Australia: Labor government's carbon price is not a serious response to global warming

Protesters heckle climate denier Barnaby Joyce, a senator with the right-wing opposition National Party, as he speaks in Wollongong's Crown St Mall. Photo by Paola Harvey.

By Simon Butler

July 15, 2011 -- "Our Common Cause", Socialist Alliance's weekly column in Green Left Weekly -- Action on climate change is one of the most important issues of all. But the Australian Labor Party federal government’s carbon price plan is not a serious response. It is not grounded in climate science. The biggest problem is that it aims to take 10 years to cut Australia’s emissions by just 5% (based on 2000 levels). This is nowhere near enough. It’s so far from enough that even if it succeeds, the world will still be pushed into an unstable, dangerous climate system.

Most other developed countries have pledged much bigger emissions cuts than Australia. Yet most climate scientists say all the promised cuts put together will be too little, too late.

Visiting German climate scientist Hans Joachim Schellenhuber told Lateline on July 12 that the Earth was on track for a 4°C temperature rise. “Unfortunately, the political reality of climate diplomacy is telling us that we are on the wrong track”, he said. “Right now we are heading for a world which will warm up by three or four degrees by the end of the century, but even worse is in store if you go beyond 2100. We might have — on current course — to speak a warming of six to eight degrees by the year 2300 and that would be a completely different world.”

As part of the carbon price package, the government upped its long-term emissions cut target to 80% by 2050. But again, this is too little, too late. To avoid 2°C warming, scientists say we need to reach zero emissions in about 10 years. Once we pass 2°C, there is no going back to the old climate system. Climate feedback processes will kick in and begin to warm the planet faster. By then, the window we have to avoid runaway climate change will have closed.

No one can seriously say the government’s carbon price plan is dealing with this reality. It’s not designed to solve this problem.

There is no way to adapt to the changes that are coming — the melting ice sheets, the extreme weather, the climate refugees, the droughts, fires and floods.

Delaying action is a form of denial — a denial of the extent of the climate emergency and denial of the rapid changes needed to reach zero emissions.

This leaves the question as to whether Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s plan is better than nothing. Much more needs to be done, but isn’t it at least a step in the right direction?

One part of the package is welcome news. The government will set aside about $5 billion in extra funding for renewable energy over ten years. It’s not enough, but investment in renewables is wise.

As for the carbon price plan itself, to say it is a good start means to downplay the bad precedents it sets.

First, the government will give billions in compensation to Australia’s biggest polluters, including the coal, steel and aluminium industries. And this despite the A$10 billion the Australian government already gives in fossil fuel subsides each year. The big polluters are winners under the plan. The money that goes to them could instead be invested in renewable energy. Friends of the Earth Australia called the payout “the greatest corporate windfall of our time”.

Second, Australia’s carbon pollution is not expected to fall at all until the scheme becomes an emissions trading scheme in 2015. But Europe’s scandal-prone emissions trading scheme has not cut emissions sharply — and it’s been going for seven years.

Europe’s experience warns us that the theory behind emissions trading does not work in practice. To rely on emissions trading to do the job here is the same as locking in failure.

The big, mainstream environment groups behind the "Say Yes Australia" campaign are supporting the government’s carbon price, despite its faults. It’s a very risky strategy: they may win the battle to set up a carbon price, but they are on track to lose the climate change war.

If there is to be a solution to climate change, if we are to really drive emissions down, then governments must be made to pick sides. At the moment, aside from the small renewable energy budget, the Labor government still sides with fossil fuels. Australia's conservative opposition Liberal Party-National Party Coalition is worse.

A serious climate policy would have the government invest to replace dirty energy with clean energy. To get to a safe climate, public investment in clean energy, mass public transport, energy efficiency and other measures will be essential.

Australia has the economic power and the clean energy resources to change quickly. We could say goodbye to fossil fuels and use the sun and the wind for all our energy.

Australia could develop a job-rich, renewable energy manufacturing industry employing many thousands. It could become a world-leader in climate action, and repay its climate debt to poorer countries who have been responsible for very few emissions but are already feeling the brunt of climate change.

We’re a long way from this now, but either this is the future or we have no future. It’s worth fighting for.

This future begins the day Australian political parties that support fossil fuel power are made unelectable, in the same way parties that support nuclear power are unelectable in Australia today.

[Simon Butler is a Sydney-based climate activist and a member of the Socialist Alliance.]

Offsets: the hot air in Gillard’s climate plan

By Simon Butler

July 15, 2011 -- Green Left Weekly -- You could be forgiven for thinking that when the Labor government says its new carbon price plan will cut Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions by 5%, it means Australia’s emissions will fall by 5%. But you would be wrong.

Treasury modelling for the carbon price says Australia’s domestic emissions will go up by about 12% on 2000 levels by 2020. Most of the emissions cuts predicted under the scheme won’t take place in Australia at all. Instead, big polluters will be able to buy carbon offsets for projects in other, mostly poor, countries. These carbon offsets will be credited as “Australian” emissions cuts.

Carbon offsets rely on the idea that individuals or companies can pay someone else to cut emissions on their behalf. Australia’s carbon price plan allows companies to pay money to a carbon offset project.

