends a signal to consumers to economise and find alternatives and a signal to producers to find new sources and ways to produce them.  We don't do this with water though.  Instead we subsidise one of our most precious resources - massively.  We encourage industrial water users to recycle their water or else use recycled water rather than water we've spent millions making fit for drinking.  But why would they when it's so cheap?  Cheap because it's subsidised by every taxpayer.

So why don't we do this?  According to NSW's Water Minister Nathan Rees, that system "would result in gross inequalities and be a nightmare for business":
Any form of sound business planning would be impossible if water prices fluctuated from month to month and season to season.
The current system isn't too equitable either.  Is it equitable that low income earning taxpayers who do their best to save water subsidise big water users to fill their pools and keep their lawns looking lush?  In any case the extra revenue from actually charging wealthy water users for the water they use can be used to provide assistance to low income households.

As for the business certainty argument, businesses deal with price fluctuations all the time.  I'm sure the cafe downstairs from my work would be happier if coffee bean prices didn't fluctuate, but they don't ask the government to nationalise the coffee trade to deal with it.  The prices of rent, employees, petrol, commodities, food and every other business input fluctuate weekly or daily.  And if it's critical for a particular business to know the price of water in advance, I'm sure purchasers and suppliers could negotiate to lock in a price in advance for a set period.  That's what futures markets do with commodities around the world.

The federal government is putting a price on carbon emissions - a challenging and complicated task that involves working out the emissions from a huge range of business activities and creating new and untested markets.  So why can't we allow a realistic price to be placed on one of our most precious resources?  The alternative is pouring an extra billion dollars into an environmentally questionable desal plant that we don't really need.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Thoughts on the green paper - Part 1: petrol

The government’s green paper on emissions trading is now available. The government’s new phrase for its emissions trading scheme is “carbon pollution reduction scheme”.

The first thing that’s captured everyone’s attention – not surprisingly – is petrol. With all the hoo-ha about petrol prices recently, the government’s proposal is to include petrol in the ETS / CPRS but to reduce the petrol excise by an equivalent amount for at least the first 3 years of the scheme. This is not very different from leaving petrol out of the scheme. And this has the Greens and others up in arms.

There are two ways to look at this – from a practical perspective or from a principle perspective. Either way, my view is that cutting the petrol excise isn’t good but isn’t really all that bad either.

The practical implication of cutting excise and therefore neutralising the impact that the scheme has on the petrol price is that – to meet the target – the price of everything else in the scheme has to go up by more. Then again, the price of petrol has gone up so much recently that that’s done a lot of the work that the scheme will do anyway. But power bills will go up by more than they otherwise would to pay for the cut in petrol excise. Which of these would cause more pain? Who knows. The opposition, motorists and the media seem to be clamouring loudly for lower (or at least not higher) petrol prices but electricity prices haven’t gone up yet – presumably there’ll be some clamouring when that happens too.

Looking at the ‘principle’ of cutting the excise – well this really depends on whether the excise now is too low, too high, or just right (I don’t know which it is). Roughly speaking, the excise on petrol should be enough to cover the costs that it places on the community: motorists shouldn’t be expected to be subsidised by other taxpayers and so the excise should cover the cost of building roads, dealing with car accidents, dealing with air pollution, etc. There’s also GST on petrol as there is on everything else. Anything much more than that is seeing petrol as a revenue raising tool. Seeing as the ETS is going to raise plenty of revenue anyway, there’s a case for easing other taxes. So if excise currently goes beyond the social cost of petrol plus 10%, I reckon there’s a case for cutting it if you’re going to include petrol in the ETS. If the excise doesn’t go beyond that, then there’s no principled case for cutting it. I’d be interested in any comments as to which side of that line fuel excise currently falls.

One other comment I’d make is that I’m not sure about the idea of cutting it for 3 years then reviewing the situation. I’d prefer the government to say that they’re cutting it for 3 years only. Seeing we’re apparently talking about a cut of about 5c a litre and petrol prices fluctuate by that amount weekly, I don’t think people could complain too much if the government said “Petrol excise is going up by 5c in 2011: you’ve got 3 years to get ready”. That seems like a more than generous concession to me and better than just deferring the issue and the uncertainty around it by 3 years.

What do you think?

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Government's green paper on emissions trading out today

It's being launched by Climate Change Minister Penny Wong at the Press Club at 12.30.

I'll put up a link when I have one and hopefully some analysis tonight.

Friday, July 04, 2008

Garnaut Review out today

The draft report of Professor Ross Garnaut's Climate Change Review will be released at 12.30 today here.

For overseas readers, this review has been described as the Australian version of the Stern Review. The report will look at the economic impact on Australia of climate change and the design of a domestic emissions trading scheme (ETS), as well as suggestions for Australia's role in international negotiations. The findings will be a major input into the government's ETS which is to be unveiled by the end of the year.

The next 6 - 12 months are likely to be a time of furious debate in Australia about what the ETS should look like. The debate has begun with whether and how petrol should be included in the scheme.