Richard Ritchie is the author of a recent history of a secretive group of Conservative MPs called The Progress Trust (Without Hindsight: A History of the Progress Trust 1943-2005). He is Enoch Powell’s archivist and is a former Conservative Parliamentary Candidate. He was BP’s director of UK Political Affairs.
There is something in the air, and it’s not just carbon or virus emissions. Earlier this month, ConservativeHome carried a piece by Rachel Wolf, championing carbon pricing – that is the polite way of describing some form of carbon tax. Then, the influential economist Dieter Helm published in September a new book, Net Zero: How We Stop Causing Climate Change, which explains in detail the rationale behind a carbon tax. And from The Times, we’ve learnt that the Chancellor is considering such a tax for his next, Covid-19 budget.
It’s not a new idea. When I worked for BP and climate change first entered the political agenda – before, the main worry was that oil would run out and become too expensive – thoughts on how to price carbon were already in circulation. The oil and gas industry saw some merit in the concept, but favoured emissions trading over a tax, correctly identifying this as a less expensive, Europe-inspired fudge. Now, the combination of a pandemic and climate crisis gives the idea of a carbon tax real traction.
The political implications are important. Climate change and Covid-19 have much in common. Both require us to “follow the science”, although in neither case is the science unanimous. Both are manna from heaven for those who wish to “shut-down” the economy, and limit personal freedom. Both provide excuses for expanding the state. And in both cases, the cure can prove worse than the disease.
There can be little doubt that, so far, global policies to reduce carbon emissions have failed. This won’t worry those who are sceptical of the causes of climate change. But if one believes a failure to act now is to bequeath a catastrophe to future generations, then those on the “right” should be as concerned as those on the “left”.
Where we differ will be on the remedies. So far, “left-of-centre” remedies have generally been the norm. The Kyoto Protocol in 2007 and the Paris Agreement in 2015 have been little more than an opportunity for governments and lobbyists to parade their compassion. Whatever Trump’s motives may be surrounding climate change, his analysis of the Paris Agreement is basically sound. Some of course think its failure is due to inadequate targets; but their targets would make the economic consequences of Covid-19 seem trivial in comparison.
So the question is whether there is a policy which would reduce carbon emissions effectively, in an economically rational way. This is surely one reason why Rishi Sunak is attracted by the idea of a carbon tax as a means of reducing carbon consumption.
In Dieter Helm’s view, the word “consumption” is pivotal. It is no good concentrating solely on industrial emissions, as these won’t necessarily have any global effect – it simply drives emissions abroad, frequently to China. But a carbon tax which crucially incorporated a carbon border tax on imports would, by targeting attention on everyone’s personal carbon footprint, incentivise many things which probably make sense in themselves anyway.
There will be many Conservatives who will argue that all taxes do harm, and that the introduction of a “new” tax is incompatible with Tory beliefs. But unless one is totally sceptical of the science, and dismissive of the need to balance the books, there is much to be said for taxing “bads” rather than “goods”.
Of course it is open to many objections. For example, does the Treasury regard a carbon tax as an emergency measure to raise revenue, or a longstanding instrument to influence behaviour? If it is to serve its purpose, it will eventually yield less revenue.
Equally, if applied in the wrong way, it could merely make this country less competitive. Without care, it could prove regressive. Indeed, if the Paris riots over fuel duty are any guide, it could also prove politically impossible.
Then, for it to work, there must be alternatives for consumers to choose from. Not many will choose an electric car, for example, if there is no guarantee that it can be charged along the journey. (Although mention of electric cars also serves as a reminder that not everything is at it seems – an electric car takes twice as much carbon to produce than a conventional one. A carbon tax would sort that out too).
On the other hand, if properly devised a carbon tax has the capacity both to raise government revenue and to reduce carbon emissions, and even to incentivise other countries to follow suit. Matters to be decided include how the carbon price is fixed and at what level it should be introduced. Should it be levied on consumption or production? Does the tax provide sufficient time for consumers to adjust?
This is the political danger. Carbon taxes could come to the rescue of a cash-strapped Chancellor, because they hold out the prospect of raising new revenue without breaking a manifesto commitment not to raise existing taxes. But if the carbon tax is set too high at the outset, it will be counter-productive. If the Treasury is following Helm’s advice, “the trick is to start low, but credibly signal that the price is going to go up as high as is necessary to achieve the (carbon reduction) target.”
There is no painless way of reducing carbon emissions. Those on the “left” will embrace a policy which involves “picking winners”, nationalisation, subsidies, exemptions, regulation and illiberal compliance. A lobbyist’s paradise. The alternative is to incentivise new technologies, create new markets and provide practical signals to consumers. This is the purpose of a carbon tax. It will never be “popular” because the costs of transforming the networks, communications and transport of this country to facilitate lower carbon emissions are enormous.
But compared with the alternatives, a carbon tax is at least rational and addresses all the major sources of carbon emissions, namely agriculture, transport and electricity. Moreover, it produces a new source of government revenue at a time when it is desperately needed.
Any new tax is depressing to a free market Tory. But climate change, like pandemics, raises issues which are more important than economics. If it is a whole load of nonsense to claim that today’s climate change is man-made, then we are free to carry on as we are.
But if not, Tories have an obligation to advocate alternative solutions to those of the socialist “greens”. The market is the best way of allocating scare resources effectively. But in a time of war, the market cannot tell us how much to spend on butter or guns. That is a political choice, and it is the nature of the choice presented by climate change, if most scientists are to be believed. On so many levels and for so many reasons, it is hardly surprising if Sunak is pondering one.