Below is the annoucnment of an open letter on carbon pricing addressed to the Australian Parliament, signed by some 60 economists.

Economists: Price and limit on carbon pollution needed now
Media release, Monday 7 July 2014

Fifty-nine leading economists united today (Monday) in support of a price and limit on carbon pollution.

In an open letter they urge all Members of Parliament and Senators to work towards lasting agreement on a fair, economically efficient and environmentally effective policy to price and limit carbon emissions.

The group of Australian business and academic economists includes former Liberal Party leader Dr John Hewson, financial sector economist Geoff Weir and Australian professors from universities across the globe.

Dr John Hewson said it is important to get the economics right.

“Australia needs to take substantive, urgent and apolitical action on carbon pricing for the sake of our economy and our environment,” Dr Hewson said.

“The failure of our generation to act will cost future generations dearly.”

Former hedge fund strategist Geoff Weir said all major political parties are on record as accepting the need to reduce carbon emissions, with the debate now being about how best to achieve it.

“Relying on Government advisers and officials to pick the best emerging new technologies is guaranteed to be substantially less efficient, less effective and less equitable than relying on a carbon price to alter incentives,” Mr Weir said.

“Both economic theory and Australia's earlier experience with industry assistance confirm that view.”

Kellie Caught of WWF-Australia said a polluter pays scheme, that puts a price and limit on carbon pollution is the best way for Australia to meet its international commitment to cut emissions by 5-25% by 2020.

“The economics are clear and many of our major trading partners are already pricing carbon, or moving in that direction,” Ms Caught said.

“Australia needs to move forwards, not backwards.”


The text of the letter, and the list of signatories is below:
Download file

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Recently released reports have sounded the alarm on the serious health effects from air pollution in Australia. First, the newspaper coverage of the release of an OECD report was pointing to Australia trailing behind its OECD peers on yet another statistic, and this time a really deadly one: the mortality from air pollution. OECD reckons that Australia is one of the few OECD countries where air quality related mortality has increased in recent years. They pointed specifically to the air quality impacts of road transport.

This should come as no surprise, as Australia is heavily reliant on road transport. In addition, fuel efficiency of vehicles used in road transport is low, and the emissions standards for heavy vehicles are not particularly strict nor strictly enforced. Also, there seems to be reluctance among the public to embrace newer, cleaner technologies, such as hybrid or fully electric vehicles.

Another report released almost at the same time by the Environment Justice Australia asserts that: ‘Air pollution in Australia is inadequately regulated, monitored and enforced’.

This is also not surprising, as the environmental ineffectiveness of some of the most prominent air pollution regulations in Australia, such as the Load Based Licensing in NSW has been documented in the environmental economics literature (most recently an article by Contreras, Ancev and Betz, in the Economics of Energy and Environmental Policy)

So, air pollution is gaining on us, and it is time that we revised the regulation and start seeing some real improvements. I am doubtful that this will happen though, given the current government's aversion to tighter environmental regulation. So, happy on-going asphyxiation everyone!

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A recent newspaper article about the increasing costs of natural disasters in NSW caught my attention. This made me think about the possible link between the increased incidence and severity of weather related natural disasters and climate change.

Let’s for a moment assume that we are indeed likely to witness more severe floods, fires, and hurricanes, and more of them, and that this is due to changes in climate that are, at least in part, human induced.

However, as the newspaper article points out, the cost of these more frequent and more severe disasters is socialised: we all pay for it in the form of tighter state and commonwealth budgets, slashing of government social programs, and inevitably, higher taxes in the future. So, if the current Commonwealth government is right in saying that they got a mandate at last years’ election to get rid of the carbon tax, it means that the majority of Australian voting public voted to avoid bearing the cost of climate change mitigation privately (e.g. through higher electricity prices), and prefers to bear the socialised cost of the consequences (e.g. through increased disaster relief expenditures from the Commonwealth and State budgets).

Is this rational? And, is it right? From a pure economics standpoint it could probably be shown that this is rational, but it doesn’t sound right. For one, the private cost of mitigation is likely to be much smaller than the per capita socialised cost of disaster relief, which has already grown pretty rapidly, as the article quoted above shows. Secondly, I suspect that the motivation behind preferring socialising the cost is not particularly ethical: some may think that they will be able to ‘free ride’ and will not be liable to contribute towards meeting the socialised costs of disaster damage due to future climate change. In other words, people are hoping for an easy way out! I am not sure that this can work with a wicked, global problem, such as climate change.

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Just last weekend I spent few days in Tasmania, in and around Hobart and Launceston. Marvelous sceneries, beautiful nature and good museums. Couple of things that I saw in the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery made me think about some of the conundrums of nature conservation. The first one was a small exhibition about the Thylacine, or better known as the Tasmanian tiger. As is widely known, this marvelous creature was extinct some 90 years ago. The reasons for the extinction are still debated. Whatever the reasons, I felt an enormous regret that the creature is not around any more, and if asked, I would have probably stated substantial willingness-to-pay for preventing its extinction, had this been somehow possible.

