At the annual World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, Switzerland, world political and business leaders are meeting to discuss pressing economic issues of the day. This year, one of the key themes is climate change and “how to save the planet”.
The approaches of leaders to the climate crisis, however, differ enormously. At the one extreme there are those who deny that emissions have caused climate change, or who reluctantly acknowledge climate change but think that governments need to do nothing and that technological advances in green energy and transport will be sufficient to curb global warming. This has been the approach of President Trump, President Bolsonaro of Brazil and Prime Minister Scott Morrison of Australia. They may claim to support the general goals of reducing greenhouse gases, but are keen to protect their coal and oil industries and, in the case of Brazil, to continue cutting down the Amazon rain forest to support mining, ranching and the growing of crops.
At his speech at the WEF, President Trump said that he supported the initiative to plant one trillion trees worldwide to act as a carbon sink. However, he gave no details of just what the nature of the support would be. Would there be subsidies or tax breaks, for example, for landowners to plant trees? In the meantime, his administration has relaxed regulations to curb air and water pollution. And he has withdrawn the USA from the Paris climate agreement.
Other leaders, urged on by activists, such as Greta Thunberg, have talked about tougher action to tackle emissions. Countries such as Canada, Norway and the EU countries have adopted a number of initiatives. Policies range from taxing emissions, capping/regulating emissions with penalities for those breaching the limits, tradable permits, subsidising green alternatives, setting local emissions targets with incentives for meeting them, investing in green infrastructure such as roadside charging points for electric vehicles, making environmental education part of a national curriculum, investing in public transport, and so on. But, say, activists, only large-scale measures that truly recognise the scale of the climate emergency will be sufficient.
The year starts with climate being addressed at Davos; it ends with the annual Conference of the Parties (COP26) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). This year it will be in Glasgow. There is much hope pinned on this conference, given the growing realisation of the effects of climate change, from bush fires in Australia, to floods in Indonesia and other parts of southeast Asia, to more extreme hurricanes/typhoons, to rapidly melting glaciers and retreating sea ice, to rising sea levels, to crop failures and the displacement of humans and the destruction of wildlife and habitat.
COP25 in Madrid made little progress; it is hoped that COP26 will be much more successful. Sir David Attenborough has warned that the world faces a ‘climate crisis moment’. He hopes that the world will be ready to take much stronger action at COP26.
But there remains the fundamental economic problem of the tragedy of the commons. As long as the atmosphere and other parts of the environment are free to ‘use’ to pollute, and as long as the costs of doing so are borne largely by people other than the direct polluters, the market will fail to provide a solution. Australia’s bush fires can be directly attributed to climate change and climate change is exacerbated by coal-fired power stations. But Australia’s use of coal as a power source is only a tiny contributor to global climate change. Presumably, the Australian government would rather get a ‘free ride’ off other countries’ policies to cut emissions rather than bearing the economic cost of reducing coal-fired generation itself for little gain in terms of reduced global emissions.
However, people are not entirely selfish. Many are willing to make personal sacrifices to lead a more environmentally sustainable life. Many people, for example, are choosing electricity tariffs that are slightly higher but where the electricity is generated with zero carbon emissions. Firms have shown a readiness to respond to demands from their consumers for more sustainable products.
- Five essential steps to take right now to tackle climate change
World Economic Forum, Robin Pomeroy (17/1/20)
- Davos: Trump decries climate ‘prophets of doom’ with Thunberg in audience
BBC News (21/1/20)
- Greta Thunberg clashes with US treasury secretary in Davos
The Guardian, Graeme Wearden (23/1/20)
- Australia, your country is burning – dangerous climate change is here with you now
The Conversation, Michael E Mann (10/1/20)
- Climate change: What different countries are doing around the globe to tackle the crisis
Independent, Zoe Tidman (20/9/19)
- How we can combat climate change
Washington Post (2/1/19)
- Sir David Attenborough warns of climate ‘crisis moment’
BBC News, David Shukman (16/1/20)
- Climate change: Where we are in seven charts and what you can do to help
BBC News (14/1/20)
- Ten facts about the economics of climate change and climate policy
Brookings, Ryan Nunn, Jimmy O’Donnell, Jay Shambaugh, Lawrence H. Goulder, Charles D Kolstad and Xianling Long (23/10/19)
- The Federal Reserve Considers the Economics of Climate Change in 2020
Lawfare, Rachel Westrate (16/1/20)
- Bernie Sanders’ economic adviser says Australia’s bushfires are a climate change ‘wake-up call’
The Guardian, Ben Butler (7/1/20)
- Carbon pricing: What the research says
Journalist’s Resource, Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center, Clark Merrefield (17/1/20)
- European Parliament backs Green Deal
Resource Media, Imogen Benson (17/1/20)
- Tackling climate change
Committee on Climate change
- Tragedy of the Commons: A Drama That Our Planet Is Not Enjoying
Felix, Xiuchen Xu (9/12/19)
- Draw a diagram to show how the external costs of carbon emissions cause a more than socially optimal output of products emitting CO2.
