While the science behind global warming is practically beyond dispute, the carbon tax definitely isn’t. What was once ‘the great moral challenge of our time’ has erupted into an all-in, street-fighting brawl.
When the Gillard Government announced plans to price carbon emissions, at first using a carbon tax before moving to an emission trading scheme, organisations that’d previously supported the Rudd Government’s Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme were suddenly in bitter disagreement. The Liberal Party, now unbelievers, came out swinging, while lobbyists like the Australian Industry Group want the tax plan abandoned.
In the middle of this scrap are Australian citizens, the group who’ll ultimately either shoulder the carbon tax, or change their behaviour to avoid it.
But it’s still unclear what effect the tax will have on consumers, and particularly on Australian computer users, who expend larger amounts of electricity and purchase complex imported electronics more regularly than most.
At the Centre for Design at RMIT, Adjunct Professor Alan Pears has been working to tabulate that effect.
The Centre for Design is one of the few local organisations that’s performing in-depth ‘lifecycle analysis’, a process that investigates every stage of a product’s existence to estimate its impact on the environment.
Where possible, they’ll strip down a computer to find out where its materials first came from, calculating the carbon emissions involved with mining, refining, transporting and machining, and assembling the raw resources into a finished product.
Should Australia decide on affixing a price to these emissions, any industrial activity in Australia that uses energy, creates waste or emits refrigerant gases will be subject to a tax. Only the 1000 largest companies are likely to actually pay the tax itself, so price increases would result from corporations passing down costs to consumers.
This would occur, for instance, on the sale of an Apple computer.
“If Australian aluminium is exported to Asia and is used to make an Apple computer… then the carbon cost of making that aluminium will be in the sale price to Asia, which would then flow through the overall product cost,” Pears explains. “You end up in the situation where the Australian sourced component – which will also include the wholesaling, retailing, transport – will attract a carbon cost.”
Although a carbon price has not yet been fixed, Pears believes that an impost of between $15 and $30 per tonne is likely.
According to the Professor’s estimates, in round terms, a computer has emitted about half a tonne of greenhouse gases by the time it arrives in the store for sale. At around $2000, an iMac would emit 0.29kg of carbon per dollar of its purchase price, while the larger Mac Pro comes in at about 0.55kg.
Even at the upper limit of $30, he calculates that a carbon tax would add about 1 percent to the price of an Apple computer. For a $2000 iMac, for example, consumers would pay $20 in carbon tax.
Consumer Electronics Association executive director Ian McAlister believes the tax is going to hurt the Australian electronics industry.
“This, of course, is going to be detrimental for suppliers,” says McAlister. “If it covers transport, fuel costs and so on, given that 95 percent of the consumer electronics industry’s product is imported, I can see on the distribution side it could [damage suppliers]”
In Pears’ opinion, because of price fluctuations from a changing currency rate, regular discounting by retailers or cost-cuts through mass manufacture, the single-percentage increase is negligible.
“It will probably influence the use of their computers more than the purchasing of the computers,” Pears says. “You then start to see that the amount of electricity that the unit is using over the year is probably more than that, probably $50.”
Electricity prices are likely to be the area that affects householders most.
At present, electricity costs around 20c a kilowatt-hour. In a carbon-constrained economy, that price is likely to go up 3c, or about 15 percent. With many households now running multiple computers, energy costs associated with their running could become a substantial part of their cost.
Commentators agree that rising electricity costs will likely be the carbon tax’s’ primary impact on consumers.
“Electricity used to be such a trivial part of the overall cost,” says Josh Millien, the national policy and program manager for sustainability at the Australian Information Industry Association, an industry group of which Apple is a member. “Now, with price increases, it’s such a major consideration. We haven’t engineered energy efficiency as well has we have performance efficiency. It’s going to get worse before it gets better.”
Both Millen and McAlister point out that the IT and CE industries are already subject to strict mandatory requirements for energy efficiency, such as the Minimum Energy Performance Standards (MEPS).
“I think it should be taken into account that industry is contributing substantially through these energy efficiency standards already,” says McAlister. “Any further imposts are a bit rich.”
But Pears believes that while much of the content of the carbon tax debate has been invective about skyrocketing costs for working Australians, consumers could easily offset the carbon tax by small changes in their behavior.
“An important message is, I think, once you start looking at what people can do with a computer to actually offset any of that cost, and indeed the cost of greenhouse gas emissions on their electricity, there’s enormous potential,” he says.
Simple measures such as power management processes that shut down a computer when it’s not in use, dimming the monitor or buying a new, efficient LED screen, mean it’s possible to recover both the electricity price increase plus the extra one percent on its sale.
“This is what’s so frustrating about the whole game,” Pears says. “Everyone’s going on as though we’re going to be victims, but the truth of the matter is that the manufacturers will do all sorts of things to respond, and they already are in IT.
“At the same time, you will have choice too, because of the way you use your computer and the way you set it up. You don’t have to save very much to offset all of these costs.”
Likewise, manufacturers will be rewarded for adopting less carbon-intensive manufacturing and logistical processes, cutting costs and improving their position in the marketplace as they become more environmentally friendly.
Pears believes Apple is in an excellent position to improve their sustainability credentials, despite their poor environmental record in the last 10 years.
“They’ve obviously improved a lot on where they were. Apple had been receiving a lot of flack, and they’ve focused their attention in the last few years to deal with what they see as a reputation problem,” he says. “The fact I can go into the Apple website and download PDFs with lovely pie-charts showing everything about the life-cycle impacts and the operating energy in all the different modes shows that they’ve done a good job.”
In his view, if over the next three or four years manufacturers concentrate on improving energy efficiency and clean manufacturing techniques, the running costs of their products will drop substantially, as will their impact on the environment.
“In that way I’m a techno-optimist.”