Bad news on the global climate

Carbon dioxide emissions rose strongly last year after several years of a near plateau. It appears that the main factor was increased use of oil, mainly as motor fuel. I’ll try to do a more detailed analysis later, but the central element of the required response is obvious. Just like coal-fired power stations, petrol-driven motor cars need to be phased out, as quickly as possible. Australia, as an oil importer with no domestic car production is in a position to pursue this target aggressively. We should, as others have done, commit to a date, say 2030, after which all new cars sold would be zero emission.

58 thoughts on “Bad news on the global climate

  1. I see no reason why we shouldn’t start taxing the sales price of vehicles based on their emissions. We will need to make sure car manufacturers aren’t cheating when it comes the the real fuel economy an emissions of their vehicles.

  2. “We should, as others have done, commit to a date, say 2030, after which all new cars sold would be zero emission.”

    Yes, that’s what we should do. After 20 years or more of failing to do what we should do, it’s reasonable to question if we will do it now. On the one hand, past behaviour is the best guide to future behaviour. On the other hand, changes in behaviour and newly emerging behaviours are possible too.

    With the increasing urgency of the problem interacting with our demonstrated incapacity for prompt responses, I would say the pace of change will accelerate, albeit the acceleration will still be too slow to meet the full requirements for saving the situation. But we have to try. Not trying guarantees a worse outcome.

    We need to start envisaging a set of fall-back or contingency plans. For example, rationing, price controls and some command economy elements may become necessary relatively soon. It will be better to have those plans developed and in the cupboard ready for action, if need be, than to be caught completely unprepared. It could be a threatened stick. Adopt voluntary restrictions and compliance (just like some water restrictions) or force the government to implement more rigid formal controls.

    Certainly, banning the sale of internal combustion automobiles (except for some exclusions perhaps) after 2030 should be part of the first serious stage of legislation-led change rather than market-led change in at least some sectors of the economy. If we wait for the market to do it all, homo sapiens is certainly all dead.

  3. I think a $25 per tonne tax on CO2 amounts to about a 7 cents per litre tax on fuel. A $250 per tonne carbon tax would be 35 cents per litre. These are not large figures and don’t in themselves suggest a case for an outright ban. What am I missing here?

  4. @harryrclarke Electric vehicles are roughly cost-competitive with petrol driven vehicles already
    A tax of 70 cents a litre would be prohibitive for petrol vehicles, once there was full adjustment (petrol stations closing, electric charging expanding, repair industries switching etc). The requirement for an ordered phaseout reflects the following facts
    * Price-based policies are politically impossible to implement (see Macron)
    * There is a huge co-ordination problem which would delay the process unacceptably

  5. We’ve been somewhat misled by the fact that even a modest carbon price is enough to make coal-fired electricity uneconomic. We’ll need an effective price of $100-$200/tonne or more to shift away from oil and gas.

  6. Harry Clarke, as you allude to, a 7 cent or even 35 cent per liter addition to petrol won’t have a massive effect on people’s car purchasing habits. This is because people mostly care about what they can afford at the time of purchase, performance, and how sexy they think it makes them. Buy basing the sales price of cars on their emissions we have an immediate effect on the fuel consumption of all new vehicles sold as people will have to pay upfront if they want a car with high emissions per kilometer.

    In addition, at least a portion of the health costs of vehicles should be built into vehicle purchase price. This alone could add thousands of dollars to the purchase price of a petrol guzzler.

    These two things will be enough to get most people to switch to low emission vehicles. The benefit of a ban is to help provide stability and predictability to the car market. No beating around the bush with conditions that may be soft peddled later.

  7. It’s a big ask for nothing but all-electric vehicles by 2030, but there’s no reason to think that all new cars couldn’t be either hybrids or all-electric. The latest hybrids don’t use much petrol and have the advantage of being self-charging.

  8. @John Quiggin

    I’m disappointed that you’ve raised France’s protest as an example of price based policy being politically impossible.

