John Howard is treading softly, softly on climate change policy. The government is, so far, refusing to set any long-term greenhouse gas emissions reduction goals. And they won’t reveal a carbon tax cost until the election’s done and dusted.

The oft-played economic fear card has been laid on the table (and laid on thickly).

“If we embrace a target that will increase electricity prices more than they should go up, then we will do enormous damage to Australian households and to the broad economy,” says Howard. “So there is a lot at stake. That is why we have taken time, that is why we have got everybody involved.”

Well not everybody. Is anyone asking consumers what they think? Professor Warwick McKibbin was critical of the fact that they were left off the invitation list for Howard’s emissions trading task group.

Howard says he wants to protect consumers from rising prices. But many are already paying more for green energy — voluntarily. They’re choosing to wear the financial burden for the sake of the environment.

It’s something that’s actively encouraged by the joint state initiative GreenPower, first introduced in 1997 by NSW and then rolled out in other states, which gives accreditation to renewable electricity products.

The GreenPower site cheerily informs us: “It takes only a phone call and as little as $1 per week to switch on to GreenPower…”

And many have taken up the option. As of March this year, there were over 500,000 GreenPower customers, around 96% of them residental. That’s apparently resulted in savings of over 3.9 million tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions since GreenPower started. 

In states where energy is deregulated (NSW, Victoria, SA and soon QLD), consumers, who get to choose their provider, are often not paying extra for green power.

Because energy companies have to fight for consumers’ business, green energy is sometimes offered as an alternative to a financial discount. In fact, GreenPower has become an important selling point for energy companies.  

And it’s little surprise that it’s in these states where GreenPower take-up is much higher (Hey, consumers are good, but they’re not that good).  All in all it’s a pretty good reason to deregulate markets.  

Leaving this to one side, many consumers are still choosing to pay more — at an average cost of around $25-50 a year, says Steve Harris, Origin Energy’s Manager Environmental Markets. And focus group testing conducted by energy companies is suggesting it’s related to frustration at the government’s inaction.

Origin for example has already has over 200,000 customers purchasing Green Power, around 13% of all their electricity customers. There’s a “strong demand from consumers for solutions to their greenhouse pollution”, says Harris, who believes that Origin’s Green Power customers could “be more than double next year”.

The federal government was apparently going to spend $53 million educating the public about climate change. Perhaps they could pay consumers to educate them instead. Or maybe cough up a bit more money to back their decision to go green.

After all, the government’s not afraid of an energy subsidy. They’ve spent $100 million (and counting) on LPG gas conversion grants to insulate consumers from rising fuel costs. Then again, that wasn’t because of the environmental cost of petrol but rather, the political fallout.