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.

Tax reform incomplete without carbon pricing

The ERF will fail without tougher sanctions against pollution [6 October 2015 | Peter Boyer]

The message from Malcolm Turnbull ahead of last week’s reform summit was that nothing was off the table, so it was reasonable to expect the dominant economic issue of our time – climate change – to get a look in.

The heavyweights line up for the reform summit in Canberra on 1 October. PHOTO Australian Financial Review

The heavyweights line up for the reform summit in Canberra on 1 October. PHOTO Australian Financial Review

We heard plenty about superannuation, business and income tax, GST and youth unemployment, but what little detail we have about the outcome suggests that climate was overlooked.

It was an opportunity missed. The summit could have put broad-based carbon pricing back at the top of the economic agenda, where virtually all expert opinion including the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development says it belongs.

In Hobart last week the head of the OECD environment directorate added his voice in support of a strong national carbon pricing mechanism. Nils Axel Braathen was brought here by the Economic Society of Australia and the University of Tasmania’s Institute for the Study of Social Change.

In 2012-13 the OECD, using methodology developed by Australia’s Productivity Commission, made an intensive multi-national study of all the commonly used emission abatement measures. It came down firmly on the side of economy-wide carbon pricing schemes.

Braathen told his Hobart audience that the study had found feed-in tariffs, subsidies to renewables, certificate trading and other sector-specific strategies to be very costly per tonne of carbon dioxide abated compared to a broad-based tax or an emissions trading scheme.

As a rule of thumb, he said, “it’s carbon taxes or emissions trading first, and daylight second”, with other measures having only peripheral value by comparison. As the OECD report said, the huge scale of the global climate challenge dictates that lowest-cost options must always be favoured.

So where does this leave the Turnbull government, inheritors of Tony Abbott’s Direct Action climate policy and its centrepiece, the $2.55 billion Emissions Reduction Fund?

Despite Abbott’s firm and repeated declaration that any kind of carbon pricing was off-limits, environment minister Greg Hunt based his claim of “spectacular” success for the first ERF auction in April on the average amount committed per tonne of carbon saved, $13.95.

So on Hunt’s own admission the ERF does involve a carbon price, albeit without the former prime minister realising it. The question remaining is whether the scheme will be effective over the long-term in forcing emissions down.

A big majority of economists believes that in its current form the ERF can’t meet higher carbon costs without greatly exceeding its long-term budget cap of $200 million a year, something treasurer Scott Morrison definitely doesn’t need.

The present ERF can’t accommodate a rising carbon price, but a static price won’t put downward pressure on emissions. The scheme relies on business playing ball in the absence of a penalty – a bit like relying on everyone to behave in the absence of a police force.

Monash University’s Gujji Muthuswamy is one economist who thinks that the ERF already has the makings of an effective “baseline-and-credit” emissions trading scheme under which major emitters must keep their output below the government-mandated level for their particular enterprise.

Muthuswamy argues that the ERF is friendlier to business than Julia Gillard’s “cap-and-trade” scheme (the favoured European model) because businesses paid more for excessive emissions under the Labor scheme. But being business-friendly isn’t all that matters.

The government’s modest 2030 target demands not just pegging emissions at today’s level but, during a time when the economy is supposed to grow, reducing them by least 26 per cent below 2005 levels. In the OECD’s considered view, that demands an economy-wide price.

The uncomfortable truth is that if all countries meet current commitments we will still be faced with around 3.5 degrees of warming by 2100. That is well into catastrophic territory, or in bushfire parlance, Code Black. So the Paris climate summit is going to require all countries to do better.

The breezy optimism shown by Malcolm Turnbull and Greg Hunt towards the ERF as it stands is misplaced. They will have to toughen it up or stand accused of being no more serious about carbon abatement than Tony Abbott.

That would take some explaining to a tired, cynical electorate.

Tim Flannery finds some silver linings

Is there any light down that long dark tunnel? [29 September | Peter Boyer]

Spring has sprung and life is full of promise. This is surely a season for hope.

Tim Flannery [PHOTO ABC] and his new book

Tim Flannery [PHOTO ABC] and his new book

In Washington (where it’s autumn), a joint weekend statement by Presidents Barak Obama and Xi Jinping announced that within two years China will have the world’s biggest emissions trading scheme, covering power generation, steel, cement and other industries.

The two countries, between them responsible for nearly half the world’s emissions, also pledged to introduce new heavy-duty vehicle fuel efficiency standards by 2019 and to spend billions on helping countries accelerate their transition to low-carbon economies.

Most of this is old news, but it does show that climate is on the minds of the two superpower leaders and offers a glimmer of hope that some good may come from the crucial Paris climate meeting, now just two short months away.

Hope is also the theme of Tim Flannery’s new book. Introduced to Tasmanian readers at a Hobart launch last week, Atmosphere of Hope is based on Flannery’s belief that amid all the dire predictions about our climate future, there are some distinctly positive prospects.

Flannery, now heading Australia’s crowd-funded Climate Council, told his Hobart audience that our principal concern must be to cut our emissions. But even our best efforts won’t stop what is already locked in by past emissions. Warming will continue no matter what we do.

This has given rise to “geo-engineering” proposals to cool the planet, such as deflecting sunlight by shooting particles into the air or sinking massive tubes into the oceans to strengthen vertical circulation.

We should dismiss such schemes outright, says Flannery. Intensive studies show major practical problems, uncertain outcomes and a guarantee of international conflict.

But those studies leave open prospects for another geo-engineering option, to take carbon out of the atmosphere and store it forever in a form that does no harm. Ideas for achieving that enticing prospect make up Flannery’s “third way”.

