A carbon tax may not actually do a whole lot for emissions

There's a chicken/egg problem at work.

A carbon tax is most economists' favourite method of dealing with climate change. It is exactly the sort of simple, market-driven intervention that they tend to like: set a price per tonne of carbon emitted which is equal to the value of the damage that tonne does to the climate, and then sit back and what businesses and consumers react. Some may cut their usage; some may switch to low-carbon sources of energy, which suddenly become cheaper comparatively; and some may choose to just pay the extra cost (what happens in that last situation is debatable – some think the money should just count as general taxation, others that it should be put towards climate change prevention and mitigation).

The Washington Post's Brad Plumer suggests that it may not work as well as we would hope, however. He reports on a recent MIT study looking at the likely effect of a $20 a ton carbon tax in the real world – the value proposed by a pair of MIT researchers last month.

Plumer writes:

Sebastian Rausch and John M. Reilly of the MIT Global Change Institute recently put forward a proposal for a $20/ton carbon tax that would rise 4 percent each year, starting in 2013. (The funds would be used to offset taxes elsewhere.) Here’s what their economic model predicts would happen to U.S. greenhouse-gas emissions:

Blue line: MIT reference case with no carbon tax. Black line: EIA reference. Green line: Scenario with MIT carbon tax in place.

With a carbon tax in place, U.S. greenhouse gas emissions do start declining quite a bit (this is the green line). But by 2030, emission levels stall, even though the carbon tax keeps rising and rising each year. The United States wouldn’t get anywhere near the 80 percent cut by 2050 that the White House has envisioned.

One explanation here is that MIT’s proposed carbon tax just isn’t high enough. But Muro favors another possibility–that a carbon tax alone isn’t enough to drive deep reductions. The private sector tends to under-invest in energy R&D and key bits of infrastructure such as transmission lines. Without further policies, it’s unlikely that we’ll see a sweeping transformation of our energy system to give people alternatives to coal plants and gasoline-powered cars.

This echoes an argument I've heard several times from those on the more technical side of climate change prevention. For all that the economists and politicians like to talk about creating the conditions in which the private sector will be incentivised to help tackle climate change, those who are more keenly aware of the massive costs involved tend to be rather more pessimistic.

They point out that the carbon tax model provides a cash injection to providers of low-carbon energy – but only after the tax is already instituted. As a result, there's another weak link in the chain, which is the ability of those providers to secure loans to build the capacity required. That's possible for massive companies looking to get into a new area; and it's possible for smaller companies, provided they get enough certainty from the government to be able to convince bankers.

But the fear is that larger companies, already strongly embedded in the conventional energy infrastructure, have little incentive to devote money, which could be used to lower the cost of polluting fuels, to instead build new capacity; and smaller companies won't be left with enough time between when the government finally confirms a carbon tax, and when their new generation is actually needed.

At the same time, though, there is growing evidence that some companies really are going above and beyond the call of duty. Some of it may be greenwashing, and some may be token expenditure, but if there really is any sizeable investment in low-carbon infrastructure, then it makes a carbon tax that much more effective.

Carbon taxes can only lower emissions if they raise the price of polluting relative to an alternative. If that alternative isn't available, then they risk being simply another source of revenue for the state.

Wind turbines being prepared. 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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There's something missing from our counter-terrorism debate

The policy reckoning that occured after the 2005 terrorist attacks did not happen after the one in 2016. 

“Once the rockets are up, who cares where they come down? That's not my department, says Wernher von Braun.” That satirical lyric about Nazi rocket scientists has come to mind more than few times watching various tech giants give testimony in front of the Home Affairs Select Committee, one of the underreported sub-plots of life at Westminster.

During their ongoing inquiry into hate crime in the United Kingdom, committee chair Yvette Cooper has found a staggering amount of hate speech being circulated freely on the largest and most profitable social media platform. Seperately, an ongoing investigation by the Times has uncovered how advertising revenue from Google and YouTube makes its way straight into the coffers of extremist groups, ranging from Islamist extremists to white supremacists and anti-Semites.

One of the many remarkable aspects of the inquiry has been the von Braunesque reaction by the movers and shakers at these tech companies. Once the ad revenue is handed out, who cares what it pays for? That’s not my department is the overwhelming message of much of the testimony.

The problem gains an added urgency now that the perpetrator of the Westminster attacks has been named as Khalid Masood, a British-born 52-year-old with a string of petty convictions across two decades from 1982 to 2002. He is of the same generation and profile as Thomas Mair, the white supremacist behind the last act of domestic terrorism on British shores, though Mair’s online radicalisation occurred on far-right websites, while Masood instead mimicked the methods of Isis attacks on the continent.  Despite that, both fitted many of the classic profiles of a “lone wolf” attack, although my colleague Amelia explains well why that term is increasingly outmoded.

One thing that some civil servants have observed is that it is relatively easy to get MPs to understand anti-terror measures based around either a form of electronic communication they use themselves – like text messaging or email, for instance – or a physical place which they might have in their own constituencies. But legislation has been sluggish in getting to grips with radicalisation online and slow at cutting off funding sources.

As I’ve written before, though there  are important differences between these two ideologies, the radicalisation journey is similar and tends to have the same staging posts: petty criminality, a drift from the fringes of respectable Internet sub-cultures to extremist websites, and finally violence.  We don’t yet know how closely Masood’s journey follows that pattern – but what is clear is that the policy rethink about British counter-terror after the July bombings in 2005 has yet to have an equivalent echo online. The success of that approach is shown in that these attacks are largely thwarted in the United Kingdom. But what needs to happen is a realisation that what happens when the rockets come down is very much the department of the world’s communication companies. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.