Climate justice demands more than a price on carbon


On 30 November representatives of the world's nations will gather in Paris to work towards a Universal Climate Agreement to keep global warming below 2 degrees Celsius.

Paris climate conference artworkThis will be the 21st conference of the parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. The task before them is formidable.

Different nations vary greatly in how much greenhouse gas they currently emit annually. China is now at the top of the list with about 23 per cent of the global total followed by the USA with about 16 per cent. Australia contributes 1.3 per cent. However, these figures are misleading and unfair.

Environmental justice will be part of the discussion in Paris, and increasingly in future conferences. The principle of justice on which the United Nations itself is founded says that each person is of equal value no matter which nation, ethnic group, religion or gender they belong to.

It is a melancholy truth that poverty is what keeps global greenhouse gas emissions from rising much faster than they are at present.

For instance, according to the World Bank, each Australian contributes about 16 tonnes of carbon dioxide per year, while each Bangladeshi contributes a little more than one third of a tonne. Other calculations put the Australian per capita figure at 26 tonnes annually.

Greenhouse gas emissions are waste products of households and industry. If we think of the Earth's atmosphere as a global garbage tip of limited size for these waste products, the figures above mean that each Australian is using 48 times more of that tip than each Bangladeshi.

Yet if we remember that Bangladesh, a low lying country on the Ganges delta, is at great risk of sea level rise and extreme weather events, it is obvious that Bangladeshis are going to suffer more than perhaps anywhere else from the climate change they did not cause.

This is not a matter for individual blame or praise. But the principle of justice, which most Australians would support, requires that from now on greenhouse emissions per person should converge over time towards a global average.

The task of doing that cannot be left to individuals acting voluntarily, any more than payment of taxes can be voluntary. If taxes were voluntary there would be little cash available for national governments to provide for the common good of all citizens. Similarly national governments must be mostly responsible for the achievement of global environmental justice through taxation and regulation.

As global citizens, we all have a responsibility for ensuring, through the ballot box, that our governments fulfil their responsibility for fair and effective climate policies.

The scale of the national task is not well understood. Data from one of the world's biggest fossil fuel companies, BP, has shown that to achieve the two degree limit, a global average of 0.337 tonnes of greenhouse emissions per person needs to be achieved by 2050. If the principle of equal justice is applied, Australia will have to move from the current 16 tonnes per person to about one third of a tonne, roughly equivalent to what a Bangladeshi citizen emits each year at present.

The same principle applies to all developing nations. China will also have to converge to the current Bangladesh per capita level, though China emits only about one third of Australia's per capita emissions.

In effect, the economically developed world is going to have to decarbonise its part of the global economy almost completely within 40 or 50 years. Coal and oil will have to be left in the ground. Action to reduce carbon emissions will have to extend deep into nations, involving city and regional governments as well as national governments.

Imposing a price on carbon will be necessary but by itself nowhere near enough. Cities worldwide are thought to contribute around 70 per cent of all greenhouse emissions. State and municipal governments in Australia are therefore going to have to provide both the infrastructure and the land use regulation to protect the future quality of life of citizens, and their mobility within and between cities.

By 2050 Melbourne and Sydney may be nearing the size London is today (6 to 8 million population). Our cities, now deeply dependent on the private car, will need to transform their transport systems radically.

There may be a niche sector of driverless cars fuelled by electricity generated from renewable sources, but the major commuter flows, and even much local travel, will have to be by public transport (also ultimately powered by renewable fuel), bicycle and walking. Such modes of transport have to be safe, reliable and pleasant to use.

Locked in to 'car dependence' like a drug, I see very little sign that our federal and state governments and the private sector urban development and infrastructure industries are even aware of the extent of the urban transformation that will be necessary. But without that transformation Australian cities will face a bleak future, economically, socially and environmentally.

Nicholas LowNicholas Low is professor of urban and environmental planning in the faculty of architecture, building and planning at the University of Melbourne. He ran the first major international conference in Australia on environmental justice in 1997.


