The litterbug argument

Over the fold my piece from yesterday’s Fin, a response to the argument that since Australia only contributes about 2 per cent of global CO2 emissions, there’s no real point in us doing anything. I’ve drawn on discussions here, so thanks to everyone who participated.

Although the article includes some allusions to the Green Paper, the deadlines involved meant that it was mostly written before the Green Paper was released, and it doesn’t deal with any of the details, on which more soon I hope.

While there are plenty of details remaining to be spelt out, the Green Paper on the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme issued yesterday marks the shift from the symbolism of ratifying the Kyoto Protocol to the practicalities of an emissions trading scheme.

Many critics of an emissions trading scheme have embraced what might economists call a ‘free rider’ policy, but might better be described as the ‘litterbug’ argument. This is the claim that since Australia contributes only a small portion of emissions, it does not matter whether or not we do anything to reduce them. This is much the same as a litterbug saying that their beercan or chip packet is not going to make any difference, so they may as well dump it.

To take this argument more credibly than it deserves, Australia currently generates about 2 per cent of global emissions of greenhouse gases. That’s comparable to Britain or France. The fact that these countries have several times our population is cancelled out by our much higher emissions per person.

Of course, countries like the US and China with a population much larger than ours, have higher emissions. But there’s no obvious reason why this should be relevant. The 20 million residents of Southern California might reasonably say that, if Australia’s emissions make no difference, neither do theirs. And the 100 million people of Henan province in China, whose total emissions are about equal to ours, could make the same claim with even more justice.

A more superficially respectable version the argument, and one of several positions adopted by Opposition Leader Brendan Nelson in the last week, is that, as a small country, we should not get ahead of the rest of the world, incurring the costs of reducing our own emissions, but not realising any benefits from mitigation.

There is, however, little danger of our finding ourselves way out in front. Until the recent change of government, we were, along with the United States, bringing up the rear. To be more accurate, the Howard and Bush Administrations were dragging the chain. On the one hand, it was claimed (contrary to the agreement at Kyoto) that developed countries shouldn’t do anything unless developing countries like China and India also cut their emissions. Meanwhile, surreptitious encouragement was given to those in developing countries who opposed any action.

The Rudd government’s ratification of the Kyoto protocol has put Australia in front of the US, and also in front of some backsliders like Canada, whose conservative government (heavily influenced by its own “sceptics�) has abandoned any effort to meet its commitments. But we are still nowhere near the front of the pack.

Even assuming the government’s ambitious schedule of a 2010 implementation date for emissions trading is reached, we will be well behind the EU (which currently accounts for nearly a third of global economic output, and around 15 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions), not to mention New Zealand.

It might however, be argued that the previous policy of bringing up the rear was the right one, and that even the middle of the pack is too far in front. A look at our current position suggests the opposite. Given the absence of any serious action on climate change under the Howard government, introducing an emissions trading scheme by 2010 will indeed be more costly, and have a higher risk of failure, than would a more leisurely schedule.

But with the Copenhagen negotiations on a post-Kyoto agreement fast approaching, leisure is something we don’t have. If Australia is to present a defensible negotiating position on issues like the treatment of agriculture, we need some concrete evidence that we are taking action to reduce emissions. The window-dressing offered on such occasions by the previous government will not pass muster. And while the ratification of Kyoto was an important step, the symbolism must now be backed by substance.

The advocates of delay seem to think that Australia can act as a free rider indefinitely. But free riders eventually face sanctions. The European Union is already talking about border taxes to be imposed on imports from non-complying countries.

Such ideas are unlikely to go far while the Bush Administration remains in office. But once the US is part of an international climate agreement, life is likely to become uncomfortable for those who choose to remain on the outside. While there is still room for debate about the details of the scheme proposed in the Green Paper, the time for delay has already passed.

44 thoughts on “The litterbug argument

  1. The other advantage of developed countries going it early and alone is that they can use that time to develop and more importantly scale-up low-cost low-emissions technology.

