Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Fighting pollution without using prices is like...

Wednesday column

I bet you think you know where greenhouse gasses come from.

So did “Geoff,” a creation of the British economist Tim Harford who uses him to skewer politicians such as Tony Abbott who hold out hope of fighting climate change using so-called direct action and also those such as Julia Gillard who understand the power of prices but are at risk of screwing things up for Australian businesses by not properly applying them.

Back to Geoff, hero of chapter five of Harford’s new book Adapt.

Geoff has just seen An Inconvenient Truth and wakes up the next morning determined to take direct action to cut emissions.

He starts his day as he always does, “filling the kettle for a coffee”.

“But then he remembers the kettle is an energy-guzzler, so he has a cold glass of milk instead. He saves more by eating his usual two slices of bread untoasted. As he leaves the flat - pausing to unplug his mobile phone charger - he picks up his car keys, then thinks again and walks to the bus stop instead. By the time he hops off the bus, the lack of morning coffee is getting to him so he pops into Starbucks for a cappuccino.”

Deconstructing the day, Harford notes it wasn’t as successful as Geoff would have wanted.

“Let’s start with the milk, which requires a critical piece of equipment to manufacture: a cow. Cows emit a lot of methane. And methane is a more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide... In producing about 250 ml of milk, a cow belches 7.5 litres of methane, which weighs around 5 grams, equivalent to 100 grams of carbon. Add all the other inputs to the milk - feed for the cows, transport, pasteurisation - and the 250 ml that Geoff drank produced the equivalent of around 300 grams of carbon dioxide. By not boiling his kettle he saved only about 25 grams of carbon dioxide. His first planet-saving decision, eschewing a coffee in favour of a glass of milk increased his greenhouse gas emissions by a factor of twelve. Dairy products are so bad for the planet Geoff would have done better to toast his bread but not butter it rather than buttering it but not toasting it.”

Needless to say Geoff’s cappuccino on the way to work was a greenhouse gas disaster. It’s almost all milk. Calculations by the UK government-funded Carbon Trust suggest that milk is responsible for two-thirds the emissions embodied of a block of Cadbury chocolate even though it makes up only one-third its mass. By contrast unplugging the mobile phone saved as little as 6 grams of carbon dioxide a day.

Harford’s point isn’t that we are ignorant. It is that no matter how much we knew - even if we had an app that used barcodes to correctly display on our mobile phones the emissions created by each the 10 billion products and services we commonly use - we couldn’t do the calculations. Our brains aren’t that powerful.

Fortunately we have already come up with something that is. This month in Melbourne the Institute of Public Affairs will host a symposium celebrating the Genius of Western Civilisation. That genius has perfected the system of market prices, what Harford describes as a “vast analogue cloud computer, pulling and pushing resources to wherever they have the highest value”.

Imagine, he says, a tax on carbon dioxide and equivalent emissions. It would lift the price of petrol a few cents a litre, creating a small incentive to drive less and more efficiently. A $14 per tonne tax would lift the price of an electricity kilowatt hour “by about a cent and a half if the energy came from coal, but only by three quarters of a cent if it came from natural gas, creating a small incentive to use less electricity and for power companies to build natural gas instead of coal-fired power stations”.

“This would not be because of any grand plan,” he says. “It would just happen: a trucker who ignored the higher price of diesel in setting his shipping charges would simply go out of business; so would a tomato cultivator who tried to absorb the cost of heating a greenhouse rather than raising his prices.”

“Geoff, arriving at the supermarket intending to buy tomatoes, wouldn’t have to point his smart phone at any barcodes: he could just look at the price. What the carbon tax would do is recreate the fantasy carbon calculator app, and give it teeth. Every decision maker, from the electricity company to Geoff himself would be given an incentive to reduce their carbon footprint using whatever tactics occurred to them.”

Harford is a making the same point as Australia’s Productivity Commission did last week, if more engagingly.

The take-home message for Tony Abbott is obvious. If he thinks using public money to hand out grants to worthy carbon abatement projects is better than setting a price for emissions and leaving things to the market, he is turning his back on the genius of western civilisation.

The message for Gillard is that, to a lesser extent, she is falling into the same trap. Agriculture won’t be in her scheme. Cows, beef cattle and sheep can belch greenhouse gas intensive methane as much as they like and Geoff can drink as much milk as he likes without paying the price that will face lesser emitters. The signs are that petrol won’t go up in price either. Without a price firms won’t find it as worthwhile to cleanup our farms and our cars.

Harford again:

“If there was some way to reduce the methane being belched out by cows and sheep - almost a tenth of the total gas emissions - that would be a huge achievement. Australian scientists have realised that kangaroos don’t emit methane and are now to trying figure out how to get kangaroo-gut bacteria into the stomachs of cows. It be a blind alley. It may not. But a proper price on greenhouse gases would encourage every path to be explored, even if one of the quests is to make cows belch like kangaroos.”

It would be a great business opportunity, if the price was right.

Published in today's SMH and Age

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