Pure Advantage report good in parts, but silent on carbon pricing

by Mr February on June 13, 2012

Mr February (aka Simon Johnson) examines the latest Pure Advantage report promoting green economics. It’s all great sustainability stuff except that it fails to mention carbon pricing (emissions trading schemes or carbon taxes). How seriously can we take the Pure Advantage “green growth” message on climate change, when they are not upfront about their position on a price on carbon?

Pure Advantage, the green business advocacy group, have just released a new green growth report titled ‘New Zealand’s Position in the Green Race’. Hot Topic has posted about Pure Advantage before and PA founder Phillip Mills provided a guest post on how NZ needs a bold low-carbon business strategy.

The report has three goals: to define green growth, to summarise New Zealand’s uninspiring environmental and economic performance, and to propose “a process for developing a green growth recipe for NZ and a strategy for delivering it” (page 27). The basic idea of the report is clear from this graphic — where ‘Green Growth’ starts as an amorphous brain storm of ideas, which then gets focused through the ‘NZ Green Race’ report and an economic analysis, before emerging like a butterfly from a chrysalis as a number of strategies and policies.

Pure Advantage believes that “corporates need to step up to provide the necessary leadership” because “New Zealand’s political leadership has successively failed to make the distinction between greening our current dirty industries, and creating new forms of high-value growth in a green economy” (page 11). Hear hear for both observations!

Climate change features strongly in their definition of green growth (as does flowery language). Green Growth is:

“the aggregated economic benefit that comes from minimising waste and the inefficient use of energy, reducing pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, enhancing natural resources and biodiversity” … “an economic progression driven by a series of interrelated and unprecedented global commercial imperatives, including the geopolitical drive for domestic energy security, exploding population growth, changing social demographics, mounting climate obligations, rapid decarbonisation of economies towards renewable energy…” … “a global economic revolution driven by a series of interrelated global mega-trends, including rapid decarbonisation of economies towards renewable energy

The report works well on the first two goals, but it fails in terms of the the third, because their ‘recipe’ for dealing with climate change does not include carbon pricing.

The New Zealand Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) is mentioned twice in the report. On page 27 there is a brief mention of the ETS in discussion of NZ’s growth in greenhouse gases. And in a quote from the OECD on page 34.

So what? Should Pure Advantage mention the ETS or carbon taxes/prices? The ETS is probably perceived to be most boring topic ever. Discussing the ETS is usually flogging the dead horse to swallow the elephant in the room.

But how do Pure Advantage think we can achieve a rapid decarbonisation of the economy without carbon pricing? As James Hansen says there needs to be a rising carbon fee on all emissions of carbon dioxide and greenhouse gases. Or, as the economist William Nordhaus says:

“If economics provides a single bottom line for policy, it is that we need to correct this market failure by ensuring that all people, everywhere, and for the indefinite future are confronted with a market price for the use of carbon that reflects the social costs of their activities. Economic participants—thousands of governments, millions of firms, billions of people, all making trillions of decisions each year—need to face realistic prices for the use of carbon if their decisions about consumption, investment, and innovation are to be appropriate.”

It is very unlikely that Pure Advantage don’t have an opinion on emissions trading and carbon pricing. Its also very unlikely that they think they know better than either Hansen or Nordhaus. They are after all successful intelligent business people who have identified with sustainability. So its highly improbable that the Pure Advantage team think that decarbonising the economy can be done without effective carbon pricing.

So why don’t they mention carbon pricing explicitly as an essential method to decarbonise? I suspect the answer lies in this quote from the executive summary:

“To date much of the green debate in New Zealand has focused on the downside: costs and enforced obligations. Pure Advantage has been formed to focus on the economic upside of being green…”

“Costs and enforced obligations”: that sounds more like the traditional business take on the ETS. The Pure Advantage team seems to view the ETS as a downside, just like the rest of the business community who are not-so green-growth. And they only want to push the upside of green growth. So in promoting green growth (and decarbonising) to their business colleagues, Pure Advantage feel they have to downplay the ETS.

I have problems with this approach. It is less then completely transparent. Its also not showing leadership. Wouldn’t real green growth leadership involve openly stating that New Zealand must have a carbon price? That New Zealand needs to have an effective no-exception no-subsidies ETS or carbon tax instead of the ineffective NZETS?

William Nordhaus has made this comment on people who have global warming eloquence without carbon pricing.

Whether someone is serious about tackling the global-warming problem can be readily gauged by listening to what he or she says about the carbon price. Suppose you hear a public figure who speaks eloquently of the perils of global warming and proposes that the nation should move urgently to slow climate change. Suppose that person proposes regulating the fuel efficiency of cars, or requiring high-efficiency lightbulbs, or subsidizing ethanol, or providing research support for solar power—but nowhere does the proposal raise the price of carbon. You should conclude that the proposal is not really serious and does not recognize the central economic message about how to slow climate change. To a first approximation, raising the price of carbon is a necessary and sufficient step for tackling global warming. The rest is at best rhetoric and may actually be harmful in inducing economic inefficiencies.

I’d love to hear from a spokesperson from Pure Advantage who can tell me that they are not just “eloquent speakers” on global warming — who do not propose a carbon price.

Here are some questions for Pure Advantage.

  • Do they recognise the economic point that decarbonising must involve carbon pricing?
  • Do they accept that the NZETS is an ineffective carbon price scheme?
  • If yes to both these questions, why don’t they show leadership and stand publicly for what they believe in?

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Tom Bennion June 14, 2012 at 2:28 pm

I quite agree. Why cant groups bring themselves to tackle this issue head on?

Why is it that environmental groups feel the need to attack oil and gas extraction primarily on grounds of pollution from spills, when the primary issue is that burning this stuff risks a far, far greater threat – runaway climate change? Run away climate change will make an oil spill in the Arctic seem like a walk in the park.

If green business and lobby groups have a theory that a call for an immediate end to all non-essential burning of fossil fuels will be too hard on their supporters, I would love to know what timeframe they have in mind for convincing them. Will it take half a decade, a decade? Is there a parts per million trigger level when the message will finally change? after 400ppm? After 450?

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