    Developing countries are probably only going to chose low-carbon options if the additional cost is low and the sooner those options are available the better.

  2. observa @15. “if carbon embedded in imports from China…”

    If you want to count it in the UK, you have to deduct it from the Chinese emissions. You can’t count it twice.

  3. Pr Q says:

    Many critics of an emissions trading scheme have embraced what might economists call a ‘free rider’ policy, but might better be described as the ‘litterbug’ argument. This is the claim that since Australia contributes only a small portion of emissions, it does not matter whether or not we do anything to reduce them. This is much the same as a litterbug saying that their beercan or chip packet is not going to make any difference, so they may as well dump it.

    The fallacy in the litterbug argument (actually it is a superficially plausible analogy) is obvious. This is because legal coercion rather than moral consent will be required to solve the AGW problem.

    All citizens of this nation accept their political obligation to the sovereign state. Littering is against that state’s law. And effective policing and penalties for littering are already in place.

    A large fraction of the worlds population do not recognise the sovereign authority of the UN-IPCC in regard to policing climate pollution. Global carbon pollution, unlike local littering, is not against any laws. And no effective global penalties against it are in place or are imminent given the recalcitrant attitudes of the worlds most powerful and promiscuous carbon polluters.

    The literature of global warming is replete with references to economic game theory (free rider, prisoners dilemma, tipping point.) Its worth remembering that these theories emerged from studies of intractable conflict – cold wars or civil wars. Schelling, even more than Olson, is the guide.

    It would be nice if people recognised the moral force of the litterbug argument. But political morality, as Hobbes observed, is mostly just alot of hot air without the sanction of effective force. To get over the prisoners dilemma you need a warden.

    In the current institutional situation our puny efforts at carbon cleanliness will be swamped by “bad neighbourhood” effects. When the “there goes the neighbourhood” effect kicks in you have reached the tipping point. Not much point keeping a tidy house when every other house on the street is afflicted by vagrancy or blight.

    The carbon litterbuggers are correct to imply that there is no global anti-pollution Leviathan. But they are wrong to imply that all anti-carbon measures are therefore hopeless. A Green Leviathan tending to “zero tolerance” is indicated.

    It may be that Kyoto-IPCC is actually a proto-form of World Government cum Green Leviathan, rather than a glorified garbage collector. In which case it would be more honest for its proponents to say so.

    I am more inclined to think that it will require a MASSIVE ECOLOGICAL DISASTER to bring forth Leviathan. I do not think a global version of the USE will work in time. It normally takes a blow to the head to rapidly bring our species to it political senses.

    It is worth noting that the most effective carbon mitigating schemes in recent history have been the result of Big Brother – the PRC’s one child policy and Three Gorges hydro scheme.

  4. Jack, I think this comment would have been unnecessary if you had read the penultimate para of the post. Perhaps you think the sanction suggested there would be ineffectual or wouldn’t be applied, but at least we would be arguing about specific, limited policies rather than invoking the ghost of Hobbes.

  5. jquiggin Says: July 20th, 2008 at 10:24 pm

    Jack, I think this comment would have been unnecessary if you had read the penultimate para of the post. Perhaps you think the sanction suggested there would be ineffectual or wouldn’t be applied, but at least we would be arguing about specific, limited policies rather than invoking the ghost of Hobbes.

    Over the past decade I have become a fairly gloomy pessimist about the prospect for effective collective public good provision accross many spheres – whether national security, technological novelty or ecological sustainability. This rather tends to make all “comment…unnecessary”, not just mine! I invite optimists to disabuse me of my shallow pessimism.

    I did “read the penultimate para of the post” and I do “think sanction suggested there would be ineffectual or wouldn’t be applied”. The European Union’s vague talk about “border taxes to be imposed on imports from non-complying countries” does not even rise to the level of “specific and limited policies”. It falls under the category of what I call “puny efforts at carbon cleanliness”. Neither vague threats nor homilies about littering is going to stop the carbon juggernaut.

