Towards a carbon dictatorship


latrobe valley - making clouds, Flickr image by yewenyiThe recent plastic bag levy trial in Victoria has demonstrated that the draconian measure of forcing supermarkets to charge 10 cents for plastic bags reduces their use by 79 per cent. The difference education campaigns made to plastic bag use had been negligible.

We might ask ourselves whether the Federal Government's proposed carbon pollution reduction scheme can hope for a similar 79 per cent reduction in carbon dioxide emissions. That's hardly likely. In fact it's almost certain that the result will be closer to the negligible end of the scale.

The Victorian trial shows that draconian measures work. If the problem of climate change is as serious as the consensus of scientific opinion would have us believe, we should be looking upon climate change as an emergency, and not merely a serious problem.

That implies that the Government would have emergency powers to force industry to act to significantly curtail carbon dioxide emissions, and to prepare the community for the social and economic consequences. We may have been scornful of China's dictatorial requirement for industry to shut down and for cars to stay off the road, in order to lessen pollution ahead of last year's Olympic Games. But it appeared to work.

Australia's proposed carbon pollution reduction scheme is hampered by its heavy reliance on market mechanisms at a time when there has been a widespread loss of confidence in the market. It creates incentives for business to invest in projects that are carbon-neutral, and avoid those that pollute.

But if business is disinclined to invest in any new projects, which is the case at present, we can expect little or no change to carbon dioxide emissions.

It gets worse than that. Under the scheme, individuals and small businesses might spend tens of thousands of dollars on voluntary initiatives such as solar power. The carbon saving will be passed to the electricity utility, which will then use these emission savings in selling more coal-generated electricitiy to others. The same amount of carbon dioxide will be emitted as before.

It's becoming clear that a business-friendly carbon emissions reduction scheme is an oxymoron. The draconian action which the Government must take to reduce carbon dioxide emissions may penalise particular sectors of the economy (e.g. the coal-based electricity industry). But if we accept that the climate science is right, there is no choice but to endure such a transition to non-emitting industry energy generation.

Emergency powers were used extensively to aid reconstruction after World War II, and the result was more than half a century of relative prosperity for the citizens of many countries. Similarly, after we get through this radical change to the way in which industry operates, we will have reasonable grounds for hoping the planet will sustain human life into the future.

Greens and industry square off on climate change (ABC radio transcript)

Michael MullinsMichael Mullins is editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: michael mullins, federal government, draconian, china, olympic games, carbon emission reduction



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Existing comments

I think unfortunately the headline of this article makes the mistake of aligning strict regulation of industry emissions with a 'dictatorship', but the article is good.
Geoff Lazarus | 16 March 2009

When last did the Jesuits (save for the last white Archbishop of Bombay, Roberts) tell the Pope that he and his cronies in the Vatican have erred by not approving birth prevention? Carbon emissions cannot outstrip the explosion of population in the Third World countries. The failure of Catholicism to address the greatest cause of carbon emission i.e. world population makes fairy floss of articles such as this in a journal run by the Pope's sworn bodyguards.
bugone | 16 March 2009

thanks, a good and timely article. my own hunch is that we are fast approaching the moment in history when government is going to have to declare national emergency powers, in order to direct and fund on a national scale the rapid construction of large numbers of renewable energy plants [a mix of solar, wind, and geothermal], and the compulsory taking out of service of all C02 emitting coal-burning plants, as the new renewable plants come on stream onto the national power grid. it isn't dictatorship but it is using wartime government emergency resource mobilisation powers to take essential measures to protect the next generations of australians. all the other suites of CO2 reduction measures are fine and good, but coalburning is the biggest emitter and thus the biggest issue. it has to be addressed by politicians now, if they care about our [and their own] children and grandchildren. disruptive climate change is now upon us. regardless of how quickly the rest of the world moves, we have to do this nationally, and now. it is a gross abdication of their leadership responsibilities if politicians pretend not to see this necessity.
tony kevin | 16 March 2009

In response to Bugone's comment, 'the Pope and his cronies in the Vatican' DO approve of 'birth prevention' or, putting it positively, family planning. They just set three conditions: that there be a proportionate reason for delaying the birth of a child or for deciding not to have any more children; that it be a free choice of couples and not enforced by governments; and that morally-illicit methods not be used. Such methods include contraception, which destroys the integrity of intercourse, and abortion, which was described by the Second Vatican Council as 'an unspeakable crime'.
Sylvester | 16 March 2009

Why show a picture of non polluting water vapour which may even have been produced by non carbon emitting clean nuclear energy!
P Skinner | 16 March 2009

(If the problem of climate change is as serious as the consensus of scientific opinion would have us believe - from above)????