Topic tags: Nicholas Low, environmental justice, climate change, Paris climate conference



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The politicians of Europe, east Asia and the Americas have very little ability to realise Australia’s primary responsibility for the climate crisis – not only with its appalling per capita emissions, but with its minerals which are directly the source of up to 15 percent of the remaining global emissions. If Europe, East Asia and North America had recognised Australia’s primary responsibility for the climate crisis – not to mention its extremely low-energy native ecology documented by writers like Tim Flannery and Antoni Milewski – they would have demanded a cut from 26 tonnes per person to considerably less than the emissions of poorer tropical nations before any reduction targets were set even for the industrial nations of the northern hemisphere. More than that, Europe, East Asia and North America do not recognise themselves as allies of poor nations in making the most rigid demands for emissions to Australia, and also South Africa and the Gulf oil states. Given these nations’ vast natural resources, they have the ability and duty to pay the majority of the costs of global climate change – and yet get away with paying barely a cent.
Julien Peter Benney | 01 November 2015

I love my car, and I'll need some damn good evidence to convince me to give it up for the sake of humankind. As things stand, there is no evidence. Despite unprecedented levels of CO2 in recent history, global surface temperatures have not budged an iota for about 18 years. School children today have not experienced global warming, even as they've been increasingly indoctrinated, to the point of death by boredom, with the warmist creed. That's the same cohort who were warned by a global warming UK merchant in 2003 that they would "never see snow". What a sick joke that turned out to be. Meanwhile, increased levels of CO2 have significantly boosted agricultural production levels, lowering the price of food for rich and poor alike, and contributed to the greening of the planet. But what about poor, hapless Bangladeshi? Actually there's good news even there. Here's Imre Golkany, via Matt Ridley: "There has so far been — as the IPCC confirms — no measurable increase in droughts, floods or storms worldwide, no reversal in the continuing rapid decline in deaths due to insect-borne diseases, and no measurable impacts of the continuing very slow rise in global sea levels. In stark terms, Bangladesh is still gaining land from sedimentation in its rivers’ deltas, has suffered no increase in cyclones, but has benefited from reduced malnourishment to the tune of billions of dollars from higher crop yields as a result of carbon dioxide emissions." This article prompts again the question: do the Leftist environmentalists care more about real, living people, or their own anti-human fantasy worlds?
HH | 02 November 2015

MeanwhileAntarctica is gaining more ice than it is losing and is helping to slow the rise in global sea levels, a NASA study suggests. The findings contradict claims by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that the Antarctic ice sheet has been losing ice for the past two decades.
Father John George | 03 November 2015

Dear Nicholas, NASA releases on the Antarctic Ice Sheet this week published in the Journal or Glaciology conclude current significant net gains ( 80Bn tonnes today ) with net losses to occur 20 - 30 years. NASA poses a question : If the Antarctic is not creating rising sea levels, what is ? This question is not answered because it is not understood. Suggesting the creation of transfer payments for scientific cause that is not agreed upon is not good policy in anyones language. Respectfully Luke
Luke | 04 November 2015

There is light at the end of the tunnel. A recent issue of Time Magazine featured an article on Nuclear Fusion, with a promise of unlimited clean energy for everyone, for ever. The only dispute is how long the tunnel will be. Pessimists say it is 30 years away, and some even say 'And it always be that". But with all the major powers, including China and Russia uniting in tests in France, and with recent breakthroughs, Optimists claim it could be as little as 5 years. With abundant clean energy, sea water could be desalinated, and deserts irrigated to soak up the heat and the CO2 and give us greater control of climate.
Robert Liddy | 04 November 2015

Sadly HH, you are seriously incorrect with your assertions about the changes in climate over the last decade or so but I will not waste space outlining the statistics here. I have been doing a study on this issue for the last fifteen years and I am in constant contact with the experts who continue to confirm my observations. Father George the reason why Antarctica is gaining ice seems to be that warmer moist air from the Southern Ocean is penetrating further inland and (relatively) warmer air holds more moisture than the extremely dry, frigid air mass usually over the continent. Precipitation in the form of snow has increased in the interior, adding to the mass of ice storage, yet it is cold enough not to melt. The coastal areas are a different story, particularly in West Antarctica where warming is at a record rate, as is the SST's in the Southern Ocean. Breakup of the Ice shelfs around that area, notably the Larsen Ice Shelf allows glaciers to discharge more ice into the Ocean, speeding up depletion of the Ice mass in the region. For the sake of humanity and our children/grandchildren we must act!
Gavin | 04 November 2015

