On July 17, PM John Howard's climate change policy was released amidst great fanfare. For most of his political career, Howard has denied the link between climate change and human industry, and the threat that it poses to the planet and society. Now the scientific evidence is irrefutable he has changed tack, and is promoting "solutions" to the climate change threat that avoid threatening the profits of the polluting corporations.
The best element of the policy is the subsidies to enable householders (private owners or tenants, but not those in state or territory public housing) to convert from electric to solar or heat pump hot-water systems. However, the subsidies are available only to households with incomes less than $100,000, and with only $225 million allocated for them over five years, will be available only for 225,000 households — nowhere near the estimated 5.5 million houses and flats in Australia.
The policy also includes grants for rainwater tanks and solar hot-water systems for schools. This means giving additional public money — up to $50,000 — to every private school and fails to commit the government to introducing such systems across the public sector as a whole. Furthermore, as Howard's Australian of the Year Professor Tim Flannery pointed out, because schools are in use for only 200 days a year, photovoltaic panels that could feed power into the grid would be a more appropriate option.
The policy does not set any targets for greenhouse gas emissions reductions. Australia's current target for 2008-12, of annual average emissions 108% of 1990 levels, will remain. An emissions trading scheme will be announced in 2011, but what the targets will be or and whether they will be mandatory is not clear. Furthermore, the scheme will exclude agriculture and land use, which currently account for 16% of emissions, and the report of the Government Task Group on Emissions Trading, on which Howard's policy is based, recommends protecting "trade-exposed, emissions-intensive firms to ameliorate the bulk of the competitiveness impact of the emissions cap".
Former Howard adviser Guy Pearse told the ABC on July 18: "If you look closely at the implications of effectively carving out those worst polluting industries from the emissions trading scheme, the impact is to double the carbon price that the rest of the economy bears. So you and I end up paying more for our electricity, in order that our worst polluting industries get off virtually scot-free."
Pearse attributes this policy to the Howard government being beholden to the "greenhouse mafia" of fossil fuel mega-corporations. "Those industries, while most Australians now have been sold a message that they are the backbone of the economy and the key to our future prosperity, [are only responsible for] about one job in 20", he said.
Worst of all, Howard's policy gives a further $12.5 million to the nuclear industry for research. On July 20, the ABC reported that the government is planning a nuclear industry cooperation deal with the US that would involve US assistance in the construction of nuclear power stations in Australia.
Positing nuclear power as a solution to global warming not only ignores the massive greenhouse gas emissions involved in the mining and transport of uranium and the construction and decommissioning of nuclear power plants, it also ignores the radiation leaks, accident risks and radioactive waste creation at every stage of the nuclear fuel cycle. Increasing the risk of a nuclear apocalypse in no way lessens the risk an apocalypse caused by run-away global warming.
The ALP has attacked Howard for ignoring the global warming issue for 11 years and jumping on the bandwagon now for electoral reasons. However, while the Labor Party does have an emissions reduction target — 60% by 2050 — it is not enough to avert the threat of catastrophe.
Furthermore, how that target will be reached is unclear. For example, while the ALP's proposed $500 million "Green Cars Innovation Fund" may lead to vehicles with lower emissions (although much of it is likely to be pocketed by car manufacturers as a handout), it is no substitute for getting cars off the road by expanding public transport. Meanwhile, ALP state governments continue to under-fund, corporatise and privatise public transport.
A centrepiece of ALP plans for reducing greenhouse gas emissions is "clean coal", but "clean coal" does not actually exist: like safe disposal of nuclear waste, it is an idea based on technology yet to be invented!
In a July 17 media release, Greens Senator Christine Milne said of Howard's policy: "This is an election driven response, not a climate driven response. There are no science-driven targets, no role for Kyoto and no incentives for renewable energy ... This announcement is an indication that if John Howard wins government again he won't tackle polluters, he'll give them free permits to pollute and the cheap option of a safety-valve if they exceed their permits. This trading scheme is being designed for polluters, not for the."
Milne argued: "An emissions trading scheme should set a rigorous target with a high enough penalty fee to drive compliance. It needs to be complemented by an increased mandatory renewable energy target and feed in laws. The whole thrust of his announcement today is to give the appearance of tackling climate change whilst doing nothing more than developing a system that is slow to start, begins with a low carbon price and gives a warm inner-glow to the coal and nuclear industries."
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 rejects reliance on market mechanisms such as green taxes, emissions trading or carbon offsets to promote behaviour changes in individuals and corporations (see accompanying article).