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.

Photo: Getty Images
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Stella Creasy targeted for deselection

Organisers on the left believe the Walthamstow MP is the ideal target for political, personal and geographical reasons.

Stella Creasy, the high-profile MP for Walthamstow and defeated deputy Labour leadership candidate, is the first serious target of an attempt to deselect a sitting Labour MP, the New Statesman has learnt.

Creasy, who is on the right of the party, is believed to be particularly vulnerable to an attempt to replace her with an MP closer to the Labour party’s left. Her constituency, and the surrounding borough of Waltham Forest, as well as the neighbouring borough of Leyton and Wanstead, has a large number both of new members, inspired either to join or return to Labour by Jeremy Corbyn, plus a strong existing network of leftwing groupings and minor parties.

An anti-bombing demonstration outside of Creasy’s constituency offices in Walthamstow – the MP is one of around 80 members of Parliament who have yet to decide how to vote on today’s motion on airstrikes in Syria – is the latest in a series of clashes between supporters of Creasy and a series of organized leftwing campaigns.

Allies of Creasy were perturbed when Momentum, the grassroots body that represents the continuation of Corbyn’s leadership campaign, held a rally in her constituency the night of the Autumn Statement, without inviting the MP. They point out that Momentum is supposedly an outward-facing campaign supporting Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour party towards the 2020 general election and the forthcoming local and European elections. Labour holds 27 out of 27 council seats in Creasy’s constituency, while Creasy herself has a majority of 23,195 votes.

“If you look at the seat, there is nothing to win here,” said one Labour member, who believes that Momentum and other groups are planning to depose Creasy. Momentum has denied any plot to remove Creasy as the MP.

However, Creasy has come under pressure from within her local party in recent weeks over the coming vote on bombing Syria. Asim Mahmood, a Labour councilor in Creasy’s constituency, has called for any MP who votes for bombing to face a trigger ballot and reselection. Creasy hit back at Mahmood on Facebook, saying that while she remained uncertain of how to vote: “the one thing I will not do is be bullied by a sitting Walthamstow Labour councilor with the threat of deselection if I don’t do what he wants”.

Local members believe that Mahmood may be acting as the stalking horse for his sister, the current mayor of Waltham Forest, Saima Mahmud, who may be a candidate in the event of a trigger ballot against Creasy. Another possible candidate in a selection battle is Steven Saxby, a local vicar. Unite, the recognized trade union of the Anglican Communion, is a power player in internal Labour politics.

Although Creasy has kept her own counsel about the direction of the party under Corbyn, she is believed to be more vulnerable to deselection than some of the leader’s vocal critics, as her personal style has led to her being isolated in her constituency party. Creasy is believed to be no longer on speaking terms with Chris Robbins, the leader of the council, also from the right of the party.

Others fear that the moves are an attempt by Creasy’s local opponents to prepare the ground for a challenge to Creasy should the seat be redrawn following boundary changes. The mood in the local party is increasingly febrile.  The chair of the parliamentary Labour party, John Cryer, whose Leyton and Wanstead seat is next to Creasy’s constituency, is said to fear that a fundraiser featuring the shadow foreign secretary, Hilary Benn, will take an acrimonious turn. Cryer was one of just four shadow cabinet ministers to speak against airstrikes in Syria.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.