Why Labour is right to oppose Britain’s new carbon tax

By 2015, the coalition's carbon price floor will be inextricably linked with rising energy prices.

Just after 7pm on 5 July last year a significant but largely unnoticed piece of political positioning took place that will increasingly take centre stage at Westminster.  As MPs debated the Finance Bill, line by line, Labour’s Shadow Economic Secretary, Kerry McCarthy, announced that the party would oppose the coalition’s plans to impose a carbon price floor on electricity generators and industry from April 2013. 

The then Economic Secretary, Justine Greening, sought common ground in the debate but Labour stood firm and refused to withdraw its amendment. The House divided and the legislation passed with a majority of 59. Some nervous Tory MPs decided to raise their valid concerns over the impact of a new high carbon tax and three voted against the coalition's clause with many abstentions, but this was well before coalition policy U-turns had become an established fact of Westminster proceedings.

So why was this significant, and why could this play well for Labour in the run up to the next election? Ironically, one has to look at Australia where the incumbent Labor government has just introduced its own carbon price floor (known commonly as the carbon tax) and is now trailing the Liberal/Conservative opposition by up to 20 per cent.

So what is the problem? The price of carbon, traditionally set in the market through the European Union Emissions Trading Scheme (EU ETS), is arguably far too low at around £5/6 per tonne, and therefore, it is argued, too uncertain for the long-term low carbon investment decisions that need to be made. In response, the coalition has decided to impose a unilateral UK carbon price floor to set a guaranteed minimum price for carbon. It has turned its back on the EU scheme, which has kept carbon prices in the UK level with those across Europe.

In effect, the new policy will introduce a UK floor on the price of carbon emissions facing power generators and industry in the UK. If the ETS price is ever above the floor, the tax would be zero; if the EUA price is below the floor, the new tax would make up the difference.

The 2011 Budget confirmed the introduction of this tax from 1 April 2013. The floor will start at £16 per tonne of carbon dioxide (tCO2) and follow a linear path to target £30/tCO2 in 2020 (both in 2009 prices), rising to £70/tCO2 in 2030. According to Treasury, the new tax would raise £3.22bn in tax revenues by 2015-16, which is (unsurprisingly enough) roughly about the amount HM Treasury offered in giveaways at the 2011 Budget. But Britain’s policy to now go it alone with its own carbon price floor from next April risks, undermining any effective and consolidated move to deliver a similar minimum price for carbon in other countries, especially across our main economic competitors in the EU.

So Britain will abandon the EU Emissions Trading Scheme where its absence will allow the price of carbon on the continent to fall to new lows. Today, the price of carbon in recession-hit Europe is only around £5/6 per tonne. It is highly likely that from April next year, when British generators and industry are paying £16 per tonne for carbon, our European competitors could be paying a third of the price. 

Also, given that over 70 per cent of UK electricity is generated from coal and gas plants, this is likely to help electricity bills to spike from 2013 further boosting fuel poverty.  By leaving the EU ETS the government has abrogated its right to lead the fight for a pan EU carbon price floor which would have allowed the UK to operate on a level playing field with the rest of Europe.

The ongoing political debate has confirmed what investors have known ever since the policy was introduced - that the "floor" is nothing more than another fuel duty escalator that can't possibly be banked on, that it won't actually reduce net emissions in the EU; that the best way of introducing a carbon price floor is at a European level and this has been largely been ignored; and that it is a policy that will do nothing for investor confidence, except for providing a windfall to existing low carbon generation, particularly existing nuclear power stations.

So Labour goes to the general election opposing the coalition’s new carbon tax, which by 2015 will inevitably have its fingerprints all over rising energy prices and will have caused some sections of energy intensive industry to scale back plans and cut jobs. Whilst Ed Miliband might not sound or look like Australia’s Tony Abbott, his opposition to Britain’s new carbon tax could prove just as effective as Abbott’s, but with Britain’s voters.

Tony Lodge is a Research Fellow at the Centre for Policy Studies.  His new pamphlet, The Atomic Clock – How the Coalition is Gambling with Britain’s Energy Policy, is published by the CPS.

 

Electricity pylons crossing the Essex countryside. Photograph: Getty Images
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder