Macs and the carbon tax

Tim Grey
11 March, 2011
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After a few months of relative calm, climate change – the issue that toppled one Prime Minister, and might yet claim another – is frothing.

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.”


14 people were compelled to have their say. We encourage you to do the same..

  1. mediasorcerer says:

    If the science is indisputable,how come its so freezing at the moment,right in the middle of summer?
    Sounds like a price gouge for a disputed idea,as the consumer,it is not our responsibility to ensure computer companies develop environmental and ethically made products,is it,not in our control,so why should we pay more already?

  2. Socially Responsible Human says:

    This science is very much in dispute despite your statement. There is no basis (except for the contrived views of a handful of major agencies employing otherwise useless ‘scientists’) for your misinformed statement.

    Shame on you for making such an uninformed and propaganda based comment.

    No one would disagree that computers/ipads/phones/tvs etc should be produced in a manner that does not create an environmental disaster.

    To suggest however that by paying an extra tax that somehow your 1976 fuel inefficient car or ‘reduce the carbon footprint of a PC user (where do they get these phrases from?!) will somehow reduce the impact of those emissions on the environment is a facile argument at best.

    What astounds me the most is that the countries that manufacture the electronic devices like computers and phones have absolutely no intention of taxing their people for those emissions – yet a country as small as ours is ‘leading the way?’

    I am not a crusader, I like to do my little bit – but to force me to the front of the pack and make me pay for the privilege of a ‘badge of green honour’ is not based on science, but the political aspirations of people who just want to appease the minority to keep their wallets fat.

    Put simply, if the Prime Minister wants to keep her job(not to mention the rest of the labor stooges who were in the political wilderness for more than a decade), lifestyle and money she must obey her Green master.

    This carbon tax has less to do with protecting the environment and more to do with keeping Ms Gillard in the lodge.

    If you want to reduce inefficiency and emmissions, impose higher standards at the manufacturing level and those costs will of course be passed on at the retail level.(increasing the price and it becomes a user pays system)

    To whack a Carbon Tax across the board is no solution (but a great way to stay in power, albeit with one hand tied behind your back).

  3. Dylstra says:

    Firstly, how is weird weather evidence against climate change?

    Secondly, climate change sceptics seem to have vast amount of trouble recognising the difference between “weather” and “climate”.

    Thirdly, surely you are not suggesting that companies are not motivated by profit and therefore will do the right thing of their own accord?

    Fourthly, as consumers we ultimately decide where we spend our money and as such the behaviour of companies is under our control.

  4. Mark Jelic says:

    >While the science behind global warming is practically beyond dispute

    Really? Have you done any actual research into this statement, or just regurgitated what the general media spews out at you each night?

    Science isn’t democratic. Just because “a large number of scientists” (paid by governments to give them the answer they are looking for) say a theory is _the most likely_ reason for any perceived global warming, does not make it scientific fact.

    The IPCC could not find any direct proof or link that any global warming was directly the result of CO2 levels in the air – only 3% of which is made by man. (And that is a scientific fact.) In fact, it has been proven that CO2 levels naturally rise _in response to_ rising global temperatures.

    The Carbon Tax is yet another tax grab by a government hooked on spending that they need to fund somehow. And why does Al Gore not want a Carbon Tax, but rather an ETS? Because he can’t make money on a Tax; An ETS creates a new fiat currency that is traded on stock markets that bankers/brokers can make money out of TOTAL thin air, and create the next housing/IT/commodity/energy/carbon bubble that ruins so many lives when eventually it collapses.

    Wake up and do some research!

  5. Guy says:

    The second paragraph ‘While the science behind global warming is practically beyond dispute….’ is absolutely correct. The scientists are indisputably the greatest bunch of liars and left wing protaginists ever experienced. How many of them have investments in expensive alternative energy companies that desparately need government grants so that the share prices go through the roof. Case in point is Tim Flannery the CEO of the Climate Change Authority who has a large personal investment in a company that received $95million of taxpayer grants. Do you see a conflict of iterest?

  6. John Feltham says:

    This sounds just like the question, “How much GST is there on this cake, and how is it calculated.

  7. Christopher Marston says:

    Wow, nice to see the climate change deniers are having such an easy ride in recruiting. Maybe they should try something more challenging (flat earth anybody), like back when they worked for big tobacco, preaching doubts that were really lies.

    Anyway, the science is in. It has been for some time and is now a near irrefutable mountain. Richard Muller’s Berkeley Earth Project being the latest to add to this body.

    I’m saddened that people can really rail against hard scientific evidence or bring this down to a political divide. It will affect us, our children, their children and so on for the thousands of years that it will take to stabilise a rapidly crumbling climate. I’m happy to pay more for a Mac or electricity or petrol to help, anything less would be criminal.

  8. Mark Jelic says:

    >Christopher Marston says

    Name calling… Is that all you have? We ask for proof and evidence of this “science” and you call us “flat earthers” for not simply having faith in “science by democracy”.

    Sure, bring up emotive images of us not caring for our children – when if fact that is EACTLY why we are fighting against the Carbon Tax, because we want our kids to HAVE A JOB IN AUSTRALIA, rather than moving away to China!

    >stabilise a rapidly crumbling climate

    Mate, what planet are you dreaming this on? Last I check ACTUAL scientific records, the world has been hotter, the world has been colder than now. The world has been wetter, and the world has been drier than now. And all this well before man made the first machine or even farted. You paint a picture of catastrophic disaster, yet it simply is not happening on the scale you make it out to be, or anything near it. This isn’t “The Day After Tomorrow” !

  9. Geoffrey Luck says:

    A number of correspondents have already said it all. The earth’s climate varies over long periodical cycles of tens of thousands of years. We are now in an interglacial period (all scientists agree on that) in which there are, and always have been shorter period variations in temperature. There have been periods when temperatures have been as much as 4 deg C warmer than they are today, and times when the Thames froze regularly. There has often been a correlation between CO2 concentrations and temperatures, but rises in temperature have ALWAYS preceded increases in CO2 – not the other way round. There is no doubt that man-made emissions increase CO2 levels – they are now at around 380 ppmv; the problem is what does that mean, if anything for climate change? Where it becomes complicated and where the computer prediction models of the IPCC are facile, is that nobody knows the feedback effect of heat re-radiated from the earth, of water vapour in the atmosphere, of sunspot and cosmic ray (particle) activity, the “wobble” of the earth on its axis which changes its distance from the sun, the role of the oceans and current circulations in absorbing and discharging both heat and CO2 and many other issues. Add to that the fact that the effect of increasing CO2 is not linear but logarithmic, so doubling CO2 concentrations produces half or less than half of the effect. That accounts for the difference between the IPCC’s gloomy forecasts of a temperature rise of 2-4 deg C this century, and a more modest forecast of less than 1 deg by climatologists such as Richard Lindzen of M.I.T. Right now global temperatures which rose from 1945 to 1990 have levelled off, and for the last ten years there’s evidence of a stable situation which might (or might not) indicate a period of global cooling coming. The fact is that nobody knows how all this works, what it means, or what is going to happen. Anthropogenic climate change caused by global warming due to emissions of C02 is a theory – a hypothesis, and nothing more. Good scientists are saying, “let’s test the hypothesis, find the confirmatory evidence.” At the moment there isn’t any, but what appears to be happening – in global land temperatures, as well as sea temperatures since the buoy programme was launched about 7 years ago – is not confirming the hypothesis. Those scientists who enthusiastically backed the theory, and the politicians who followed them (let’s be seen to be doing something!) have now switched their attack to saying, “Well, even if we can’t be sure, we don’t want to be sorry, so it’s better to do something than nothing.” Well, it isn’t. Carbon taxes, ETS, CPRS and other devices will bankrupt the Australian economy for no real reason. It’s simply egotism for Australian leadership to believe that they have a duty to the world ahead of the responsibility to their own citizens – as if anything we did here would make a scrap of difference anyway. Those who rally around the carbon tax politicians are all the usual suspects who stand to make something out of it. Business cries it needs certainty, so that it can adjust its computers to pass on the costs. People such as Professor Pears can make no better contribution to the country than to pull apart a computer and estimate what each bit’s manufacture generated in carbon dioxide, somewhere. What more puerile example could there be of the wastage caused by individuals, businesses and scientific bodies hanging off the teat of taxpayer-funded grants. Get a life! And do some real work! In all this it is irresponsible to give credibility to nonsense about iPads or other devices, or their owners having a responsibility for the climagte.

  10. Dylstra says:

    Mark, you say that, “The IPCC could not find any direct proof or link that any global warming was directly the result of CO2 levels in the air – only 3% of which is made by man.”

    But the BBC reports that “In February 2007, the IPCC released a summary of the forthcoming Fourth Assessment Report. According to this summary, the Fourth Assessment Report finds that human actions are “very likely” the cause of global warming, meaning a 90% or greater probability.”

    I’m sure you can understand why I find an internationally renowned news agency to be the more reliable source.

    And while some scientists continue to debate climate change, two years ago there was a 97% consensus among active climatologists that climate change is due to human activity.

    Interestingly, the group of scientists most likely to disagree is petroleum geologists.

    It’s like I always say, if you have an ear ache, don’t go to a podiatrist.

  11. monkeyman says:

    It amazes me how quickly the climate change deniers hit on this stuff. A pity they don’t apply as much enthusiasm to finding out the facts. I should point out that Europe already has an emissions trading scheme and many countries (including China) are taking serious action to reduce carbon emissions – we have to play our part.

  12. Jojo says:

    “What was once ‘the great moral challenge of our time’ has erupted into an all-in, street-fighting brawl.”

    As a sports-crazed nation our journalists feed the blood sports of politicians. Name-calling and unbecoming antics in Parliament – whatever… the universities from which our elected representatives graduated (particularly those with law degrees) should withdraw their awards with the shame. Regardless of your position on the topic of global warming (I’m convinced that we must not hasten earth’s climate variations), the lack of an informed, reasoned debate in this country is a national disgrace.

  13. Socially Responsible Human says:

    The fact is – there are NO FACTS.

    This rubbish about climate change is just a new tax grab and yet another way to control our minds.

    For goodness sake, it is mind numbing to contemplate just how effective the Green movement has been from ‘saving a tree’ or ‘cuddling a koala’ to now setting the political and economic agenda of this country and the world by having a gun to the head of the party that wants to ‘share’ power with a group that represents less than 8% of the population.

    Have a look at their mainfesto – gay marriage, death duties etc – what have these got to do with saving rainforests ? It’s the thin edge of the wedge – they are a radical left wing movement that is hell bent on reintroducing a radical left wing agenda.

    Think carefully next time you vote – the watermelons are out there. (Green on the outside – red in the middle)

  14. Jey says:

    I saw the comment on the article “consumers could easily offset the carbon tax by small changes in their behavior”. I would like to know what are these changes. Most of us have implemented ‘these changes’ and have no idea how further ‘small changes’ can be made. Low energy bulbs, switching off devices when not in use, low energy LED TV…Etc. Still my electricity bill says I am using the equivalent of 1 Tonne per quarter.

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