Home » Columns

World searches for consensus

9 April 2011 819 views No Comment

THE debate about climate change, and what should be the appropriate response, is polarising the Australian community.

Those who are calling for deep cuts in emissions of carbon dioxide believe they are on a mission to save the planet, while those who oppose a carbon tax believe they are on a mission to save the economy and jobs.

Prior to the last election, Prime Minister Julia Gillard appeared to understand there were deep divisions when she promised to act on climate change only “when the economy is ready and when the Australian people are ready”.

She also promised “to act in step with the world and when we have a deep and lasting community consensus”.
As the leader of the national government, she is in the privileged position of having unparalleled opportunities to manage and influence the national debate.

Clearly stung by the criticism that she misled the Australian people by declaring unequivocally on the eve of the election that there would be no carbon tax under her government, Gillard has gone on the offensive by using highly provocative language in labelling her critics as “deniers”.

As deputy opposition leader Julie Bishop pointed out during a recent interview with Laurie Oakes, had Gillard told the Australian people six days before last year’s election she intended to introduce a carbon tax she would not be Prime Minister today.

It is difficult to believe Gillard is so naive as to think the opposition would not make mileage out of what can only be described as a brazen act of political dishonesty. She should have been prepared for the reaction of the opposition and of members of the public when she announced a carbon tax at a press conference with the Greens and independents.

Her response reveals poor political judgment and poor advice from her advisers. This has resulted in a debate about climate change and controlling emissions that is base, simplistic and highly politicised.

Carbon dioxide and other gases are among the pollutants produced by industrial processes that have transformed human life. For those of us fortunate enough to reside in developed nations, the vast majority of citizens live in relative comfort.

The world’s two most populous nations, China and India, are now undergoing rapid economic development. Surely it is not acceptable for developed countries to deny the world’s poorest people access to the same path of development as the West?
Like it or not, one of the key drivers of that development will be an exponentially increasing demand for energy.

There are no credible scenarios for how China or India, or any other developing nation, can generate the forecast massive increases in electricity through the use of clean technology.

The Garnaut Climate Change Review predicts that, in coming decades, “China will have more impact on global emissions than any other country. The Garnaut Treasury reference case projects China’s share of global emissions to rise from 18 per cent in 2005 to 33 per cent in 2030.”

In a 2008 book, , China’s Dilemma, a chapter titled “China’s rapid emissions growth and global climate change policy”, written by Ross Garnaut and Australian National University academics Frank Jotzo and Stephen Howes, points to the rapid growth in coal-fired electricity generation in China as the major driver of emissions and coal’s increasing importance to China as an energy source.

Garnaut et al argued that “it is in China more than anywhere else that global climate change mitigation will be decided. If China does not participate in the global mitigation effort, its emissions will continue to grow rapidly and will account for a rising share of global emissions.

“Many ‘mainstream’ analyses underestimate likely economic growth in years to come, and could be too optimistic about reductions in the energy intensity and carbon intensity of China’s energy system, unless there are strong and comprehensive policies to reduce emissions. Indeed, with high oil prices, there might be a strong shift to coal, which will further increase the rate of growth in emissions. Moreover, if China does not participate, or only participates marginally, in the global mitigation effort, there will be an indirect effect that will see other countries reduce their levels of ambition and effort since they will know that, without China, their efforts cannot avert climate change risks.”

It is hard to not feel a sense of despair when assessing the combined growth in emissions forecast to come from rapid development in China, India, Indonesia and other developing nations. These increases will clearly overwhelm the reductions of a nation such as Australia, which contributes less than 2 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions.

That is not to say that Australia should take no action, but people need to be made aware of the impact of China’s phenomenal economic growth. It is an uncomfortable fact that the industrial processes which underpin the lifestyles in developed nations produce huge quantities of pollution. That pollution goes far beyond carbon dioxide and includes highly toxic chemicals, metals and gases, and waste.

In managing these pollutants, the goal is to avoid poisoning the environment to the point where it can no longer support life.
No sane person can argue against the need to reduce pollution as much as possible.

If Australians were now asked whether they are prepared to pay more for some goods to reduce pollution, there would be a very high response in the affirmative. But that support will fall away quickly as the cost increases and is likely to be in the minority when confronted with the actual cost of meaningful cuts to emissions.

There is a disconnect between sacrifices that individuals say they are prepared to make and the sacrifices they are actually prepared to make.

Many nations have already seen their manufacturing base eroded by competition from China and this would accelerate if China does not impose a price on its emissions while other nations take such action.

In essence, this is the basis for arguing for the necessity of a binding global agreement to ensure sacrifices of individual nations are ultimately successful.

Proponents of action, including Gillard, argue that developed nations have a moral imperative, being more able to afford such action than developing countries.

This means Australians should be prepared to accept a drop in their standards of living if they want to take substantive action on the issue of climate change.

That is why the need for broad community support is vital and why the argument about the Prime Minister’s pre-election statement is so heated.

An honest course of action would be for Gillard to delay the introduction of a carbon tax until after the next election and make it the central theme of Labor’s re-election campaign. It would be a legitimate test of her political skills and, if successful, would enable her to lay claim to the mandate she does not currently hold.

The Weekend Australian, April 09 -10, 2011