The multi-party climate change committee has announced more details about carbon pricing in Australia. The approach is to have an initial fixed-price, and then to later transition to an emissions trading scheme. This is more-or-less the approach that I described in January 2010 here. A big advantage of the fixed-price approach is that there will be information about the effect of a carbon price on the economy and Australia’s emissions before Australia’s target is set.

Recent government projections suggest that Australia would need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by  160 million tonnes of greenhouse gases per year by 2020 to reduce emissions to 5 percent less than 1990 levels, and by 270 million tonnes of greenhouse gases per year to reduce emissions to 25 percent less than 1990 levels. There is no politically feasible way to do this without a price on greenhouse gas emissions.

A carbon price works because if emission reductions are cheaper, there is an opportunity to make money from reducing emissions. It becomes like picking up a $100 bill from the ground. Now markets don’t work perfectly, and I might not pick up some of those bills (for example, due to an informational failure, I might not see some of them) but I’ll try hard to pick up as many as I can. Without a carbon price, this incentive is not there.

One argument used against carbon pricing is that it will increase the price of petrol or electricity, which is unpopular. But money raised from a carbon price can go back to households, and this is exactly what is planned. Petrol and electricity from fossil fuels will cost more, which will provide an incentive to use less, but we will get more than that back through paying less taxes, or through cheques in the mail. And we will get these cheques in the mail regardless of how much petrol or electricity we use, so the incentive to reduce emissions will remain.

Polluting industries will argue for assistance, and will have an incentive to exaggerate costs from a carbon price in order to bolster their case for assistance. But every dollar spent on assistance to industries will be one less dollar available for assistance to households. This is something that voters need to consider when greenhouse gas emitters make the case for assistance.

There is a string case for not all carbon price revenue to go to industry and households. Greenhouse gas emissions are an international problem, and carbon price revenue could be used to fund cost-effective emission reductions overseas and adaptation to the impacts of climate change. Technology advances could lower the cost of emission reductions, so there is a case for some carbon price revenue to be used for funding research and development. And the carbon price does not address emissions from agriculture, and probably not from land use, so there is a case for some of the money raised to provide incentives to sequester carbon in ecosystems.

Some key details:

  • The scheme would commence with a fixed-price in July 2012, this fixed price would increase by a fixed percentage each year.
  • After three to five years, the scheme would transition to a flexible price emissions trading scheme. The agreement does not specify any details about whether the emissions trading scheme would have measures such as price floors, price ceilings, or allowance reserves.
  • At least 12 months before the end of the fixed price phase, there would either be a decision on a 2020 target, or a decision to extend the fixed price phase. Issues that could be considered when deciding whether to extend the fixed price phase include: the state of the international carbon market; international developments in carbon pricing; Australia’s internationally agreed targets and progress towards meeting them, including whether they have been incorporated into a binding legal agreement; the fiscal implications of any on-budget purchases of internationally allowances that may be required to comply with any international emissions target; potential impacts on the Australian economy; and implications for investment certainty.
  • The scheme would cover emissions from energy, transport, industrial processes, fugitive emissions (methane leaking from things such as coal mines), and emissions from non-legacy waste (methane leaking from landfills). Agriculture would not be covered and sources covered under the proposed Carbon Farming Initiative would also not be covered.
  • The communiqué notes that “Options to provide economic value to activities which store or reduce carbon in the land sector could potentially include the use of Kyoto-compliant credits in the carbon price mechanism or alternative funding arrangements for the land sector.”
  • During the fixed price phase, international offsets will not be able to be used for compliance (although international allowances could potentially be purchased by the Australian government). During the flexible-price phase offsets could be used, with criteria concern quality and any other restrictions yet to be determined.
  • Many other matters, such as what to do with carbon price revenue, are still to be determined.
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