01.04.2009

Forward at 5%

Five per cent. It says it all, doesn't it? A lot of people may not know much about targets, or emissions trading, let alone if a carbon tax wouldn't be better, but whatever your climate change literacy, there has been a general ripple of disbelief in the community that the Australian Government would put up a diminutive 5% reduction of carbon emissions by 2020, based on our 2000 carbon pollution levels. It would have almost been better if the Government had said nothing.

But it didn't. It went right ahead and bravely claimed our nation's central strategy to address climate change was going to make a difference with just 5% reduction of gases that heat our atmosphere. Compare that with December 2007, when at Bali, the freshly elected Prime Minister Kevin Rudd told a rapt audience of diplomats, "Australia now stands ready to assume its responsibility ...Climate change is the defining challenge of our generation." While there, Australia helped engineer a "Bali-range" compromise of a 25-40% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, nothing spectacular, short of what was needed, but a stepping stone to prepare for Copenhagen in December 2009. Now, Australia has come up with a unilateral 5%. Forget Copenhagen. If the world should do something, Australia will give 15% a go. By 2020, mind.

Take a breath. The risks are real. So easy is it to sink into numbness, fall into listless denial, instead of thinking, feeling and acting, it might be best to revisit what drives us into the need for thoughtful, caring action to save the planet. In the next months and years, we face the prospect of melting Arctic summer ice, the complete disappearance of continental glaciers, the loss of the Gulf Stream, the bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef coral, the spreading deserts, the calfing shelves in the Antarctic, a jump in frequency of level five cyclones, climate refugees driven in migratory waves, unprecedented insurance claims, rising coastal waters, salting coastal groundwater, extended drought, loss of rainfall in some areas, floods elsewhere, the increase in total fire ban days, the incendiary possibilities. A world too unstable to predict.

We sigh and drive our cars to work. While we wish away the problem, polar bears are turning on each other as sources of meat. Tundra is melting, releasing more methane. We switch on the telly, and there is talk about policy and targets, and bushfires, as if they are not connected. The northern ice cap is shrinking, sending out less heat into space, warmer water trickling into crevices, so ice starts to melt faster than expected. The glaciers of Asia may be going, and with them, the source of stored fresh water for two billion people, a third of humanity. Black roofs, Tuscan eaves and bigger air conditioning units won't save us. FWDs rebadged as SUVs won't save us. The world is changing.

Migrating birds arrive too late for the swarms of hatching insects. The insects eat the crops, crops rusted by erratic rains anyway. Bush corridors north south aren't there to let animals flee to a better habitat. Our mountains aren't high enough to save our sub-alpine flora. Parts of India get to be 50 degrees Celsius. Kakadu under threat, the Murray-Darling drying up for good.

Action is needed. Of course, we could plan for a miracle. Hope for the best. We might discover that Gaia readjusts to the rising carbon dioxide levels in unpredictable ways: that somehow plants will luxuriate, or there's a new glaciation and the system readjusts. Thinking positively calls us to be positive, but it also relies on us being willing to think clearly, too.

Looking at the research, more likely we are in for a hard ride. Because for 200 years, we've boosted the levels of CO2 equivalent in the atmosphere from 280 parts per million (ppm) to 380 ppm, these levels are on a steep rise, way beyond any precedent in the last half million years. Temperatures will follow. What might be the point of no return? 450 ppm? 550 ppm? People like Al Gore say we should target 350 ppm.

The Australian Government, without any science to explain, says its 5% target will achieve 550 ppm and that level will be fine. The folks at the ANU Centre for Climate Law call the government's emission scheme a plan for 650 ppm. Have we got time to work it out? A two degrees increase promises a bumpy ride. Six degrees, and 95% of the world's species are extinct. Who knows? Thousands of the world's best scientists publish coordinated scenarios - and then find reality is outstripping their worst predictions. Not since the end of the Ice Ages has the world biosphere been through such a spectacular change.

Which may have been why Kevin Rudd, as his first act after taking the oath of prime ministerial office, signed the ratification instrument for the Kyoto Protocol. Australia, at last, had joined the world community. More recently, President Barack Obama took the oath - a man for the century, not just two terms, talking about change, and Green Jobs, and making the wind turbines turn for the future. Oh yes, there were contradictions. In politics, there always are. But there was a confidence. The world was on its way.

But the past is a strong habit. The past involves lots of waste, and trinkets, and things. The Australian Government started talking the right talk, employing words like sustainability, and repackaging programs. There are rainwater tanks, insulation and solar panels, actions many environmentalists called for well over a decade ago. These green initiatives were not acted on then because the previous government didn't want to spoil the boom. Now the new government doesn't want to spoil the bust. All this, they say, takes time.