- What is meant by the ‘tragedy of the commons’? Give some environmental examples.
- Discuss possible solutions to the tragedy of the commons.
- Why was COP25 generally regarded as a failure?
- Identify four possible policies that governments could adopt to reduce carbon emissions and discuss their relative advantages and disadvantages.
- Are meetings such as the annual World Economic Forum meetings at Davos of any benefit other than to the politicians attending? Explain.
In 2015, at the COP21 climate change conference in Paris, an agreement was reached between the 195 countries present. The Paris agreement committed countries to limiting global warming to ‘well below’ 2°C and preferably to no more than 1.5°C. above pre-industrial levels. To do this, a ‘cap-and-trade’ system would be adopted, with countries agreeing to limits to their emissions and then being able to buy emissions credits to exceed these limits from countries which had managed to emit below their limits. However, to implement the agreement, countries would need to adopt a ‘rulebook’ about how the permitted limits would be applied, how governments would measure and report emissions cuts, how the figures would be verified and just how a cap-and-trade system would work.
At the COP24 meeting from 2 to 15 December 2018 in Katowice, Poland, nearly 14 000 delegates from 196 countries discussed the details of a rulebook. Despite some 2800 points of contention and some difficult and heated negotiations, agreement was finally reached. Rules for targeting, measuring and verifying emissions have been accepted. If countries exceed their limits, they must explain why and also how they will meet them in future. Rich countries agreed to provide help to poor countries in curbing their emissions and adapting to rising sea levels, droughts, floods and other climate-induced problems.
But no details have been agreed on the system of carbon trading, thanks to objections from the Brazilian delegates, who felt that insufficient account would be made of their country’s existing promises on not chopping down parts of the Amazon rainforest.
Most seriously, the measures already agreed which would be covered by the rulebook will be insufficient to meet the 2°C, let alone the 1.5°C, target. The majority of the measures are voluntary ‘nationally determined contributions’, which countries are required to submit under the Paris agreement. These, so far, would probably be sufficient to limit global warming to only around 3°C, at which level there would be massive environmental, economic and social consequences.
There was, however, a belief among delegates that further strong international action was required. Indeed, under the Paris agreement, emissions limits to keep global warming to the ‘well below 2°C’ level must be agreed by 2020.
Climate change is a case of severe market failure. A large proportion of the external costs of pollution are borne outside the countries where the emitters are based. This creates a disincentive for countries acting alone to internalise all these externalities through the tax system or charges, or to regulate them toughly. Only by countries taking an international perspective and by acting collectively can the externalities be seen as a fully internal problem.
Even though most governments recognise the nature and scale of the problem, one of the biggest problems they face is in persuading people that it is in their interests to cut carbon emissions – something that may become increasingly difficult with the rise in populism and the realisation that higher fuel and other prices will make people poorer in the short term.
- To what extent can the atmosphere been seen as a ‘global commons’?
- What incentives might be given for business to make ‘green investments’?
- To what extent might changes in technology help businesses and consumers to ‘go green’?
- Why might international negotiations over tackling climate change result in a prisoner’s dilemma problem? What steps could be taken to tackle the problem?
- How would an emissions cap-and-trade system work?
- Investigate the Brazilian objections to the proposals for emissions credits. Were the delegates justified in their objections?
- What types of initiative could businesses take to tackle ‘supply chain emissions’?
- How could countries, such as the USA, be persuaded to reduce their reliance on coal – an industry lauded by President Trump?
