-Why should we “go it alone” on carbon?

600,000 years of CO2 - with music

I regularly hear the argument that there’s no point in Australia putting a price on carbon because we’re so small it will mean jack shit at an international level. We’ll suffer the pain, so the argument goes, for no gain.

Australia is one of the world’s highest emitters of greenhouse gases on a per capita basis, but because we’re small, we only account for around 1.8% of world emissions. By 2020, our emissions are supposed to be 5% below what they were in 2000 – if we were to achieve that target it would, in quantitative terms, amount to an extremely small reduction in total world emissions (although on current policy settings we’ll actually be 24% over the target!).

It’s commonly argued that we should therefore hold off until the big emitters like the US and China take parallel action.

There are a number of reasons for not accepting the “we can’t act alone” argument. Some argue that action now will give us an early start on sustainable industries; some that a carbon price could foster a culture that is more receptive to the wider idea of sustainability; and some that a carbon price is a more efficient way of addressing climate change than direct expenditure.

But there are two arguments for rejecting the “we shouldn’t go it alone” thesis that particularly resonate with me.

The first one is an unashamedly moral argument – I think we should clean up after ourselves as a simple principle of ethical responsibility. If we despoil the quality of the world’s environment we should fix up the damage we create, independent of what other nations do.  We should do the right thing.

The second reason is more instrumental. It’s in our interests to encourage the big emitters to take action because we all suffer from the build up of greenhouse gas. They’re hurting us so we should be prepared to accept some pain to try and make them change their ways. It’s worth it for us to show, by example, what needs to be done, how it can be done, and that some nations think it’s worth doing. In other words we’re not so much “going it alone” as “setting a good example”.

P.S. Here’s another version of the Time history of CO2 – it’s clearer, but no music.