Direct distraction: The Coalition’s ‘cure’ for climate change


With climate change, humanity basically doesn’t get any second chances. For a recognisable climate to be preserved, net global greenhouse gas emissions need to peak within the next decade, then decline to zero by around mid-century. It’s a tight call, so we have to get things right first time. If we delay, the laws of physics will not be kind.

High-emitting developed countries like Australia (we pump out more greenhouse gases than Italy, with its 60 million people) have a special duty to act fast, launching well-designed reduction programs that will do the job and that start more or less immediately.

Mere feints in this direction won’t do, and must be rejected. First for the reject bin is Labor’s carbon-tax-cum-trading scheme. With its target for 2020 of cutting emissions by just 5% on 2000 levels, Labor’s program would barely get under way in the next decade. The scheme will concede huge emitting rights to big carbon polluters. Within a few years the tax will morph into carbon trading, and after that, further emissions cuts will hang largely on the gyrations of the market.

Of course voters are unimpressed. A big gap thus opens up for opponents of the Labor government to push a scheme that bypasses the market with its booms, crashes and rorts, identifies specific ways emissions can be cut — and then, we’re promised, will just do it.

What could be wrong with that? In the hands of Coalition leader Tony Abbott and the Liberal-National Coalition, plenty.

Abbott’s “direct action” emissions reduction plan, first announced in February 2010, shares Labor’s unserious 5%-by-2020 target. The coalition plan places no sanctions on existing greenhouse emissions; not even the most reckless carbon hogs will face penalties, provided their current emissions do not increase.

“Direct action” promises big giveaways to polluters, who will be bribed with government incentives to cut their emissions. That’s bad enough, but experience with state-based incentives schemes shows clearly that the key tool the coalition plans to use — competitive tendering for grants — would not do the job. Few reduction programs would be approved, and fewer still would go ahead. Emissions would almost certainly rise.

Most of the grant money, in fact, wouldn’t even be paid out — and that, very likely, is exactly the outcome the conservatives cynically intend.

Meanwhile, the coalition promises that no new taxes will be levied to pay for its plan, so most of the giveaways would have to come from cuts in other areas of government spending. In other words, from tax revenue, including the income that now helps pay for healthcare and schools.

It gets worse. Most of the net emissions cuts under “direct action” are supposed to come from locking carbon away in soils.

A 2009 CSIRO study of Queensland soil carbon is cited as showing that this is possible.

But this conclusion requires a very strained reading of the scientists’ figures, which in any case are only tentative estimates. Plus, achieving the desired result would involve a sustained attack by the coalition on its rural voter base — which is not going to happen.

If truth-in-advertising laws applied to election promises, Abbott would be in trouble.

Essentially, there’s nothing much new about the coalition’s plan. As Richard Denniss and Matt Grudnoff explain in a July 2011 Australia Institute paper, more than $7 billion worth of competitive grant schemes for emissions reduction have already been announced by various Australian governments.

Citing an April 2011 review of these schemes by the Grattan Institute, Denniss and Grudnoff observe that the schemes take far longer to achieve their objectives than originally planned; achieve much less than expected; and cost far more than was budgeted.

In competitive grant schemes, businesses are invited to tender for government money. The government then assesses the various proposals, and up to the total sum allotted, approves those it thinks will deliver most benefits at least cost.

As the Grattan Institute notes, this process is routinely problematic: “Government tends to struggle to identify the best projects.

"The assessments required are inherently difficult because the projects often involve cutting edge technology or are highly complex. The process favours over-optimistic bids, which then makes completion unlikely.”

In the case of the grants programs reviewed by the Grattan Institute, most winning projects were never built. Of those that went ahead, most did not start to be implemented until five years or more after the program was announced.

At best, the review concludes, “these programs are a wasteful distraction, since most of the money is never spent”.

Competitive grant schemes also have a way of turning into bureaucratic monsters. Denniss and Grudnoff pondered the scale of the project assessment task if the coalition’s target, involving a cumulative total of 713 million tonnes of emissions reduction over the nine years to 2020, were to be met.

They said: “If we make the generous assumption that the average reduction in emissions per project is 25,000 tonnes then there would need to be about 28,500 successful projects to meet the target. If we assume four unsuccessful projects for every successful one then the number of projects assessed would be close to 150,000.”

Somewhat archly, they go on to observe:

“How the Coalition would juggle the number of public servants needed with its commitment to reduce the public service is puzzling.”

Needless to say, Abbott and his colleagues do not contemplate turning most of the federal public service over to this task.

So what impact might we expect “direct action” to have on greenhouse emissions? Denniss and Grudnoff calculated that: “Given the previous experience of different grants programs, many of which were run under the Howard government, the scheme is unlikely to achieve more than 18% of [the planned] reduction.

“If this occurred then rather than emissions falling by 5% on 2000 levels in 2020 they would actually rise by 18.4%.”

What other treasures does “direct action” have for us? “Unlike Labor’s emissions trading scheme,” the Coalition’s plan pledges, “businesses will not be penalised for continuing to operate at ‘business as usual’ levels”.

If firms undertake new activity that involves a higher level of emitting than before, they will incur a financial penalty — that is, a tax. If they make savings compared to their individual “historic average” emissions, the government — that is, the taxpayer — will pay for the amounts cut.

And if the polluter is a wealthy energy corporation, burning brown coal and pouring out greenhouse gases at some of the world’s worst levels? “A Coalition Government will make incentives available for the oldest and most inefficient power stations to reduce their emissions in an orderly manner.”

