On November 1st the much anticipated debate on the Zero C petition was held in a extremely uncrowded Westminster Hall. Catherine Mckinnell (Newcastle upon Tyne Central, Lab) moved the petition, stating that its aim is  to impose a single carbon price across all sectors. ……

In its simplest terms, the petition calls for the Government to work towards a single carbon price across almost all sectors. The campaign argues that a single carbon price would amalgamate the many existing price instruments, including the carbon price support and the UK emissions trading scheme—a different form of carbon charging—into a simple, transparent carbon charge. Zero Carbon points out that our current policies cover emissions across only about a third of the economy, giving the biggest polluters free allowances while the consumers are left to pay. I pay tribute to the petition’s creator, Isabella Goldstein, who is the senior campaign manager at the Zero Carbon campaign.

The theory behind this form of carbon charging is straightforward. If we had, for example, a single carbon price of £75 per tonne of CO2, it would incentivise people and businesses to pursue any methods of emission reduction that cost less than £75. Hon. Members will be aware that we are far from having a single carbon price across sectors. Instead, we have a patchwork of policies that incentivise or disincentivise emissions in ways that are often unclear. While overall they have the effect of, for example, discouraging the burning of fossil fuels, the cost varies hugely depending on the source of the emissions. It is argued that the key benefit of working towards a uniform carbon price is that it avoids a situation where some sectors face higher carbon prices, and must therefore make more expensive carbon reductions, while others could more easily and cheaply reduce their emissions but do not.

Mckinnell also pointed out that Zero C are asking for the policy to be fair and equitable…

 Alan Brown (Kilmarnock and Loudoun, SNP)……In a similar vein, I represent a former coalfield area. Carbon taxes had been applied to the extraction of coal over the years, but a few years ago, when the open-cast coal industry collapsed in my constituency, it left massive craters that needed reinstatement work at a cost of millions of pounds. Carbon taxes came from my constituency to the Treasury, but they just went into the black hole. When we asked for assistance for restoration work on those abandoned coalmines, the answer that came was, “No. Too bad. That money came in and it has been used. There is no money coming back to your constituency. It doesn’t work that way.” That shows the folly of not ring-fencing a tax for the purpose that it should be ring-fenced for. Again, transparency is utterly critical if we are to go forward.

Jerome Mayhew (Broadland, Con) argued cogently for a Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism policy, as he has been championing for a while. There was interest in CBAM earlier this year  but in July the Board of Trade published a report extolling free trade as the answer, the subject is still under review.

Unfortunately although the speakers all argued that carbon pricing was necessary and should be fair there was no discussion on how to implement it, such as suggesting a solution like Climate Income. The argument for a single uniform carbon price wasn’t really debated, instead the arguments were vague, focussing on stating that the Net Zero Strategy isn’t doing this, that or the other, our party would spend more and be more equitable than the government and when will the ETS net zero consistent cap be announced. 

This line of arguing therefore enabled the financial secretary to the treasury, Lucy Frazer, to argue that while “The petition specifically calls for a carbon charge to encourage industries and organisations to reduce their carbon emissions” the government is already doing this through the UK ETS scheme and Carbon Price Support, but she didn’t feel the need to address the petition’s main ask as no-one else had been discussing it.

In summary the gist of the petition, arguing for a single, uniform carbon price seems to have been lost in the discussions about other aspects of the Net Zero Strategy and finance. 

One has to wonder if the timing of the debate, falling as it did during COP26, inevitably led to the paucity of ideas and discussion, with no-one from the government, for instance, discussing the ideas leaked in July