Carbon Cate

The airing this week of certain advertisements featuring Australian celebrities has put Carbon Emissions back on the political agenda, though alas the debate again focuses on playing the man (or woman) rather than the ball.

Previous Earth Care’s have touched on Carbon Emissions and a Carbon Price, but it’s timely to regather our thoughts during the onslaught of the ‘a great big new tax’ mantra.  What are at stake are the lives and lifestyles of our children, grandchildren and their children.  In two short generations civilised society has taken oil consumption to its peak. Two generations on our grandchildren will consider oil a thing of the past.  Homo-sapiens have been on this planet around 200,000 years with little adverse impacts, however in the last 200 years we have turned that around by successfully depleted many of the earth’s resources.  The consumption curve has to be turned around; our society has a moral imperative to save some of that resource bounty for future generations.

In the face of reduced oil and gas supplies, energy industries and governments are turning in desperation to unconventional energy sources such as shale oil and gas fracking.  Extracting these resources is more difficult than traditional drilling and are without exception is environmentally destructive.  The WA Government directions paper Energy 2031 advocates fracking for gas to supply Perth into the future, with the aim of reducing reliance on the Dampier to Bunbury pipeline and to allow all the North West Shelf gas to be exported.  Fracking is employed where gas is trapped in shale which must be fractured to release the gas, this is achieved by using high pressure slurry pumped underground to break up shale, chemicals are also used to accelerate the process.  The downside is that the liberated gas contaminates the groundwater that can render it useless for drinking or irrigation.  Australia cannot abuse our precious water supplies in this way.  This week New York City instigated legal action to sue the American Federal Government over fracking contamination of drinking water used by several million people (USA Today 1-6-11).

The sad irony is that when we squander fossil fuels we also leave a terrible legacy for our grandchildren in the form of Global Warming.  The atmosphere can only accommodate a limited amount of excess carbon dioxide without triggering climatic changes that will be detrimental to humanity.  We all have a responsibility to protect the Atmospheric Commons, at the moment Australian’s are abusing those Commons.  A tradition of excessive carbon emissions gives absolutely no authority to continue that practice.  Whilst a price on carbon isn’t a perfect process, it is the best way for a government to trigger transition to a lower carbon economy.  The Federal Coalition’s policy of paying businesses to reduce carbon is just a form of privatising profits while socialising risk.  The unfortunate thing is that the debate on both sides is very shallow and bears a great resemblance to those had in the 70s over industry protection and tariffs.  It is inevitable that a shift to a lower carbon economy will result in some businesses who resist change being left behind, and I expect the Coalition will make them into martyrs, but the sooner the change is made the easier it will be for most businesses.  At the end of the day Australia’s strong economy is hurting exporters more than any carbon tax will and the infrastructure renewal required to service our ever-increasing power demands will cost consumers more than any carbon tax will.

The argument that Australia should not act until nations with larger populations do is flawed.  Do you not think that people in China and India are saying “Why should we as low and moderate per capita emitters reduce our emissions when high emitters like Australians refuse to act?”  Only once we start to address our emissions can we expect other lower emitters to do the same.  The first European country to tax emissions was Finland in 1990, 21 years ago.  This was done as part of a major tax reform that removed taxes from good things like employment (payroll tax) and put them on bad things like pollution.  They detected no adverse effects on overseas trade.

Australian’s have long been taking a far larger piece of the pie than we deserve when it comes to consumption and emissions.  It is time we acted to restore global and intergenerational equity and a tax on carbon is one mechanism to help us in that endeavour.

Published in Fremantle Herald 4 June 2011

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