PM Kevin Rudd's announced changes to the proposed Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme (CPRS) has again split the climate movement, and this time it's very serious, with three large, rusted-on-to-Labor groups running cover for an appalling policy that won't guarantee a reduction in Australian emissions for decades.
The grassroots movement, which gathered in Canberra in January with 500 people and 150 groups for the first national Climate Action Summit and unanimously opposed the CPRS legislation, appears uniformly angry.
Sixty-six climate action groups have written to the prime minister saying: "We believe that you have abandoned your duty of care to protect the Australian people as well as our species and habitats from dangerous climate change."
An appalling policy
The Greens described Rudd's re-worked proposals for the CPRS, announced on May 4, as "making the 'worse than useless' scheme even worse and giving another $2.2 billion to big polluters.
John Hepburn of Greenpeace said: "It's clear that Rudd has been listening to the big polluters and this is another shift towards the interests of polluters rather than climate action.
"We're rapidly running out of time and we'd like this scheme to go back to the drawing board until Kevin Rudd can stand up to the big polluters ... "
Friends of the Earth "criticised the raising of the government's hypothetical target range as an exercise in 'smoke and mirrors', aimed at hiding the further windfall for polluters".
But the three climate advocacy groups that have quietly consented or actively supported the government's "clean coal" policies — Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF), the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and the Climate Institute — again lined up to support Labor. They joined with the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) and the Australia Council of Social Service (ACOSS).
Michelle Grattan in Age noted that "the biggest concessions are the brown ones" and that "Kevin Rudd has stitched key groups in behind a revised emissions trading deal — both browner and greener than before — to put maximum pressure on Malcolm Turnbull".
John Conner of the Climate Institute on behalf of the Southern Cross Climate Coalition (ACF, ACTU, ACOSS and the Climate Institute) said it was now time for all parties to pass the scheme.
ACF CEO Don Henry told staff: "We have achieved a significant step forward on climate change. The government has just announced that it will take on a target of reducing Australia's emissions by 25% by 2020 in the context of a Copenhagen agreement that has the effect of stabilising emissions at 450ppm or lower." (That is totally wrong, as I will discuss later.)
ACF climate campaigner Owen Pascoe added: "This is good step forward and the positives outweigh the negatives. However there's a lot more to be done and we'll keep pushing for our ask of 30 to 40% cuts."
Big polluters win
For the record, the changes to the proposed scheme:
delay its introduction for a year to July 2011 and set a carbon price of $10 a tonne with unlimited number of permits till 1 July 2012. This means there will be no effective action for another three years.
Increase the free permits to the biggest polluters in the first year from 90% to 95% and from 60% to 70%. In the first year of the scheme the biggest polluters will be effectively paying just 50 cents per tonne to pollute.
Keeps unlimited outsourcing of Australia's pollution by allowing the purchase of permits from overseas. This means the scheme has no mechanism to ensure Australia's emissions (as opposed to domestic permits) will drop by even one tonne by 2050.
Fails to deal adequately with the question of voluntary action.
Will not, contrary to back-slapping comments by the ACTU, produce an avalanche of "green jobs" because it is not designed to close down the brown jobs. Instead of building a clean, renewable-energy economy Australia will continue to stumble at the back of the pack.
So why are some of the big climate advocacy groups so keen on this disaster? Is their public position supported by the evidence?
Here's a look at the views expressed by ACF and others, and whether they are justifiable.
Argument 1: "Passing the CPRS is necessary for Australia to be credible at Copenhagen."
No, quite the opposite. If there were no legislation, Australia's position would not be tied by law to Rudd's poor target and pressure would be maintained to catch up with the leading bunch.
The targets in the proposed CPRS legislation are out of whack with the major players such as the UK, US and EU, who have agreed to far larger cuts.
Let's be honest, what happens at Copenhagen depends more than any other factor on what the G2 — the USA and China — strike by way of a climate deal, and what Australia puts in the table has little relevance to that. They are used to Australia behaving badly.
Argument 2: "If there is a reasonable outcome in Copenhagen, Australia will be committed to a 25% cut by 2020."
Adam Morton dismissed this in the May 5 Age: "Kevin Rudd says he now has an ambitious greenhouse target on the table for 2020. And he does: cutting emissions to 25% below 2000 levels will require hard work across the economy.
"But we know the government also thinks this almost certainly won't happen. Why? Because Penny Wong told us so in December.
"Ignore yesterday's spin about recent progress in international climate talks. The government believes that a new deal won't meet the strict conditions it has put in place for Australia to sign up for a 25% cut.
"If it is right — and there are plenty [of people] familiar with the climate talks who believe it is — Australia's ultimate target will be in the range it was before yesterday: between 5 and 15%. No change, then."
Argument 3: "The CPRS can reduce Australia's emissions by 25% by 2020."
This is complete bull, regardless of what happens at Copenhagen. By allowing an unlimited number of permits to be bought from overseas, the CPRS cannot guarantee that even one tonne of Australian emissions (as opposed to domestic permits) will be cut. The treasury modelling assumes no drop in Australian emissions for another 25 years.
This alone should be enough to scuttle the whole scheme. How can this be "a significant step forward on climate change" when it won't guarantee to cut one tonne of domestic emissions?
