Thursday, November 26, 2009

Some quick thoughts on the Oz emissions trading scheme

We have a good idea now of what the so-called Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme is going to look like, after the Government and Opposition hammered out a deal on Tuesday and it was endorsed (barely) by the Liberal Party in a turbulent day yesterday. It seems that the Government now has the numbers to get the Bill through the Senate, with enough opposition senators willing to support it.

Environmentally, it is modest indeed: it should deliver the Government's committment of a 5% greenhouse gas reduction by 2020. The Government has committed to a 15% reduction by 202 if there is an effective global agreement but, first, that looks unlikely and, second, even if there is, after the way the scheme was been watered down and watered down as it goes through the political process, I really don't have much confidence that the Government could get a scheme up that delivers 15% reductions by 2020. It's also probably worth noting that those 5% reductions won't all happen in Australia - under the scheme as it is, most reductions will be achieved by Australia buying credits from overseas schemes. I don't have a big problem with that - it essentially means Australian money driving additional reductions overseas - but a lot of people feel that when we commit to reducing our emissions, we should actually reduce our own emssions rather than paying others to reduce theirs.

Economically, I've heard it described as a "rent-seeker's paradise" and a massive transfer of wealth from households and small business to big polluters and I think those statements are pretty fair. It contains massive compensation for affected industries, and reasonable compensation for low-income households. Everyone else pays. Surprisingly, it is revenue-negative for government.

The questions is whether it's better than nothing at all. I'm not sure. On the plus side, it will drive some reduction in emissions and, probably more importantly, it establishes the machinery for dealing with the problem - we'll gain experience with an emissions trading scheme that can, in theory, be improved in the future. The Greens are adamant, however, that it will "lock in failure" and I think there's something to this argument. They claim it will actually unleash a lot of investment in coal-fired electricity generation and other polluting industry. I think they may be right: carbon-intensive industries have been worried about carbon policy and the CPRS gives them certainty that the policy environment will be very friendly for them for at least a decade. It also showers them with cash - it seems to me the dirtiest industries will actually profit from the scheme. You also have to wonder about the political likelihood of it being strengthened in the future - I think things would have to be looking pretty grim for the climate to get the political impetus to genuinely fix it up.

It's all pretty disappointing for someone who has high hopes in the ability of market-based policies to deliver good environmental outcomes at low cost and spread fairly over the community. If this is what an emissions trading scheme looks like in practice, the fact that I think a purer scheme could work really well in theory is pretty hollow.