Is a carbon tax the only answer? A plea for a fairer way

A big new tax isn’t the problem, our levels of consumption are. JPDaigle/Flickr

On Sunday 5 June 2011, 8000 people reportedly turned up to demonstrate support for the Government’s proposed carbon tax. By Sydney standards this amounts to a large public display of support for Government policy, which as Tony Abbott has been at pains to point out, is a new tax.

The interesting point about this is that climate change and greenhouse gas production, possibly the most significant environmental issues of our time, have been reduced to a debate about whether or not to apply a new tax, and how much it should be.

Saying no to a tax isn’t saying no to action

If we accept the Government’s arguments, to reject a carbon tax in the present “climate” amounts to rejection of climate change as a human induced phenomenon. This effectively robs the debate of any legitimate or meaningful criticism of current modes of production and patterns of resource use.

The question of whether we have a tax or not is the wrong question to be asking. It has closed off any other questions about how resources are consumed, what for, and by whom they are being consumed.

That Australia contributes substantially to global outputs of coal, which is supplied directly to energy hungry countries such as China, whose industrial produce makes its way back to Australia to satisfy our lust for consumer goods, does not feature in debate.

Consuming less: a better answer?

Our own appetite for manufactured goods, such as new cars, new TVs and new iPods must change if we seriously want to reduce carbon emissions.

Of course there are implications for the Australian economy in reducing consumption, implications which should be the focus of debate and have so far been deliberately avoided by politicians and policy makers.

The carbon tax should however be rejected on the grounds that it will have the effect of placing burden on the poor of our society who cannot afford to pay for the “social” cost of oil and coal consumption.

The tax is aimed at providing a disincentive for people and industries to consume key greenhouse gas producing resources.

The wealthy may be able to contribute financially to the social cost of oil consumption, but not through a reduction in consumption themselves. Instead, they will pay more. The poor, who already consume the least, will consume less because they cannot pay more, affecting their livelihoods.

The net effect will be to place the burden of change on those who can least afford to change. Those who can most afford to change can pay for peace of mind without changing anything.

Compensation doesn’t make this fairer

The current carbon tax package proposes to compensate low income families, which may go part the way in offsetting financial costs. The devil, as they say, is likely to be in the detail of this arrangement, which at this point is suitably vague.

Even if compensation is effective, would this generate further dependence on government payments rather than encouraging financial autonomy? Will it mean that people go without because they can’t afford to wait for compensation later?

In the context of a housing affordability crisis and increasing food costs, will this amount to more pressure on the already precarious economic situation of many Australian families?

Compensation still cannot address underlying inequalities of actual resource use, and the burden of costs placed on lower socio-economic groups by a new tax.

Some reduce, while some pay their way out

It is not a very tenable situation to expect those who already have and consume less to reduce their own impact if the wealthy ultimately will not be doing the same through their ability to pay their way out.

Hugh Stretton, a well known intellectual and researcher on environment and urban issues wrote in 1976, “Rationing by price, or by quota proportionately to past use, usually means that the poor get less now, so the rich can enjoy more for longer”.

At the heart of this debate should be questions of distributive justice. Those old questions of who gets what are still there and as strong as they have ever been.

Unfortunately both sides of the parliament are to blame for this sorry state of affairs. Labor and the Greens are both desperate to see that something is being done to address climate change for the sake of the polls.

There is a very real possibility that Labor would lose an election if held now, and the Greens would lose their currently powerful position in the lower house.

Climate change has been a key part of Labor policy and position in parliament over the last four years and failure to deliver this would mean certain death for the already tenuous hold on power.

While the Liberals, who wish to discredit the Government any way possible, have little interest in actually doing anything about climate change themselves, with a few high profile notable exceptions.

Reducing carbon emissions is about questioning how we use resources, for what purpose and how we distribute the use of those resources. Debate on how we respond to this vital issue should not be reduced to a question of whether or not to support another tax.