Wednesday, November 20, 2013

First World Problem

Whilst debate rages in the Australian Parliament over the Abbott Government’s misguided bill to repeal the ‘Carbon Tax’ Australia is becoming a climate pariah on the world stage at the UN Climate Summit in Warsaw.
Delegates at the UN Climate Change Conference in Warsaw
Photo courtesy of Brookings Institute 
 Let’s face it; the entire point of introducing an emissions trading scheme preceded by a fixed price on carbon emissions, is to slow down and then reduce Australia’s carbon pollution output.  That this needed a market-based, arguably punitive scheme is self-evident.  Businesses, however, will constantly base their objections to the ETS on the spurious justification that it will hurt local business in a trade-based economy.  Well, yes it possibly will in the short term, but this approach will induce business innovation and, ultimately, will have the required effect on the outrageous carbon emissions result that Australia currently boasts – along with Canada we are ‘the worst performing industrial country in the world’ (Giles Parkinson, Crikey 19 Nov 13).

And here’s the thing: a great deal of the clamour coming from those opposed to an ETS/a price on carbon/climate action is on a purely economic basis.  Because Australia is an economy primarily based on commodity sales, it is argued that to make the production and sale of these commodities more difficult and expensive will wreak havoc on our economy.  Well, here’s a news flash, China (arguably our most important commodity market) has recently ‘shut down nearly 500 inefficient coal-fired power plants and plans to scale down coal use’ (Ross Gittins The Age 20 Nov 13).  Surely this news alone would lead (and is leading) businesses to invest in R&D in the renewables sector. 

Early Start to 2013 Bushfire Season
Photo courtesy of Frontiergap
Business motivation being what it is in a capitalist society we are never going to reduce carbon emissions through the fanciful approach embodied in the direct action policy propagated by the Abbott Government.  Businesses will not be motivated to change through good will and will continue to press their competitive advantage to maximise profits regardless of the negative environmental outcomes.  Clean and green, except where (even the illusion) of these ideals increases profits, will never form the motivation for businesses without a concurrent penalty for failing to be so.  In the same article quoted above (Ross Gittins The Age 20 Nov 13), Ross Gittins reminds us that the cost of producing renewable energy has also fallen.  Businesses are not stupid.  They will follow the money and, particularly if compelled to do so through market-based conditions, they will apply their expertise to the development of profit-creating strategies; ergo clean and green energy production.  Without the market-based compunction?  Not so much.

Executive secretary of UNFCCC Christiana Figueres.
Photograph: Jeon Heon-Kyun/EPA
United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change executive director Christiana Figueres has told the coal industry that it needed to “look past next quarter’s bottom line and see the next generation’s bottom line”.

Climate change, and more specifically, anthropogenic climate change, is a quintessential ‘first world problem’.  Australia needs to step up and reclaim its former position as a constructive and engaged participant in international climate change action.  Before it is too late and we simply abrogate our responsibilities to future generations we need to stop our slide into irrelevance in this debate. 

In a stunning example of politically-motivated grandstanding for domestic consumption, Tony Abbott has made the ‘unprecedented step of dissenting on the final communique at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Sri Lanka, joining with Canada in refusing support for the UN-sponsored green climate fund, which he dubbed the “green capital fund”’ (Ross Gittins The Age 20 Nov 13).  He has refused to commit Australia to a fund that will assist developing nations in the Commonwealth combat anthropogenic climate change.  But this is exactly what we, in concert with other developed nations, should be doing.

‘Without more funding, poorer countries won’t be able to get on a path to low-carbon development. Nor will they be able to deal with the huge issues of adapting to the temperature increases, extreme weather, ecosystem collapse and sea level rise that will result from climate change.’ (Ian Macgregor – The Conversation 20 Nov 13).

Typhoon Haiyan Survivor
Photo courtesy of Reuters
That Australia (accompanied by Canada, Japan and Russia) is now retreating with haste from its international obligation to combat climate change is remarkable.  Situated as we are on the Pacific Rim; surrounded by many nations who critically feel the effects of climate change every day and whose very existence depends on international action on climate change, it is both morally and strategically imperative that we return to our former position as world leaders in this space. 

There is another week of negotiations and talks to be held in Warsaw but there seems to be little hope that Australia will reclaim the progress that has been made, put aside the short-sighted economic arguments and redouble our efforts to counteract the growing perception that we are, indeed, the environmental pariah at the table.  Far from crab-walking away from our obligations as a developed and wealthy country, we need to take up this first world problem and act decisively, sensibly and expeditiously.  Nothing else is good enough.  And our planet and it’s future generations (our children) depend on it.