Coalition, Labor procrastinate on climate change

October 26, 2007

The infamous "worm" responded positively to PM John Howard's climate change announcements during Channel Nine's telecast of "The Great Debate" between Howard and ALP leader Kevin Rudd on October 21.

The Liberal-National Coalition government's election strategists had obviously counted on attempting to trump Rudd by announcing some new policies during the debate. However, Howard's announcements were about as "fresh" as yesterday's news, and were more about repackaging pre-existing bad policies.

One of the two key proposals announced by Howard was his pledge to use some of the "billions of dollars" the government would gain from the sale of carbon dioxide emission permits under a national emissions trading scheme (that will be operational from 2011 at the earliest) to offset the expected rise in electricity costs for pensioners and other low-income households.

While the specific idea of a national carbon-proceeds fund is new, it is really only rejigged version of an earlier government announcement. In June, when Howard announced his support for a national emissions trading scheme, he accompanied it with a pledge to offset electricity price rises with funding for advice to low-income earners on how to minimise their energy usage.

Clearly, the Coalition has realised that this proposal was seen by most voters as stingy and patronising. Hence, it has now been upgraded to include actual financial assistance to the poor. Though how this help would be delivered has not been spelled out.

Of course election promises like these one are very easy to make when the emissions trading scheme is still years away.

Howard's focus on promises of ameliorating the impact of higher electricity prices on poorer households also has another purpose — to treat higher household electricity bills as an inevitable consequence of taking action on climate change, something that neither the ALP nor the Greens seem to oppose. As a result, the question of whether or not ordinary people should have to pay for climate change solutions barely gets asked in the establishment media.

Why can't the government simply legislate to outlaw the passing of costs associated with any CO2 emissions trading scheme to ordinary consumers by the electricity companies? Better yet, why not re-nationalise the country's entire electricity industry and remodel it to phase out coal and steadily increase the renewable component of the energy mix as the Socialist Alliance calls for — with no price increases for ordinary consumers?

Such an approach of course runs counter to the corporate profits-first agenda of the entire Australian establishment, including the mainstream media, which is why it is not canvassed in the establishment debate about how to deal with the corporate-generated climate change crisis.

The other aspect of Howard's announcement was that his government is committed to signing any new global agreement on climate change that includes the US, the major CO2 emitting country, plus the major Third World emitters, China and India.

How this announcement can be construed as "new" is quite astonishing, since it is simply a continuation of the argument that Howard and US President George Bush have used not to sign the UN's Kyoto Protocol, which has been ratified by 175 other countries.

This treaty, which expires in 2012, exempted poor countries, like China and India, from meeting any specific reduction in greenhouse gas emissions because of their relatively low per capita emissions. The US and Australia have per capita emission four times greater than China.

Moreover, Howard and Bush have been campaigning for a new international treaty that would not include binding emission reduction targets. This campaign was the centrepiece of Bush's and Howard's "leadership" on climate change at the Sydney Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in September.

While Howard also promised in "The Great Debate" to use some of the proceeds from his carbon fund to invest in "clean energy technologies", he studiously avoided mentioning that the major "clean" energy technology he favours is nuclear power. No doubt the Coalition has realised the deep unpopularity of this proposal, which has probably already pushed some voters towards the ALP.

While Labor opposes the use of nuclear power in Australia, it hypocritically supports a massive expansion in uranium mining and exports. At its April national conference, the ALP dropped its previous no-new=uranium mines policy.

On October 23, ABC News reported that the Wilderness Society has called on the Howard government to be upfront about its nuclear plans for Australia and publicly release the four "work plans" covering communications, regulation, research and development, and education and training that have already been produced by the government for the nuclear industry.

Both the Coalition and Labor support the channeling of major government funding into development of unproven "clean coal" technology, rather than renewables. The Howard government has already provided at least $300 million worth of funding for "clean coal" research. Rudd has pledged to create a $500 million National Clean Coal Fund, despite the fact that this technology's most optimistic advocates — the big coal-mining companies like BHP Billiton and Rio Tinto — estimate that the earliest it might be rolled out would be in a decade's time.

While the ALP has committed an "aspirational" goal (more like procrastinational goal) of a 60% emissions reduction by 2050, this is simply too far off to be considered a solid commitment to begin reducing emissions in the next few years.

Ultimately, neither of the two major parties are offering real solutions to global warming in this "climate change" election.

On October 23, the Climate Institute released a report giving both parties low scores on their climate change platforms, with the Coalition achieving only 23% and Labor 40% for the policies they have so far announced.

Meanwhile, as both parties continue their game of looking like they are dedicated to stopping global warming while committing to do very little about it, Australia's worst-ever drought — partly driven by climate change — looks set to devastate the Murray-Darling river basin, Australia's major food-producing region.

Farmers are now facing hugely inflated water costs of up to $1200 a megalitre. Three years ago the price was $200 ML.

In the face of this real and urgent crisis, not to mention those yet to come, what is needed is a wide-ranging emergency plan. The Socialist Alliance policy on climate change sets targets of a 60% emissions reduction by 2020 and 90% by 2030 — what is actually needed to avert the danger of runaway global warming — and has set out a real plan for how to achieve these targets.

The plan involves a combination of energy efficiency measures, a massive increase in renewable energy and the transformations of Australia's transport and agricultural systems.

The Socialist Alliance rejects reliance on market mechanisms such as green taxes, emissions trading or carbon offsets to promote behaviour changes in individuals and corporations. Instead, it calls for government-enforced changes.

Only such a comprehensive plan will have any chance of staving off the climate catastrophe that the two major parties seem determined to ignore.

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