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Economists' concerns with emissions reduction target not what you'd expect

Tony Abbott says he will never put the environment ahead of the economy, but it is impossible to segregate the two.

In case you haven't noticed, a lot of economists are very concerned about Tony Abbott's choice of target for the reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, to be taken to the international climate change conference at Paris in December.

But if you think that means they believe Abbott's target is too tough and will do too much damage to the economy, you've got the wrong end of the stick.

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Most would be likely to believe the target should be more ambitious, and few would be concerned that such a target would do significant economic harm. Conventional economic modelling almost invariably shows the loss of economic growth would be surprisingly small, almost trivial.

They'd be more concerned to ensure the instruments used to achieve the target were those likely to do so at the lowest cost in terms of economic growth forgone. That's why few would have approved of Abbott's decision to abandon Julia Gillard's hybrid carbon tax/emissions trading scheme and replace it with "direct action" payments from the budget.

<i>Illustration: Kerri Leishman.</i>
Illustration: Kerri Leishman. 

I'm not claiming every economist thinks this way, of course; just the great majority. There are a few exceptions, naturally, just as you can find the odd scientist who disagrees with the overwhelming majority view that global warming is real and caused by humans.

If you hadn't noticed, consider the leading part played by economists in urging that Australia be at the forefront of international efforts to reduce emissions. First, the various reports by Professor Ross Garnaut​, then the chairman of the independent Climate Change Authority, Bernie Fraser – former Reserve Bank governor and former secretary of the Treasury – then leading non-government experts such as Professor Frank Jotzo​ and Professor Warwick McKibbin, both of the Australian National University.

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Note, too, the role of Dr Martin Parkinson, who worked first on John Howard's emissions trading scheme, then on Labor's as the first head of the Department of Climate Change. When Parkinson moved on to become head of Treasury, he was succeeded by another Treasury chap, Blair Comley​.

In fact, there were so many senior Treasury people at the top of the Climate Change department, it was a virtual outpost of Treasury. Both Parkinson and Comley were sacked as one of Abbott's first acts on becoming Prime Minister. Presumably, they were punished for caring too much about global warming.

Remember too that, internationally, both the emissions trading scheme and the carbon and other pollution taxes are inventions of economists. A trading scheme was used with great effect by the Americans in their efforts to reduce acid rain.

Two characteristics of economists stand out when it comes to climate change. First, they accept what the scientists are telling us without argument. Unlike some, they're not disposed to explain to the experts where they're getting it wrong.

Second, they don't believe we can go on thinking "the economy" can be kept in a separate box to "the environment". There are major interactions between the two that can't be ignored.

But, as a journalist, I'm not a member of the economists' union, so to speak, so let me stop describing their majority views and give you mine. My thinking has been influenced by the more radical opinions of yet another economist, Professor Herman Daly, of the University of Maryland.

Much of our economic activity involves misusing, overusing and abusing the natural environment.

In defending his latest target, Abbott pledged he'd never put the environment ahead of the economy and jobs. This separate-box thinking is like saying you'd never put staying alive ahead of going to work. Lose your life and whether you get to work or not hardly matters.

Daly says the economy is a "wholly owned subsidiary of the environment". Whether at a national or global level, the economy exists inside the environment – the ecosystem. It's a box inside a circle, if you like.

The point is, all human activity – all our producing and consuming – depends directly on the natural environment. The air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat, the clothes we wear, the shelters we build and the energy we use all come from the ecosystem that surrounds us.

Much of our economic activity involves misusing, overusing and abusing the natural environment. We've done great damage to our soil, rivers and aquifers, we've destroyed much habitat and many species, and now the world's overuse of fossil fuels is playing havoc with the climate.

We can be divided into those who want to do what we can to stop the destruction and start on the clean-up, and those who want to put it out of mind and keep on as we are, leaving the bill to be picked up by the next generation.

The latter group will always justify their insouciance by claiming to be putting jobs first. Yeah, sure. For the next few years, at least.

Let me be honest with you. I don't believe those modelling exercises seeming to prove that the economic costs of acting to reduce greenhouse gas emissions will be minor. Such results are a product of the assumptions built into all conventional economic models that, whatever shock the economy is hit by, after 20 years or so, everything will be back to where it would have been.

So, the cost in terms of growth and jobs forgone might be greater than we're being told. But of one thing I'm sure: the longer we leave it, the higher those costs will be.

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