Australia held a general election on 2 July 2016. The Liberal/National coalition narrowly won in the House of Representatives, gaining a substantially reduced majority of 77 of the 150 seats, to Labor’s 68 and other parties’ 5 seats. One campaign issue for all parties was the destruction of the Great Barrier Reef, which is seen as an environmental disaster. Each party had proposals for tackling the problem and we examine some of them here.
The Great Barrier Reef is the largest coral reef in the world. As the BBC’s iWonder guide states:
One of the world’s seven natural wonders, the Great Barrier Reef contains some 900 islands and 3000 smaller reefs. It is larger than the UK, the Netherlands and Switzerland combined, home to around 10% of the world’s marine fish, over 200 bird species and countless other animals, including turtles and dolphins.
But this iconic Reef system is facing unprecedented threats. Together with governments, scientists are playing a key role in the battle to preserve this vulnerable ecosystem before it’s too late.
The Reef is 2300km long. In the northern third, around half of the coral is dead. Few tourists see this, as they tend to dive in the southern third, which, being cooler, is less affected.
The bleaching and destruction of coral reefs has a number of causes. These include: rising water temperatures, generally from global warming and more extreme El Niño events (rising warm waters that periodically spread across the Pacific); pollution, including that from coal mining, industrial effluent and run-off of pesticides, herbicides, fertilisers and sediment from farming, leading to acidification of waters; more frequent and more violent cyclones; rapidly expanding numbers of coral-eating Crown of Thorns starfish; and over fishing of some species of fish, leading to knock-on effects on ecosystems.
The Barrier Reef and the oceans and atmosphere around it can be regarded as a common resource. The warming of the atmosphere and the oceans, and the destruction of the reef and the wildlife on it, are examples of the ‘tragedy of the commons’. With no-one owning these resources, they are likely to be overused and abused. Put another way, these activities cause negative externalities, which do not appear as costs to the polluters and despoilers, but are still costs to all who treasure the reef. And, from a non-human perspective, it is a cost to the planet and its biodiversity. What is in the private interests of the abusers is not in the social or environmental interest.
The Australian government had sought to downplay the extent of the problem, afraid of deterring tourists – a valuable source of revenue – and under pressure from the coal and farming industries. Nevertheless, in the run-up to the election, the destruction of the Reef and what to do about it became a major debating point between the parties.
The Coalition government has pledged A$1bn for a new Reef fund, which will be dedicated to tackling climate change and water quality.
The fund will also help coastal sewage treatment plants to reduce ocean outfalls with efficient pumps, biogas electricity generation and next-generation waste water treatment. Improving water quality will enhance the Reef’s resilience to climate change, coral bleaching and outbreaks of the destructive crown of thorns starfish.
But how much difference the fund can make with the money it will have is not clear.
The Labor Party pledged to follow every recommendation in the Great Barrier Reef Water Science Taskforce’s Final Report, released in May, and to pass laws to prevent farm pollution flowing into the waters around the Reef and to have a more rapid shift towards renewable energy.
The Green Party goes the furthest. In addition to the Labor Party’s proposals, it wants to impose taxes on coal firms equal to the cost of the damage they are causing. The tax revenues would be paid into a multi-billion dollar fund. This would then be spent on measures to rescue the Reef, invest in clean energy projects, stop damaging industrial development, improve farm management and stop polluted run-off into the Reef catchment area by investing in water systems.
Promises at the time of an election are all well and good. Just how much will be done by the re-elected Coalition government remains to be seen.
Interactive Videos and presentations
David Attenborough’s Great Barrier Reef: an Interactive Journey, Atlantic Productions, David Attenborough (2015)
Global Warming – the greatest market failure Prezi, Yvonne Cheng (5/12/12)
The Great Barrier Reef: a catastrophe laid bare The Guardian, Michael Slezak (7/6/16)
The Guardian view on the Great Barrier Reef: the crisis they prefer to downplay The Guardian (7/6/16)
Fight to save Great Barrier Reef could cost billions, secret government modelling estimates ABC News, Mark Willacy (2/6/16)
Great Barrier Reef: government must choose which parts to save, says expert The Guardian, Joshua Robertson (8/7/16)
This election, what hope is there for the Great Barrier Reef? The Guardian, Michael Slezak (1/7/16)
Coalition will protect Great Barrier Reef with $1bn fund, says PM The Guardian, Gareth Hutchens (12/6/16)
Great Barrier Reef election explainer: how do the parties compare? The Guardian, Michael Slezak (2/6/16)
Five things we can do right now to save the Great Barrier Reef The Guardian, John Pandolfi (13/6/16)
We’ve scored the parties on the Reef My Sunshine Coast, Australian Marine Conservation Society (29/6/16)
Our Most Iconic Places Are Under Dire Threat From Climate Change Huffington Post, Nick Visser (26/5/16)
There are bright spots among the world’s coral reefs – the challenge is to learn from them The Conversation, Australia, Joshua Cinner (21/7/16)
- Explain what is meant by the Tragedy of the Commons. Is all pollution damage an example of this?
