Saturday, July 23, 2011

Collective responsibility

"No snowflake in an avalanche ever feels responsible."

- Voltaire (attributed).

"Australia produces less than 1.5 per cent of the world's carbon emissions but will pay the world's biggest carbon tax."

- Claim of recent Australian ad campaign
funded by the Australian Trade and Industry Alliance.

Is Australia but a bit player in the carbon game? Are our emissions irrelevant on the world stage? I intend to write more in the coming days about this line of thinking. So far I have identified twelve possible faults with the statistical or ethical assumptions behind it. So, for a little exercise over the weekend, I'd love to hear how readers respond to the ATI ads (see below) and this claim about Australia's role in particular.

I am mainly interested in the first half of the claim (with its implication that Australian emissions are too small to be worth causing any economic pain). The second half of the quote ("the world's biggest carbon tax") is refuted here without even mentioning the fact that Sweden has had a carbon price since 1991 that is now around 150 AUD per tonne (the price in the proposed Clean Energy Plan starts at 23 AUD per tonne).


Juggernaut1981 said...

I've heard, from a realiable enough source that my sketchy memory has forgotten, that the net cost of the proposed carbon tax on the average Australian (as proposed) would be $10 per week.

I see students blow more than that in a lunchtime. I know plenty of corporate workers (whom I used to work with) who don't blink at paying more than $10 per day for lunch.

The amount of real pain, if it is close to $10 per week, is stuff-all. Nearly all of us could easily afford this with plenty of room to spare.

And the argument that "Carbon dioxide is natural so how can it be a problem?" holds little water. A teaspoon of water will drown, a few grams of Cobalt-60 kept close for long enough will result in cancer, salt in water will kill freshwater fish... should I list the wide array of situations where something natural 'out of place' causes major problems?

Anonymous said...

When I read that quote, I was curious about the combination of utilitarian and defeatist sentiments behind it. 'We don't contribute much but have to pay more (or so we allege) than everyone else.' What I infer from that is that if not enough other nations are doing anything, the world is doomed anyway, so Australia may as well remain comfortable by not taking any economic hit.

byron smith said...

Andrew - I agree entirely with your second point about the non-benign effects of small changes to where things have previously been.

I also agree with your first point, though it is worth noting a few things. First, that $10 per week is the average cost, if the modelling is correct, then some will have considerably higher costs, most considerably lower. Second, that $10 is the average cost prior to the tax reforms. After them - again, assuming for the moment the modelling is in the right ballpark - then the average cost turns out to be 20 cents per week, with the majority facing a net benefit (and a minority facing a somewhat larger net loss, hence the noisy campaigns funded by the rich few and those who align their own sense of self and prosperity with them). You can see more detailed discussion of this here with some more detailed breakdown of the expected costs. And remember as well, these costs are calculated on the assumption of no changes in lifestyle. The whole point of the price is to nudge people towards lower carbon lives. It will lower the relative price of steps in this direction (at least in theory) as Ross Gittins explains.

But having said all that, I'm particularly interested in the specific claim implied by the recent ad campaign (and made frequently by many people) that since Australia only produces about 1.5% of global human carbon emissions, our actions are irrelevant/misguided/unwise/pointless/too costly for the benefit. Do you have thoughts on that?

Sam Norton said...

Byron, have you (will you?) explored the different cost-benefit assessments? I understand that you personally subscribe to the 'tipping point' understanding of CC - that is, we're at risk of setting off a positive feedback process (am I right in thinking that?) - which weights the moral assessments strongly in one direction. But those who don't accept that - even if they accept much of the science associated with CC - will have a different calculus. For example, as part of the drive to reduce carbon emissions, the UK is going to be shutting down lots of coal-fired electricity generation, without putting reliable alternatives in place. That is going to have a significant effect on, eg, the ability of old people to keep themselves warm in winter - and we can therefore expect more people to die, or at least be at risk of dying (and yes, I know that there are other things that can be done, eg insulation). In that context it doesn't seem totally wrong for a government to say that the calculus between trimming the CO2 emissions and looking after the existing population suggests we don't go 100% in pursuit of the former.

(This is my main interest at the moment; working out how to make the trade-offs, ie 'what and who is worth saving?')

Mike W said...

and we are about 0.3% of the world population, even with the 1.5% figure on our carbon production, we are using five times our fair share. So we need to reduce our carbon emissions by 80% before we are at world average, and then we can start thinking about reducing them further. Unless of course, our race as an inbuilt right to use more than chinese or indian or black people. The labour party needs to play the race card.

byron smith said...

Mike - Yes, that is at the heart of it. Read this post for some filling out of the numbers. The bottom line is that if we assume (a) the mainstream science is correct, (b) we want to have a 75% chance of staying below the already very nasty prospect of a 2ºC rise from pre-industrial temps by 2100, and (c) everyone alive today has an equal right to the remaining carbon budget that would enable (b) to be true (so this assumes that developing world don't get any extra right to more carbon given the fact that we've enjoyed high carbon growth for decades and decades), then at current levels of emissions, Australia will use its entire carbon budget in about 4.5 years. If we want to do our fair share, we need to drop our emissions to zero by 2020.

(PS I haven't yet worked out if these numbers include natural carbon sinks or not. I'm seeking confirmation of that at the moment. If they don't, then they are considerably too stark.)