The second was an even smaller exhibition about whaling in the Derwent River Estuary. The exhibition stated that whales were once so abundant in the Estuary that residents complained about the noise they were making. Similarly to the Thylacine, whales have been extinct from the Estuary. This again caused emotions of sorrow and regret, as well as likely high willingness-to-pay (WTP) to prevent it, had it been in some way possible.

The point is that while we might have very high WTP for conserving nature ex-post, all the decisions that are made about conservation are, at best, based on ex-ante WTP. Indeed, the extinction of species in Tasmania was not based on any assessment of societal preferences, but even if it were, the stated WTP for preserving the species at that time would be minimal, or even negative.

And what does this mean for some of the current dilemmas that we face: e.g. climate change? While current generations might have relatively low WTP for preventing climate change, it may turn out that future generations will feel enormous regret for us not doing enough about it. This will be translated in very high WTP on their behalf to prevent climate change that is happening now. Unfortunately, with the current state of knowledge and modeling techniques it is not possible to take into account the ex-post WTP in conducting ex-ante benefit-cost analyses that inform current decisions. But, this is something that should be taken into account at policy level. Let’s be wise now, to prevent large regret in the future!

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The discussion about ‘entitlements’ - in the sense of social welfare, employment benefits, and industry support - is raging high and wide on the Australian political scene. At the same time we get news from the USA that polluters are gearing towards a legal challenge of US EPAs involvement in cleaning up some of their most important estuaries. Polluters figure that success of clean up actions in the Chesapeake Bay will necessarily imply a need for such actions elsewhere – most notably on the Mississippi Delta – , which will prove enormously costly for the fertiliser, pesticide and other agricultural and non-agricultural related industries.

What is the relevance to the ‘entitlement’ debate in Australia, and to the Australian environmental protection activities? Firstly, it is well known in the economics literature that polluters will behave preemptively in order to protect their ‘entitlement’ to pollute. They would increase pollutant emissions or the rate of natural resource use when they face a prospect of future regulation. I wrote about this some years ago in the Australian Economic Papers (Ancev, 2006). When regulation comes in and forces them to cut back, polluters would still hold to their initial ‘entitlement’ despite the mandated reduction. The US example quoted above is just a case of a flagrant, ‘in your face’ preemptive behaviour of the same sort. Polluters feel that they have an ‘entitlement’ to pollute, and they are going to protect that ‘entitlement’ through legal action.

Secondly, the significance to Australia is in light of the current debate about allowing polluting activities to take place on the Great Barrier Reef. It makes one wonder whether allowing pollution of the reef now might entrust the sense of ‘entitlement’ to pollute within industry. And when we try to clean it up sometime in the future, we might face a legal action motivated by the need to protect those ‘entitlements’! We better get a good lawyer!

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The Commonwealth Water Holder has announced that they will be selling annual water allocations to the entitlements that they hold in the Gwydir Valley.

As discussed on this blog (Nov 2012 and Nov 2013) and elsewhere (a conference paper at AARES 2012, and a journal article about to be published) this is a reasonable move. There has been plenty of water in those parts of the country in the last few years, there have been good floods, and ecosystems are up and running. Sitting on the environmental water cannot do much good, so selling some annual allocations makes perfect sense.

Of course, this has to be done in a careful and prudent way, with constant monitoring of the situation on the ground. If done properly, it will be a good thing for the irrigators and their communities, without causing harm to the environment.

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Pretty quiet summer time here in Oz. Most of Australia is sizzling with temperatures into high 30’s and 40’s (no relation to climate change). Almost a perfect time to think and write about the recent developments with the Commonwealth Government’s ‘Direct Action Plan’ to deal with greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs).
Details of it have started emerging early in the New Year.

It will have two main components: 1). a funding pool - called the emissions reduction fund – comprising of some $1.55 billion within the first three years; and 2). an emissions baseline for each liable emitter set based on historical emissions: breaching this baseline will involve incurring as of yet undetermined penalty.

It is planned that the funding be distributed using auctions: emitters will bid for funding by offering certain quantity of abatement in exchange for receiving funds, which will mean that those who offer to abate more for less are going to be favorites for funding. Ultimately, this should lead to a desirable outcome that abatement is undertaken by lower abatement cost emitters.

However, this desirable design feature should not distract from the fact that it only ensures how to distribute the subsidy more effectively. That’s right: ‘the subsidy’! Because that’s exactly what the first component of the Government’s Direct Action Plan is: a big, fat subsidy to those who emit carbon dioxide and other GHGs in the atmosphere. This Government has insisted so much on using the term ‘Carbon tax’ for what previous government wanted to call ‘Carbon pricing’, that it is only fair to ask them to call their Direct Action Plan what it is: A Carbon Subsidy.

And anyone who studied a bit of economics would know that subsidies have pretty undesirable characteristics: for starters, they invite more entry into a polluting industry in the long-run, as the subsidy makes it on average less costly to operate. This is in direct contrast to a tax that increases the cost of operation for heavy polluters in the long-run and hence forces their exit from the industry. In addition, the subsidy empties state’s coffers, whereas a tax fills them.

So, no surprises here: the Direct Action Plan is as bad as the very idea of it has always been. But, please call it for what it really is: A Carbon Subsidy.

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