The Moral Obligation to Cut Carbon Emissions

7 06 2011

It’s often said that Australia’s contributions to global carbon emissions is so small – around 1.35% – that implementing a carbon price in this country would be futile; even if it worked, and it didn’t make the economy drastically uncompetitive internationally, it still wouldn’t have a significant impact in terms of lowering global emissions.

This argument is entirely spurious for a bunch of reasons, economic, environmental and empirical. Here’s a moral one:

The amount of income tax you pay to the government is only a tiny fraction of the government’s total tax revenues. Were you to forego paying your income tax, it would have an insignificant impact on government spending.

According to the carbon emissions argument above, this would give you grounds for skipping paying your income tax.

However, if this argument gave you good reason to not pay your income tax, then it would likewise give reason to all other individuals with a similarly small or smaller tax bill to also forego paying their income tax. If it’s justified for you, it would also be justified for them. As such, your refusal to pay income tax would open the gates for others to likewise not pay their income tax.

The end result would be a significant cut in government revenue, and that would have an impact on the government’s ability to function.

By analogy, if Australia saw its relatively small proportion of global emissions as justification for not putting in place a carbon price to cut those emissions, then it would give other nations with a similar or smaller amount of global emissions justification for doing the same.

As it happens, that list of countries with similar emissions to Australia (those with <2% global) includes 206 other nations out of 214 tracked, and together they contribute over 25% of global emissions.

If we in Australia say we’re justified not cutting emissions, then 25% of global emissions are suddenly off the table. This doesn’t preclude the importance of reigning in the top emitters, but it makes reducing overall emissions substantially harder. And it hardly gives the big emitters much motivation to cut their emissions either.

The upshot: if you think others have an obligation to pay their income tax – an obligation you share – then Australia also has a similar moral obligation to cut its carbon emissions.