Richard Ritchie: The climate crisis – and this pandemic – have made the case for a carbon tax stronger than ever before

15 Oct

Richard Ritchie is the author of a recent history of a secretive group of Conservative MPs called The Progress Trust (Without Hindsight: A History of the Progress Trust 1943-2005). He is Enoch Powell’s archivist and is a former Conservative Parliamentary Candidate. He was BP’s director of UK Political Affairs.

There is something in the air, and it’s not just carbon or virus emissions. Earlier this month, ConservativeHome carried a piece by Rachel Wolf, championing carbon pricing – that is the polite way of describing some form of carbon tax. Then, the influential economist Dieter Helm published in September a new book, Net Zero: How We Stop Causing Climate Change, which explains in detail the rationale behind a carbon tax. And from The Times, we’ve learnt that the Chancellor is considering such a tax for his next, Covid-19 budget.

It’s not a new idea. When I worked for BP and climate change first entered the political agenda – before, the main worry was that oil would run out and become too expensive – thoughts on how to price carbon were already in circulation. The oil and gas industry saw some merit in the concept, but favoured emissions trading over a tax, correctly identifying this as a less expensive, Europe-inspired fudge. Now, the combination of a pandemic and climate crisis gives the idea of a carbon tax real traction.

The political implications are important. Climate change and Covid-19 have much in common. Both require us to “follow the science”, although in neither case is the science unanimous. Both are manna from heaven for those who wish to “shut-down” the economy, and limit personal freedom. Both provide excuses for expanding the state. And in both cases, the cure can prove worse than the disease.

There can be little doubt that, so far, global policies to reduce carbon emissions have failed. This won’t worry those who are sceptical of the causes of climate change. But if one believes a failure to act now is to bequeath a catastrophe to future generations, then those on the “right” should be as concerned as those on the “left”.

Where we differ will be on the remedies. So far, “left-of-centre” remedies have generally been the norm. The Kyoto Protocol in 2007 and the Paris Agreement in 2015 have been little more than an opportunity for governments and lobbyists to parade their compassion. Whatever Trump’s motives may be surrounding climate change, his analysis of the Paris Agreement is basically sound. Some of course think its failure is due to inadequate targets; but their targets would make the economic consequences of Covid-19 seem trivial in comparison.

So the question is whether there is a policy which would reduce carbon emissions effectively, in an economically rational way. This is surely one reason why Rishi Sunak is attracted by the idea of a carbon tax as a means of reducing carbon consumption.

In Dieter Helm’s view, the word “consumption” is pivotal. It is no good concentrating solely on industrial emissions, as these won’t necessarily have any global effect – it simply drives emissions abroad, frequently to China. But a carbon tax which crucially incorporated a carbon border tax on imports would, by targeting attention on everyone’s personal carbon footprint, incentivise many things which probably make sense in themselves anyway.

There will be many Conservatives who will argue that all taxes do harm, and that the introduction of a “new” tax is incompatible with Tory beliefs. But unless one is totally sceptical of the science, and dismissive of the need to balance the books, there is much to be said for taxing “bads” rather than “goods”.

Of course it is open to many objections. For example, does the Treasury regard a carbon tax as an emergency measure to raise revenue, or a longstanding instrument to influence behaviour? If it is to serve its purpose, it will eventually yield less revenue.

Equally, if applied in the wrong way, it could merely make this country less competitive. Without care, it could prove regressive. Indeed, if the Paris riots over fuel duty are any guide, it could also prove politically impossible.

Then, for it to work, there must be alternatives for consumers to choose from. Not many will choose an electric car, for example, if there is no guarantee that it can be charged along the journey. (Although mention of electric cars also serves as a reminder that not everything is at it seems – an electric car takes twice as much carbon to produce than a conventional one. A carbon tax would sort that out too).

On the other hand, if properly devised a carbon tax has the capacity both to raise government revenue and to reduce carbon emissions, and even to incentivise other countries to follow suit. Matters to be decided include how the carbon price is fixed and at what level it should be introduced. Should it be levied on consumption or production? Does the tax provide sufficient time for consumers to adjust?

This is the political danger. Carbon taxes could come to the rescue of a cash-strapped Chancellor, because they hold out the prospect of raising new revenue without breaking a manifesto commitment not to raise existing taxes. But if the carbon tax is set too high at the outset, it will be counter-productive. If the Treasury is following Helm’s advice, “the trick is to start low, but credibly signal that the price is going to go up as high as is necessary to achieve the (carbon reduction) target.”

There is no painless way of reducing carbon emissions. Those on the “left” will embrace a policy which involves “picking winners”, nationalisation, subsidies, exemptions, regulation and illiberal compliance. A lobbyist’s paradise. The alternative is to incentivise new technologies, create new markets and provide practical signals to consumers. This is the purpose of a carbon tax. It will never be “popular” because the costs of transforming the networks, communications and transport of this country to facilitate lower carbon emissions are enormous.

But compared with the alternatives, a carbon tax is at least rational and addresses all the major sources of carbon emissions, namely agriculture, transport and electricity. Moreover, it produces a new source of government revenue at a time when it is desperately needed.

Any new tax is depressing to a free market Tory. But climate change, like pandemics, raises issues which are more important than economics. If it is a whole load of nonsense to claim that today’s climate change is man-made, then we are free to carry on as we are.

