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Formerly Climate Tasmania, this is a Tasmanian take on the thorniest global issue since the dinosaurs. Based on Peter Boyer’s newspaper column in the Hobart Mercury.

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Climate Tasmania is the new voice of climate advocacy in Tasmania, an expert body committed to lifting the profile of climate change across both government and business sectors.

Emission policy undermined by contrarian funding

In the same week as its Emissions Reduction Fund gets its first workout, the Abbott government announced it would support a contrarian think-tank. [Peter Boyer | 21 April 2015]

Bjørn Lomborg makes a point.

Bjørn Lomborg makes a point.

In this Gallipoli week we can be forgiven if we miss an event of note on Thursday, when the federal government is to announce results of its first Emissions Reduction Fund auction.

The government, too, seems to have its attention elsewhere. Apart from scant publicity around the closing of applications for ERF funding last week and some muted comment from environment minister Greg Hunt, there’s been barely a peep about it from that quarter.

All that suggests there’s not a lot riding on the event, but in this year of the Paris climate summit nothing could be further from the truth. This first auction (“tendering process” is a more accurate term) will be an early test of an idea that’s been used in other countries for specific purposes, such as funding development of renewable energy, but never on such a scale or covering such a wide range of activities.

In his latest media statement Hunt referred to the “strong interest” of Australian business in the widening array of opportunities to cut emissions, but that was as enthusiastic as he got, in sharp contrast to his ebullient publicising of the ERF a year ago.

When they haven’t been openly critical, economists have stayed silent on the ERF’s prospects for success. The lack of positive support seems to have the government nervous.

The scheme drew initially on methodologies developed for a subset of the Gillard government’s carbon pricing scheme, the Carbon Farming Initiative. While ditching the parent scheme, the Abbott government kept its child.

Along with the rest of the world, the government must make deep, early emissions cuts if it is to have an impact on climate. Improving the level of carbon stored in soils and trees is commendable, but these measures are slow burners, having little impact on real emissions in the coming decade.

Because of this the government has formulated other ERF abatement methods that can have an immediate or near-term impact, like reduced or captured coal mine emissions and more energy-efficient buildings, trucks, aircraft, refrigerators and air conditioning plants.

Coal-fired power generation is the really big one. If ERF-approved methods applying to that source turn out to work we’ll see a measurable reduction in the overall figure. But the record reveals that the only sure way to get significant cuts at coal power stations is to shut them down, for good.

The industry seems to be coming to that view too. Last week the biggest player in Australian coal-fired electricity, AGL Energy, began preparing itself and its shareholders for very different future.

In recent years AGL and Macquarie Energy, the company AGL bought last September, have expanded their portfolio of coal plants in both Victoria and NSW. But last Friday AGL’s new CEO, Andy Vesey, announced an abrupt U-turn.

Vesey declared that the company will close down all its coal-fired plants by 2050, and in the meantime will not buy any new plants or increase the capacity of the ones it currently owns.

What’s really interesting about Vesey’s announcement is the reason he gave for the decision: a desire to support the international goal of keeping global warming below 2C. “To support the Commonwealth government’s commitment to work towards the two degree goal, companies such as AGL need to take the lead,” he said.

Whatever he may say publicly about the AGL decision, privately Tony Abbott won’t welcome it. His plans for coal in Australia’s economic future include not just selling the stuff abroad but also burning it at home, allegedly because it makes cheaper energy than renewables.

The government’s determination to re-shape the climate debate on its terms knows no bounds. Last week it found $4 million to help bring the “Copenhagen Consensus Center methodology” of the controversial Danish academic Bjørn Lomborg to the University of Western Australia.

Lomborg’s speciality is politics, not science, but he claims that scientists have exaggerated the need to cut rapidly and deeply into emissions and says money is better spent on adapting to a changing climate. Having lost Danish government support in 2012, Lomborg will be pleased to have a new home base.

Others won’t be so pleased, having watched in dismay as the government pursues big cuts to science and higher education spending. Against that backdrop, the decision to fund Lomborg is a disgrace.

It’s yet more evidence that the Abbott government cares little about lowering carbon emissions, and another blow to the credibility of its Emissions Reduction Fund.

