Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Clarifying climate and emissions trading

It is encouraging in the wake of Garnaut's draft report and the Australian government's green paper on emissions trading that some really clear-sighted thought is emerging through the mainstream media and online.

Yesterday, the Australian Conservation Foundation President, Professor Ian Lowe, spoke on ABC Radio National's Lifematters program. 'Carbon Trading 101' was a really clear introduction to emissions trading, in which permits to emit set amounts of greenhouse gases will be issued and traded to achieve an (as-yet-unannounced) Australian emissions target. That target will contribute to the total global emissions reductions necessary to avert dangerous climate change.

Companies that lower their emissions will benefit economically either through buying fewer permits, or by trading their surplus permits on the carbon market. Among other measures - such as generally increasing energy efficiency and investing in public transport - constraining the big emitters within a limited number of permits will help Australia stay within its adopted target.

Of course, we still have a way to go both in setting that target and deciding how permits should best be allocated. On the latter issue, I have found Peter Martin (via Larvatus Prodeo) most persuasive. In the case of the coal industry especially, there should be no free permits or compensation when the need for change has long been evident, but change has been slow in coming for (corporate) fear of its impact on company profits. In pushing for free permits and compensation, what the big emitters are essentially asking is that we all continue to share the negative climate impacts of their emissions while they continue to concentrate wealth in the hands of their shareholders.

On this point, the Australian Workers Union's call today for workers to be given the permits of big emitters that decide to go offshore highlights the need to compensate workers affected by the transition to a greener economy, not their industrial masters. While climate minister Penny Wong has denied that permits could be taken offshore in any case - she says they would be forfeited - the AWU has highlighted the need for appropriate compensation that does not frustrate the essential goal of achieving emissions reductions. That means workers and poorer individuals and families who will face cost increases in the transition to sustainability.

Will our target be equal to the global challenge? Will our emissions trading system maximise our chances of achieving that target? The answers will emerge in the coming months.

What is good to see, however, is that the denialists are wilting. While they continue to populate the comments pages of the Web and even to publish in sections of the mainstream media, their shoddy arguments are increasingly appearing as the self-diagnosis of flawed thinking. Anyone blaming solar activity for warming trends, for example, is really flagging themselves as someone who needs to spend more time in the shade thanks to research reported online by ABC Science (and since confirmed by two follow-up papers by the same researchers).

Only yesterday, Webdiary published an excellent and accessible piece by David Roffey on what is and isn't disputed in climate science. Roffey shows that the overall denialist position is built on the rejection of smaller, indisputable scientific facts - greenhouse gases have a warming effect, their concentrations are increasing in the atmosphere, we are without doubt responsible for their rapid growth, and data incontrovertibly demonstrates that warming is happening.

He also asks why we shouldn't reduce a known significant influence on warming within our control (human greenhouse gas emissions) even though other influences exist or might potentially be discovered.

This is a simple question that is too infrequently asked. Some commenters in blogs have played up the warming influence of water vapour, for example, but have neglected to note that it is a feedback mechanism that amplifies temperature rises caused by greenhouse emissions from human activities. The more we warm the atmosphere with greenhouse gases, the more water vapour it carries, and the more heat is trapped in addition to that already trapped by our own relentlessly accumulating and far more more persistent emissions.

Yet, despite the emergence of such simple and persuasive messages, the communications battle is still to be won. Chris Turner highlights problems with traditional environmental campaigning in his recent book, The Geography of Hope. Turner, who spoke at the recent climate debate held as part of the Deakin lectures in Melbourne, thinks we need to adopt the kind of appeal to the emotions that marketing so successfully uses for other products - including those (such as four-wheel drive cars) that have helped create the problem.

While there is certainly a place for short, sharp - even entertaining - messages, they need to be based on more than the shallow appeals we teach our children to critique when they encounter fast-food-promoting clowns. That's where messages like Roffey's and Lowe's and Martin's come in. In their necessary brevity, such messages can act as the tips of icebergs of fuller, though simply expressed, detail. For example, Grist, a (somewhat groovy) US website mentioned by Turner in his book, has a resource on how to talk to climate sceptics.

While there may be an Australian equivalent to this resource, I haven't seen it. Given that our Federal government is set to mount a much-needed information campaign about its emissions trading scheme, why not include a public information campaign that debunks misleading arguments and gives simple reasons about why we need to act - the good oil, so to speak. The Victorian government - with its nifty ads showing the black balloons bubbling from our appliances - could come to the party with new ads showing massively outsized balloons rising from our coal-fired power stations. Don't hold your breath for that one.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Emissions trading paper not green enough

Draft details of Australia's emissions trading system were today released by climate change minister, Penny Wong. The cap and trade proposal, in which permits to pollute will be traded within an as-yet-unknown national carbon emissions target, looks set to compensate the heavy polluters, including via free permits, and has excluded deforestation - a significant component of Australia's emissions contribution (around 11 per cent, according to one journalist at Wong's National Press Club appearance today).

The draft proposal also heralds reductions in excise to offset petrol price increases resulting from the inclusion of fuel in emissions trading - a move that appears to be a political counter to the Opposition's panic-mongering, and runs counter to Professor Ross Garnaut's own recommendations.

ABC news online has published key details of the draft emissions proposal in a report that is open for comments. Here's mine:

The draft scheme disappoints in its proposed compensation of big emitters, which have had ample opportunity to prepare for Australia's foreseeable and necessary response to climate change. On the basis of your report, it seems we will be asked to continue sharing the impacts of emissions, but not the massive profits of polluters. There should be no free permits, and the revenue from permit auctions should be directed to supporting the transition to a sustainable economy.

Climate considerations have rightly entered the market to change conditions of trade. Big businesses, which to-date have been so accepting of economic casualties in their own interest - such as downsizing and the use of offshore labour, have no right now to be crying for their own protection. It is the Government's role to offer protection not to them, but to the vulnerable in society as we move to a greener Australia that can help lead the world away from dangerous climate change.

In the proposed excise reduction to offset the inclusion of fuel, the government is clearly moving to cushion the political impact of emissions trading. Unfortunately, our atmosphere is indifferent to the polls but relentlessly sensitive to rising concentrations of CO2.