But if not, Tories have an obligation to advocate alternative solutions to those of the socialist “greens”. The market is the best way of allocating scare resources effectively. But in a time of war, the market cannot tell us how much to spend on butter or guns. That is a political choice, and it is the nature of the choice presented by climate change, if most scientists are to be believed. On so many levels and for so many reasons, it is hardly surprising if Sunak is pondering one.

Rachel Wolf: Net Zero risks upending our lives and livelihoods. Here’s why carbon pricing gives it a better chance of working well.

2 Oct

Rachel Wolf is a partner in Public First. She had co-charge of the 2019 Conservative Manifesto. She was an education and innovation adviser at Number 10 during David Cameron’s premiership and was founding director of the New Schools Network.

Worrying about the state of the environment in the middle of a pandemic might feel like rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic. Will the public question the Government’s sense of priorities if ministers start talking about how to protect the environment in the midst of a health crisis and a long potential downturn?

Actually, no. This week marked the first substantial policy intervention of the Prime Minister in months – a long awaited change to the education system that will make it easier for adults to retrain, and support more technical education. The rationale was clear: now, more than ever, we need to make sure people are trained for their next job.

The same argument can be made for the environment. The hard lockdown and the gentle recovery reminded people of two things: that everyday life is better for everyone when roads are quieter and the air is cleaner; and that economic growth is always precarious. That means we need to focus on industries and technologies of the future that will help maintain jobs and living standards.

In short, precisely because of their Covid-19 experience, the public have seen the importance of a practical, commercially-minded environmentalism.  That is fortunate, because there are some major choices to be made, and we are unprepared for them.

The target of Net Zero emissions by 2050 was passed into legislation with little public notice – most people still haven’t heard the term. There was also remarkably little Westminster debate: all the leadership candidates in 2019 signed up to the policy, so scrutiny was absent. Then, of course, the pandemic halted the entire domestic policy agenda. For this reason, we are still waiting to understand exactly what ending a 200-year dependence on fossil fuels really entails.

In my view, carbon pricing must form a large part of the answer.

As someone on the centre-right, I have always simultaneously applauded the aims and had great fears about the execution of Net Zero.

First, I worry it might upend too much. Our economy and lives are built off copious amounts of affordable energy. It is the main reason we were able to escape the destitution of the past. A life unimaginable to even the elite in the eighteentj century is now accessible to nearly all.

Therefore, any successful programme to reduce emissions must understand that people will not go backwards. Policies must work within the grain of people’s lives – not rewire them. We cannot be against trade; or consumption; or travel.  We just need ways to achieve all three without catastrophic environmental effects.

Second, I worry the plans rely on an implausible level of omniscience and competence from governments. We cannot engineer economies. We do not know exactly what innovations to support. We are likely to end up with endless unforeseen consequences and costs. We can encourage and support technology and invention; but prescribing what it should look like in 50 years time? That’s implausible.

It is for both of these reasons that I have spent much of the last six months working for an independent commission on how carbon pricing might practically, and technically, work.

To put it simply, possibly too simply, a carbon price requires those who produce, distribute, or use fossil fuels – or who produce greenhouse gas emissions in other ways – to make a payment for every tonne of greenhouse gases that enters our atmosphere.

In principle, the arguments for a carbon price are fairly obvious. It works with the grain of the market. It doesn’t make grand regulatory predictions about what will work, what we should do, or how exactly people ought to change their behaviour. It just prices in the ‘bad’ – in this case, emissions.

In practice, too, it has been effective. Electricity is the only area we have had a consistent approach to carbon pricing in the UK, and that is why electricity is the area where we have driven down emissions the most.  But electricity represents only a minority of our carbon emissions, and we now need a clear approach to the rest of the economy.

Carbon pricing also provides two things that we now – badly – need.

First, revenue. In some countries, carbon pricing is completely revenue neutral, and the money is distributed back to households. This deals with the challenges of the environment without leaving people worse off. But in others, it is used to support general government objectives – like funding the health service (or reducing the deficit).

If the Government needs to raise money, doing it in a way that will win public support and support environmental aims, without burdening businesses excessively, is a sensible way to do it. The other way to use revenue is to support transitions to cleaner energy alternatives and new green jobs – incentivising people away from carbon emissions, while supporting innovation.

Second, it provides certainty. A lot of the money for net zero should come from private investment. A fixed, clear price gives them the confidence to spend.

We already have some carbon pricing in the UK tax system. Unfortunately, it lacks transparency, is far too complicated and is piled sequentially on top of electricity bills. It has the bizarre consequence of actively encouraging people to move from electricity to gas – the opposite of what we want if we care about carbon emissions. Neither consumers nor suppliers have a clear idea of who is paying what and why.

Carbon pricing is not a silver bullet. I have oversimplified the changes necessary to reach Net Zero, and in our commission report we outlined a list of complementary policies required for different sectors to reach it. They recognise that the cost of reaching Net Zero is likely to be different for electricity, heating, industry and agriculture, and that the technologies are less mature for some sectors than others. Nor can it be too high: the economy is fragile, and business must be able to recover and grow. But the basic human principles remain – if there is a price, people will change their behaviour, and human ingenuity will always outstrip governments’.

We have been submerged in environmental rhetoric for years. Now the UK, alongside other countries with similar commitments, is having to make some real choices. Often, understandable fear of a public backlash has held them back – our research suggests there’s a credible way of gaining public consent and achieving our environmental aims: by having a clear price, credible alternatives for people to switch to, and cushioning so that no one is too badly affected. That is both deliverable and desirable, and it should form the core of the UK’s net zero roadmap.