Before the U.S. Senate Environment and Public Works Committee hearings on 25th February, Dr. Happer declared man-made global warming fears were “mistaken”.

Dr Harper supports more than 31,000 scientists who have signed a petition opposing the quack science of global warming.

Concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere is currently 387 parts per million - around historic lows.

Global warming, latterly known as climate change because world temperatures are declining, is a hoax.
Finally please ask climate change fanatics to stop breathing as human breath contains 40,000ppm of CO2.
Pat Healy | 16 March 2009

I think Michael raises an important point but then confuses it.

Government (in church or state) only works with the consent of the governed and government by command or emergency decree has limited ability to achieve that consent. The feds, with their approach to carbon reduction, and the Victorian state government, with its approach to water conservation, are in grave danger of losing the battle for hearts and minds by ignoring and/or belittling the cumulative effect of the contribution of many individuals. Indeed, many people acting in their own enlightened self interest can achieve a lot more than government regulation.
Warwick | 16 March 2009

None of the governments of OECD nations would survive politically if they tried to introduce dictatorial or even post-war type emergency powers to respond to the threat of global warming.

Whether we have faith in market processes or not, those processes are the framework for all we do in the areas of energy supply, manufacturing, and supply of goods and services. Market process is the only framework which has a chance of general acceptance by the citizens-consumers of the OECD carbon emitting nations.

Development of carbon emission reduction schemes is a new process, and therefore bound to have false starts and set-backs. The currently proposed Australian scheme has designed out mistakes made in the unsuccessful European approaches coming soon after Kyoto. But we added two major new mistakes - free permits to the largest emitters and an extremely low and therefore meaningless reduction target.

The Garnaut Report, with firm commercial credentials recommended significant targets and significant financial incentive to force industry to invest in the necessary R&D to further develop green energy.

Political will failed the Government from proposing meaningful carbon legislation. Hopefully the Senate cross benches will push the legislation back to Garnaut's admirable compromise.
Ian Fraser | 16 March 2009

Tony Kevin's post is immoderate and foolishly alarmist. I can only think that his background is not in science. Probably the best and quickest way for a non scientist to get a handle on the argument for and against AGW is to look at the DVD made by Christopher Monckton titled APOCALYPSE? NO! an address given by Monckton to the Cambridge Union. Monckton offers a standing invitation to Al Gore to debate him on the topic of AGW. Gore so far refuses to accept the invitation. To believe as do Kevin Rudd, Penny Wong and Tony Kevin that the 'science is settled' is to adopt an unscientific position and is naively erroneous.
Vonnie | 16 March 2009

Vonnie, I really do wish that Kevin Rudd and Penny Wong did believe that the science of global warming is settled. If they did, they would not be pressing ahead with their unforgivably low 5-15 per cent CO2 reduction CPRS targets. Rudd, in particular, seems to think that he can 'argy-bargy down' the latest global warming forecasts from the just-ended Copenhagen Climate Congress. What Faustian arrogance this is. On this, see
Lord Stern's latest views

The climate science is well and truly settled now. The only remaining area of uncertainty is how long it will take, given various positive and negative feedbacks and climate change forcings, for all the predicted effects of carbon dioxide at 450 ppm or 550 ppm atmospheric concentrations to work through the world's climate system. And yes, I have been studying climate science these past months. We all need to, in order to be able to convince our complacent politicians that we know what we are talking about when we lobby them. The IPCC website and Wikipedia files are good places to start.
tony kevin | 16 March 2009

The author suggests solar panels as a solution, even a forced solution. The problem with that is that if you do a so called greenhouse balance, with current technologies, solar panels are just about as polluting as coal power. Especially when you look at the etching gases used which are 17,000 times as effective as a greenhouse gas than CO2, plus the energy needed to produce the panels etc., plus the annual loss in efficiency. New technologies will undoubtedly make them more effective but then so will clean coal technologies.

