Carbon trading must die, so the planet can live

June 29, 2009

In his 2006 bestseller about climate change, Heat, British writer George Monbiot said his biggest worry was not that people would stop talking about climate change. His fear was that they'd talk us to kingdom come.

Looking at the Australian Senate "debate" the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme (CPRS) last week, this fear is well founded.

Following a week of fruitless discussion, the Coalition and independent senators successfully moved that the bills associated with the CPRS be delayed until August. The motivation for the delay was a bad one — a combination of crude climate change denial and a willingness to put business profits ahead of people and the planet.

Labor's minister for climate change, Penny Wong, responded with contrived outrage. "This is a commitment that we gave the Australian people because this is what the Australian people asked for. People can see the evidence. They know what scientists have been telling us", she said on June 23.

Her outrage is contrived because it makes no difference whatsoever if the scheme is passed now or in August. In May, her government itself delayed the start of the proposed scheme until 2011!

Furthermore, the flawed CPRS is the opposite of the commitment her government gave for strong action on climate change before the last election. It flies in the face of the scientific evidence calling for emergency action. And its weak emissions cut targets are definitely not what scientists have been telling us we need.

The fake debate between the major parties is dangerously delusional. Climate change wont be delayed until August. It won't pause until 2011. And it won't wait until the polls say it's a good time to call the next election. Left unchecked, it will put the lives of millions at risk.

It's also a futile debate. If passed, the government's carbon trading scheme won't cut emissions to safe levels. In fact, it won't even come close.

It's hardly been reported in the mainstream media, but under the trading scheme Australia's emissions would likely rise, not fall. This is because carbon offsets bought in other, mostly Third World, countries will be counted as Australian emission cuts.

This scandalous policy, along with the billions of dollars in compensation the plan would hand to the biggest polluters, means the CPRS would lock in an economic disincentive for large-scale investment in sustainable industries.

The Greens have been the only voice in the Senate calling for the flawed CPRS to be scrapped. Yet the Greens's climate policy is still to support a carbon trading scheme — albeit one with far stronger targets. Yet the disastrous failure of the European Union carbon trading scheme should give them pause to reconsider.

British environmental writer Andrews Simms reflected on the collapse of the European scheme in the April 20 New Scientist. Carbon trading is an example of what he called "the paradox of environmental economics".

"All these methods of pricing carbon permit the creation of a carbon market that will allow us to pollute beyond a catastrophic tipping point", Simms said. "In other words, they require us to put a price on the final 'killing' tonne of CO2 which, once emitted, tips the balance and triggers runaway climate change.

"How can we set such a price? It's like saying, how much is civilisation worth? Or, if you needed a camel to cross a desert alive, what is a fair value for the straw that breaks its back?"

This example "reveals the fatal shortcoming of market solutions to environmental problems".

From the point of view of winning a safe climate the best thing that could happen to the CPRS is for it to be voted down. This would force the government to go back to the drawing board and would help spark a broader public discussion on the kind of actions we really need.

Market-based solutions to climate change like the CPRS will prevent the urgent sustainable change we need. The CPRS must die, so the planet can live.

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