In fact, what the CPRS will do is lock in, through legislation, and for decades to come, a high-pollution economy dominated by high-pollution industries and brown jobs.
Argument 4: "If the high-polluting nations, such as Australia, adopted a policy of reducing emissions to 25% below 1990 by 2020 this would likely lead to an international agreement that would stabilise emissions at 450 parts per million (ppm) or lower."
Here is a case of "if you say something often enough, you'll end up believing it". Too many climate groups and climate scientists have been saying this so long and so often, yet it is so untrue.
The 2007 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report found that developed countries would need to reduce their emissions by 25-40% by 2020 for a 450ppm target.
Note how everybody has dropped the 40% end of this formulation, as if it never existed. Australia, as the highest per capita polluter of the developed nations, would certainly be at the 40% end of the range, but this is rarely mentioned.
Argument 5: "A target of 450ppm would reasonably limit global warming to 2°C."
No, it won't. Analysis from the 2006 Stern Report shows that a 450ppm target has a 26–78% chance of exceeding 2°C relative to pre-industrial levels and a 4–50% chance of exceeding 3°C!
That is not defensible and I can't understand how anybody who works professionally on climate change could ever think for one second that it is a reasonable target to utter in public. What are they thinking?
After a careful reassessment of climate history data, NASA climate science chief James Hansen and his co-authors concluded that the tipping point for the presence, or absence, of any substantial ice-sheets on Earth is around 450 ppm (plus or minus 100 ppm) of carbon dioxide.
This means that the carbon dioxide levels often associated with a 2°C rise — 450ppm — may just be the tipping point for the total loss of all ice sheets on the planet and a huge sea-level rise.
And with high climate sensitivity, a risk-averse target for 2°C is around 350ppm CO2 equivalent gases — just to meet a 2°C target that is actually dangerous.
Argument 6: "2°C is a reasonable target to avoid dangerous climate change."
No, it will ensure that climate change is dangerous. A rise of 2°C over pre-industrial temperatures will start large climate feedbacks in the oceans, on ice-sheets, and on the tundra, taking the Earth well past significant tipping points.
Likely impacts include large-scale breakdown of the Greenland and West Antarctic ice-sheets; the extinction of an estimated 15–40% of plant and animal species; dangerous ocean acidification; increasing methane release; substantial soil and ocean carbon-cycle feedbacks; and widespread drought and desertification in Africa, Australia, southern Europe, and the western USA.
If you don't believe me, read Mark Lynas's book Six Degrees.
James Hansen told the US congress last year that: "We have reached a point of planetary emergency ... climate is nearing dangerous tipping points. Elements of a perfect storm, a global cataclysm, are assembled ... the oft-stated goal to keep global warming less than 2°C is a recipe for global disaster, not salvation."
But ACF says the government announcement is a "significant step forward on climate change".
Take your pick, but I'd rather go with the climate scientist.
Argument 7. "If this legislation is passed, it is reasonable to expect that the government will do more and go further than its own legislation."
Pull the other leg.
It appears the strategy of the groups who have endorsed the CPRS is to pretend that we don't face a climate crisis that requires emergency action. So they endorse incremental policies and never talk about the elephant in the room.
The elephant is this: we only get one shot at this. A trial run, which locks in a bad policy for decades, is not an option.
Today, at just below 1°C of global warming, we are witnessing of the destruction of the Arctic ecosystem.
Eight million square kilometres of sea ice is disappearing each summer and may be entirely gone within a few years.
Already 80% of summer sea-ice volume has been lost, and regional warming of up to 5°C may have already pushed the Greenland ice-sheet past its tipping point. If so this locks in a seven-metre sea-level rise.
Do ACF, the Climate Institute and WWF tell the government this?
We know that the present level of greenhouse gases is enough to increase temperatures by more than 2°C over time. We have already gone too far. There is already too much carbon in the air.
At less than 1°C we are on the way to triggering a multi-metre sea level rise than will devastate coastal infrastructure, peasant–farming communities and some of the world's biggest cities.
Our only choice is to head back to 0°C of warming. To halt all emissions and draw-down atmospheric carbon to return the planet to a safe-climate zone.
Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, director of the Potsdam Institute and Europe's leading climate scientist, says that "we are on our way to a destabilisation of the world climate that has advanced much further than most people or their governments realise".
He says "our survival would very much depend on how well we were able to draw down carbon dioxide to 280 ppm", compared to the present level of close to 390 ppm.
Do ACF, the Climate Institute and WWF tell the government this?
Put starkly, we either keep warming under the range where carbon feedbacks make further human action futile, or we do not.
We have a safe climate or we have a global catastrophe. There are no middle-of-the-road compromises.
We must head back towards zero. At 1°C, the genie is out of the bottle. At 2°C, the bottle is broken.
One of the great powers of the climate action movement is our capacity to withhold support from, and actively campaign against, actions of governments that are designed to fail. The CPRS is one of those actions that will fail.
Presently there is political denial, even an arrogance of power that leads governments to believe they can negotiate with the climate and the laws of physics and chemistry.
They inhabit a land of trade-offs, where climate is just another issue, the politics partisan, the action slow, all embedded in a culture of compromise and failure.
It is a tragedy that some should glowingly support such failure.
[David Spratt is co-author of Climate Code Red: The case for emergency action. This article originally appeared at http://www.climatecodered.blogspot.com.]