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The truth about coal climate 'solutions'

Coal loaderWe face, in coming weeks, a political tipping point in how Professor Ross Garnaut's Climate Change Review report will be publicly received and debated.

The Garnaut Climate Change Review draft report will be issued publicly on Friday 4 July. A couple of weeks after that, the Government will issue a Green Paper, which, according to Climate Change Minister Senator Penny Wong, 'will outline Government's thinking informed by a range of matters' including the report, advice from within the Government and consultations with business and industry.

Garnaut believes transport fuels should be included in a carbon emissions trading scheme. He told the Canberra Times earlier this month that it was 'Kevin Rudd's and Penny Wong's job to decide what they can manage, but I can't see any good reason for excluding transport'.

A carbon emissions price of between $20 and $40 per tonne — an average expectation of where the market price might settle — would increase the price of petrol by between 5 and 10 cents per litre.

Neither major party is now committing itself on whether motor fuels should be included in a carbon emissions trading system. The recent public furore over increased petrol prices has spooked them both.

But Malcolm Turnbull (Canberra Times, 25 June) sensibly suggests that one option is to 'keep the carbon price across the board, including liquid fuels, but reduce the excise as you impose the carbon price'. In other words, leave the market price unchanged, through Government forgoing the excise tax.

This makes economic and psychological sense. If the carbon emissions trading system is to have any real economic effect, it has to be universal. Once exceptions start to be allowed, everyone will want special treatment and the integrity and credibility of the system will be lost. The burden on those industries left in the system will be proportionately higher, or the system will be watered down so far as to simply become window-dressing.

The purpose of carbon trading is to kick-start a process of real reduction in how we consume fossil fuels, using market forces as the generator of beneficial change. We need an economic jolt to begin to restructure our economy towards non-emitting renewable energy technologies, across the board — in industry, transport, our homes and workplaces. There simply is no time now to tinker with half-measures.

The informed public knows this, but disturbingly we are not included in Senator Wong's list of stakeholders to whom she will listen when considering Garnaut's recommendations. Those inconvenienced by change will always shout louder than the majority — and that means all of us — who stand to benefit from it.

The coal industry has enormous lobbying and decision-corrupting influence over the political process, and I fear it may succeed in diluting Garnaut's recommendations to a level at which they will have no real effect on society's expectations and behaviour.

The recent furore over petrol price increases came at the worst possible time for intelligent public debate of the Garnaut recommendations. Public panic gives the coal industry an enormous opportunity to scaremonger and to push phoney solutions such as conversion of coal or gas into diesel fuel, and generation of hydrogen fuel.

All these so-called solutions emit greenhouse gases as coal and oil do. The only real solution is the fastest possible move to a renewable energy-based economy.

Turnbull's suggestion (not at this stage backed by Coalition parties, which are riding the tiger of public anxiety about motor fuel price rises, looking thereby to maximise their short-term political advantage) is a sensible circuit-breaker. Putting motor fuels within a universal carbon trading system would send the right message to the Australian public, that we are all in the climate change alleviation challenge together.

Commensurately removing the fuel excise tax at the same time would send the important message that the Government understands the burdens that ordinary people — motorists, farmers — are facing from rising fuel prices in a society that depends on petrol or diesel motors for so much of the way we now produce and live.

Prepare for a lot of powerfully funded special interest lobbying against the Garnaut Report when it is issued. The real risk is that the Government will lose its nerve and fudge it.

We, ordinary citizens concerned about the sustainability of our world, are the stakeholders who really matter in this debate. We, the people, must make our voices heard in all political parties in coming weeks. This will be a vital debate.

Garnaut Climate Change Review website


Tony KevinTony Kevin was on the planning committee for a recent Manning Clark House public conference, 'Imagining the Real: Life on a Greenhouse Earth', at Australian National University, Canberra. A large number of eminent scientists and others addressed the conference.


Flickr image by marj k

Topic tags: tony kevin, garnaut report, climate change, coal industry, cliamte change minister, senator penny wong



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Existing comments

If, as Tony states, "the purpose of carbon trading is to kick-start a process of real reduction in how we consume fossil fuels, using market forces as the generator of beneficial change", then why do we need it? Aren't rising fuel prices already doing just that?

And yet he wants to lower the fuel excise - presumably to counter the very kick-start he seems to be looking for.

Furthermore, even if we ignore the fact that current scientific evidence puts on very shaky ground the contention that any reduction in man-made CO2 emissions in Australia will reduce global warming, does Mr Kevin have any convincing evidence that a carbon tax will in fact do that?

And, perhaps more seriously, we are yet to be told what the Government intends to do with all the money it would raise from a carbon tax. Just more consolidated revenue? Think alcopops.

