“The revolving Earth pitted with its tragedies, cried out in a far voice from the middle of space; you cannot leave me to the politicians … It cannot be left to them: not solely to them. You have to bring in the wise men.”Neil Gunn

The report of the Prime Minister¹s taskforce on emissions trading, released on Friday, is hugely disappointing. It is little more than a regurgitation of the original 1998 design for a national emissions-trading system, tweaked to provide greater compensation for emission-intensive industries. We have now added another six months to the decade already wasted, putting together an unnecessary report, answering the wrong questions, by a group dominated by the fossil-fuel industries with minimal incentive to take urgent action to address climate change.

Not surprisingly, the PM has enthusiastically taken up its recommendation “to plan rigorously to build an effective trading system, ensure transparency in the design of the scheme and implement the institutional and regulatory arrangements with calm deliberation,” in the knowledge that “it will take four years for Australia to begin full-scale emissions trading” so the hard decisions can be left until after the election.

On this basis, it will be 15 years since government was fully informed of the serious implications of climate change before anything substantive is done to reduce emissions growth. The message is that, despite the rhetoric of Cabinet now being “true climate-change believers”, to paraphase Ian Macfarlane, they still do not accept the urgency of addressing the problem. And we are asked to trust them.

We have made some progress. The advent of emissions trading is now accepted by both sides of politics. This is an important component of the climate-change solution and the report makes some sensible recommendations regarding the design of an emissions-trading scheme, apart from the inordinate amount of compensation to emission-intensive industries.

Why does the removal of the enormous subsidy represented by the absence of a carbon price, have to be compensated for when the companies concerned have been well aware for years that this change was coming? At the same time, the Mandatory Renewable Energy Target, which urgently needs to be expanded to accelerate alternative renewable energy technologies, is regarded as a cross-subsidy to be removed with no compensation — a case of compounding the problem and discouraging the solution.

But emissions trading is only a subset of the main issue, namely the comprehensive climate-change policy we need but at present we do not have. The core of that policy is the objective of avoiding dangerous climate change. The report states:

The goal is to achieve stabilisation of Greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system. Understanding of the complex environmental, economic and social impacts of climate change is currently not sufficient to identify confidently what this level should be.

This is being economical with the truth, to say the least. Decisions on climate change will always have to be made with incomplete knowledge, but the overwhelming weight of scientific evidence, including that of the Government’s own scientific advisers, the CSIRO, clearly indicates that the danger zone begins at 450 parts per million (ppm) carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e), quite possibly somewhat lower given increasing evidence of non-linear climatic response. To achieve this objective:

  • Global carbon emissions must reduce by 15% by 2025 and 55% by 2050, from today’s levels;
  • Australian emissions must reduce by 50% by 2025 and 90% by 2050, assuming agreement on the adoption of equal per capita emissions globally by 2040. This is one of the few equitable ways that the developing world is likely to participate in a global carbon-reduction scheme which, as the PM likes to remind us, is essential;
  • Extending the Kyoto Protocol remains the best way of co-ordinating this global framework, with AP6 as a complementary technological initiative. The current Bush Administration’s diversionary tactic, of proposing yet another international framework, should be politely declined.

These targets are extremely demanding, but that is the challenge we face and neither the Government nor the Opposition should pretend otherwise. We have any amount of modelling which demonstrates that such changes can be made at an acceptable cost whilst maintaining our prosperity, albeit they will fundamentally alter the lifestyle of the entire community, for the better. The cost of not taking action will be far greater.

The government likes to instil fear of change by continually emphasising the costs of action, but it never mentions the opportunities and benefits that will result. It may well be that the economy will perform far better once these changes are made

Time is of the essence. In both Australia and China emissions are growing faster than the maximum rate anticipated in the recent IPCC reports; it is most unlikely that Australia will meet its Kyoto targets in the initial 2008-2012 period, notwithstanding the Government’s claims to the contrary.

Current global atmospheric carbon concentrations are 430ppm CO2e, increasing at 3ppm per annum and accelerating fast. In theory that leaves seven years before we reach the danger point of 450ppm. In reality, given accelerating emissions and the non-linear climatic response highlighted in the most recent scientific reports, we probably have less than five years. As there is a considerable lag before any reduction in emissions has an impact, action is required now, not in 2011 as proposed in the report.

On the Prime Minister’s timetable we will be well into the danger zone before we even start taking action. Nor do we have the luxury of waiting until September 2008 for the findings of the ALP’s Garnaut Review.

We are all involved in the risk management of a potential catastrophe. This is not a normal item on the political agenda, yet we are treating it as such and descending into typical political point-scoring. We have all the information we need to implement rapid corrective action, we do not need another four years of “paralysis by analysis”.

Climate change is a long-term issue which will inexorably take its course irrespective of our political bickering. Unfortunately, we have allowed our institutions to become dominated by short-term expediency, rendering them incapable of handling long-term issues. Serious consideration must be given to placing our climate change response outside the political system, with independent leadership on a quasi war-footing, before we lose the ability to control our own destiny.

This is, above all, a moral issue. The economics are important, but the primary considerations have to be environmental sustainability and our fiduciary responsibility to future generations, otherwise there will be no economy. We are being badly led; it is time for the community to get angry, very angry, and to insist on change.