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Aug 11, 2014

Screw consultation, let's just ban stuff: how to really fight climate change

We've tried giving business lobbyists and spinmeisters the chance to voice their concerns over environmental regulation. That didn't work. It's time to play hardball -- and businesses will gratefully fall in line.

Here’s an idea. If the business community and the conservative side of politics are never going to embrace market mechanisms to tackle climate change — what our PM has derisively termed a “so-called market in the non-delivery of an invisible substance to no one” — then let’s stop pandering to them and go back to banning stuff.

Emissions trading schemes (ETS) or “cap and trade”, as the Americans call it, was meant to be a business-friendly, economically rational alternative approach to regulation and the command economy. It was used there successfully in the 1990s to stop acid rain by reducing emissions of sulphur dioxides and nitrogen oxides. It is a strategy the US energy industry — as executives will tell you in a quiet moment — is extremely comfortable with.

But if the business lobby is going to go into hysterics about every sensible proposal to establish an ETS — or worse, jump into bed with the climate sceptics and abandon action on climate altogether, as they’ve done this year — then stuff ’em.

Are the lobbyists and spinmeisters worried about red and green tape? Always. That’s their job. Let’s give them something to really worry about. All business wants is a level playing field. If the law establishes we are going to reduce emissions fast, companies will work within the law (ultimately, gladly, because you’d be mad to think businesspeople are not concerned about climate change). Australia’s economy will get what early-mover advantages the Germans and Japanese and Californians haven’t hoovered up.

Let’s call our ETS alternative something easily comprehensible, like “direct action”. We have taken some substantial direct actions already. Land-clearing bans introduced during the Howard years got us through the first commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol. As environment minister, Malcolm Turnbull banned incandescent light bulbs in 2007. Another direct action, often under-appreciated, was to install pink batts in hundreds of thousands of Australian homes. We are reaping the benefit of both these last initiatives in lower electricity demand and lower emissions today.

“But if the business lobby is going to go into hysterics about every sensible proposal to establish an ETS … then stuff ’em.”

Here are four more direct actions that would be appropriate to the climate emergency we face as a very high carbon-polluting country whose fair share of the global effort would be to reduce emissions by circa 25% this decade:

1) Approve no more new thermal coal mines, period. No coal mine expansions or modifications. This would not be retrospective and would not stop anybody from exploiting existing rights. But whatever’s been approved so far is the end of it. This could be announced tomorrow. P.S. let’s stop this ludicrous argument that we have to mine more coal for the sake of China or India or other developing countries suffering energy poverty. Australia doesn’t care about overseas poverty — we just cut our foreign aid budget again. Anyway, developing countries have better alternatives at home. Given the consequences of climate change fall hardest on poorer countries, we’d be doing them a favour.

2) Phase in greenhouse gas emissions intensity standards for power stations comparable with those now proposed in the United States or better. That would result in the closure of Victoria’s brown coal-fired power stations, reducing Australia’s emissions substantially. If Greg Hunt is right about one thing, it is this: Labor blew more than a billion in non-refundable taxpayer cash by giving the brown coal generators in the Latrobe Valley compensation for the impact of the carbon price we have now abolished. They never deserved it. They should have seen climate change coming since at least 1995 and done something to reduce their emissions. They didn’t. Never mind, they have been handsomely over-compensated now. They can use that money to fund the rehabilitation of their fire-prone mine sites and switch to gas if they want to, as then TruEnergy (now Energy Australia) proposed at Yallourn in 2009. Using their own money for that.

3) In Victoria especially (NSW is already moving in this direction), abolish the ridiculous anti-wind planning laws that breach every planning principle under the sun by giving objectors an effective right of veto. The laws are a spurious fabrication of climate sceptics and the environment reportage of The Australian, and a relic of family favours by patrician former premier Ted Ballieu. Without those laws, the handbrake would come off and Victoria could enjoy a wind boom like South Australia’s.

4) Lift the renewable energy target. Before they reinvested billions in coal-fired generation, AGL argued the RET could increase to 40% by 2020. ACT is well on the way to 90% renewables by 2020. If the PM wants Australia to become an affordable energy superpower, we have world-beating free sun, wind and wave energy — and, if you talk to scientists, it would be no problem theoretically to export by cable to Asia.

That’s just four, and we could go harder. Given we’re ditching the mining tax, maybe we can axe the diesel fuel rebate for miners — they’re certainly expecting it. Create a national feed-in-tariff regime to make rooftop solar even more economic and lower wholesale electricity prices. Electricity privatisation in Queensland and NSW is a big one — watch the fine print — and land management, too.

