The good and the bad of the Greens' CPRS amendments

October 19, 2009

The Greens released a set of 22 amendments to the Rudd Labor government's proposed Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme (CPRS) on October 12.

As the legislation stands, the CPRS locks in a disastrously low unconditional emission cut target of just 5% (on 1990 levels) by 2020, pays Australia's biggest polluters $16 billion in "compensation", and allows companies to pay for carbon offsets overseas rather than cut emissions themselves.

As Greens deputy leader Christine Milne launched the raft of amendments, she repeated her oft-stated charge that the government's "CPRS" really stands for the "Continue Polluting Regardless Scheme".

She attacked ALP and Coalition climate proposals for ignoring the climate science, costing jobs in renewable energy industries and putting corporate profits before a safe climate future.

Milne said the Greens' amendments "would turn a scheme that locks in failure into an effective scheme that would play a key role in addressing the climate crisis".

Compared with the government's emissions trading scheme, the Greens' version is far stronger. The proposed amendments set an unconditional emission cut target of 25% by 2020, or 40% provided agreement is reached at the UN-sponsored climate talks in December at Copenhagen.

At present, the CPRS bill aims to stabilise atmospheric CO2levels at 450 parts per million (ppm), up from 390ppm today. Such a rise would lock in an average temperature rise of 4°C or more, climate scientists say. This would spell the end for the Arctic ice cap and the Amazon rainforest, and would displace millions of people due to rising sea levels.

By contrast, the Greens' plan would commit the government to a long-term goal of reducing CO2 levels to 350ppm.

The Greens' proposals would cancel compensation payments to electricity generators and strictly limit compensation to other industries; mandate the auction of all carbon permits (the Rudd government plans to give out free permits worth billions to big polluters); and abolish the $10 a tonne price cap, which artificially prices coal and gas back into the market.

The amendments are a welcome contribution to the delusional Labor-Liberal "debate" on the CPRS.

However, the Greens' emission reduction target range of 25%-40% is simply not high enough.

The Greens point out that the figure is based on the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) 2007 report. However, the IPCC has been criticised as "painfully conservative" by Australian scientist Tim Flannery and others.

Since 2007, climate science has moved on a lot. A recent climate change conference in Oxford, attended by 130 of the world's top scientists, concluded that it is likely that even the worst-case scenarios in the IPCC report understate the global warming threat.

The Greens are justified in saying their proposal is far better than the ALP's planet-destroying carbon trading scheme. But they can't claim it's based on the science, or that its targets can achieve a safe climate.

Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research director John Schellnhuber told the Oxford conference, "Political reality must be grounded in physical reality or it's completely useless", reported the Interpress Service on October 9.

Also, the conditional target of 40% is really an ambit claim, given it's certain that Copenhagen will not deliver because of the sabotage by the rich countries.

The world's poor countries say a worldwide 40% cut by 2020 is the minimum needed to avert runaway climate change. Given Australia's high historic emissions and the nearness of climate tipping points, Australia's target should be above 40%, with no conditions attached.

The Greens' amendments also take aim at one of the most appalling aspects of the proposed CPRS — the government's scheme would allow a business to offset its total required emission cuts through controversial projects in the Third World.

Australian climate commentator Guy Pearse aptly labelled this element of the CPRS as "carbon colonialism".

The Greens propose to limit the amount of offsets allowed to 20% of the total and ensure all offsets meet the approval of the Swiss NGO Gold Standard Foundation. Yet the question remains: why allow even a fifth of Australia's emissions to be made the responsibility of the poor countries?

Finally, carbon trading schemes have been tried, and have failed utterly, before. At most, carbon trading could play a short-term, subsidiary role.

A carbon market cannot, as Milne suggests, play a "key role in addressing the crisis". Direct government investment in energy efficiency, public transport and renewable energy is the most important measure.

In March, NASA climate scientist James Hansen said he had concluded that reliance on carbon trading "will be guaranteed to fail in terms of getting the required rapid reduction in emissions".

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