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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It's time for Jeremy Corbyn's supporters to take on the unions

The union support for expanding Heathrow reflects a certain conservatism. 

The government’s announcement that it will go ahead with a third runway at Heathrow seems to have unlocked an array of demons. It has also created some unlikely alliances. Zac Goldsmith, the pro-Brexit mayoral candidate whose campaign was widely condemned as racist, is seeking to re-invent himself as an environmental champion, campaigning alongside fellow Heathrow MP John McDonnell. And the Richmond byelection which he is triggering could yet become a test case for Labour’s progressive alliance enthusiasts.

But perhaps the most significant position is that of the major unions. To the shock of many less seasoned activists on the left, Unite, the largest trade union in the UK and a consistent supporter of Corbyn’s leadership, has loudly called on the government to “be bold and build” the new runway, even now urging it to accelerate the process. Far from being a revelation, Unite’s position on Heathrow is longstanding – and it points to the lasting power and influence of an establishment trade unionism.

In August, the TUC co-ordinated a joint statement from five unions, urging the government to go ahead with the third runway. Like the rest of the unions’ lobbying efforts, it was coordinated with other pro-expansion stakeholders like the CBI, and it could just as easily have been authored by the business lobby. Heathrow expansion will, it says, “deliver at least £147bn to UK GDP and 70,000 new jobs”. “Trade unions and their members”, said Frances O’Grady, “stand ready to work to help the government successfully deliver this next major national infrastructure project”.

The logic that drives unions to support projects like Heathrow expansion – and which drives the GMB union to support fracking and Trident renewal – is grounded in a model of trade unionism which focuses not on transforming the workplace, but on the narrowly-defined interests of workers – job creation, economic growth and a larger share of the pie. It views the trade union movement not as merely antagonistic to employers, but as a responsible lobbying partner for business and industry, and as a means of mediating workers’ demands in a way that is steady and acceptable to the state and the economic system. This model, and the politics that accompanied it, is why, historically, trade unions were a conservative influence on Labour’s internal politics.

Nothing could be more at odds with the political, environmental and economic realities of the 21st century. It is not in the interests of workers or ordinary people to live on a planet which is slowly becoming uninhabitable. To avoid catastrophic global warming, we need to leave the vast majority of fossil fuels in the ground – that probably means shrinking the aviation industry, not expanding Heathrow’s passenger capacity by 70 per cent. All of this is implicitly recognised by Jeremy Corbyn’s environmental and industrial strategy, which aims to create a million new jobs and build a million new homes while switching to renewables and democratising the energy industry.

The gap between Corbyn’s policies and the policies of many major trade unions tells us something deeper about the challenges facing the left. If Corbynism is an unfinished revolution in the Labour Party machine, it is one which has barely started in the wider labour movement.

The gradual leftward shift in many unions’ political allegiances has broadened the alliance around Corbyn and given him strength in numbers and resources, but it is often as much about internal union politics as it is a deep conviction for what Corbyn represents. Unison general secretary Dave Prentis did back Corbyn’s re-election following a ballot of members, but is hardly a left-winger, and the union’s votes on Labour’s NEC are not safely aligned to the left.

The political radicalisation of the unions has been matched, if anything, by a decline in coordinated industrial action. The national strategy that fuelled the anti-austerity movement in 2011 and 2012 is only a memory. The democratic and organising culture in many unions, too, remains bureaucratic and opaque. Trade unions have played a key role in Corbyn’s coalition, but without a significant shift in their internal culture and a shift away from their role as respectable partners of industry, they could easily scupper the project as well. 

The expansion of Heathrow airport is a step backwards for the future of the planet and the interests of ordinary people – and yet, if it happens at all, it will have been made possible by the concerted efforts of key trade unions. This is not an aberration but a reminder that, despite their rhetorical flourishes in support of Corbyn, Britain’s trade unions are also in need of change. Any project that aims to transform the Labour party and wider society must also aim to transform the whole of the labour movement – from the shop floor to the corridors of power.