We can take heart from California’s experience

We can get long-term benefit from early action on climate change, but we need to start soon. That’s the lesson from California. [4 November 2008 | Peter Boyer]

The United States government has come in for a lot of stick over its climate policies since George Bush said in 2001 that energy supply and economic growth were too important to be compromised by carbon emission reduction measures.

President Bush’s sentiments were echoed last week by critics of the Australian government’s decision to push ahead with emissions trading in 2010. With economic woes still unresolved and Treasury modelling failing to account for the recent downturn, they said, it’s foolhardy to introduce a carbon taxing measure so soon.

In light of frayed nerves from the harrowing experience of stockmarkets in turmoil and diminishing investments, it’s noteworthy that the Government has elected to pursue its emissions trading agenda regardless. But there’s plenty of evidence that it’s the right decision.

First, the climate crisis demands urgent action. As Ross Garnaut said, the evidence out there is so strong – the probability so high that we’re causing climate to change – that inaction is an extremely risky option. And deep emission cuts need to happen sooner, not later.

Among Australian economists, there’s a school of thought that the time to introduce significant structural reform – such as emissions trading – is when things are in a state of flux, when we’re more open to accommodating long-term solutions.

But if we really need convincing about assertive government action on climate change – including tough emissions targets and strong support for renewable energy and home improvements – then we need look no further than the good old US of A.

Ironically, under a president who scorned scientists’ advice and supported powerful, established, conventional energy interests, the state of California has become a world leader in embracing the science, setting tough energy targets and supporting alternative, renewable technologies.

Unlike President Bush, Arnold Schwartzenegger, elected Republican governor of California in 2003, decided early on that climate change was his top issue. Within two years he had issued an executive order to really get cracking on renewable energy and other measures to lower emissions.

With American national leadership so indifferent to climate reform, his timetable has been extraordinary. While Australia set a 2050 emissions reduction target of 60 per cent, his target is 80 per cent. Where we have opted for a renewable energy target of 20 per cent by 2020, he has set the same target for 2010!

It’s just a state, not a country, detractors might claim – so it’s not that important. But the pressures on California’s economy, which is larger than Australia’s, are no less than they are here. Despite the downturn in the US, Schwartzenegger shows no sign of slackening off.

Now, an economic report card has come in, and it looks pretty good. A University of California report released a fortnight ago has predicted that California’s energy efficiency policies will increase the economy by about $76 billion, raise real household incomes by up to $48 billion and create over 400,000 new jobs.

The report put California’s success down to early action on energy. We’re late starters and times are harder than before, but that’s no excuse for inaction.

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