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Reducing our carbon footprint requires kicking our carbon diet

How do we slim down our carbon appetite? AAP

Here’s the problem. Going on a carbon diet is hard in the way that going on a calorie diet is not. For the most part, there is good information about the calorie content of food and I can regulate it myself and consume less calories.

But if I want to consume less carbon emissions, the task is harder; much harder. So hard that you could end up doing more harm than good. And this is the central fact that should guide how we deal with carbon emissions.

Let’s take the poster-child of a low-emissions lifestyle – driving less. We know that driving internal combustion engines around leads directly to carbon emissions.

But, as Chris Goodwell, renowned environmentalist and author of How to Live a Low Carbon Life pointed out, a 5km drive would add 1kg of carbon to the atmosphere while a walk would seemingly add nothing if you just looked at its direct effects.

However, for many people, they would need more energy to sustain a regular 5km walk. To make up the 180 calories would likely generate 3.6kg in carbon emissions. The trade-off wasn’t even close.

That was for cars with respect to walking. Trade-off with public transport and it is murkier especially if you are like most people and don’t like to stuff yourself into a train or bus. The point here is not that there exists ways of changing behaviour to go on a real carbon diet. The problem is that it is hard to use simple prescriptions to guide people in a way that works. The economy is too complex.

This notion of a lack of information scales up. As I pointed out recently, government programs that directly target behaviours to reduce emissions have a very poor track record. A new Grattan Institute report looks at the track-record of Australian programs. They argue that targeted programs totalling $12 billion by Australian governments have had virtually no impact on emissions. For instance, poster-children such as solar and insulation rebates will cost about $5 billion but will at best remove 1.9 million tonnes of carbon from our collective diet. That adds up to over $200 per tonne. This in a world where people are calling a $30 carbon tax large.

Again, the point is not that solar power and better insulation cannot help reduce emissions. They can. But we don’t know the best way to implement them when we simply provide incentives to install them. The carbon accounting required to work out whether our emissions will be significantly reduced or not is not in the hand of the government.

Can private actors help out? There is a movement to encourage our businesses to be more environmentally conscious. Consumer pressure and marketing have played a role. This may assist in reducing emissions but from where I sit it is hard to tell. Even in a world that would involve heroic beliefs about the conscience of our private firms, do they have the information to know what their emissions really are? In his soon-to-be published book, Adapt, economist Tim Harford tells of the work by The Carbon Trust – a UK organisation devoted to working out carbon footprints – to figure out the carbon content of a Cadbury’s bar of dairy milk chocolate.

The glass-and-a-half of milk is about a third of the bar and that takes lots of transportation to get from cow to mouth. So it is responsible for about two thirds of the carbon generated by producing the bar – the other ingredients are lighter and less perishable.

But that is just averages. The real carbon footprint would depend on where the people were. Also, what is anyone going to do about it? We could demand less milk in chocolate but what if they just substitute to exercise and consume more meat – or worse, just drink milk? It’s a mess. And that was for a simple product.

It is hard to be a know-it-all on climate change policy. The easier thing as Harford points out is to decentralise the whole matter. Put a price on carbon emissions and things change all over the place. Milk transport costs could go up as could meat transportation costs.

Refrigeration costs will rise as energy costs rise. Packaging costs could change. No one would account for anything other than the emissions they directly produce from their productive activity. There would be no need to think about whole supply chains and forecast changes in demand. Just pay the price and move on. Like all other costs in the economy, the market would aggregate them up and spew out other prices that allowed people to make decisions.

If you want to feel guilt about driving a car you still could but the price of the car, the price of fuel and the price of meat you might consume more of if you walk will build the carbon cost into it. You’ll be on a diet but you can go about your business just as usual. Yes, some things might cost more, but it is better than them costing a lot more with no guarantee of success. Being a know-nothing can have real virtues.

In the policy debate about the carbon price (or tax), the focus has been on the fact we have to do something about climate change and whether we want to do it. The carbon price makes it very transparent what we are doing as opposed to direct targeted programs that don’t. As we move forward, transparency is something we should value and it performing on it is something we should hold out policy-makers to account on.

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