John R. Sabine | 26 June 2008  

Apparently there has always been cyclical climate change suggesting it is beyond human capacity to alter. One thing I would like to know from Kevin is whether he is aware of CO2 levels across the Australian land mass. Granted pollution over the cities, 98% of Australia is clear of these. One thing which should be done urgently is an air quality survey on a grid pattern over the whole continent. My gut feeling is that overall there is no CO2 buildup away from the cities. If I am right why so? If I am right is carbon trading going to make any difference?

Peter Beeson | 26 June 2008  

Energy discussions have become too emotive and not factual enough. Rather, could we take a more measured less prejudiced view to examine the real engineering, scientific, economic and societal factors in discerning where Australia might best go with regard to its energy future.

We certainly need to redouble our efforts to get all clean alternatives up and running quickly, but it will take decades - or are there some quick fixes we don't know about?

It would be good for Tony Kevin to provide evidence of the coal industry's "decision-corrupting" influence on government that he implies trumps all decent public inputs on Australia's energy future.

We have to be realistic. Coal, oil, gas, hydro and nuclear are the only currently commercially available large-scale energy sources that we can rely upon 24 x 7 for the next few decades. It is unrealistic to think that we can wean ourselves off coal in the short term.

Of course everyone is ignoring that dreaded N-word. Too bad, for in our real world nuclear is the only available large-scale alternative to carbon-free electricity generation and water desalination in Australia. Wind, geothermal, wave, tidal, solar and new energy storage technologies will be on stream in large enough scale sometime, but not for many decades.

Norbert Kelvin FAIE, FIEAust | 26 June 2008  

I could simply advise John and Peter to see the film An Inconvenient Truth. But let me make a few factual points for Eureka Street readers.

Atmospheric CO2 is not about observable air pollution. Peter’s gut feeling is right in the sense that we wouldn’t know whether the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere is 350, 500 or even 1000 parts per million. Country air will still smell fresh, but it is proven science that these small CO2 and methane concentrations matter, because of their greenhouse effects on global climate and weather. Making the planet hotter results in melting polar ice, warming oceans and rising sea-levels, damaging climate change through changed air and ocean currents e.g. failed monsoons in the tropics, drying out in temperate zones e.g. the Murray-Darling Basin. And it is making extreme weather events more extreme and destructive. Read the newspapers.

All these things are happening. All are disruptive for our human species.

We are living in a greenhouse. Our actions are overheating it. Our children and grandchildren will suffer grievously, if we as a species don’t start now to burn a lot less fossil fuel.

John, the reason I like Turnbull’s idea of a commensurate removal of the fuel excise tax is because, as you say, we are all suffering from recent sharp rises in fuel prices. But we still need to get a universal permanent non-discriminatory carbon trading or carbon taxing system in place soon, in order to put a real cost on what fossil fuel burning is doing to our living environment. This is about restructuring the world economy away from coal and oil burning. It is about change in how we live, in order that our children and grandchildren may live.

Turnbull’s idea gives the money from carbon trading back to us at the petrol pump. Profesor James Hansen, a key figure in climate change science, this week suggests an even more radical idea – giving all the proceeds of carbon taxing back to all citizens equally as a dividend, to spend as they choose. See here

John, you write “current scientific evidence puts on very shaky ground the contention that any reduction in man-made CO2 emissions in Australia will reduce global warming”. It is true that there is so much feedback built into the system now from past CO2 and methane increases, so much global warming momentum already in train, that there would be no immediate reduction in the rate of global warming from CO2 emission cutbacks. But that is no argument not to try to apply the emergency brakes to the runaway train we are in now. It will take time to slow it down.

It is also true that Australia as a country is a small contributor to global warming compared to the US and China. So what? Must not we play our part as a responsible global citizen? What makes us exempt from doing our share of what has to be done? Especially as on a per capita basis, we are one of the worst offenders; and that doesn’t take into account the greenhouse effects of all the coal we export.

tony kevin | 26 June 2008  

As an 'informed public' may I say a word about greed. When the Italians switched to the euro and Turks to the YTL (new lira) prices went through the roof. Why is the "Russian Bear" not bothered about carbon credits? Because his carbon credit rating is astronomical as is Australia's. Don't rock the boat Tony, our greed will be satisfied.

Claude Rigney | 09 July 2008  

Norbert Kelvin writes that wind, geothermal, wave, tidal, solar and new energy storage technologies will be on stream in large enough scale sometime, but not for many decades.

I take issue with 'but not for many decades'. Geothermal and wind energy harvesting developments are now underway, and photovoltaic energy is available. Regarding large-scale energy storage for intermittent sources, Tim Thwaites had an article published in New Scientist some time ago regarding the use of wind turbines and a vanadium flow battery to meet all King Islands power requirements.
Mind you, NGO the Climate Group claims that China is proceeding apace with renewable energy innovation and industry development.

For Australia, this means that, in a decade or so, there will be no market for Australian coal in China, so that we'll have lots of cheap coal to feed our own generators. There'll also be lots of Chinese-made, inexpensive photovoltaic panels available for Australian homeowners.

David Arthur | 07 August 2008