Friday, July 11, 2008

Letters to Economist Editors

I read the Economist religiously - or rather I partly skim and partly read the Economist religiously every week. So it was nice that they published a letter I wrote them. (Of course, it relates to Embodied Emissions.)

What was surprising is how much they edited the letter. At first, I was taken aback: after all, they had lost the nuance of some of my points. On reflection though, it is quite amazing and flattering that they would take the time and effort to completely re-write such letters to drive home the point they think is worth publishing.

In any case, here is the original letter I sent:
Dear Sir,

Your article entitled “Emissions Suspicions” (June 19 2008) ignores the principle of “consumer-responsibility” - that consumers can be responsible for the carbon embodied in the goods they consume. If our society decides to proactively reduce its total carbon emissions, it makes little sense to just focus on the carbon being emitted (or “produced”) directly in our society. For example, a study by Oxford’s Dieter Helm showed that while “UK greenhouse gas [emitted directly in the UK has] fallen by 15% since 1990…on a consumption basis, the illustrative outcome is a rise in emissions of 19% over the same period… Trade may have displaced the UK’s greenhouse gas appetite elsewhere.” Whether this displacement was caused by carbon regulations or other factors is less relevant - What matters is the total amount of carbon that was emitted to produce the goods and services consumed in the UK.

As such, a “carbon tariff” on embodied carbon should not be compared to traditional “import taxes”. The correct analogy is a “Sales tax”. Today, governments tax goods and services both at the point of production (via corporate taxes) and consumption (via VATs or other sales tax). But emissions regulations to-date have been aimed solely at the “production” of green house gases. It is the principle of reducing carbon “consumption” that matters more than the economic implications of leakage (which is the focus of your article.)

But is this principle practicable? Your article also claims that assessing embodied emissions is an “impossibly complicated task.” But much work has been done in this area, specifically by UK based “Carbon Trust” (with the BSI and DEFRA) to create standards and make the process simpler, fair and practical. It would have been more appropriate to reference (if not, assess) these efforts in your article, rather than to dismiss them out of hand, as impossible.

Regards,
Salman Farmanfarmaian
http://salmanff.blogspot.com/
Geneva, Switzerland
And here is how it was reprinted:
Green consumer-taxes

SIR – If a society decides to proactively reduce its total carbon emissions it makes little sense just to focus on the carbon it directly produces (Economics focus, June 21st). For example, a study by Dieter Helm of Oxford University shows that although greenhouse gases emitted directly in Britain had fallen by 15% since 1990 measured by the conventional method, “on a consumption basis, the illustrative outcome is a rise in emissions of 19% over the same period” and that “trade may have displaced” Britain’s “greenhouse-gas appetite elsewhere”.

Whether trade displacement is caused by variances in carbon regulations among countries, which you focused on, or other factors is less relevant than the total amount of carbon that was emitted to produce the goods and services consumed in a single country. As such, plans to introduce a “carbon tariff” on goods imported from countries such as China misses the point. Consumers are responsible for the goods they consume and the carbon emitted to produce them.

Emissions regulations have so far been aimed solely at the production of greenhouse gases, but governments tax goods and services at the point of production and consumption. It would therefore be more sensible to introduce an emissions “sales tax” rather than a carbon tariff.

Salman Farmanfarmaian
Geneva
I wonder which version is better.

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2 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Salman,

I thought your original letter was clearer. And kudos on getting "published".

Alok (intro'd by Tom H.)

July 16, 2008 2:59 PM  
Blogger Indicator Veritatis said...

Well, I can agree with Alok saying "kudos on getting published", but I think you are exaggerating the differences between your original submission and the published version.

After all, after reading entirely through your both versions and then doing a line-by-line comparison half-way through them, I gave up on the comparison, since every difference I found was a perfectly valid application of the Economist's policy: every difference was either editing for length (the letters are often shortened this way) or for differences between US and British punctuation.

I'm not even sure that all your commas are correct in US punctuation;)

March 05, 2009 5:49 PM  

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