Business, Finance & Economics

Australia passes "history making" carbon pricing scheme


A hot air balloon stands in front of Parliament House during a pro-carbon tax rally in Canberra on October 12, 2011. Australia's lower house on October 12 passed a contentious new tax on carbon pollution.


Alan Porritt

It's been described as one of the biggest economic reforms in a decade. Anywhere.

Australia on Tuesday passed a landmark, and controversial, law on pollution — specifically, carbon emissions.

The BBC puts it succinctly:

The Clean Energy Act will force the country's 500 worst-polluting companies to pay a tax on their carbon emissions from 1 July next year.

Australia — while it accounts for only 1.5 percent of global greenhouse emissions — is one of the biggest emitters of carbon per head, according to the Wall Street Journal: Coal-fired power generators "account for about 75 percent of electricity output, and the new tax is intended to cut carbon pollution by 160 million tons a year by 2020."

It is the second major economy behind the European Union to pass carbon-limiting legislation, Reuters reports, noting that "tiny New Zealand has a similar scheme." Further:

The legislation is being watched closely by others considering similar plans to cap carbon emissions, which are blamed for fueling climate change.

In the United States, California starts its scheme in 2013, while China and South Korea are also working on carbon trading programs. India has a coal tax, while South Africa plans to place carbon caps on its top polluters.

The Clean Energy Act is a win for embattled center-left Prime Minister Julia Gillard and environmentalists, and one that Reuters suggests will inject "new impetus into December's global climate talks in South Africa."

However, according to the WSJ:

Business groups have criticized the tax, which they say will add to company expenses and do little to cut global pollution because Australia exports much of its carbon in the form of coal, gas and minerals used for steel making.

The issue has been the subject for a decade of debate, and was considered central to the 2007 fall of former conservative prime minister John Howard and of Labor's Kevin Rudd in 2010.

Its unpopularity owes much to voter insecurity over jobs and Australia's short- to medium-term economic future — much of it linked to the continuation of the resources boom.

Gillard — who has called the carbon pricing scheme "history making," is hoping that the tax does not prove as unpopular as the polls suggest, The Associated Press reports. The government has pledged financial assistance to offset higher utility bills as energy providers inevitably pass on the cost of the tax.