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|Tough love needed for climate change to stop|
Asahi Shimbun - June 24th 2007
Nowadays, we all think that the planet needs to be saved and we all want to do our bit to save it. That, at least, is what a visitor from outer space might conclude if they had been lucky enough to land just when the Group of Eight (G8) summit was being held in
But are they really serious? If our visitor from another planet were to read their proposals, and was smart enough to understand both economics and human behaviour, then the alien’s conclusion would surely be that Planet Earth remains doomed. Governments are not truly committed to doing very much about it. And the reason is that politicians think that the public is not very committed either. The proposals they are putting forward are designed to be soft and pain-free. This means that they will not work.
There is no doubt that the politics of climate change have altered in the past year or so. Previously, politicians everywhere thought that what was required of them was to give speeches saying that the climate was an important long-term issue and, unless they were from America or Australia, to sign up to commitments made in Kyoto in 1997 to reduce emissions of the gases that cause global warming—and then largely to ignore those commitments. That is certainly what the Japanese government did when it pledged at
Now, politicians have concluded that the public wants some action on climate change, not just sweet speeches, and that conclusion has reached
If so, Mr Abe will need to do what he hates doing: to borrow a slogan of his predecessor, Junichiro Koizumi. Mr Koizumi was fond of saying that there can be no gain without pain. A British prime minister in the 1990s, John Major, used to say the same thing. Both were talking about economic reform. But the same applies to the environment.
Most of the politicians’ proposals consist of waffly attempts to dodge the issue of pain. They talk of setting targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions: a cut of 50% by 2050 is now the popular figure, though Mr Abe, in his policy speech of May 23rd, studiously avoided setting a base year, since a cut from today’s higher Japanese levels would be less painful than one from 1990 levels. They talk of the need for innovative technologies. Some, especially in
Yet for emissions to be reduced substantially, people—which means households as well as corporate executives—will have to change their behaviour, and permanently. Never before has a behaviour change occurred without a continuing and substantial incentive to make that change. There are only two methods of introducing that incentive: tax and regulation. But politicians have become used to using the word “tax” only together with the word “cut”, and the word “regulation” only with the prefix “de” for deregulation.
Innovative low-carbon technologies will not be developed just because politicians call for them, nor even just because they hand out a few research grants. They are likely to emerge only as and when a continued dependence on existing technology is seen to be too expensive. For all the excitement about “hybrid” car engines from
Behaviour will not change unless there is pain involved. Governments, including
Many governments will be tempted to try to use regulations rather than tax, because they will be afraid of being voted out of office if they raise taxes. Yet regulations are a blunt instrument, for they require expertise to be set correctly; taxes are a more flexible tool. But there is a way round this problem, if political leaders can be sufficiently persuasive. This is to propose big new taxes on the use of carbon, but at the same time to propose equally large cuts in other taxes by way of compensation. Convincing voters will be tricky, as there is so much mistrust over taxation. Still, Mr Abe should not be taken seriously on climate change until he tries it.