    The TICPE has been in place for more than a decade, replacing another tax which has been in place for even longer. Even back in 2012, the TICPE was already 44 Euro cents per litre for diesel and 61 Euro cents per litre for petrol (with regional variations). Plus, even after Macron backed down, the protest continues.

    Even the NY Times and the Guardian (to my surprise), has got articles pointing out the main reason for the protest is not the increase (emphasis) in the fuel tax which was already in place for a long time, but rising inequality and the poverty of the regional areas of France. I would put the blame of the protest at EU instead of fuel tax.

    Playing along with the rightwing media’s favorite line about fuel tax leading to protests and riots is unhelpful.

  9. It’s not a big ask to reduce the tax on vehicles that get 20+ kilometers per liter and increase it on vehicles that only get 10 or fewer kilometers per liter from the 1st of July. No need for it to be this simplistic, but you get the drift. We can very rapidly reduce emissions and improve health by shifting purchasing decisions in the very near term. This will save lives and give Australian families more money in their pockets each week. There is not a lot not to like about it.

  10. Certainly agree, John, with your point that a 70 cent tax on petrol would be politically unpopular. Perhaps, too, setting a ban may encourage innovation in the electric car industry and in the battery industry. My point was that bans are usually unpopular in economics because of unintended effects. They are normally only justified when the associated social marginal costs are close to infinite. That does not seem to be the case here. Of course the same social marginal costs of emissions should prevail across the board – in vehicles, electricity generation and farming.

  11. The fuel tax increase was clearly the trigger for the protests in France, though clearly they get their energy from wider and more structural frustrations.

    One important addition to JQ’s policy proposal is that cities can act when governments drag their feet. London’s ULEZ enjoys wide and bipartisan support. It’s a road pricing surcharge on polluting vehicles not an outright ban, so there is an escape hatch for emergencies. The fee (£10 a day IIRC) is big enough for a deterrent to car commuting, very low in London anyway, and for fleet logistics managers to plan switching to electric vans and trucks when they hit the market any day now.

  12. PS: if green mayors are accused of hijacking a responsibility of national government, their rejoinder is that the huge health costs of air pollution are local. May can’t tell Sadiq Khan that the health of Londoners is not part of his remit.

  13. A point in the data. The bad new comes from Le Queré at the Tyndall Centre and the IEA, the best sources we have on emissions. But 2018 isn’t over yet. The estimate is based on 9 or at most 10 months of data, some provisional. The uncertainty range must be fairly wide. If the news of high coal stocks at Chinese power stations is true, the final outturn could be somewhat less bad than today’s headline.

  14. It’s not just France that is a warning. Milosevic, Orban and Trump – and Brexit – all owe their political success to a disaffected rural/small town populace (and they are a significant force in Australian politics too, despite Australia’s very high levels of urbanisation and general “primate city” configuration). These people need more than a price hike and an admonishment to move to the city if they want to get ahead. For one thing, they control the food supply and, if you want to know how ugly that can get, read up on the Russian Civil War.

    Before Beecham, there were few places in Britain more than a few kms from a railway station. before Thatcher, there were subsidised country bus services. Before tariff “reform”, there were small food-processing and other industries scattered across Australia, providing decent skilled jobs. Now the herrings are caught in Scotland, sent to China to be packed and sent back to be sold in Edinburgh. If we are going to price their means of getting to the shops and doctors out of their meagre pockets, it might be a good idea to think about what alternatives we can supply.

  15. Using the U.K. as an example, the act of privatisation of rail and bus, with its subsequent failures, must have only helped to encourage travellers into cars.. If public transport is too costly for govt then a subsidy on electric cars could be cost effective.

  16. The country used to be able to withhold goods from the city (Russian civil war, etc) because the rural areas had peasants who had the alternative of eating the corn/pigs/wheat themselves. Now, even where the farmers aren’t the same megacorps that run the cities, farms have few people and many machines; even if you can keep production on the farm, you can’t consume it. Australia’s never had a peasantry: rural/city divisions are keyed to acceptance of modernity, not economics.

