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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Emmanuel Macron: a populist eruption from the liberal centre

The French presidential candidate has been compared with a young Tony Blair.

The French presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron came to town this week to meet Theresa May and address the London French community, whose votes he was chasing. In our age of extremes, Macron, who is 39, is that rare thing – a populist eruption from the liberal centre. A former merchant banker and economy minister in the failing Hollande Socialiste administration, he represents En Marche! (“Forward!”), which is less a party than a movement. His sudden rise would not have been possible in Britain, which is part of the stability and attraction of the parliamentary system but also its frustration.

Don’t be shy

I met Macron on Tuesday afternoon when he took questions from a small group of journalists at Central Hall Westminster. He is small and dapper, with short hair and a strong, straight nose. Because of the collapse of the Socialistes and the struggles of the discredited conservative contender François Fillon, Macron has emerged as the great hope of liberals and perhaps as the candidate to stop Marine Le Pen seizing the presidency. Unlike the Front National leader, Macron is an unashamed liberal globaliser in the model of Nick Clegg or a younger, less tormented Tony Blair. He is a passionate advocate of the EU and of the eurozone and, as a result, is under attack from the Russian media. He has been accused of leading a double life – his wife, whom he met when she was his schoolteacher, is 20 years older than Macron – and of being unwilling to admit that he is gay, or at least bisexual. His response to the Russian attacks was, he said, “to disclose the manipulation and kill the rumours”.

The far right in France has caricatured Macron as being “globalisation personified”, about which he is relaxed. In conversation, he criticised David Cameron’s referendum campaign. “His message was ‘Yes but . . .’ That is not the answer to ‘No’. I defend Europe and the four freedoms of the EU. If you are shy, you are dead.”

Not all relative

On Sunday, I received a text from one of my cousins. “The Lincoln City manager and his brother, the assistant, are called Cowley,” he wrote. “His father looks a bit like your father. Any relation? They are from Essex.” I am also from Essex, born and brought up in Harlow new town, which turned 70 this year. But I had to disappoint my cousin. My father was an only child, as was his father, so it’s highly unlikely that these Cowley brothers are even distant relations of mine.

Toast of the county

I already knew about the brothers, having been alerted to them by my seven-year-old son, who is a sports data enthusiast. Last season, Danny Cowley and his younger brother, Nicky, were working as teachers in Essex while coaching Braintree Town at weekends. This season, they have led Lincoln to an FA Cup quarter-final against Arsenal, making them the first non-League team to reach the last eight in more than a century. Lincoln are also at the top of the National League (English football’s semi-professional fifth division) and in the quarter-final of the FA Trophy, the premier non-League cup competition. The Cowleys are reported to be subsisting on a diet of toast and Marmite as they rise early each morning obsessively to study videos and analytics and prepare for the next match. They have introduced a new spirit of openness at the previously moribund club: fans watch training sessions and attend press conferences.

It’s nonsense to believe, as some do, that only those who have performed at the highest level have the authority to coach the best. Wenger, Mourinho, Sven-Göran Eriksson, Roy Hodgson, André Villas-Boas: none of them were even remotely successful players. Asked once to explain his accomplishments, Mourinho said: “I’ve had more time to study.” More English coaches – so few of whom are working in the Premier League – would do well to follow his example.

It will be fascinating to see how far the Cowley brothers progress in the game. Whatever happens next, they have reanimated interest in the FA Cup and given the resilient yeomen of Essex a small boost.

Ignore the huckster

Boris Johnson accused Tony Blair of “bare-faced effrontery” for having the temerity last week to deliver an anti-Brexit speech, which itself was an act of bare-faced effrontery. Johnson is a huckster and narcissist whose vanities have been grotesquely indulged for far too long by his cheerleaders and paymasters in the media. (A standard question to Johnson when he was mayor of London: “You do want to be prime minister, don’t you?”) No one should take anything Johnson says remotely seriously. Should the same be said of Blair?

Yes, of course he is the author of his own misfortunes and many will never forgive the former Labour prime minister for the Iraq catastrophe. Yet of all the politicians I have spoken to in recent times, Blair was the most intellectually nimble and the most alert to the defining complexities of the present moment. As he demonstrated in his speech, he also understands better than most why, in an age of intensifying ethnic nationalism, the parties of the left are failing across Europe, none more so than the British Labour Party, which looks as far away from power as it did after the 1931 election.

Journey to the centre

As an energetic and charismatic liberal, Macron has been likened to the young Tony Blair. Can he seize the progressive centre, as Blair did, and destabilise the old binary divisions of left and right? “The anti-European and anti-globalisation extremes are winning elections,” he said, in a veiled reference to Donald Trump and the vote for Brexit. “But we don’t have the same political cycles as the others. It’s time for France to do the opposite.” With that said, he thanked his interlocutors and was hurried off for a meeting with another Essex man, Philip Hammond, pursued not by a bear but by the journalist Robert Peston. 

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit