Carbon tax a job half done

day_david_thDr David Day

Email: david.day@latrobe.edu.au 

 

This was originally published in the National Times Wednesday 27 June, 2012.

IT IS more than half a century since Russian scientists noticed the melting of Arctic ice and wondered whether the world was getting warmer. By the 1970s, more and more scientists were confirming that the world was indeed experiencing a warming trend and suggested that human activity was partly causing it by increasing the proportion of carbon dioxide and other gases, such as methane, in the atmosphere.

It is only recently that the dire consequences of global warming have begun to be modelled by sophisticated computer programs.

It has become clear that the warming of the oceans is likely to lead to inundation of large areas of currently inhabited land, including some of the world's largest cities, while changing rainfall patterns will cause massive disruption to present food growing areas and practices. These effects of global warming will take decades or more to be fully felt, but by then it will be too late for humans to undo them.

Although there is general agreement among climate scientists about the dangers we face, governments have been slow to respond to the approaching calamity in ways that might avert the worst effects of global warming.

This is worrying, but not so surprising. It is an issue that requires politicians, who inevitably have a relatively short-term focus and an oppositional mentality, to pay regard to the really long-term and to unite for the common good.

So it is a tremendous credit to the Gillard government, the Greens and the independent MPs that they ignored a chorus of protest from largely self-interested groups and passed legislation to introduce a price on carbon pollution. Some environmentalists will rightly argue that the carbon price was not set sufficiently high to achieve the reduction in carbon emissions that are required to meet our greenhouse gas targets. But it has taken a giant step on a long path.

The measure has caused months of outrage from the opposition and from sections of the business community. Given the scale of the threat facing the world, this really was an occasion for politicians to stand together to meet the common danger, as they did during the tumultuous days of the Second World War.

The Liberal Party under Tony Abbott will be condemned by Australians for not extending its co-operation during the present international emergency.

Worse than that, Abbott has stoked popular fears and anger, as he tries to blame every price rise and job loss on the carbon price. Doubtless he will keep on doing so with increasing shrillness in the months ahead.

Unfortunately, the government made Abbott's job easier, and continues to do so.

Rather than setting out the compelling scientific reasons for drastically reducing the emission of greenhouse gases, Julia Gillard and her ministers have concentrated on the economic rationale for making Australia a low carbon economy and the competitive advantage that Australia would gain by being among the first in the world to take this path.

By hardly ever referring to the fact of climate change, and the effects it will wreak on our lives, the government has lent credence to the claims of Abbott and other naysayers that global warming is ''crap''. It is time that Labor built a constituency for action on climate change that was based on both the environmental threat and the economic opportunities. To talk only of the latter suggests that the government is not convinced itself about the climate science.

This suggestion is given greater credence by the government's attitude towards the coal industry, which provides the great contradiction at the heart of Labor's policy on climate change. Twice now there has been a hysterical reaction by government ministers to any suggestion that the frantic acceleration in the mining of Australian coal should be slowed down, let alone stopped altogether. Not even the Great Barrier Reef is going to be allowed to get in the way of turning Queensland into a giant coal mine.

Yet there are good reasons for slowing down and eventually stopping the coal mining juggernaut.

The burning of coal for power generation is one of the major contributors to greenhouse gases. And the vast increase in Australia's coal exports will only serve to reduce coal's world price and delay the time when renewable sources of power generation become more competitive with coal.

A government that was serious about global warming would not be introducing a price on carbon at the same time as it is overseeing an explosion in coal exports.

It would be far better to restrict the expansion of coal mining and thereby signal to businesses in Australia and overseas that alternatives to coal need to be developed.

As it happens, the government is already developing a viable alternative, with a giant solar plant being built over the next few years at Broken Hill sufficient to power 30,000 homes.

That should be followed by a hundred more such plants, so that the economies of scale quickly bring down their cost of construction and make coal a thing of the past.

Only then can the contradiction at the heart of the government's policy be reconciled.

David Day is an honorary associate in the history program at La Trobe University