Sam - I believe that cost-benefit assessments made with discounting (which most of them are) are unethical, not least because discounting assumes continued global GDP growth for whatever period is being assessed. The effect of this is to reduce to close to zero any cost more than a few decades down the track. However, neither of us think that the global economy is likely to continue to grow at current rates for the entirety of the 21stC (I suspect that we both expect growth to stop (and likely reverse) well before then), making the assumption behind discounting deeply problematic. Indeed, if we keep the same assumption about discounting and apply an expectation of de-growth, then expensive events in the future actually become more important than expensive events now, since we'll have fewer resources with which to handle them.

This argument does not rely the possibility of abrupt, non-linear, irreversible changes in the climate system, about which I follow the mainstream science and so am agnostic, but worried. See the good summary on pages 48-51 of this recent Australian government publication.

For example, as part of the drive to reduce carbon emissions, the UK is going to be shutting down lots of coal-fired electricity generation, without putting reliable alternatives in place.
Your source for this claim?

That is going to have a significant effect on, eg, the ability of old people to keep themselves warm in winter
That is a political judgement. If there is political will to ensure that the vulnerable are sheltered from possible negative effects of any policy, then it may instead be richer individuals who feel the financial pinch of keeping fifteen empty rooms at 25ºC in mid-winter. This is an important part of any policy consideration, and, for instance, informs the shape of the tax reform included in the proposed Clean Energy Plan for Australia (which gives much larger tax breaks to the lowest incomes in order to avoid any negative financial effect on those who are most vulnerable to rising electricity costs). There are plenty of problems with that Plan, though it gets right that basic idea.

byron smith said...

Mike - Here's another post with some more graphs that paint different emissions path scenarios and show what the costs of delay mean if we want to have a decent chance of staying below 2ºC.

Juggernaut1981 said...

Regarding the "1.5% of the mess = no effect".
To use an analogy I've read previously: We're all playing chicken with nature. Two (or many more really) vehicles going straight for each other and one side will have to give up right (Economies or Environment)?

If we make 1.5% of the mess, then we should be making sure we're not the final straw on this camel we call Earth.

I'm very much of the opinion that while every one person may not make much rubbish, 20 million makes quite a lot. While one person may not recycle much, 20 million people can recycle quite a lot. While only one nation of 20million may cost themselves $10 each (at the start) and do very little real damage to the economy (and maybe do little in total terms of CO2), if this all goes to crap at the very worst we can claim we did more than nothing... and maybe encourage others that it wouldn't hurt to change.

I hear the argument of "Why are you punishing me when they did it too?" from students almost daily. The answer is simple "So they did something wrong as well, does that mean you didn't do anything wrong?" Interesting this idea has come up just after reading that statement in James (If you break one law, you broke the whole law; you are a lawbreaker). If you polluted just a little, you polluted the whole; you are a polluter.

Juggernaut1981 said...

I found the link to the article I had read. It's less 'concrete economics/science' and more of a 'rant against the one-sided interests flooding media'

byron smith said...

Andrew - Some good analogies. I don't think that we humans are very good at intuitively grasping cumulative problems. We get there eventually, but it can take a while. So finding some partial analogies (like the garbage analogy you suggest) can be a good way of helping people to feel the issue.

As for the rant, I happened to come across the original a few days ago and posted a link on another thread. Priceless. Thanks for pointing it out again. (I note that the language has actually been toned down for posting on the ABC site. The original was more off-colour).

Juggernaut1981 said...

You'd appreciate this article.

Sam Norton said...

Byron - completely agree with you about discounting/no growth etc. The interesting question is the political one - and I'm not sure that 'soak the rich' is enough of an answer, but I need to do more work on that. For info on the coal stations see, eg, here:

byron smith said...

Soaking the rich may not be sufficient, but getting them to pay their taxes would be a decent start. ;-)

byron smith said...

BTW, the OD reference led to a security warning telling me not to go ahead.

Sam Norton said...

Byron - if you go to the OD main site and scroll down half a dozen stories you'll see the relevant one.

And yes, the rich should certainly pay their taxes!!

Donna said...

I have so many issues with that line of argument.

It's illogical - the implication that if you cause a "small" part of a problem you shouldn't have to fix it at all. (Surely you should at least be responsible for fixing whatever problem you caused).

It's misguided in implying that the environment shouldn't get in the way of our economic growth.

It's implies that the norm is to not do anything about carbon emissions.

If every country thinks the same way, then it's very damaging and results in circular apathy (I think I just made that term up, but I mean everyone waiting for everyone else to act first).

It doesn't take into consideration our privileged economic position and the responsibility we should bear because of that.

It assumes that Australia should be a country that follows, rather than leads other nations in doing what's hard but right. (Reminds me of arguments against signing the Kyoto protocol).

Why not say "Australia produces less than 1.5 per cent of the world's carbon emissions - let's make it zero"?

byron smith said...

Donna - Excellent and thanks! I particularly like "circular apathy", which might also be called "mutually-reinforcing irresponsibility".

byron smith said...

Bury Coal: Obection: China is worse. Facing the same argument from a Canadian perspective. Where you read "tar sands", replace with "coal" and you pretty much have Australia.

byron smith said...

STW: Australia's per capita historical emissions. This is an important metric for considering responsibility.

byron smith said...

Guardian: Interactive - who is responsible for carbon emissions?.

byron smith said...

The Conversation: Ross Garnaut puts the lie to the claim that Australia is a bit player on climate.

byron smith said...

According to here, this quote is misattributed to Voltaire and actually belongs to Stanisŀaw Jerzy Lec, More Unkempt Thoughts [Myśli nieuczesane nowe] (1964).