The “third way” seeks to amplify natural processes whereby the sun’s energy is used to draw carbon from air and water and turn it into energy and solid matter. Such schemes might use oceanic plants, carbon-absorbing rocks and cement, and storage in the deep ocean or Antarctica.

It has to be said that much-hyped “clean coal” technology has never come close to success, beset by practical and financial problems. But there are many other untried options, says Flannery.

The aim of such technologies is first to neutralise human emissions and then to continue drawing down atmospheric carbon dioxide from its present level of about 400 parts per million to where it was before the industrial revolution, 280 parts per million or less.

Since 1750 humans have put around 1800 gigatonnes, or billions of tonnes, of carbon dioxide into the air. Each year now we add about 40 gigatonnes, and we’re at the stage where we can’t avoid dangerous warming unless we intervene to remove carbon.

Flannery is confident there are enough workable technologies together to handle such an enterprise, even at the stupendous scale required, but they will require massive capital investment and a long lead time to test and develop.

A recent Nature Climate Change paper pointed to the “vital flexibility” provided by carbon removal methods, and urged that they be brought into mainstream climate policy as soon as possible to invite innovation and identify the best technologies for large-scale deployment.

We need a positive outlook just to survive, but that alone isn’t enough, which is why nature has also given us fear. Hope to get us up in the morning, fear to grab our attention and get us moving.

I’m glad Tim Flannery has written this book, and I hope a lot of policymakers get to read it ahead of the Paris meeting. Above all, I hope it will help them appreciate that against the effort and money demanded by carbon removal, deep and early emissions cuts are a cakewalk.

Tomorrow at 5.30 pm, at IMAS Aurora Theatre (Castray Esplanade), Nils Axel Braathen, head of OECD’s Environment Directorate, will discuss economic instruments for managing climate policy, including taxes, trading systems, subsidies and regulations.

Exxon’s long conspiracy of silence

The failure of Exxon to act on critically important scientific information 30 years ago is a reflection on us all. [22 September 2015 | Peter Boyer]

The Pullitzer-prizewinning US news service Inside Climate News has just lifted the lid on a 30-year secret: how the world’s biggest oil company reacted to bad news about fossil fuels and climate.

Delivering fuel to an Exxon station in Texas. PHOTO Daily Telegraph (UK)

Delivering fuel to an Exxon station in Texas. PHOTO Daily Telegraph (UK)

ICN revealed last week that in the early 1980s Exxon funded cutting-edge research which found that humans were causing global warming. Confronted with this, the company quietly ended the program and then sought to cast doubt on the science.

Copies of company letters and internal memos released last week by ICN showed that as early as 1977 a senior scientist employed by Exxon reported strong scientific agreement that carbon dioxide emitted from fossil fuel combustion was influencing global climate.

James Black’s assessment of evidence for human-induced greenhouse warming was delivered to the Exxon board more than a decade before NASA physicist James Hansen gave his celebrated climate change warning to the US Congress.

Black warned the company of significant warming by 2050 – as much as 10 degrees at the poles – and radical shifts in rainfall if fossil fuel use was not curbed. He wrote in 1978 that hard decisions on energy strategies could become critical within a decade.

The company’s initial response wasn’t what we might have expected today. It launched its own climate studies, fitting out one of its supertankers with advanced air sampling equipment and employing scientists to work cooperatively with academic researchers.

In the early 1980s the company supported publication of several world-leading research papers by Exxon and Columbia University scientists. It even funded an international climate science conference in October 1982.

Exxon research was the basis of a climate change primer circulated to senior staff in 1982. While pointing out areas needing further study, the primer said that “major reductions in fossil fuel combustion” would eventually be needed to prevent “potentially catastrophic events”.

All this was known to the company’s board more than 30 years ago, which then elected to say nothing about the research and carry on as if it had never happened. It was a fateful decision.

In those 30 years, about 650 billion tonnes of emissions have increased atmospheric carbon dioxide by 15 per cent to nearly double what it was in pre-industrial times. Warming has exceeded those early projections, with the global mean rising by around 0.5C. The 18 warmest years on the 134-year thermometer record are the 18 completed years since 1996. Last year was the warmest on record and this year looks like being warmer still.

One of those Exxon scientists, Richard Werthamer, recently reflected wistfully on how different things might have been had the company put its corporate weight behind a global effort: “There’s virtually no country that it doesn’t have a presence in. It would have helped a great deal.”

Exxon might have chosen to publicise its research findings, persuade shareholders that the company should develop alternative energy sources and strategies, and lean on government to do the same. But that would have been a lot to ask in an era which legitimised corporate misbehaviour and rebranded greed as patriotism. So much easier to pretend nothing had happened.

Like all fossil fuel companies, Exxon remains opposed to effective measures to limit climate change, aiming to exploit every last molecule of its fossil fuel reserves. The same attitude prevails among politicians and governments wanting to retain these companies’ financial support.

In Australia and everywhere, legislated abatement measures like pricing schemes or direct action are repeatedly emasculated in the name of minimising business costs and protecting the economy. That is, sacrificing tomorrow’s profits on the altar of today’s.

The libertarian notion that red tape is inherently bad and that business is best left unrestrained is another way of saying that business always acts in the public interest. And pigs fly.

This is written in sadness as well as anger. Voters support those mindless notions. Exxon’s failure reflects on us all.

The Hobart launch of Atmosphere of Hope at Dechaineux Theatre (Hunter Street, Hobart, 6pm Thursday), featuring Bob Brown in conversation with the book’s author, Tim Flannery, is a sell-out. To get on a waiting list call Hobart Bookshop on 6223 1803.