Last updated: 12:26 / Thursday, 27 March 2014
Column by Matthews Asia

An Exhaustive Debate

An Exhaustive Debate

Australia, which is among the largest polluters per capita in the developed world, is exploring ways to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions and has set a target for reducing emissions at 5% below 2000 levels by 2020. One of its current initiatives, the carbon pricing mechanism—often referred to as the carbon tax—requires polluters to pay an amount proportional to the carbon dioxide equivalent emitted during a given year.

However, Prime Minister Tony Abbott, who was elected in September, had made it an election pledge to revoke this controversial tax, which was adopted two years ago. In light of the potential change, the debate over how to achieve the 2020 emissions target is ongoing.

Under the present system, polluters must purchase carbon units up to the level of their emissions. These units were initially set at a rate of roughly US$21 (AU$23) per ton. In mid-2015, the number of units is scheduled to be capped and the applicable rate will thereafter be set by market forces via an auction format. Any excess emissions at this stage will be charged at a 100% premium to the auction price for the period, theoretically increasing the incentive for businesses to reduce pollution.

Proponents of the system argue it is the most cost-effective solution, with the increase in costs eventually being passed onto customers. However, a recent government report showed that during a 12-month period, ending in September, emissions dipped by a disappointing 0.3%, despite the US$6.3 billion cost to industry.

In light of its opposition to the current mechanism, the new government is promoting its alternative Direct Action climate policy. Details have been relatively scant thus far but a central element to the plan is a “reverse auction” mechanism in which a US$1.4 billion fund would be distributed to those firms that can reduce emissions at the lowest cost. Critics argue that under this system, the largest polluters would not be punished for failing to address harmful output and the true cost of reducing emissions would be greater than it is under the present mechanism.

Recent polls show that the public has not yet been won over by either option. General consensus appears to favor removing the carbon tax yet is skeptical on the adequacy of the Direct Action policy as a replacement. Given that 40% of carbon emissions are beyond the scope of the tax and would have little incentive under the proposed Direct Action policy, any resolution is unlikely to be a definitive solution.

As it stands, removing the carbon tax would relieve Australian corporates of a near-term burden, but concerns would still remain. Some say current reduction targets are insufficient, and global climate talks set for next year in Paris may place added pressure on the government to revisit its longer-term emission targets.

Colin Dishington, CA, Research Analyst at Matthews Asia

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