Thank you Nicholas for highlighting the moral and justice case for action on climate change. I have just heard that the fossil fuel industries are going to be at the Paris meeting. These industries have been prominent at all UN climate meetings. We are indeed in a fight for the future of the planet and the fossil fuel industry that keeps supporting the incorrect science of some of these writers only calls for a stronger stand by all of our governments. The science is in, now for the moral and justice cases.
Tom | 04 November 2015

People quickly become sceptical about climate change when commentary suggests significant changes in the short term, particularly alarmist commentary. The scientific arguments about climate change are based primarily on very long-period observations, comparing carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere and in global seas now, against carbon levels measured in ice bores extracted from ice caps in Greenland and Antarctica, in which the atmospheric and marine levels were literally frozen in time thousands of years earlier. Observations of temperature levels and frequency of violent storms, droughts and major bushfires are necessarily restricted to shorter historical periods. So I, and all others who accept the science, can hardly be critical of HH and the many others who remain sceptical. The only people from whom I can accept a level of alarmism are the people of low-lying islands in the Pacific and Indian oceans; for them the changes are occurring now. The rest of us have time to slowly adapt our lives and specifically our economies to the changing climate. Fr. John George refers to increasing ice in Antarctica. No, what is happening is that the ice shelves are extending northwards to a small extent because the sea water temperature is reduced by melt water running off the decreasing continental ice cap.
Ian Fraser | 04 November 2015

A Sydney parish has a new administration building with beautiful wooden entry doors only opening electronically. Reception is upstairs but a lift has been provided. The staircase has a semicircular glass brick external wall, don’t touch the wall in summer. Internal lavatories have automatic lighting and fans as do those downstairs and there are sealed windows in the building. The building is air-conditioned. An architect was engaged to build this centre. The presbytery has been moved and now it’s necessary to drive to the main church and the admin centre. It’s like peace, it all begins within each one of us and then becomes action. It’s so much more fun to look over the fence, as in my post.
Plain Jane | 04 November 2015

Certainly Australia needs to be doing what it can !! But it is a fact that Australia is heading into an economic hole which will be difficult to climb from over the next 10 years--unemployment perhaps above 10-15% .Apart from appearance to outsiders what we do a in Australia has a negligible impact on World climate change.Perhaps the best action might be to sell more uranium to India & keep them happy with coal as they sort things out.Politicians in Australia have no choice but to do what our economy needs--if they are to survive--increasing power costs etc won't win any friends in the electorate Brian
brian | 04 November 2015

I share Professor Low's doubt that the powers that be (political and industrial) are even aware of the extent of urban transformation that will be necessary to accommodate the burgeoning populations of Australia's major cities by the year 2050. Long term planning is not a strong suit in democratic pluralist societies with a mixed economy. Even socialist societies with a guided economy have settled in the past for Five Year Plans towards their ever-receding Brave New World. Our leaders need is to read "Global Warming for Dummies". "PCs for Dummies" has helped me and many other grandparents of my acquaintance communicate with our grandchildren. I would hope that "Global Warming for Dummies" would help our leaders communicate more meaningfully with their constituents, in particular the scientists for whom the study of the Earth's climate is their everyday business. Unless governments, businesses and scientists have at least a common vocabulary the Paris Climate Conference will be a Tower of Babel - despite the best efforts of experienced multi-lingual interpreters..
Uncle Pat | 04 November 2015

I really think you people should do some more research instead of blindly following this false religion.
Michael | 06 November 2015

Your points are spot-on! Many thanks & I hope so much intelligence and fairness will prevail in fully effective climate action.
Barbara J. Fraser | 06 November 2015

