-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.

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

  1. Michael says:

    It seems Australia is in a bubble on this issue. There seems to be good evidence that other countries have already made a big headstart on developing technology to deal with lowering emissions. In Australia we are still indulging in the fantasy that the problem might not exist. I think the blame can be fairly placed at the feet of the media for all the phoney “balance” giving charlatans, astro-turfers and lunatics equal billing with serious scientists and the opposition for electing Abbott it’s leader.

  2. Joseph says:

    I wonder if you’re inadvertently adding credibility to the ‘go it alone’ argument. Europe has had emissions trading since 2005 hence the ‘go it alone’ argument is nonsense. A more accurate statement of the position of the opponents of carbon pricing would be ‘we’ll go last’.

  3. Matthew Gordon says:

    I also think the ‘go it alone’ argument is rubbish, considering typical responses to global problems, such as terrorism, are often unilateral- or at best a small group of nations carrying the burden of change for the majority. In international diplomacy, often the ‘go it alone’, is the only option in dealing with crises.
    Great post Alan!

  4. Brad Hall says:

    The other reason Alan, is that it should also encourage innovation by making alternatives more cost competitive.

    I am for sustainability, but I’m not keen on these schemes. Generally all that happens is you are made to pay more whether you are a responsible user or not. Water is a good example, where households that managed to meet and even improve on the 155 litres per person per day target were still slugged with the same increases in water costs as those less responsible. The other problem is where the user is charged more to encourage alternate behaviour when there isn’t any alternative. Like congestion taxes for people who do not have public transport as an option.

    We all just end up worse off.

  5. Russell says:

    Glad to read this post because your 2 moral arguments are the ones I also think are important.

    For the same reasons we can act individually and buy Greenpower, cut down on car trips where it’s easy to do so etc.

    “We’ll suffer the pain, so the argument goes, for no gain”. I suppose that’s a point … how much pain are we prepared to take? What’s proposed, I would guess, is fairly negligible for most of us in our daily lives. If people aren’t prepared to make even small changes, we’re sunk.

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