Saturday, December 20, 2008

Grassroots hope in a climate of defeatism

It's good to see The Age focusing on climate change, analysing the gloom and doom big-picture of the defeatist Rudd Government and pathetic Opposition leavened with the small-scale hope of increasing grassroots responses.

Today's edition focuses on Garnaut's own critique of the Government's Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme (CPRS) White Paper. The professor is still sticking to his weak line on targets, but he does critcise the White Paper position that precludes Australia taking a stronger position than 15% cuts on 2000 levels by 2020 even if a better international deal is reached at Copenhagen next year.

Garnaut is also critical of the flaws in the emissions trading scheme (ETS), with its billions in compensation and free permits for energy generators and trade exposed emissions intensive industries. As well as criticising these ridiculous hand-outs to the (coal-fired) generators, Garnaut says the ETS threatens to over-compensate the trade exposed industries because it doesn't take into account the increasing carbon constraints on international industries in its proposed five-year cap on permit prices in Australia.

The basic point is that Australian prices should increase as overseas industries become more carbon-constrained and lose any claimed competitive advantage they may have previously enjoyed over Australian industries because of lower constraints on their emissions. Garnaut also points out that the White Paper approach to free permits and compensation for big emitters means that more ambitious targets would ultimately see industry relief eating into funds for research and development, as well as relief to households facing increasing carbon prices.

The capped permit prices and inappropriate compensation measures therefore reinforce Rudd's weak 2020 5% target by putting a brake on more ambitious goals. Shouldn't the ETS facilitate the targets indicated as necessary by the science (at least 40% reduction on 1990 levels by 2020), rather than having the targets constrained by the ETS?

My own view is that some industries simply need to go out of business, and in those cases compensation should be directed to the workers, not the owners of massive corporations with a history of contributing to the problem. A big part of this should be re-training for new jobs in the green economy.

Penny Wong's line, now echoed by the Australian Workers' Union - that the Government position is about jobs - can only mean it's about old jobs that will leave the workforce ultimately unprepared for the changes that must come if we are to save our climate. In effect, then, the Rudd Government is betraying workers' futures for the benefit of the owners of dinosaur polluting industries. The ETS will perpetuate these industries and any transition, however minimal, will take place according to timelines the climate simply cannot afford.

Friday's coverage was both depressing and hopeful. Tim Colebatch reported on another flaw of the ETS - that domestic reductions would in effect make room under the emissions limit for heavy-polluters to increase their own emissions. Together with Government inaction on solar panels, this threatens a big disincentive to personal emissions reductions, which may come to seem futile if they will merely be soaked up by the big emitters.

Yet Suzy Freeman-Greene pointed to another compelling motive to continue personal action: collectively, it sends a political message to Government that is currently being demonstrated by the proliferation of local climate action groups. Today, The Age published my letter on the Colebatch and Freeman-Greene articles:

With typical cogency, Tim Colebatch highlights a flawed emissions trading scheme that will in effect allow big polluters to increase their emissions by the amount saved through domestic reductions. While this may dissuade some from personal efforts to reduce their emissions, Suzy Freeman-Greene offers a compelling reason our efforts should continue even as we fight to have them properly recognised by the trading scheme: collectively, they send a strong signal for change at a political level.

It is heartening to read that in Victoria alone there are some 50 climate change groups, with Darebin Climate Action Now just one I am aware of in my own neighbourhood. Together they are sending the message that, while Rudd is set to hand out billions in free permits to big polluters, millions of us care about the climate and have a permit to vote.
The Victorian state and federal elections aren't far away, and electoral pressure may be the best way to put the heat on the politicians before they put it on us through their cynical neglect and pandering to industry on the climate change challenge.

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