The old way of doing things, the global financial crisis on which the profligacy of climate change was built, was a strange greed that plundered working families and extracted wealth to unusual executives like former Nasdaq chairman Bernard Madoff (he stole $65 billion, just like that, over a 25 year period before being found guilty last month in New York), all along venting greenhouse gases. The same entwined business-as-usual greed has already cost jobs and futures, harming millions across the world and heating up the planet. It's time to do things a new way. The new Green economy is there waiting to happen, to employ and transform.

But it isn't allowed to do these things. Quietly, to one side, the government promises to spend $35 billion on more submarines, ones it can't demonstrate it needs, at a time it can't find the navy personnel for the submarines it already has, against an enemy it can't define. When, with the same amount of money, we could stimulate ourselves out of the financial crisis with an intensified public transport network in every Australia capital city. Imagine - an extensive subway, a tram/light rail system, being further installed in your city, where it's needed, frequent, safe, high quality, so you don't have to drive with fossil fuels to work. Or $35 billion quietly being given to build more submarines. Which one would you choose? (Why not let your local MP know? Google the Australian Parliament to find who represents you and mail, write, or phone.) And that infrastructure would help reduce emissions. When there is money spent on infrastructure projects, carefully groomed out of the state governments, there are no public transport projects brought forward - unless you count the support for rail transport to Newcastle. To carry coal.

This happens because the old political parties don't grasp the size and reality of the change. They are (globally) warming their seats, not being stewards bringing us into a new sustainable future. It's business: so usual. They don't understand that the change we are stepping into is as big as the move from the Agricultural to the Industrial Revolution. Industry lobbyists meet officials in affable, well catered functions. There are the right words, but the contradictory intentions, as oxymoronic as "clean" coal, or protecting electricity generators from the consequences of their own pollution. We will move to Green Jobs, and we will have a carbon pollution reduction scheme, but only if it doesn't affect the polluters. Forward, at 5%.

Eyes can glaze as the talk moves to marginal electorates and the way projects are carefully chosen. All this is politics, you might say. But holistic means whole. As ragged as it is, politics is part of the whole, and while it needs to be transformed, it can only be transformed by people, by ordinary people like you and me really ringing up government MPs and demanding an answer to "Why only 5%?" Of course, it means communicating these things with heart, and with clear thinking, and the willingness to transcend the world weariness that says "they're all the same" with curiosity about the other point of view. How do people disguise from themselves the demise of a planet? There lies the clue to why we can only have 5% reductions.

This New Age calls us to be clear, as well as heartfelt. So see what you think about the arguments put forward by green groups and development agencies why the 5% Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme is fundamentally flawed:

The Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme (CPRS) targets are too low, and the scheme flawed.The CPRS target isn't scientific: 5% and 550ppm don't make sense, or fit the world consensus.Our target will undermine international agreements. Australia's 5% pitches disturbingly low standards likely to vex others and make them less willing to offer sacrifices themselves.Missed opportunities: Instead of paying us to make our homes more efficient with energy and water, the money is being gifted to the polluters. Instead of retooling for the 21st century, with Green jobs, the exemptions to large polluters will enable them to cling to government assistance.Coal-fired power stations don't need $3.9 billion. As Professor Ross Garnaut derided, "Never in the history of Australian public finance has so much been given without public policy purpose, by so many to so few." Compensation packages will go to companies such as Rio Tinto, Alcoa and Bluescope, $7.4 billion compensation in all to firms in polluting industries that will allow them free trading permits in the first two years.Polluters can pay overseas companies to go green, weakening our own eco-investment - there's no limit to investing in emission permits from overseas. That will benefit overseas companies going green - and keep us in the Industrial Age.Your voluntary actions will help the big companies pollute. The way the scheme operates, every time a citizen voluntarily does their bit to cut down on emissions, by going car-free or insulating their house, the drop in emissions allows the top 1000 polluters to add emissions to their own account. Bizarre, isn't it? Welcome to the old paradigm.Pollution permits are being offered as property rights, not licences. If this scheme doesn't work (and it won't), or a better scheme comes along (and it will), the government will have to pay holders of permits compensation for lost rights.Transport is being ignored. The Government exempts transport from the permits in the first few years.Higher standards won't cost more. Treasury costed a 25% reduction, and it won't cost much more than this 5%.

The new Senate Select Committee on Climate Policy Inquiry will allow scientists to report on the adequacy of the Government's proposed emissions reduction target. It's hard to believe that the 5% will be left standing. But for the rest of us: how can we challenge the old ways of doing things, without hardening ourselves, or demonising the other? We will need to act, to create the new. Even the world of politics has to be transformed by our intentions, and that means our hearts and thinking along with it.

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