Emissions Trading

Not all carbon pricing schemes are the same

Contrary to all the scare-mongering about carbon taxes or an Emission Trading Schemes (ETS) from political & industrial vested interests, in the electricity sector at least (responsible for about a third of Australia's greenhouse emissions), there's a simple, pragmatic way to encourage emission reductions without incurring large electricity price increases and economic disruption — you simply apply price signals at the margin, for those emissions you actually want to stop, and avoid applying a tax to the majority of emissions that you're willing to tolerate (“permit”) continuing for the time being.  And these marginal price signals (i.e. incentives for customers or clean power producers) can be provided as subsidies (rather than price increases), funded by very small price rises on remaining emissions (plus any revenue raised from penalties for non-compliance with permit levels).

This approach is equivalent to "recycling" carbon tax receipts as energy subsidies, but without the Government ever receiving tax revenues.  Instead, the economic incentives can be efficiently applied through competitive energy retailers, so those that help their customers reduce emissions at least cost will offer the lowest priced electricity (especially if they use solar + batteries, which were cheaper than 2016 tariffs in Australia anyway, and in many other countries).

Australia pioneered this policy approach for carbon emissions back in 2003, with the NSW Greenhouse Gas Abatement Scheme (GGAS, which I helped develop in 1996 with Chris Dunstan at the NSW Sustainable Energy Development Authority), but then abandoned it for the politically disastrous Carbon Tax after Prime Minister Kevin Rudd ignored Opposition Leader Malcolm Turnbull's proposal for a national version of GGAS (see here for that sorry political history prior to the disastrous leadership of the Liberal Party by Tony Abbott, which led to the climate policy uncertainty that discouraged new generation investment of any kind, thus, along with "gold-plating" of the grid networks, pushing up power prices).

The UK also adopted a similar approach to NSW's GGAS, until the EU forced them to make the same stupid change!

See the detailed discussion & analysis in the following papers:

The GGAS form of an ETS, and variants of it, represent a pragmatic and broadly-supported bipartisan policy (putting aside purely partisan party politics) that could provide some regulatory confidence for industry, the community & the planet.

And then in 2016 after 20 years of dysfunctional debate it seemed we were about to secretly come back full circle to some form of similar Emissions Intensity Scheme (EIS) applied to energy retailers, well, after yet another review.

As Churchill said about the Americans (& perhaps democracies in general), "government will always do the right thing, after exhausting all other options"!

But wait, no mass confusion again as the government denies any confusion after commissioning yet another complex model and study to prove and then ignore the bleedin' obvious!

It really is pathetic.

So round we go again, first with the "Low Emissions Target" (LET) or "Clean Energy Target" (CET), and then after the Coalition's climate-change deniers wouldn't let the LET go ahead the similar, technology-neutral "Emissions Guarantee" (as a critical half of the National Energy Guarantee, or "NEG").

But despite initial support, opposition to climate action from the lunatic right-wing once again claimed another Prime Minister (Malcolm Turnbull) and the NEG got killed  by the next idiotic coal-loving PM (as he ignorantly ridiculed the renewables-charged battery technology that is actually solving his grid reliability concerns), despite Australia then suffering one of the most severe heatwaves ever, even before the catastrophic bushfires of 2020 that were most-likely worsened by climate change (& already raging in November 2019 before the habitually-dishonest PM flew off to a holiday in Hawaii, which his office lied about and he excused because he doesn't "hold a hose", after having failed to prepare the nation for fire-fighting despite repeated warnings of the risks).

Yet still the Australian Government blatantly stacks "advisory committees" to support their vested interests in fossil-fuel industries, and continues its shameful approach to wrecking global action on climate change that it has followed for three decades.

Even when the extreme anti-renewable lunatics are replaced by a new government, their replacements are too timid (or lacking in insight) to contemplate reconsidering a sensible, pragmatic & efficient emissions trading scheme, and instead revert in 2024 to ill-judged government control of the energy industry (taking on and exacerbating all the risks that go with it), with continued commitment and handouts for barely-taxed fossil fuels and unproven, uneconomic carbon capture technology, whilst propping up unviable coal-fired power stations, thus killing incentives for private investment in renewable energy alternatives.

And so we still fiddle and ignore the simple and cheap solutions, while instead subsidising fossil fuels so the planet literally burns.

If only we could establish a functional democracy in Australia where we could appoint professional leaders with intelligence, industry experience, competence and integrity, then with the right parameters/reduction targets and a reasonable method of allocating permits, I think the "CET" or "Emissions Guarantee" would do what's required, although a "feebate" version could be better than a fixed emission reduction target, as it would have a fixed +/- marginal price of emissions providing greater confidence for business investment decisions.  It thus has a definite price incentive giving an uncertain emission reduction, which may be politically easier than adopting a fixed emission reduction target with an uncertain price impact (which can result in a pathetically weak target).  As for what the price should be, in principle it could be calculated from the avoided cost of future global warming damage, adjusted for the probability of various future scenarios (see my letter in the newspaper on climate change risk), although in practice I think it would just be set politically based on what the community is currently willing to pay.

And if we could finally settle carbon policy in the stationary energy sector, maybe we could then turn to transport — to encourage the adoption of low-emission & electric vehicles (as the likes of BMW urged back in 2017, soon after I first wrote this), which needs a similarly pragmatic approach such as a new-car "feebate" that varies with fuel efficiency to replace existing taxes & "stamp duties" (as I discussed near the end of this paper), although with the fall in EV costs achieved by 2024 there's now a good argument for giving higher priority to subsidising the roll-out of widespread charging infrastructure.

Just as importantly though we need to better influence the use of transport systems through a more rational and imaginative approach to transport pricing.

It's not that hard!

Guiding the market to better, integrated customer service

Finally note that although the primary objective of an emissions-trading scheme is of course to reduce emissions, a well-designed scheme applied to energy retailers could also transform the industry from one selling a commodity product and competing primarily on price (a mug's game that results in very low margins), to a higher value-add customer-service model which the industry competition reforms of the last few decades were supposed to deliver, but haven't done so very well because despite all the political hype, most customers can't be bothered changing retailer to save only a few dollars!  The ramifications therefore go well beyond just emissions reductions as they could address the sort of unethical practices I've experienced from AGL, who charged me $1,200 for gas caused by a leak, then fobbed me off for a year to 3rd parties (like Jemena, who they contracted to fix the leak but then claimed they couldn't contact to resolve my problem!).

Ideally regulation should hold the retailer accountable for all aspects of the service, but I suspect it doesn't because politicians are captured by the votes of the many small-business plumbers who want customers to be allowed to contract with them for repairs, and not just the big retailers. But if AGL had any ethics and commercial sense, it would step up to customers and say, "Hey, we guarantee to be accountable for all aspects of service delivery, as long as you only use us or our licensed partners for all gas systems connected to our service." then they could transform their business into a genuinely customer-focussed, comprehensive, value-adding energy service!