    Especially in view of the USE’s conspicuous failure to control its carbon emissions over the past few years, inspite (or because of?) its ostentatiously launched ETS. That scheme is getting a suspiciously large amount of support from carbon emission traders sensing a financial rorting opportunity.

    I am more interested in raising the spectre of Communism, rather than disinterring the ghost of Hobbes. The PRC’s awesome authoritarian power is a turbo-powered version of Hobbes Leviathan, capable of both propagating and mitigating carbon.

    The melting polar ice caps are a clear case of the “tragedy of the commons. In theory we need some hegemonic agency – a “common power to over-awe us all” – that is capable of internalising the goods and bads flowing through ecological systems. Now I ask you, does the USE sound like it fits that bill?

    I expect that, when the global fridge is well and truly defrosted and the kitchen thoroughly flooded, we will be more than willing to hand over effective powers to a Green Leviathan. It will have to be an agency with an army.

    OTOH, it has been the locals who have been taking action whilst the globals have been “acting”. Local authorities, including litter-conscious households, seem to be more concerned about the problem than the Great Powers whatever their concert.

    Whatever the scale of action I do not think the mode of resolution will be liberal.

    Baby boomers have been on the personal and professional party to end all parties for almost two generations. Now we face the mother of all hangovers: (private) biological aging and (public) ecological warming.

    I do not think that our cherished brand of consensual liberalism, especially in its degenerate post-modern “do as we feel then cut a deal” form, will be effective or expeditious to cope with either problem. Coercive corporalism, ie institutional authority given rationing and regimenting powers, is a desperate attempt to avert a clear and present danger. Probably our best hope.

  6. I should add, emphaticly, that although I do not find Pr Q’s litterbug analogy plausible on a political level it does not follow that it is not compelling on a personal level.

    Authoritarian action will be required to correct AWG on the global level. But that does not excuse autonomous action to correct AWG at the local level.

    Of course we should support Kyoto & ETS, despite the fact that they will not do much good such as they are. And we should also act to constrain our own carbon emissions by driving smaller cars, turning off lights supporting public transport etc.

  7. FDB Says: July 21st, 2008 at 11:54 am

    Shorter Jack S – think global, act local.
    Who knew?

    No, shorter Jack: act local, act global.

    FWIW I am a big fan of more global agencies. The intellectual bark of the UN & IPCC is impressive given their recent good calls. But their institutional bite is pathetic.

    Nor do I have much faith in liberal measures. Given the ecologic state and the economic trends I doubt that liberal measures, such as “innovative trading schemes”, will do the trick. Too much technological and metereological inertia.

    Individual autonomies – including free [!] riding nations – are not fulfilling the promise of freedom. You can see this in such disparate areas as obesity, pollution and indigenous governance.

    Institutional authorities should come clean that corporal, rather than liberal, methods will be required to constrain our unruly appetites. (This goes for obesity as well. The revival of the sadistic PT instructor is surely not far off.)

    So I forsee much more regimentation, regulation and rationing of resources if we are serious about tackling such problems. The indigenous intervention (effectively martial law) is an example of how such leadership works.

    Some global state needs to take the lead in forcing climate mitigation down everyones throat. I cant see the USE being an effective carbon cop. I dont see the USA having either the indvidual will or institutional ability to force its constituents to take the lead.

    By process of elimination it will have to be the PRC. They have the instututional ability. Just need the individual will.

    My best guess is that the PRC will suffer some absolutely dire ecological crisis which will force that nation to take the lead, nationally and globally, and use its considerable economic and military pressure to force others to follow suit. The PRC has a lot of spare cash at its disposal.

    I see that the previous generation of Politburo officers – engineers to a man – are giving way to bean counters. That is probably a hopeful sign.

