By Fiona Armstrong
Published by the ABC on 28 Feb 2014
The Abbott government needs to shed its mindless opposition to carbon pricing and embrace a policy that actually has a chance of addressing climate change, unlike Direct Action.
The Abbot Government’s policy for addressing climate change, the Direct Action Plan, is currently undergoing public scrutiny via a Senate Inquiry into the policy. More specifically the Inquiry will look into whether the plan is a “failure to systematically address climate change”.
Sadly there is little that is ‘direct’ about the Direct Action Plan, as it is largely about using taxation revenue to funnel, through complicated administrative schemes, subsidies to polluting industries for emissions reductions they might make anyway. It reduces any incentives for long-term emissions cuts due to a short program time frame.
Despite being touted as the cornerstone of national climate policy, the Direct Action Plan will not even achieve the wildly inadequate emissions reduction target of a five per cent cut on 1990 levels by 2020, let alone the Climate Change Authority’s recommended 19 per cent cut. In the words of The Climate Institute: “No independent analysis to date has shown that the policy framework as outlined can achieve Australia’s international obligations and emission commitments.” (pdf)
Bit of a worry, isn’t it?
A more ‘direct’ way of achieving emissions reductions might be to impose a financial penalty or disincentive to pollute. That would increase the costs of emission per tonne, raise the relative costs of emissions-intensive practices and create an incentive to find lower emissions alternatives. It would also make cleaner, lower emissions pathways relatively cheaper, compared to now. But, oh wait… that’s what we already have in the form of a carbon price. It’s the advice of leading economists, climate policy experts (pdf), the OECD and the World Bank to put a price on carbon. Yet the Abbott government is seeking to abolish it.
Other elements of the (as yet poorly spelled out) Plan include the employment of masses of young people to plant trees. A laudable aim, both for youth employment and for revegetation projects, but as an emissions strategy, it’s a bit like saying you’re going to stop the warming of the ocean by picking up litter on the beach: nice idea but hopelessly inadequate in tackling the core problem.
The core problem, as it stands, is our fossil-fuels intensive energy system, based as it is on coal, gas and oil. Until we begin to transition away from these energy sources and take advantage of our abundant, cost effective (because they carry few or none of the “externalities” of fossil fuels, like environmental harm and damage to people’s health) renewable energy resources like wind and solar, we’re basically spitting into the wind.
Despite the rhetoric, the Direct Action Plan and its Emissions Reduction Fund will not fund lowest cost, effective emissions reductions with minimal administration. It seems more likely it will to do the opposite by supporting high polluters with large subsidies to make little or no emissions reductions, at the same time as creating a massive increase in paperwork with a project-by-project approach that will cost more and disproportionately burden smaller organisations.
But the core issue in regard to the Direct Action Plan for health and medical professionals is that this and other proposed climate and energy policies fundamentally overlook the full truth about climate change: that it is not an environmental problem, and cannot be solved by a single portfolio approach. It is a profoundly complex issue that impacts on every corner of society, every industry, every person, every species.
But while it is complex, and no other challenge like it has been faced by human society before, we know what to do. It’s not like we’ve just found out about it. A recent note from the Australian Parliamentary Library chronicles the sad and chequered history of climate policy in Australia, starting back in 1972, smeared as it is by the fingerprints of rent seekers, big coal, oil giants, gutless politicians, climate deniers and those who are willing to willfully gamble the lives and futures of our children, our grandchildren and a future for the extraordinary miracle of human existence on this tiny blue planet.
Climate change is, as the international medical journal The Lancet wrote in 2009, the biggest threat the global public health this century. Climate change threatens the future of human civilisation. As leading climate scientist Hans Schellnhuber from the Potsdam Institute in German says, if we hit a temperature rise of four degrees, projected for mid century on current rates of emissions, the difference between that and our (also too high) target of two degrees, may be “human civilisation”. That’s a big gamble to take.
And it’s not one we need to take. As the European Commission 2050 Roadmap outlines, the pathway to a low carbon economy offers lower energy costs, cleaner air, a healthier community, and the preservation of vital natural capital.
In its flagship report (pdf) on a global low carbon transition, the German Advisory Council on Global Change is emphatic that the key ingredients for this necessary transition are available. It states: “the technological potential for comprehensive decarbonisation is available”, the business and financial models are available, and “the political instruments needed for a climate friendly transformation are widely known”.
Here in Australia, two sets of comprehensive modelling, from Beyond Zero Emissions and the University of NSW (pdf), show affordable technologies for a 100 per cent renewable energy supply for Australia are available now, at a lower cost than polluting ones.
The Abbott government would do well to look beyond its rhetoric and determined opposition to policies that have global and expert support. To do otherwise risks failing in its duty of care to act in the interests of Australian citizens, by leading us on a global warming pathway which looks to carry the kinds of profound consequences only those well versed in the Bible may yet have contemplated.
Fiona Armstrong is a health professional and founder and Convenor of the Climate and Health Alliance, a coalition of healthcare stakeholders working together for an evidence based response to climate change.