- What can the Australian government do to internalise the external costs to the Great Barrier Reef from (a) farming; (b) mining; (c) global warming?
- Why is it difficult to reach international agreement on tackling climte change? What insights can game theory provide for understanding the difficulties?
- What are the recommendations in the Final Report of the Great Barrier Reef Water Science Taskforce? What mix of tools does it suggest?
- What are the relative advantages and disadvantages of taxation, laws and regulations, public investment, education and international negotiation as policy instruments to protect the Reef?
The cost of living is a contentious issue and is likely to form a key part of the political debate for the next few years. This debate has been fuelled by the latest announcement by SSE of an average rise in consumer energy bills of 8.2%, meaning that an average dual-fuel customer would see its bill rise by £106. With this increase, the expectation is that the other big energy companies will follow suit with their own price rises.
Energy prices are made up of numerous factors, including wholesale prices, investment in infrastructure and innovation, together with government green energy taxes. SSE has put their price hike down to an increase in wholesale prices, but has also passed part of the blame onto the government by suggesting that the price hikes are required to offset the government’s energy taxes. Will Morris, from SSE said:
We’re sorry we have to do this…We’ve done as much as we could to keep prices down, but the reality is that buying wholesale energy in global markets, delivering it to customers’ homes, and government-imposed levies collected through bills – endorsed by all the major parties – all cost more than they did last year.
The price hike has been met with outrage from customers and the government and has provided Ed Miliband with further ammunition against the Coalition’s policies. However, even this announcement has yet to provide the support for Labour’s plans to freeze energy prices, as discussed in the blog Miliband’s freeze. Customers with other energy companies are likely to see similar price rises in the coming months, as SSE’s announcement is only the first of many. A key question is how will the country provide the funding for much needed investment in the energy sector? The funds of the government are certainly not going to be available to provide investment, so the job must pass to the energy companies and in turn the consumers. It is this that is given as a key reason for the price rises.
Investment in the energy infrastructure is essential for the British economy, especially given the lack of investment that we have seen over successive governments – both Labour and Conservative. Furthermore, the government’s green targets are essential and taxation is a key mechanism to meet them. Labour has been criticized for its plans to freeze energy prices, which may jeopardise these targets. The political playing field is always fraught with controversy and it seems that energy prices and thus the cost of living will remain at the centre of it for many months.
More energy price rises expected after SSE increase BBC News (10/10/13)
SSE retail boss blames government for energy price rise The Telegraph, Rebecca Clancy (10/10/13)
A better way to take the heat out of energy prices The Telegraph (11/10/13)
SSE energy price rise stokes political row Financial Times, John Aglionby and Guy Chazan (10/10/13)
Ed Miliband condemns ‘rip-off’ energy firms after SSE 8% price rise The Guardian, Terry Macalister, Angela Monaghan and Rowena Mason (28/9/12)
Coalition parties split over energy companies’ green obligations Independent, Nigel Morris (11/10/13)
Energy price rise: David Cameron defends green subsidies The Guardian, Rowena Mason (10/10/13)
‘Find better deals’ users urged as energy bills soar Daily Echo (11/10/13)
Energy Minister in row over cost of taxes Sky News (10/10/13)
SSE energy price rise ‘a bitter pill for customers’ The Guardian, Angela Monaghan (10/10/13)
Energy firm hikes prices, fuels political row Associated Press (10/10/13)
Only full-scale reform of our energy market will prevent endless price rises The Observer, Phillip Lee (27/10/13)
- In what market structure would you place the energy sector?
- Explain how green taxes push up energy bills? Use a diagram to support your answer.
- Consider the energy bill of an average household. Using your knowledge and the articles above, allocate the percentage of that bill that is derived from wholesale prices, green taxes, investment in infrastructure and any other factors. Which are the key factors that have risen, which has forced SSE (and others) to push up prices?
