‘Where have you been? Have you been hiding from me?’ I saw it was Jim speaking when I looked up from reading the paper. I hadn’t exactly been avoiding him, but then I hadn’t really missed not seeing him for a few months.
Jim asked me if I could give him a lift home. He gave me some long and convoluted explanation about why he needed a lift, but I thought he was probably just looking for a captive audience - someone to talk to about something that was on his mind.
He certainly did have something on his mind. As soon as we started off he asked me what I thought of the outcome of the Copenhagen climate change summit. I admitted that I thought it was fairly predictable. Given the way western governments were approaching the issue it would have been hard for China and India to accept that they were serious about achieving concerted action even if the science was settled. I said that if governments thought the stock of greenhouse gas emissions was a serious problem they would be focusing on the incentives needed to develop technologies that would reduce the stock of emissions, rather than just attempting to cap the growth of emissions.
Jim said: ‘I thought that emissions trading schemes, like the one Kevin Rudd is proposing were meant to provide appropriate incentives for firms to develop better technologies.’ I responded that in my view Rudd’s ETS stood for Enormous Transfer Scheme. I suggested that the Australian government was attempting to confuse welfare issues with environmental issues in order to smuggle income redistributions into the scheme. I added that it was crazy for Australia to go it alone without concerted international action and that if we are concerned about incentives for developing new technologies we should be thinking in terms of explicit taxes rather than cap and trade systems.
Jim said: ‘Ah, that’s Warwick McKibbin’s view isn’t it.’ While I was still pondering whether I had under-estimated Jim’s knowledge of the topic, he pointed to a house we were just passing. ‘Look at that abomination’ he said. I assumed that he was referring to the solar panels that covered a substantial part of the roof. I said: ‘I don’t think they look too bad, actually’. ‘It’s not how they look’, he replied. ‘Every time I pass that house it reminds me that the government subsidies that encourage people to put those things on their roofs are an abomination. Solar panels are about the most costly method there is of generating electricity. If governments were really serious about climate change they would be spending taxpayer’s money more wisely so we get bigger bangs for our bucks.’
I observed that Jim’s comment must mean that he was obviously not a fan of Tony Abbott’s winner-picking proposals to reduce CO2 emissions. Jim said: ‘I wouldn’t mind so much if Abbott could actually pick a winner to subsidize. The technologies that he has picked so far are either proven losers or have no track record. If he really wanted to pick a technology that had some hope of competing with fossil fuels without huge subsidies he would advocate the nuclear power option.’
I couldn’t help asking: ‘Does that mean that you would support revival of the proposal to build a nuclear power station at Murray’s beach on Jervis Bay?’ When I glanced across to see how Jim was reacting to the idea of a nuclear power station in his own back yard, he growled: ‘Look where you are going!’
After what seemed like a long silence, Jim asked: ‘What do you think of no regrets policies?’ I replied: ‘What, like the federal government’s home insulation scheme?’ Jim replied: 'I think the government might actually be regretting introducing that scheme with so much haste last year. No, what I meant was a great big new tax on carbon emissions'.
I was dumbfounded. When I asked Jim to explain how this could be a no regrets policy he asked me whether I had supported the introduction of the GST as a broad-based tax to replace less efficient forms of taxation. When I nodded he then asked: ‘Do you think a tax on carbon emissions would be a more efficient way of raising revenue than existing taxes on insurance and stamp duties on property transfers?’ I had to admit that it would probably be more efficient than some other taxes. Jim then said: ‘So wouldn’t it make sense to introduce a great big new tax on carbon emissions to replace other taxes? If we do this we might even be able to have an impact on global emissions by persuading governments in some other countries that this is a good idea’.
While I was pondering how to respond Jim laughed and said: ‘I don’t expect you to see anything about this on your blog. Judging from what you have written there about climate change I expect that the polar ice caps would need to melt before you would support introduction of a tax on carbon emissions as a precautionary measure’.