Abbott's 'green' fraud: a gift to polluters

February 13, 2010

How to sum up the Liberal Party's "direct action" scheme to tackle global warming? Well, how about: a fraud wrapped in demagogy inside a delusion?

The delusion is that the measures outlined in the scheme would represent a meaningful contribution by Australia to saving nature and humanity from climate change.

The demagogy lies in the decision by the Liberals to issue the policy even though many of them — if not most — are not convinced that global warming is even a problem.

Opposition leader Tony Abbott assured a meeting in country Victoria last September that climate change was "absolute crap".

As for the fraud — well, what would you call a policy that sets two quite different, incompatible targets, substantially ignores the country's largest category of emissions, touts a short-term fix as a long-term solution, and never even mentions the scientific findings that supposedly compel the whole exercise?

Scientific findings

Since Abbott is too embarrassed, we shall start here by summarising the scientific consensus his policy ought to address.

Failure to stop world greenhouse emissions rising at the rate of the past decade, around 3% a year, would most likely result in a rise in global temperatures by the end of the century of at least 5-6°C. This figure could be considerably higher if various "carbon feedbacks" function as scientists suspect they might.

A rise of 5°C would take the world back 55 million years to the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum, when crocodiles swam in the Arctic Ocean, and a broad belt of super-hot deserts swathed the Earth's middle latitudes.

To preserve a world largely like the present, most scientists agree that atmospheric carbon dioxide will need to be cut from its present level of around 387 parts per million to at most 350 ppm, and perhaps a good deal less.

To reach 350 ppm, net global greenhouse emissions will need to fall to zero by 2050. After that, further large quantities of carbon will need to be taken out of the atmosphere and locked away through various methods.

Where would the Liberals' most-quoted target — a cut in Australian emissions to an annual level 5% below that of 1990 — fit in this scheme? Would it have us well on the way to the Paleocene, or closer to 350 ppm?

In the 30 pages of the Liberals' policy document, such questions are not even hinted at.

We are left to try to draw conclusions from various of the document's figures. The Liberals pledge to cut 140 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent from (presumably) present-day emissions by 2020.

This, the document states, would represent a cut to 5% below 1990 emissions levels — more than Labor's promised 5%, which is based on the somewhat higher emissions recorded in 2000.

Australian greenhouse emissions in 1990 came to 457 million tonnes, and 5% below this would be 434 million. Actually, this is only 116 million tonnes below the expected 2010 figure of about 560 million, but so far, the Liberal's figures are reasonably consistent.

Which is the real target?

However, elsewhere the Liberal policy says: "In order to achieve a 5% reduction in CO2 emissions by 2020, the [proposed Emissions Reduction] Fund will support direct action to hold our national CO2 emissions to a target of approximately 525 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent per annum by 2020."

Which is Abbott's real target — 434 million tonnes or 525 million? The latter would represent a cut on present levels of just 35 million tonnes: about 23% more than the 1990 emissions levels.

The discrepancy may just be the result of sloppiness. But if a future Coalition government found emissions reduction just too hard, suddenly recalling the figure of 525 million tonnes would provide an easy cop-out.

If annual emissions by 2020 are to be cut by 140 million tonnes, how is this reduction to be achieved? For cuts of 85 million tonnes, the Liberals propose "direct action on soil carbons [sic]."

Other emissions cuts are promised from a grab-bag of programs that include tree planting, research into renewable energy, and emissions reductions by private business under an incentive scheme.

If continued until 2050, cuts at the rate promised by the Liberals for the next 10 years would in theory see Australian greenhouse emissions eliminated entirely. But before we hail Abbott as the great green hope, let's ask: what would the Liberals' big answer to climate change — carbon sequestration in cropland — yield further down the track?

Soil organic carbon cannot be increased indefinitely. For one thing, it is readily returned to the atmosphere by droughts and fires — and the greenhouse future will see plenty of both.

Also, broad-acre farmers in Australia know the benefits of increased soil carbon, and the methods needed to achieve this — principally, no-till cultivation, with stubble and crop litter left in place — have been standard practice for decades in many farms. Some of the potential soil carbon gains will have been realised already.

By generalising best-practice farming methods, the Liberals' target of an extra 85 million tonnes of carbon captured annually in soils by 2020 might well be achieved. But across about 30 million hectares in regular cultivation today, gains at this rate for a decade or so would put soil organic carbon at close to its pre-settlement levels. The possibility of further sequestration after this would be modest.

The Liberals also propose that biochar — finely divided charcoal derived from plant matter — be added in a big way to agricultural soils, both to enhance fertility and to lock in carbon.

Biochar is a valid and highly promising new concept. But where are you to get the plant matter? For biochar to be applied in future decades on the scale needed, cattle and sheep grazing would have to be sharply curtailed, and replaced by fast-rotation tree crops on tens of millions of hectares. Nowhere do the Liberals propose such a shift.

Low-hanging fruit

For their climate strategy, the Liberals seize on the easy pickings, the low-hanging fruit. It's no wonder they say nothing about the years after 2020. By that time or soon after, any gains from their policies would be trending downward.

And coal-fired power stations — Australia's largest source of greenhouse emissions, in 2007 responsible for 36% of the total carbon pollution — would still be belching out carbon dioxide.

What does the Liberals' document say about cutting coal emissions? Just the following:
"Through the Emissions Reduction Fund, a Coalition government will make incentives available for the oldest and most inefficient power stations to reduce their emissions in an orderly manner."

In other words, the least profitable coal-fired plants will be eased out of service, while the rest can go gangbusters. New plants could even be built. Paleocene, here we come.

It is impossible to imagine a responsible Australian greenhouse policy that does not include the rapid phase-out of all coal-fired power generation, and restrictions of coal exports to limited quantities of coking coal for steel-making.

But under both the Liberals and Labor, huge new coal developments — most recently, aimed at the export of up to 40 million tonnes a year of Queensland steaming coal to China — are being negotiated and financed.

Burned in power stations, the coal from just this one deal would more than negate all of the Liberals' 140 million tonnes of emissions savings.

Granted a decade in power, the Liberals by 2020 would preside over an economy that still poured out roughly three-quarters of its present emissions, with no meaningful plan for reducing them further.

Australian per capita emissions would still be roughly three times the current global average. And as the big pusher on the block, our country would continue peddling coal — that is, concentrated climate poison — to all comers.

Abbott's policy is thus stunningly hypocritical. It is also cruelly manipulative. The Liberal leader has struck a chord with many Australians anxious to be reassured that the climate situation is not as dire as the scientists maintain.

With quick-fix pseudo-solutions and environmental "motherhood" statements, Abbott encourages people to think of climate change as a minor problem, able to be solved cheaply and without social conflict — the kind of problem, in short, that can safely be left for the politicians to deal with.

Abbott is not pushing for "direct action" on climate change at all. Rather, his goal is direct distraction — taking people's minds off a problem they need urgently to confront.

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