Australia’s growing scourge of inequality

Our egalitarian image today is seriously tarnished, thanks to governments getting into bed with big business. [14 April 2015 | Peter Boyer]

To find out what’s wrong in society, prisons are a good place to start looking. Signs from that quarter tell us that Australia is in trouble.

Risdon Prison near Hobart. PHOTO ABC

Risdon Prison near Hobart. PHOTO ABC

Research by Mirko Bagaric, dean of law at Deakin University, and a Deakin colleague, Athula Pathinayake (to be published soon in the Australian Bar Review), finds a strong rising trend in Australia’s prison population.

Writing for The Conversation last week, Bagaric pointed out that 90 years ago Australia held 52 people in prison for every 100,000 of its adult population. Today’s figure is 3.6 times higher than that, at 186 per 100,000 people.

This is better than the situation in the US, where prisons hold over 700 people in 100,000. But it’s way above all other comparable countries such as Canada, and at an average of $80,000 a year to house each prisoner (over double the US cost) it’s a huge financial burden.

Australia’s prisons are full because politicians and media, exploiting public concerns, call for tougher sentencing laws and pressure judges and magistrates to “lock ’em up” regardless of individual circumstances. That may be popular, but as Bagaric points out it’s also dumb.

Prisons are where we put people we want to be separated from. Along with refugee camps and immigration detention centres (and from the opposite perspective, gated communities), they’re a potent symbol of social inequality, one sign among many that inequality is growing.

Inequality can’t be stamped out, but uncontained it will eventually make its presence felt. The longer it’s neglected the more damaging the outcome: witness the bloody revolutions of history.

Every so often world leaders give a nod to the issue. In signing the Millennium Declaration in 2000 they declared that equality between nations and individuals would be a fundamental value of international relations in the new century.

The Millennium Declaration was one thing, reality was another. A 2013 UN report, Inequality Matters, found “worsening inequalities across and within many countries… potent sources of social tension, fertile ground for political and civil unrest, instability and heightened human insecurity”.

People who in other times might be a valuable resource for their country or community are forced to the margins, living hand-to-mouth. Sometimes they end up in prison, their living costs met from taxes paid largely by disaffected masses outside. A hopeless conundrum.

It can’t help matters when marginalised people learn that the average pay of senior executives is about 150 times average weekly earnings, as it is now in Australia, and the amassed wealth of our country’s seven richest individuals is greater than the total wealth of our poorest 4½ million.

We can dispute this, as government members of a Senate committee did last December when they downplayed the importance of income inequality and said that a functioning economy and a good education would deliver equality across society.

But this is quibbling. Income equality does matter because it’s the tip of an iceberg, the sign of a widespread and persistent problem that is already diminishing the effectiveness of government and could eventually threaten its viability.

Ideology is so pervasive in today’s public discourse that it’s difficult to discuss anything without the right-left divide being raised. For instance, the science of global warming is in some quarters seen as a left-wing conspiracy, at which point the debate gets silly.

Discussing social inequality is sure to attract accusations of left-wing bias, yet historically it’s been a concern of leaders of all political shades, from John Howard to Julia Gillard. Politicians in a democracy know their careers depend on being seen to support the battlers.

But in truth they don’t; not today at least. Since the 1970s governments have been handing over power to big corporations. Now they’re pretty much in bed together. Voters see this, hence the revolving door of recent elections.

Last week we had treasurer Joe Hockey and a Senate committee berating flustered executives of Apple, Google, BHP-Billiton and other major companies because (surprise, surprise) they avoid paying corporate tax here by sending money to offshore tax havens.

Corporations that pay tax at 1 per cent when ordinary people are charged up to 45 per cent are unethical, but why should we expect otherwise? Corporations are inherently selfish, focused on their own survival and enrichment. In the final analysis ethics don’t get a look in.

But we have every reason to expect governments to be ethical, to stand apart from big business and when necessary to act against it in the public interest. That’s a separation we really do need. We’re not getting it, and we’re paying a high price.

