Has GetUp! lost the plot? Yesterday, the grassroots activist organisation launched a campaign calling on its members to send their energy-saving light-bulbs to the Prime Minister as a protest against the failure of the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme (CPRS) to account for emission reduction measures by well-meaning households.

This supposed flaw in the scheme is trifling compared to the real problem with the CPRS, the manifestly inadequate cap that would reduce emissions by only 5% on 2000 levels.

Household electricity is responsible for less than 10% of Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions. If 10% of households — a generous estimate of the proportion that might be willing to take voluntary action — cut their emissions in half through voluntary measures such as installing solar panels, Australia’s emissions would fall by 0.5%.

All of that selfless effort would have virtually no effect.

Yet a demand to increase the CPRS cap from 5% to the 25% or more required by the science would cut emissions by an additional 20%. With a more stringent target, the price effects of emissions trading would render voluntary action even less relevant. Most Australians would be taking action at home, not for altruistic reasons but to lower their energy bills.

Given this, why is GetUp! not asking members to send their light bulbs back demanding a decent emissions cap instead of pandering to green consumerism?

GetUp! thrives on the commitment of its members, many of whom believe that climate change can be solved if everyone just does the right thing. The fact is the emphasis on voluntary measures by well-meaning individuals is a huge distraction from the main objective — to get an effective policy that will mandate deep cuts.

The impression of GetUp!’s political naivety is reinforced by the ringing endorsement of Malcolm Turnbull’s latest greenhouse plan by its national director Simon Sheik.

Turnbull’s focus on biochar is just another diversionary tactic in the Coalition’s long-running avoidance strategy. But Sheik was sucked in, writing a paean of praise for Turnbull in The Canberra Times.

“Finally, the Opposition has a climate policy,” he gushed. “Or at least the start of one. And what a start it is. While we can squabble over the lack of detail, costings, or the mistaken focus on so-called clean coal, one thing is clear: Opposition Leader Malcolm Turnbull has announced the Coalition’s target for emissions reductions [by] 27 per cent by 2020.”

Only someone with no understanding of climate politics or its history could fall for Turnbull’s trickery. You can be sure the cynical political strategists in Turnbull’s office won’t be letting on that:

  • soil carbon is not included in international treaties, so Australia would have to cover off carbon fixed by biochar by buying permits from abroad or by requiring other sectors to cut more deeply;
  • it would take at least a decade before biochar had any effect on our emissions; and
  • farmers would baulk at the idea if they had to include soil as a source of carbon emissions as well as a sink.

Perhaps GetUp! is playing a cunning game designed to wedge the Government. But the effect is to entrench a contest between a weak response and an even weaker one, narrowing the political space for decisive action on climate rather than widening it.

In the same way, focusing attention on a minor flaw in the CPRS instead of campaigning on its gaping holes suggests that GetUp! is more intent on cultivating its membership base by appealing to green symbolism than forcing the Government to get serious about global warming.

Clive Hamilton is the author of Scorcher: The dirty politics of climate change (Black Inc., 2007)