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Tuesday, November 18, 2014

China is ahead of us on climate change. Let's not belittle its commitment

China must hate the things that were being said about it as it closed its free trade deal with Australia.

Interviewed at the G20 as Chinese and Australian officials were fine-tuning the details of the announcement, Treasurer Joe Hockey belittled its commitment to turn back its tide of rising carbon emissions.

"I mean, you just look at China," he told the ABC's Barrie Cassidy. "China is going to continue to increase emissions Barrie, until 2030, it is going to continue increasing emissions."

Earlier he had told Sky News that: "To put it in perspective we are in the business of trying to reduce our emissions off a base load and China actually is increasing emissions and said in 2030 it will start to reduce them".

The perspective missing from Mr Hockey's account is that Chinese living standards are a fraction of Australia's. China is lifting its emissions because it is rapidly industrialising as its citizens move from the country into cities, something ours did a long time ago.

To slow and stop emissions growth while industrialising would be an achievement of unimaginable proportions.

It has never happened before.

To do it the White House believes China will install an extra 800 to 1000 gigawatts of emission-free technology by 2030 -  "more than all the coal-fired power plants that exist in China today and close to total current electricity generation capacity in the United States"...

China's use of coal for electricity climbed 13 per cent a year as its economy roared into life between 2000 and 2011. Since then it has climbed just 3.25 per cent per year and looks likely to have stabilised in 2014. China expert Ross Garnaut expects its use of coal for electricity to slip 0.7 per cent per year from now on before sliding sharply after 2020.

Mr Hockey said he "didn't hear the United States or the Chinese saying they were going to introduce a carbon tax", but China's vice finance minister Zhu Guangyao mentioned emissions trading in a briefing to journalists on the sidelines of the G20 summit Mr Hockey attended. China has seven pilot schemes in operation and is preparing for a China-wide scheme by 2020. China's vice finance minister seemed serious.

Yet on Thursday Prime Minister Tony Abbott mocked China's plans as "hypothetical" and "down the track".

"It is all very well to talk about what might happen in the far distant future but we are going to meet our five per cent reduction target within six years," he said. "We are talking about the practical; we are talking about the real. We are not

talking about what might hypothetically happen 15, 20, 25, 30 years down the track. We are talking about what we will do and are doing right now."

Aside from any offence caused to Australia's newest free trade partner, the problem with Mr Abbott's statement is that the commitments announced by China and the US on Thursday will force Australia to do much more than five per cent within six years.

And Mr Abbott's preferred mechanism, his "direct action" Emissions Reduction Fund is incapable of doing much more.

That isn't just because the $2.55 billion he has set aside over four years for grants to polluters to cut pollution wouldn't be enough to meet the bigger target (it's almost certainly not enough to meet the present target).

It's also because of something else, something of a dirty secret among proponents of direct action grants:  they are not directly scalable.

The bureaucracy that would be needed to hand out enough grants to get a 5 per cent reduction on Australia's 2000 emissions by 2020 wouldn't be able to handle a 30 per cent reduction by 2025 - and that's what the Climate Institute believes will be required if Australia is to match the US commitment.

The red tape that's tolerable when you are using a system of bookkeeping and grants to achieve something small becomes intolerable when you are attempting to achieve something big.

That's what the Treasury advised the Coalition in the change of government document it prepared in 2010. In its words then, "a market mechanism can achieve the necessary abatement at a cost per tonne of emissions that is far lower than alternative direct-action policies".

It's what Prime Minister John Howard's emissions trading taskforce told him in 2007. It said "by placing a price on emissions, trading allows market forces to find least-cost ways of reducing emissions by providing incentives for firms to reduce emissions where this would be cheapest, while allowing continuation of emissions where they are most costly to reduce".

Once emissions permits are sold or given away it is up to the firms that own them to decide whether to use them or whether to cut their pollution and sell them to firms that need them more. This automatically ensures that the firms that can most cheaply cut emissions cut them first (pocketing income along the way) and that the firms that can't afford to do it cheaply do it last (paying to buy permits).

Emissions trading is "set and forget", and infinitely scalable.

The Coalition's "direct action" system of grants attempts to achieve the same goal but will do it less perfectly because the grants its bureaucrats will administer can't be traded among polluters to ensure that the lowest cost methods of cutting pollution are tried first. And its cost scales up with the size of the task.

The Coalition has said often that Australia will lift its emissions reduction target beyond 2020 if other major nations lift theirs. China is doing so, making an unprecedented promise to cut its emissions growth to zero while industrialising. The US has made a commitment that when applied to Australia would require us to cut our emissions by 30 per cent on 2000 levels by 2025. Last month, European leaders agreed to cut their emissions by 40 per cent on 1990 levels by 2030.

Australia will need to stump up with something in time for the Paris climate change summit due late next year. As Mr Abbott and Mr Hockey well know having just organised Australia's G20 summit, the reality is that Australia will need to show its hand well before the Paris summit.

A bigger commitment is no longer hypothetical, and it's not down the track.

In The Age and Sydney Morning Herald