23 November 2009: Copenhagen, targets and policies

Not surprisingly, the media discussion of climate change is dominated by the countdown to Copenhagen. EU environment ministers are meeting today to try to strengthen the European negotiating position, though they won’t be able to make progress on the key issue of funding, as this is up to finance ministers (see EurActiv: EU ministers to outline expectations for Copenhagen). The US climate envoy, Todd Stern, accepted publicly at the weekend that the US had to offer numbers for its proposed cut. An excellent summary of the state of negotiations is in today’s Independent newspaper (see The Independent: Countdown to Copenhagen: A change in the political climate on emissions).

Copenhagen is important, but actually cutting emissions is more important than setting targets. There has been some good news on this recently from Japanese steel makers. At a time when overall Japanese emissions have been rising, the steel sector has reduced its emissions to 7.4% below its 1990 level, mainly through using energy more efficiently (see Reuters: Japan steelmakers buy less CO2 offsets than thought).

This is a move in the right direction, but not nearly enough. Japanese steel makers could do much more and they will be required to do so by the new Japanese government. Government policy has a central role in moving to low-carbon economies. This is not a debate between capitalism and socialism. Markets and competition have an important role, but they need to be regulated. Free markets deliver filthy energy. A good example of the progressive role of regulation is California – not generally regarded as a socialist state!

As well as through regulation, governments can shape markets and individual behaviour through taxation. There has been a long debate about shifting taxation from good things like employment and onto bad things like pollution and waste. This could deliver a ‘double dividend’ – higher employment and less environmental damage. However, today, the debate should not mainly be about shifting taxation, but about which taxes should go up to reduce fiscal deficits. At a time of major unemployment and with the urgent need to reduce emissions, taxes on carbon should increase and taxes on labour should not.

An interesting variation of the green tax shift has been presented this month by the Dutch government – to reduce purchase and road tax on cars and raise the money instead through road pricing for every kilometre driven. This is intended to reduce the amount of driving undertaken, thereby cutting carbon emissions and also reducing traffic jams (the Dutch road network gets heavily congested). Fuel-inefficient vehicles will pay more for every kilometre driven than efficient ones.  (See Euronews: Netherlands to charge road tax by the kilometre.)

Some environmentalists (usually those living near public transport or able to cycle) argue that making car ownership cheaper is itself bad for the environment. However, the Dutch approach is good, because it will make people drive less and buy more efficient vehicles. It could also promote the uptake of electric vehicles, which could be exempt from the kilometre tax.

Some have also objected about the invasion of privacy, since vehicles will be tracked by satellite. This has been well answered by the Environmental Transport Association:

People will worry that the system heralds the arrival of Big Brother, but our mobile phone handsets already double as a highly-effective means of tracking our movements.

 So, if you’re worried about being tracked, don’t have a mobile phone. If you think that the advantages of mobiles outweigh the loss of secrecy, accept that the advantages of saving billions of lives do too.

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