The Australian carbon tax came into effect on Sunday, at a price of AU$23 per tonne of CO2. The tax is supported by just a third of Australians, and has driven support of the Labor party, which leads the coalition which introduced it, to a forty year low, but many campaigners consider it a forward-looking measure.
The price will rise by 4 per cent a year for the next two years, before the tax becomes an emissions trading scheme in 2015. From then on, the cost of a tonne of carbon will be set by the market. A number of concessions had to be made to get the tax through the legislature at all, including exempting agriculture entirely and issuing large rebates – of up to 94.5 per cent – to industries like steel and aluminium mining, which take the largest hits from being undercut by foreign businesses.
The target is to reduce the countries emissions by 5 per cent by 2020, and 80 per cent by 2050, from 2000 levels. As it stands, Australians create more CO2 per capita than any other developed country. The country is responsible for 1.5 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions, just 0.2 per cent less than Britain, which has three times the population.
The tax itself has been set at a relatively low figure. The Stern review, the seminal 2006 report by the economist Nicholas Stern, is commonly thought to have lowballed the damaging effects of climate change, and still suggested that the social cost of a tonne of carbon was in the order of $85 (AU$83). It is also intended to be revenue neutral, and in order to avoid what would otherwise be regressive effects, most of the money is being used to effect major cuts to income tax. The threshold for income tax raised by over $10,000 to $18,200 yesterday, and even direct payments into bank accounts under the name "Clean Energy Advance". Overall, any household earning udner $80,000 should be better off after the changes.
All of which appears to have done nothing for the popularity of the tax, which is hurt by the sheer strength of climate scepticism in Australia. Not only is the opposition leader, Tony Abbott, a climate skeptic, but the views of right-wing shock-jock Alan Jones are representative of a relatively large section of the population:
What [Prime Minister Julia Gillard] has done ... is to diminish the image of parliament and politics in the eyes of the public. The notion of global warming is a hoax, this is witchcraft. . . There are stacks and stacks of eminent scientists all over the world who've argued it's witchcraft. . . I have interviewed every one of them on my program and not one syllable they have uttered has been produced on any other media outlet anywhere in Australia. . . There is a conspiracy in this country to deny the other side.
Nonetheless, the government – made up of a coalition between the Labor party and the smaller Greens – has hope for the policy. Greens leader Christine Milne says:
I think people will shrug their shoulders and say 'what was all that about'. People will start to get angry with the Coalition [the opposition party], for having made all the claims they've made.
Even Milne seems to be anticipating a Coalition victory in the next elections, and no surprise. If there were an election today, they would win in a landslide. But as she says, the tax is in place, and it may be that by the time of the next election, there are more important questions to answer.