Australian carbon tax is levied

Australians now pay AU$23 per tonne of CO2.

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.

Protesters don't like Julia Gillard. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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Boris Johnson isn't risking his political life over Heathrow

The anti-Heathrow campaigner was never a committed environmentalist. 

A government announcement on expanding London’s airports is expected today, and while opposition forces have been rallying against the expected outcome - a third runway at Heathrow - the decision could also be a divisive one for the ruling Conservative party. A long consultation period will allow these divisions to fester. 

Reports suggest that up to 60 Conservative MPs are against expansion at the Heathrow site. The Prime Minister’s own constituents are threatening legal action, and the former London mayoral candidate, Zac Goldsmith, has promised to step down as MP for Richmond rather than let the airport develop.

But what of Boris Johnson? The politician long synonymous with Heathrow opposition - including a threat to lie down “in front of those bulldozers” - is expected to call the decision a mistake. But for a man unafraid to dangle from a zipwire, he has become unusually reticent on the subject.

The reticence has partly been imposed upon him. In a letter to her cabinet ministers, Theresa May has granted them freedom from the usual rules of collective responsibility (under which cabinet ministers are required to support government positions). But she has also requested that they refrain from speaking out in the Commons, from “actively” campaigning against her position, and from calling “into question the decision making process itself”.  

Johnson is not about to start cheering for Heathrow. But unlike Goldsmith, he is no committed environmentalist - and he's certainly a committed politician.  

Boris’s objections to the expansion at Heathrow have all too often only extended as far as the lives of his London constituents. These local impacts are not to be belittled – in his role of mayor of London, he rightly pointed to the extreme health risks of increased noise and air pollution. And his charisma and profile have also boosted community campaigns around these issues. 

But when it comes to reducing emissions, Johnson is complacent. He may have come a long way since a 2013 Telegraph article in which he questioned whether global warming was real. Yet his plan to build an alternative “hub” airport in the Thames Estuary would have left the question of cutting UK aviation emissions worryingly un-resolved. This lack of curiosity is alarming considering his current job as foreign secretary. 

And there are reasons to be concerned. According to Cait Hewitt at the Aviation Environment Federation, the UK fails to meet its targets for CO2 reduction. And the recent UN deal on aviation emission mitigation doesn’t even meet the commitments of the UK’s own Climate Change Act, let alone the more stringent demands of the Paris Agreement. “Deciding that we’re going to do something that we know is going to make a problem worse, before we’ve got an answer, is the wrong move”, said Hewitt.

There is a local environmental argument too. Donnachadh McCarthy, a spokesperson from the activist group “Rising Up”, says the pollution could affect Londoners' health: "With 70 per cent of flights taken just by 15 per cent of the UK's population... this is just not acceptable in a civilised democracy.”

The way Johnson tells it, his reason for staying in government is a pragmatic one. “I think I'd be better off staying in parliament to fight the case, frankly," he told LBC Radio in 2015. And he's right that, whatever the government’s position, the new “national policy statement” to authorise the project will likely face a year-long public consultation before a parliamentary vote in late 2017 or early 2018. Even then the application will still face a lengthy planning policy stage and possible judicial review. 

But if the foreign secretary does fight this quietly, in the back rooms of power, it is not just a loss to his constituents. It means the wider inconsistencies of his position can be brushed aside - rather than exposed and explored, and safely brought down to ground. 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.