Talk about licking the hand that feeds you.

As readers will have gathered, the “direct action” plan is heavy on bluff, camouflage and sweet-talking. Like a social climber at a celebrity benefit, the plan drops names — primarily those of wholesome-sounding green technologies and carbon sequestration methods.

Many of these technologies and methods are valid and useful. But there’s no way they add up to a solution to climate change, in the absence of shutting down the fossil-fuel plants and taking the Hummers off the road.

Touted as the “major plank” in the coalition’s strategy is “direct action on soil carbons [sic]”.

By 2020, “direct action” is supposed to support total abatement of 140 million tonnes a year of CO2-equivalent.

Of this annual sum, up to 85 million tonnes is to take the form of additions to carbon levels in Australian soils.

“Farmers,” the plan says, “will be entitled to tender for all verified new additions in soil carbon.”

Like its industrial counterpart, the tendering process here would be completely unworkable. For one thing, the cost of testing soils on the scale required would be prohibitive.

Still, there’s no question that large quantities of carbon could be locked away in Australian soils. Farmers already have strong incentives to achieve this, since the resulting gains in soil fertility can be remarkable.

CSIRO research indicates that converting Australian native land to agriculture has depleted the amount of organic carbon in the soils by 40% to 60%, releasing at least 150 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide.

To come up with a figure for the amount that could be put back each year, the Coalition draws — by inference and somewhat indirectly — on an August 2009 study prepared for the Queensland government.

This study estimates an Australia-wide figure for “potential” carbon sequestration in soils of 164 million tonnes of CO2-equivalent per year. Of this, about half is considered “attainable”. In this way, it seems, the Coalition derives its figure of 85 million tonnes.

A careful reading of the CSIRO’s study, however, leaves the Coalition’s projection looking like an outback road sign — shot full of holes.

The “attainable” sequestration from land used regularly for cropping appears to be no more than about 7 million tonnes a year.

Of the total 164 million tonnes of “potential” sequestration, 120 million tonnes is cited as coming from rehabilitation of overgrazed rangelands and mulga lands.

The only real way to carry out this rehabilitation is to drastically reduce livestock numbers — by as much as 80%, according to work cited by the CSIRO.

Nowhere does the “direct action” plan mention the need for this destocking, which would be fiercely resisted by the Coalition’s rural base. Nor, for that matter, is the coalition going to the electorate with the call for voters to give up beef and lamb.

Here too, we have to conclude, the Coalition has not the slightest intention of carrying out the necessary measures on the scale required.

That’s not to say that soil carbon sequestration isn’t worth pursuing.

Intensive organic farming methods have recorded some striking successes in raising soil carbon levels. But intensive organic cropping requires relatively humid conditions, and often relies on an outside supply of natural fertilisers. Most Australian grain farming takes place in conditions of quite marginal soil moisture, and there simply isn’t the animal manure for farms that stretch over the horizon.

Modern dry-land cropping practices such as no-till cultivation and enhanced rotation and stubble management have been shown to lock away moderate quantities of carbon, at least compared to the methods of the past. But in general, CSIRO scientists are very guarded on the prospects for carbon sequestration in cropland. A CSIRO paper from May 2010 notes:

“Soils used for crop production in Australia may only be able to slow or halt the rate of carbon losses, and not sequester additional atmospheric carbon … This may be due to the fact that carbon stocks in many regions of Australia are still responding to initial land clearing.”

The same paper observes that with current grazing practices, soil carbon levels on rangeland under natural vegetation are declining fast. As climate change proceeds, warmer temperatures and longer droughts are expected to cause most Australian soils, unless actively managed, to become carbon sources rather than sinks.

In its treatment of soil carbon, the “direct action” plan shows the Coalition mishandling and misrepresenting the relevant science. In other sections, the plan’s authors promote new technologies while clearly having little idea of how they work and what they entail.

“Twenty-five geothermal or tidal power ‘micro’ projects will be established in suitable towns,” the plan pledges at one point, holding out the offer of grants of up to $2 million each.

Geothermal energy has real long-term promise, but the kilometres-deep wells needed to tap the Australian resource start at a cost of about $10 million. Australia has vast resources of tidal power, but the best sites are almost all on the remote Kimberley coast where there are no towns anyway.

Or is it simply that the Coalition is dropping names again, and promising money that it knows perfectly well it will never have to disburse?

Most Australians accept that we have a serious problem with climate change, and expect their governments to take active measures to help stop it. The Labor Party has its emissions reduction program. Coalition leaders know they’ll suffer electorally if they don’t have one too. But neither scheme would apply the brakes hard enough, or in time, to stop us hurtling over the climate precipice.

Labor leaders probably reason that if they can embed in Australians’ political consciousness the idea that big polluters should pay for their super-size contributions to climate disaster, a meaningful emissions reduction scheme might someday be engineered on that basis.

But in a weird piece of ideological cross-dressing, Labor’s scheme embraces the coalition’s cult of property rights and the market, promising to turn the right to pollute into a corporate asset. Taking this property away from the bosses would be a huge challenge, involving an assault on the fundamental sources of capitalist social power. Don’t look to the Labor Party for that.

Meanwhile, what can possibly be said for the Coalition? Their “direct action” is not a program to meet the climate challenge, just a bible for thumping at election time. Even the worst polluters could keep emitting and not pay a cent. The cost would be met out of provisions now enjoyed by working people. And emissions would keep rising.

That’s the kind of climate action you get from people who’d fry their grandchildren to get into government, then bite the servants for the power bill.