With a lot of things, we need to be watchful not to jump from the frying pan to the fire. Everything has pluses and minuses.

Birth control is probably the best long term solution for our planet. Maybe it is China that has it right.
Wayne Delbeke | 17 March 2009

I spent an hour researching Wayne Delbeke’s etching gases. I found the one he means - nitrogen trifluoride, NF3.
[Wikipedia entry]:
‘Although NF3 has a high global warming potential (GWP), its radiative forcing in the Earth's atmosphere is very small, as it is only released into the atmosphere in small quantities. Industrial applications involving NF3 routinely break it down as it is used ... and [NF3] will provide less than 0.001 W/m2 of IR forcing. ….’.

By comparison, according to IPCC 2007 data, CO2 is responsible for an increased radiative forcing of 1.66 W/m2, methane 0.48 W/m2 and nitrous oxide 0.16 W/m2. Whilst NF3 emissions certainly need to be monitored, especially as its worldwide consumption for solar panel etching grows, it is currently a negligible greenhouse gas.

So around two core truths – that NF3 is increasingly used as an etching gas for solar panels, and that it has a global warming potential 17,200 times greater than that of CO2 over 100 years, Wayne Delbeke assembles a profound untruth:
‘If you do a so-called greenhouse balance, with current technologies, solar panels are just about as polluting as coal power. Especially when you look at the etching gases used which are 17,000 times as effective as a greenhouse gas than CO2’.

What clever plays on words. Perhaps Wayne will now explain to ES readers the new ‘clean coal technologies’ he refers to? Are they the ones that burn coal (80% carbon) without producing CO2? Or the ones that will someday bury upwards of 215 million tonnes per year of CO2-e, now being emitted from Australian coal-fired power stations, in safe, leakproof underground geological storages?

‘Everything has pluses and minuses’? No, some things are true, and some things are false.

tony kevin | 17 March 2009

As in Jerad Diamond's "COLLAPSE", throughout human history societies and civilizations collapsed when they did not take care of their natural environments.

Modern science fiction-minded societies are hinged on the myth/fettish of open ended growth. Even when the best evidence provided by science, as well as the world right around us, tells we are in the process of heating the atmosphere and acidifying the oceans, vested interests and their mouthpieces insist on business-as-usual.

Sadly it will be too late if and when they realize their blindness.
Andrew | 17 March 2009

Geoff, you might as well forget about the government invoking emergency powers. They don't get it! They do not believe that the problem is this urgent. The ETS, or Emissions Trading Scam as it is understood in its present form, is, like carbon capture, a sign of scepticism, ignorance, or delusion. If Rudd, Wong and Garret believe that by giving away permits like candy and setting useless targets that won't do a thing to halt the very real problem of climate change, everything will go on as before, they are living in some parallel universe where doing nothing can actually change the world. Glory without actual power! They have squandered a great opportunity to make history, to stand beside other world leaders and lead the world out of this mess. What would Gough do?
david akenson | 17 March 2009

"... the consensus of scientific opinion". Really? The Oregon Institute of Science and Medicine have an interesting site

Ray Franzini | 20 March 2009

I think that a similar thing could be achieved by having a high tax rate and then reducing the tax rate for positive environmental or I think, pro social actions, that people or companies do. Put the pressure on but let companies and people make the choices about how they do it.
Ross | 20 March 2009

I think the population argument is a cop-out.

It's easy for us in the West, particularly latte-sipping baby boomers, to sit on a proverbial highhorse and tuttut the developing world's swarming humanity, and to label anyone who 'breeds' more than 1-2 children 'irresponsible'.

Despite having just 1/5 of the world's population, we in the developed world consume something like 3/4 of the world's resources.

So there is a disconnect between numbers and eco footprint. Perhaps you could argue we in the West with our plane trips and power-sapping tech devices should stop having children... but the birth rate is already less than replacement (1.6/woman), so it's already a reality.

I believe it is our collective lack of resource efficiency/fruagality that has got us to this hard place of climate and ecological instability and blame should be shouldered by each one of us.

Luxurious lifestyles need cutting back, not new lives. A typical Australian's eco footprint is many fold greater than those who live simply without the trappings of technology and 'development'.

[BTW - Is it fair that we impose environmental sanctions on the developing world's phase of industrialisation when no one did to us last century?]

Liz | 22 March 2009


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