Government’s climate credibility on the line

The government’s post-2020 emissions target paper suggests it’s aware that it has to lift its game, but it has a massive task. [7 April 2014 | Peter Boyer]

“We are determined to reduce emissions,” declared a media release about climate change issued from Tony Abbott’s office on 28 March, which seems encouraging. But then there’s the track record.

Coal being stockpiled before loading on to ships at RG Tanner Coal Terminal, Gladstone. PHOTO Dave Hunt, AAP

Coal being stockpiled before loading on to ships at RG Tanner Coal Terminal, Gladstone. PHOTO Dave Hunt, AAP

This is the same government which continues to stress that Australia’s long-term future must incorporate a sustained high level of mining, using and exporting coal, the most polluting and carbon-intensive of fossil fuels.

It’s the government which at every turn in opposition attacked climate measures put up by the Gillard administration. The government which said before the election that it supported the 2020 renewable energy target but then pursued a policy of weakening it.

It’s the same government that less than a year ago abolished Australia’s most comprehensive instrument for curbing emissions, the carbon tax. It also tried to axe the Climate Change Authority and two key clean energy agencies but was thwarted in the Senate.

One of those agencies, the Clean Energy Finance Corporation, is being directed by the government to deliver a higher financial return – so high that its job of increasing the flow of finance into the clean energy sector is being made all but impossible.

Next week sees the first permit auction under the government’s own emissions reduction fund. “Early interest is ahead of expectations”, says the government, but there’s precious little expectation anywhere that this $2.55 billion revenue-funded, no-penalty scheme will actually work.

Once, the major parties recognised the importance of working together on key climate policy measures, but that all ended with Tony Abbott’s rise to party leadership.

Abbott’s views about the scientific position that more carbon dioxide (“an invisible substance”) affects our climate (“absolute crap”) have coloured every breezy government claim that its tax-free policies will do the job. If there’s no climate problem, it follows that policies are mere decoration.

Abbott has been down on the United Nations for a while now, accusing the organisation of lecturing him about Australia’s human rights responsibilities. But he seems less inclined to challenge global opinion in preparations for the key UN climate summit in Paris in December.

The Prime Minister, with foreign minister Julie Bishop and environment minister Greg Hunt, has now asked for public submissions on Australia’s post-2020 emissions reduction target. Nations had agreed to post their positions last month, but Australia’s won’t be finalised till September.

Over five years of partisan debate about climate policy has now come down to this moment of truth for the government. A failure to lift its game for the Paris summit will cement its place as one of the key spoilers of global action. Alternatively, it could make this year a turning point.

There are odd hints from the issues paper that the government is changing its tune on climate change, which it describes as “a global problem that requires a global solution”. “A strong and effective global agreement,” it continues, “is in Australia’s national interest.”

The chosen target “will represent Australia’s fair share of the global effort needed to respond to climate change”, the issues paper says. It also emphasises that the target must allow for a business environment to “facilitate decision making and investment”.

Much of the latter is about Australian coal and gas exports, which the paper says will continue indefinitely to supply the world with energy. It says nothing about consequent emissions, nor about repeated scientific advice that we need deep, early cuts to keep warming at a manageable level.

As a source of information the paper fails completely. The main message from its scant five pages is that the government has a huge task ahead of it to build credibility in time for the Paris meeting.

Of the 34 countries that met the agreed deadline for submitting national targets, the United States has promised to cut emissions by at least 26 per cent below 2005 levels by 2025, while European countries have set a much tougher target of 40 per cent below 1990 levels by 2030.

Australia’s Climate Institute believes a national target of 40 per cent below 2000 levels by 2025 is eminently achievable. The Climate Change Authority will release its recommendations on a post-2020 target later this month.

Public submissions are sought by Friday fortnight, 24 April. Information at www.dpmc.gov.au.

THIS is commitment: Last week Jenny Sprent, Stephen Rae and Jen Boocock ran 164 km through the wilds of south-western Tasmania to raise more than $13,000 for the Climate Council, the crowd-funded successor to the Climate Commission, axed by the Abbott government in 2013.

For its part the Hodgman Government abolished the Tasmanian Climate Action Council last year, but most former TCAC members continue to give their time to advocate and inform about climate science and policy, convening a successful Climate Tasmania public forum in Hobart last week.