The money is supposed to pay to preserve a patch of forest, or sometimes contribute to an energy-saving scheme. In return, the company will get a permit to pollute. But rather than encouraging big polluters to cut carbon pollution in Australia, offsets push poor countries — that do very little to cause climate change — to make the cuts instead.

Friends of the Earth UK said in a 2009 report on carbon offsets: “Offsets are a swap of an emissions cut in developed countries for a cut in developing countries. But action in both is needed. Failure to cut in developed countries also results in delays in essential infrastructure changes necessary for deeper cuts in the future. Offsetting results in fewer emissions cuts. No amount of reform can alter this.”

Another problem with carbon offsets is whether they represent emissions cuts. The US Government Accountability Office said in 2009 that, “it is not possible to ensure that every credit represents a real, measurable, and long-term reduction in emissions”.

As British writer Johann Hari said in 2010, failed carbon offsets make things much worse. “When you claim an offset and it doesn’t work, the climate is screwed twice over — first because the same amount of forest has been cut down after all, and second because a huge amount of additional warming gases has been pumped into the atmosphere on the assumption that the gases will be locked away by the now-dead trees. So the offset hasn't prevented emissions — it's doubled them.”

US climate scientist James Hansen is another critic of carbon offset plans. He wrote in his 2010 book Storms of my Grandchildren: “The public must be firm and unwavering in demanding ‘no offsets’, because this sort of monkey business is exactly the type of thing that politicians love and will try to keep. Offsets are like the indulgences that were sold by the church in the Middle Ages. People of means loved indulgences, because they could practice any hanky-panky or worse, then simply purchase an indulgence to avoid punishment for their sins. Bishops loved them too, because they brought in lots of moola. Anybody who argues for offsets today is either a sinner who wants to pretend he or she has done adequate penance or a bishop collecting moola.”

See also: Carbon price: what’s in it for renewables?

[Simon Butler is a Sydney-based climate activist and a member of the Socialist Alliance.] 

A carbon price reality check

By Peter Boyle

July 15, 2011 -- Green Left Weekly -- There’s been so much political spin around the Australian Labor federal government’s carbon tax announcement. Of course, there’s the predictable hysterical hollering from federal opposition leader Tony Abbott, the National Party's Barnaby Joyce and the climate change denier’s camp, but there is also tons of bullshit from the Labor government.

However, a couple of developments have provided a much-needed reality check.

On July 12, ABC News said: “Coalmining giant Peabody Energy has teamed with steelmaker ArcelorMittal to launch a $4.7 billion bid for Australian miner Macarthur Coal.”

This was the biggest-ever bid for a coalmining company in Australia and the bid was well above market expectations. Peabody’s bid made nonsense of the opposition’s shrill warnings that Gillard’s carbon tax, which will morph into a carbon pollution trading scheme by 2015, spelled the end of Australia’s massive and growing coal industry.

Gillard’s spin merchants were quick to crow about the Peabody bid. But all it really proved was that Gillard’s carbon tax is not a genuine or serious atttempt to address the climate change emergency. The coalmining boom will continue. Government modelling for its “carbon tax” impact says coal production will rise by 109% to 150% by 2050. It expects gas-fired energy to rise by more than 200% by 2050.

There will be no serious investment — public or private — into the needed radical transition to a 100% renewable energy-based economy.

And if more proof of the fakery of Labor’s scheme, there was this other telling news report. Peter Martin wrote in the July 14 Sydney Morning Herald: “If Australia’s economists had the vote, Julia Gillard’s carbon tax would win a landslide. A survey of 145 delegates attending the Australian Conference of Economists in Canberra finds 59% think the tax is ‘good economic policy’.”

These economists were mostly economic rationalists — true believers in the corporate profits-first orthodoxy that has dominated that profession since the 1970s. What they see as “good economic policy” is good for big business profits and not for our common good or good for the environment. Unfortunately, some very influential voices in the Australian environment movement have jumped on the Gillard Labor carbon tax bandwagon and regurgitated (or at least endorsed through lack of criticism) the deceitful spin Gillard’s salespeople have been generating.

What brought these people, who know better, to go along with the government’s spin?

Was it desperation to win some sort of “mainstream” hearing? Was it political expediency? Or was it lowered expectations of how much change is possible? It was probably a combination of all these.

The movement for action on global climate change has grown rapidly, but it has a serious weakness. Many in the movement don’t understand or refuse to acknowledge the fact that we live in a society dominated by powerful corporations, which are objectively unsustainable due to their need to put profits above everything else.

It actually doesn’t matter what this or that corporate CEO thinks about climate change. It doesn’t matter whether the corporations have pretensions to make a greener capitalism. They are all locked in a battle for which company makes the biggest profit.

This is the death dance that grips the global economy. Any measures that really address the climate change crisis must cut deeply into corporate profits. There are no win-win solutions. That’s a foolish fantasy the world really cannot afford.

The truth will out, if painfully. Green Left Weekly has refused to go along with the cheer squad for the Labor Party’s climate change scam. We’ve refused to be bullied into the “groupthink” that has paralysed much of the environment movement from speaking the truth on this matter over the past two years.

Green Left Weekly is committed to the truth and to advocating the radical climate change response that the science demands.

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[Peter Boyle is national convenor of the Socialist Alliance of Australia. These articles first appeared in Green Left Weekly, Australia's leading socialist newspaper.]