What alternatives to the CPRS?

March 21, 2009

Climate activists have been campaigning against the government's so-called Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme (CPRS) long before the exposure legislation was tabled in parliament on March 10.

At Australia's Climate Action Summit, held in Canberra from January 30 to February 3, delegates from more than 150 climate action groups around Australia agreed to campaign for the rejection of the CPRS.

The summit called for a national day of action against the CPRS for March 27.

The scheme's proponents claim that by setting a cap on national greenhouse gas pollution, allocating permits to pollute and allowing the permits to be traded, the invisible hand of the market will deliver the necessary greenhouse gas emission cuts at the least cost to the economy.

But the scheme has emissions cut targets of only 5-15% on 2000 levels (4-14% on 1990 levels, the year used in international agreements).

If the emission cap is tightened in the future, the legislation ensures the government will be bound to pay compensation to the big polluters that take part in the scheme.

The biggest polluters are to be given billions in free permits, including $3.9 billion in special compensation to the coal industry alone.

There will be a price cap on permits, blunting the economic signal the scheme is supposed to send to polluters. The price cap and free permits undermine the scheme's ability to deliver emissions cuts through pricing pollution out of the economy.

Furthermore, pollution cuts by individuals will simply free up permits for the big polluters to buy, enabling them to escape their emissions cuts obligations and making it impossible for individuals to make a difference to national emissions.

The inclusion of international "offsetting" will have the same effect on a wider scale: instead of restructuring the domestic economy away from reliance on carbon, the scheme will allow the polluters to continue pumping greenhouse gases into the air as long as they can buy credits from suppliers (usually powerful multinationals) in other countries.

At best this makes others responsible for cleaning up the mess made by Australian polluters; at worst, it foists environmentally and socially damaging mega-projects on communities of the global South.

It's a business-as-usual response to climate change that sets the polluters up to continue to pollute and profit, at the expense of consumers, who'll pay more (with greatest impact on the poorest), for little or no environmental gain.

So what would a serious response to climate change look like?

First: an acknowledgement that we are in deep shit. Or, if you prefer, that we face an unprecedented global emergency.

Climate change is not a threat we face in the future. It is here now. Lives and species have already been unnecessarily lost from intensification of heatwaves, drought, bushfires, flooding, cyclones, hurricanes and other impacts of global warming.

The grave reality revealed by the 2007 Arctic sea ice melt, and observed polar ice sheet and continental glacial retreat, is that current warming is already dangerous.

We can't afford to lose any more time, but must stop emitting carbon as soon as possible, and remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to restore atmospheric carbon concentrations to safe levels — about 300 parts per million.

A global emergency needs a global emergency response. Instead we are locked in a suicidal game of chicken, nations of the developed world refusing to make the deep cuts needed (and to provide funds to help the global South pursue no-emissions development), and Australia resisting even the inadequate targets being proposed.

A serious response from the Australian government would be to commit to making the deep cuts needed, even before a global agreement is reached — to provide the impetus for other nations to follow suit and start to compensate for the spoiler role that Australia, with the highest per capita emissions of the developed world, has played to date.

Having made such a commitment, how would we proceed?

A serious response to climate change means a mobilisation of all necessary resources to make the transition to a zero carbon economy as soon as possible, while ensuring workers and communities most affected by climate impacts and economic restructuring are protected.

It means starting a rapid transition to 100% renewable energy by 2020, and a transformation of our transport, agriculture, industry, and housing. It means phasing out coal exports, emissions from which dwarf all domestic emissions.

Valuable work to develop a plan for expanding the role of renewable energy in Australia has already been done by a range of scientists and environmental NGOs.

A combination of wave, solar thermal, wind, and geothermal energy could meet Australia's rational energy needs. The obstacles are not technical, but political.

The CPRS makes it clear the government prefers to protect the profits of the big polluters. But why should those who've profited from emitting the carbon pollution that now threatens the planet, who've received billions of dollars in government subsidies (overt and hidden) each year, and who've wilfully obstructed public awareness and government action to cut emissions, be protected any longer?

Why shouldn't they pay to clean up the pollution they have generated?

The transition to a post-carbon economy would entail job creation, with many new jobs in research, training, renewable energy, public transport, and manufacturing.

As the global capitalist economic meltdown has shown, such job creation can't be left to the dictates of the market. Instead, the energy sector must be brought under accountable, public control. It must be tasked with the transition to renewables with the protection of conditions and jobs, including paid retraining with guaranteed positions, for workers displaced from the phased closure of polluting industries.

Direct government investment in energy efficient public transport and public housing would make living green an option for those who now can't afford it.

Most important is a government that acknowledges failure is not an option; that commits to tackle every obstacle in the way of achieving the cuts needed; and has the will to educate and involve the whole of society in the process.

It's because the Rudd-Wong climate policy is not actually designed to tackle climate change that many more people need to join the protest actions in the streets. We need to build a popular revolt that tolerates nothing less than determined action to restore a safe climate.

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