  8. ‘observa @15. “if carbon embedded in imports from China…â€?
    If you want to count it in the UK, you have to deduct it from the Chinese emissions. You can’t count it twice.’
    Agreed melanie but where’s the benefit of ETS if it merely offshores our dark satanic mills at an even faster rate? We get the AGW and the local blue collar unemployment, but I guess the latter don’t matter to the people who really count these days. Unfortunately we are about to find out that making the things we want does matter I’m afraid. Rising asset prices, financial intermediation and a latte economy will be cold comfort when the debt collector comes knocking.

  9. Logically, if we’re going to include embedded carbon emissions in British imports in Britain’s carbon emissions, we should exclude embedded carbon in British exports from Britain’s accounts.

    Given that back in 1990, Britain still had a coal industry (of sorts) I wouldn’t be too quick to assume that emissiosn have risen.

    Let me know when somebody does the complete exercise – which will probably show Australia and Saudi Arabia neck-and-neck for the title of world’s largest polluter.

  10. Actually that last comment makes no sense.

    In fact once Australia debits the imbedded carbon from our aluminium, base metal and agricultural exports fromo ur national accoutns, we’ll probably be amopngst the lowest per capita emitters in the developed world.

  11. Ian, if you want to examine the embedded emissions from our exports, you should examine the latest National Inventory by Economic Sector, which breaks down emissions according to end use and so on. You will have to look elsewhere to see how much these industries produce for exports, although I do recall that 70% of beef production is for exports.

    You will probably find that our emissions would be significantly less, but still greater per capita than many developed countries, including most of Europe. The reason being that our electricity generation is much more greenhouse gas intensive than most countries. For this same reason Australia’s aluminum production is also more greenhouse gas intensive than most countries.

  12. Here’s BRendan Nelson’s proposal:

    Australian politician calls for ‘meaningless’ carbon trading

    “Our policy has not changed, and that policy is we would implement an emissions trading scheme, cap-and-trade, no later than 2012,” he told Sky News.

    “And obviously what you would do, if for example we haven’t got the big emitters on board, what you do is the price of carbon is set so low and the (emissions) trajectory is so low as to be near meaningless.”


    Since the ‘Think Global, Act Local’ nostrum has been raised above, its worth pointing out that, if our high-GHG emmitting industries – eg aluminium – really are the most globally efficient, thinking globally could require not only that such production be retained in Australia, but in fact that there should potentially be an increase in the production of such industries in Australia. Of course, this would result in our per capita emmissions going up (showing what a useless indicator, on its own, this is), but, for a given level of global output of such industries, should reduced emmissions overall.

    Somehow though, I doubt that most of the people who one hears sprouting the TGAL nostrum would actually support this logical outcome of the proposition.

  14. Tom N – that is a valid argument and one I’ve made in the past.

    Unfortunately aluminium isn’t the best example. The Australian aluminium industry uses coal-powered electricity because our coal-powered electricity is the cheapest in the world. Much of the overseas industry uses hydro because it’s as cheap or cheaper.

    I would expect though that Australian black coal, which is amongst the cleanest-burning on the planet, will take market share away from lignite and other more-polluting forms of coal during the transition to a low-carbon economy.

    Whether that translates into higher actual volumes is another question.

  15. “Much of the overseas industry uses hydro because it’s as cheap or cheaper.”
    That may be true Ian, but existing hydro(ie Snowy) has alternative uses, which enterprising companies like Origin and Truenergy wanted to sell as ‘green energy’. Why not you may well ask? Well that raises an interesting quandary for ETS fans. Apart from encouraging enterprises like palm oil for biodiesel, corn, etc for ethanol, ETS can also foster damming rivers and flooding wilderness. Close La Trobe and dam the Franklin anyone?

  16. Essentially Ian, you should be acutely aware that global ETS has some powerful incentives to conduct counterproductive enterprise with natural terrestial environment, not least in more vulnerable LDCs. There is absolute silence from ETS fans on that.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s