CPRS: a suicide note for the planet

The following statement was recently released by Climate Action Canberra in response to the government's proposed Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme. Visit http://climateactioncanberra.org .

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Last year, the Rudd government said it would reduce Australia's carbon emissions by a minimum of 5% by 2020 (compared to 2000 levels). The Rudd government also ruled out emissions reductions of more than 15% by 2020. The world's best scientists say emissions reductions should be around 70%-90% by 2020.

Chris Field, from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, now says the panel seriously underestimated global warming and that we need to take radical action within the next 12 months to reduce carbon emissions. If countries like Australia don't act appropriately, the world will face a global disaster within a few decades.

The government's plan of action is an emissions trading scheme, the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme (CPRS). The introduction of the CPRS is scheduled for 2010. It has not yet been passed by parliament and made into law. There are big problems with it that should concern everybody.

1. The target is far too weak

If adopted globally, a 5%-15% target would guarantee the loss of the Great Barrier Reef and the Kakadu wetlands. It would wipe out the homes of millions and would drive perhaps 39% of terrestrial species to extinction.

A 5%-15% reduction target by 2020 will not stabilise carbon dioxide in the atmosphere at less than 550 parts per million. The federal government's climate change advisor, Professor Ross Garnaut, found that even a strategy to stabilise CO2 concentrations at 450ppm would still leave us with a 54% chance of the irreversible melting of the Greenland ice sheet, leading to an eventual rise in sea levels of 6-7 metres.

Failure on this scale could precipitate the tipping point into runaway climate change, when natural weather systems are thrown into chaos.

By ruling out emissions reductions larger than 15%, Australia is ruling out its participation in an equitable international agreement that avoids dangerous climate change. Without a good international agreement, averting climate catastrophe will be almost impossible.

2. Pollution permits are defined as property rights rather than licences/allowances

This means that if the government were to increase the emissions reduction target at a later date, taxpayers would be forced to compensate industry, leading to a significant burden on the Australian economy.

There must be a legal mechanism inserted into the CPRS that would allow for targets to be increased in the future, and permits must not be defined as property rights but instead treated as a compliance mechanism.

It is also inappropriate for the present government to create property rights that infringe on the right of present and future generations to a safe climate.

3. Free permits are given to the biggest polluters

Dirty industries such as coal-fired power stations are being offered 25%-45% of permits for free. The list of "emissions intensive trade exposed" industries that will receive free permits is growing. This completely defeats the "market mechanism" of an ETS, which is that rising costs to polluters act as an incentive for industries to shift to less polluting industries.

There is also $3.9 billion being given to the coal-fired electricity generation industry, which has been identified as a "strongly affected industry".

4. Polluters are allowed to 'offset' their pollution overseas

Firms will be able to buy an unlimited amount of international credits from Clean Development Mechanism offset projects to account for their emissions.

There is a serious risk that no domestic abatement will occur and there will be no shift in the Australian economy away from coal and other polluting industries and towards low emission technologies.

Australia needs to shift to low emission technologies if we want a prosperous future in a carbon constrained world. There is evidence that some current offset projects do not actually reduce net emissions — some are extremely dubious and do not reduce greenhouse gases but perversely result in a net increase in greenhouse gas emissions.

5. Big polluters can buy now, use later

Corporations, already rich from exploiting the planet, are given the opportunity to buy permits now (when the price is likely to be low or free) but use them later — in effect, delaying cuts in pollution and the required changes to a low carbon economy for as long as possible.

6. The CPRS encourages reforestation, but also deforestation

Land clearing and logging of native forests have significant impacts on emissions — the "lungs of the Earth". It will be more profitable to manage plantations as "carbon sinks" than use them for wood — increasing the demand for native forest logging!

If forests die or burn (which is predicted to increase as climate change worsens), all the carbon that was temporarily stored in those forests is released. There is already too much carbon in the atmosphere. Forests must be used to draw down excess carbon and not "justify" the continued burning of fossil fuels.

7. The CPRS makes people, not the polluters, pay

The public is already being warned of increases in electricity, transport and general living costs passed on to the consumer. The scheme will effectively be another tax on ordinary people while, business-as-usual is allowed to continue.

There is no incentive for industry to change if it is given free permits and also allowed to pass on the costs to the consumer. Polluting industries instead need to be rapidly shut down.

There are alternatives to the CPRS

If the government is serious about carbon pollution reduction then why do we need to wait until 2010, 2020 or 2050? The following must happen now:

•Cease all subsidies to dirty industries. Billions of taxpayer dollars are given away to coal, car and fossil fuel industries (including transport). Diverting these subsidies to renewable alternatives is needed now.
•Embark on a massive public works program, creating green jobs in everything from sustainable agriculture to installing rainwater and solar harvesting systems in cities.
•An immediate increase in public transport, shifting to rail, light rail, very fast trains (instead of air travel) and electric vehicles.
•Phase out coal exports and coal-based electricity and move to renewable energy technologies with industry and regional plans for coal communities.
•End the logging of native forests.

The transition to a low carbon society needs to be as swift as governments around the globe have responded to the financial crisis. The money is clearly there, so we need to reject the CPRS as too late and too flawed and look instead to solutions that will provide an immediate transition to a sustainable future.