  17. IIRC, ten years ago we were talking on this blog about what we could and should do about global warming. Today, “can” and “should” still pepper the discussion. In J.Q.’s words, “Carbon dioxide emissions rose strongly last year after several years of a near plateau.”

    Certainly, the Keeling curve measured on Mauna Loa shows no sign of reflecting that near plateau by even the smallest inflection. Now, before anyone rushes to misconstrue this statement, let me say this. Of course, the Keeling Curve is not a measure of yearly human emissions. It is a measure, at a point on Mauna Loa, of the concentration of CO2 accumulated in the atmosphere. As such it will respond over time to these main factors:

    Natural Emissions + Human Emissions – Plant Photosythesis effects – Intakes by carbon sinks.

    Clearly, to have no appreciable effect on the progress of this curve, means any or possibly all of;

    (1) Natural emissions are rising from environmental and feedback effects;
    (2) Human Emissions are rising;
    (3) Photosynthesis intake of CO2 is declining;
    (4) Natural carbon sink intake of CO2 is declining.

    It is the final result that counts towards climate change. Since the curve has continued rising from 2000, in a slight but definite exponential manner, and without any noticeable inflections downwards, the only conclusion can be that our attempts, since that date, to control emissions have been wholly inadequate and ineffective (feeble) with respect to the rising total concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere.

    This was entirely predictable and many scientific realists who are also political economy realists did predict it. Namely, that we would completely fail while we continued to run a capitalist system. This system, in its late stage, is incapable of purely internally generated change. This is where I part company from left theorists who contend that timely, pre-emptive reform or revolution is still possible.

    To state that a system is incapable of purely internally generated change is merely to state that outside feed-backs are necessary to influence the system to change. In this case, the external feed-backs, from the environment system obviously, will need to be robust and highly disruptive. We need have no doubt that they will be robust and highly disruptive. Only under the influence of highly damaging and disruptive feed-backs from the environment will the mass of people be influenced to abandon capitalism.

  18. Has anyone worked out the net reduction in emissions if all cars were electric (bearing in mind that at present the electricity that would charge the cars is 60% made with coal)?

    Also, a lot of vehicles are not cars. They are trucks and vans, and no one (as far as I know) is making electric trucks and vans.

  19. Understand the political problems of a large one off increase in fuel cost. What about a gradual increase, say 3 cents per litre per month?

  20. This news item had me checking that it wasn’t April 1st.

    “COP24 President defends participation of coal companies at climate talks” – ABC.

    There was a coal display (a pile of coal), plus coal soap and coal jewellery. A coal miners’ band played and the event was held in a coal mining city in pro-coal Poland. The clear point of these stage-managed media “optics” was a strong pro-coal message. This is beyond insult and provocation. This is an arrogant display of untrammeled power. They are saying, “Even in the supposed inner sanctum of fossil fuel opposition we can come in and plaster coal everywhere. We can rub it in your face and you are powerless.”

    If it wasn’t so grotesque and tragic it would be laughable. As Richard Attenborough said, “We’re facing a man-made disaster of global scale”. Clearly, the political and economic powers of the world in ignoring this are 100% committed to fossil fuels and 100% committed to destroying our world.

    We have to wonder at this 100% commitment to destroy our world. It is no longer entirely composed of denial of climate change. It now contains a new element of realisation that the science might be right after all. But what it is saying is “Well, if we are wrong, if we can’t have the world the way we want it, with us in charge and getting all the wealth, then we are going to destroy it so nobody can have it.”

    I think matters have progressed to this point. Realising that they can’t win in the long term, that their system cannot be perpetual, certain players in the fossil fuel world and capitalist world have decided to deliberately destroy the world and have fun (for their own lifetimes) while they do it. No other thesis seems strong enough to explain the monstrous dimensions of cruel and destructive perversity on display. This is beyond mere stupidity. This is deliberate destructive perversity.

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