Carbon tax: Much ado about nothing

If you take a truly long-term conservative view on energy policy, the carbon tax is a lot like being hit over the head with an air guitar. And that's how it should be viewed despite the short-termism of much media commentary.

It is now a little over 100 days since the introduction of the carbon tax, and finally the anger and rampant political discourse has dissipated. Perhaps now we can finally tackle the important question: ‘over my lifetime what will this actually cost?’

If you examine this little dilemma in more detail, you quickly see that investing in renewable energy infrastructure is no longer tied to the vague notion of doing the right thing by your grandchildren and has become an issue of pure self interest for the newest generation of voters.

Pausing to consider life expectancy, the average 20-year-old male in Australia, voting in his first election in 2013 will statistically live for another 60.2 years. In reality, with improvements in medicine and health care over time this is likely to be closer to 70 years by the time he gets there.

So if you’re a 20-year-old today, accepting that peak oil has happened, climate change is acknowledged by both political parties and unconventional gas is not as safe or economic as previously believed, then the world is going to be very different over the course of your lifetime.

This means 70 years from now, as you sit in your nursing home, the electric bed is most likely to be powered on renewable energy.

Ultimately in this carbon constrained world, Australia as a responsible global citizen will have built and paid for the full cost of this infrastructure, whether that would be via a carbon tax, an ETS or simply through our power bills.  

Whilst the media and electoral cycles drive us to think about energy policy from a short-termist mind-set, this isn’t the best way to approach complex issues that span a lifetime.

If you take the lifetime view of a 20-year-old rather than the current short-term media paradigm, then dealing with this issue becomes a lot more like paying off a renewable energy infrastructure debt (REID) than it does about paying 10 per cent more for your electricity bill in 2012.

We continue to better and better understand the science and deal with the short-term politics of addressing this issue. What we have not dealt with however, when it comes to building the grid and generation technologies of the future, is the inevitability of this infrastructure cost.

One of the most interesting aspects of this development is its potential effect on the conservative side of politics.

Once you start looking at this issue as one of addressing renewable energy infrastructure as a debt that must be paid off, then for a truly conservative electorate taking action to address this issue becomes a lot easier.

After all, why would a conservative government want to take on the risk of future carbon liabilities against a backdrop of a future infrastructure debt they must pay off?

While I would agree with the many people who would argue that you should not immediately spend the huge amounts of money needed to get your grid ready for what it will need to do in 70 years time, there does at least need to be an acknowledgement about the direction that we are heading.

If the electorate were to recognise the carbon taxation and pricing debate in its true context as part of a larger long-term renewable energy infrastructure debt (REID) then for young people intending to live for the next 70 years, the whole debate becomes much more inevitable and much less toxic.

The carbon tax system put forward by the government, while far from perfect, allocates about half of its income generated to lower income households and the other half to beginning to address this issue of renewable energy infrastructure debt.

In the last 12 months it has been described by Tony Abbott as a wrecking ball through our economy, a cobra strike and a python squeeze. The truth is that if you take a truly long-term conservative view on energy policy, it is a lot more like being hit over the head with an air guitar.

Matt Grantham is a contributor at Beyond Zero Emissions.

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