These direct actions are entirely compatible with our current system of government. No revolution is required: all we have to do to solve climate change is unplug fossil fuels, plug in renewables, and stop chopping down forests. If we can’t do that — as the sub-title for Naomi Klein’s forthcoming book This Changes Everything declares — it’s capitalism versus the climate, and there’s no doubt which will win.

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25 thoughts on “Screw consultation, let’s just ban stuff: how to really fight climate change

  1. Roger Clifton

    If we totally ban carbon, the next change of government will throw out the ban and we will be back to square one. The democratic solution is to tax it to billy-oh and reduce income tax in proportion. When the government changes, they can reduce carbon tax and increase income tax. Industry can then plan on a gradually increasing carbon tax.

    Levelling the playing field can be achieved if all carbon coming out of the ground is taxed at a low rate. Accountants hate the word “all”, because it leaves no loopholes to drive trucks through. However it does make it easier for them to claim a carbon rebate when their industry exports goods. Accountants can then look forward to sending goods overseas that have paid no income tax and no carbon tax. That should keep ’em happy.

  2. cartoonmick

    Yes Paddy, you’re so right in saying it’s capitalism Vs climate.
    It’s up to the politicians to ignore the Big Biz end of town and start listening to the Scientists.
    Where there’s a will there’s a way, as they say.
    It can be done with strong leadership in the right direction.

    Unfortunately, I feel that won’t ever happen until it’s too late in the day, when the rich end of town will be starving as much as the bottom feeders.

    Besides, when did Big Biz and the politicians know more about the climate than the scientists?

    Maybe this cartoon shows where we’re heading . . .

    http://cartoonmick.wordpress.com/editorial-political/#jp-carousel-775

    Cheers
    Mick

  3. Tamas Calderwood

    So in summary, Crikey business editor says to business: stuff ’em.

    This article reads like a green-left anti-capitalist rant.

    We aren’t facing a “climate emergency” Paddy. The world hasn’t warmed for at least 15 years. Nothing is going on with the climate. Take a chill-pill and relax, dude. Everything is going to be fine.

  4. Raaraa

    I might be going into tin foil hat territory here but, aside from the risks of death from dodgy pink batt installation, could some of the opposition to it come from people who actually want the consumers’ consumption of energy to remain high?

  5. Shaniq'ua Shardonn'ay

    @Tamas – tell that to the Insurance Industry. In fact Tamas how about you take your Home Insurer to court over increasing premiums due to them factoring in the risk of climate change. Get your skeptic friends together and do a class action. Put your time and money where your mouth is and get back to us when you’ve had your day in court.

  6. Bo Gainsbourg

    yep. Solar has more jobs than coal now anyway, and this would put that and new wind jobs on steroids. Gives business bucketloads of certainty. The public (remember them?) would understand it and support it. IPA would be happy as we’d be slashing subsidies to fossil fuel (surely!?) I like it.

  7. Mike R

    According to Tamas. Move on, nothing happening here.

    If you choose the conditions very carefully i.e .you choose dates to get the desired result over a relatively short term enough and only select the right dataset and also ignore ocean temperature increases you can indeed get Tamas’s answer.

    Even if you accept Tamas’s premise then , averages by nature ,conceal what is happening at local level such as in the Arctic (http://berkeleyearth.lbl.gov/regions/greenland ) where the chickens are already coming home to roost. Let alone some time in the future, when the chickens succumb to heat stroke and fall off their perches.

  8. Liamj

    If we’re going to go crazy and start making public policy in the public interest instead for the profits of predatory multinationals that happen to fund the IPA & employ old politicians, then how about government legislates to excuse itself from compensating farmers or other landholders from any climate extreme beyond the 150 record. Then we’d quickly see the real welfare bludgers come squealing to the negotiating table.

  9. David Hand

    These ideas look good but there are problems.

    1. Banning thermal coal is the best of the 4 ideas. Coal as a source of energy is declining and likely to continue so.

    2. We can only follow the USA from coal to gas with fracking. As every year 12 student in 2014 has become an instant expert about how bad fracking is, the lights of Melbourne will go out when the Latrobe Valley brown coal stops.

    3. It’s not climate sceptics that stop wind farms FFS. It’s nimbys concerned about falling property values if the turbines can be seen from their front door. Oh, and deep concern for the orange bellied parrot of course.

    4. The RET is a gift to corporate rent seekers like no other. If 40% of all power must be purchased from renewables, the high price is locked in by legislation and the corporate investors are laughing all the way to the bank while we all pay too much for electricity. Nuclear and Gas are untapped energy opportunities that are penalised through regulation.

  10. David Hand

    I don’t think so Raaraa.

    The pink batts fiasco was a complete stuff up in the way it was executed by the Rudd government, not a conspiracy to consume energy. It was a gift presented to Tony Abbott on a plate and he exploited it ruthlessly.

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