- Why is investment in energy infrastructure and new forms of fuel essential? How might such investment affect future prices?
- Why has Labour’s proposed 20-month price freeze been criticised?
- What has happened to energy prices over the past 20 years?
- Is there now a call for more government regulation in the energy sector to allay fears of rises in the cost of living adversely affecting the poorest households?
A campaign to introduce a tax on disposable plastic bags in England has been launched by various pressure groups, including The Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE), Keep Britain Tidy, the Marine Conservation Society and Surfers Against Sewage. Plastic bags, they maintain, litter streets and the countryside and pollute the seas, where they cause considerable damage to marine life.
They propose a tax of 5p per bag, which would be passed on to consumers. Such a levy has already been introduced in Wales in October 2011. As a result, plastic bag use in Wales has dropped dramatically (see also the full report from the Welsh Government). The Scottish Government and the Northern Ireland Assembly are also planning introducing similar charges.
Many other governments have introduced taxes, charges or bans on plastic bags and many more are considering introducing such measures. Ireland introduced a 15 euro cent charge on single-use plastic bags as far back as 2002 and saw a 94% reduction in plastic bag use (328 per person per year to 21). The charge was raised to 22 euro cents in 2007 after bag use rose to 30 per person.
Other countries have banned plastic bags altogether: some, such as Rwanda and Somalia have banned all plastic bags; others, such as China and South Africa have banned very thin bags; others, such as Italy, have banned non-biodegradable ones.
In the USA, various states or districts have introduced levies and in the EU, where more than four billion bags are thrown away each year, the European Commission will soon publish proposals for limiting the use of plastic bags.
So what are the arguments for limiting the use of plastic bags? Why is it not enough to leave things simply to the market? And if the use of plastic bags is to be reduced, what’s the most efficient way of doing so? Are there any problems with alternatives to plastic bags? The following articles and reports consider these questions?
England urged to pick up Wales’ plastic bag levy businessGreen, Jessica Shankleman (1/8/12)
Wales’ plastic bag charge yields massive green savings businessGreen, Jessica Shankleman (5/7/12)
Supermarkets ‘should charge £1 a bag’ BBC Today Programme, Samantha Harding and Judith Holder (2/8/12)
Environmentalists team up to push for bag tax in England Plastics News, Anthony Clark (1/8/12)
Break the Bag Habit Keep Britain Tidy (1/8/12)
Plastic bag use ‘up for second year running’ Guardian, Rebecca Smithers (5/7/12)
Plastic bag use in Wales plummets due to 5p charge, figures show Guardian, Adam Vaughan (4/7/12)
Carrier bag charge ‘effective and popular’ figures reveal ITV News (4/7/12)
What should be done about plastic bags? BBC News Magazine, Chris Summers (19/3/12)
Irish bag tax hailed success BBC News, Chris Summers (20/8/02)
The Big Fix The Math Behind Sacking Disposable Bags Atlantic Cities, Nate Berg (26/9/11)
Fremantle moves to ban plastic bags ABC News, Lucy Martin (23/7/12)
Bans Plastic Bag Ban Report, Ted Duboise (updated)
Vote With Your Dollars, and Also Vote New York Times, Gernot Wagner (30/7/12)
Evaluation Of The Introduction Of The Single-Use Carrier Bag Charge In Wales: Attitude Change And Behavioural Spillover, Wouter Poortinga, Lorraine Whitmarsh and Christine Suffolk Report to Welsh Government by Cardiff University (June 2012)
Life cycle assessment of supermarket carrierbags: a review of the bags available in 2006 Environment Agency, Joanna Marchant (25/7/11)
Stakeholder consultation on options to reduce the use of plastic carrier bags … EC Environment (19/3/12)
- Draw a diagram demonstrating the externalities involved in the use of plastic bags. Show the marginal private and social costs and benefits and the socially efficient level of consumption.
- How would you set about establishing the amount of consumer surplus from the use of plastic bags at a zero price?
- Compare the relative social efficiency of a tax on plastic bags with a ban on plastic bags.
- Would education be an effective alternative to taxing plastic bags?
- Why might it be difficult to get supermarkets and other retailers to agree to a voluntary ban on giving out free plastic bags?
- Why might it be extremely difficult in practice to establish the socially efficient price for plastic bags?