Gavin, 1. According to the RSS and UAH satellite records, there’s been virtually no global lower atmosphere warming at all for about 18 years, let alone warming anywhere near the climate model projections. Even the 2013 IPCC AR5 acknowledged the disparity between its projections and the reality. 2. Britain in 2010 had the coldest December since Met records began in 1910. And there’s been snow there every winter since 2003, obviously more some years and less in others (2014/15 was an “average” winter, according to the UK Met). So how are my two statements above about recent climate “seriously incorrect”? Evidence, please.
HH | 07 November 2015

Gavin global warming alarmists can relax somewhat unles wewant to fret over universe warming!!! NASA satellite data from the years 2000 through 2011 show the Earth’s atmosphere is allowing far more heat to be released into space than alarmist computer models have predicted, reports a new study in the peer-reviewed science journal Remote Sensing. The study indicates far less future global warming will occur than United Nations computer models have predicted, and supports prior studies indicating increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide trap far less heat than alarmists have claimed.
Father John George | 08 November 2015

Gavin & Ian F., re the continental Antarctic Ice sheet. On balance, it's increasing, and the increase has been going on for the last 10,000 years or so - so, little if anything to do with the recent 200-year Defrosting from the Little Ice Age, aka "Manmade Global Warming". (Zwally et al, "Mass gains of the Antarctic ice sheet exceed losses" Journal of Glaciology 2015 61/230). Also, Gavin, what is the evidence that the West Antarctic is currently warming at a record rate? My understanding is that there has been no warming - perhaps indeed a slight cooling - since 1991. I'm referring to the Byrd station data - and yes, it's even there in the 2012 Bromwich study.
HH | 08 November 2015

Yes Australians love cars. And we would love it if climate change were a myth. We could just go on as before, digging up coal, making lotsa money, buying more 4WDs, building bigger and bigger mansions, going on cruises. People like HH and Father John George can go on and on and on about the deluded scientists and others can argue with them. I just know what I know. The coral is bleached. Yesterday I saw a photo of the massive die-off of mangroves, 7000 ha of them, in the Gulf of Carpentaria. Where I live we have had one-in-a-hundred-year cyclonic storms, two of them within seven years. We have had the hottest temperatures on record. Sea levels are rising. There have been floods. I cannot buy good bread-making grain any more because the farmer who used to grow it was manoeuvered into selling out to a coal company that will dig up the entire valley. The air quality in this region is terrible, due to coal dust. I am tired, tired, tired of these people who want to argue and argue about science and pseudo-science. I just know we are all going to ruin, that humankind might be extinct within 50 years, if not from climate change then from the explosion of all those nuclear weapons still stockpiled. And still, where I live, the cars, big 4WD cars, proliferate. I wish we could give up our love affair with cars. That would be a good start.
Janet | 12 July 2016

It's pointless to argue with climate change deniers - all the world's major scientific bodies agree on the science, let the deniers share their ideology with each other. On cars: this is where I disagree with Prof Low and others who say we have to make drastic changes - it scares people into inaction. I used public transport to go to work for years, until it became unbearable and I went back to driving. The thing to do is to make the steps you can like moving to a hybrid. Next step will probably be electric cars and perhaps our solar panels will be charging up a battery during the day and then charging our car batteries over night. Or, at worst, we'll move to electric motor scooters for commuting. We won't need to be herded on to public transport and lose the convenience of our own means of transport. What we need is continuing research and innovation, plus 'nudges' from government to get people adopting the best technology.
Russell | 12 July 2016

HH and Father George, There is not enough space here for me to give all the references I have in my book shelves, devoted to the issue of the various studies into human induced climate change or the studies I have been doing since 1985. The fact is that there is now overwhelming evidence that the Climate is changing at a rate not seen for at least 10,000 years and that human emissions of Carbon Dioxide and other Green House gases are the cause. But the issue being addressed here is our unfettered use of the earth's resources at not only an unsustainable rate but also that we are using individually many times that of a person in Bangladesh for example. From a moral point of view as mentioned by Nicholas, we need to reduce our consumption so the poor can have a fair share of the world's resources. I believe that we will be judged at life's conclusion on the basis of how well we have done in our stewardship of God's creation, in which case we may have a lot to explain!
Gavin | 12 July 2016

I respect and fully agree with HH and Father John George. Ron Cini
Ron Cini | 12 July 2016


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