Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Public to pay as polluters drag feet

By Greg Bourne

ABC News Online, Posted 6 hours 54 minutes ago
Updated 6 hours 53 minutes ago


Big polluters have known for 20 years that the Government would regulate carbon pollution.

Some of Australia's biggest - and most polluting - companies are complaining loudly about the Rudd Government's decision to cut carbon emissions. This is despite being offered about $2 billion dollars a year in financial assistance. This is an enormous amount of money, equivalent to the Government's entire climate change budget for the next five years.

These companies have known for 20 years that carbon pollution would have to be cut. There were representatives of these very industries on the Australian Government delegation when the UN climate change negotiations started in 1990. They also attended the Earth Summit in Rio in 1992 and were present when Australia signed the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.

Industry representatives convinced the Government to withdraw a proposal for a carbon tax in 1994, allowing more time to "adjust" and trial voluntary approaches.

Three years later the Kyoto Protocol was agreed, with Australia strongly supporting the inclusion of emissions trading as a key mechanism. Again, all major industries were represented on the Australian delegation.

In 1999 the Government released four discussion papers on the development of a national greenhouse gas emissions trading scheme, and again in 2007.

The list goes on and on.

Some companies did take action to reduce emissions. For example, BP started factoring a carbon price in all major investment decisions from 1996. It also started investing large amounts of money in renewables and other zero emission sources of energy.

With notable exceptions, few Australian companies displayed such leadership, or undertook basic business protection measures.

Is the Government being played? It is possible companies have already factored the need to cut emissions into their investment strategy and are hoping the Government will provide a windfall profit.

Either way, why should the public pay for their negligence or deception?

Companies are complaining that they will be forced overseas, but this is unlikely. Even after the Rudd Government's emissions trading scheme starts in 2010, Australia will be one of the most attractive countries in the world for big companies to invest. We will still have some of the lowest energy prices in the world; some of the best electricity, port, transport and communications infrastructure and some of the largest mineral reserves.

All the companies complaining are highly profitable and enjoying the biggest boom in nearly 50 years. This boom is caused by the growth of China, and has a long way to run yet.

As mentioned earlier, the Government has said it will provide $2 billion dollars a year so competitors in developing countries do not receive an unfair advantage. When you add that sort of money with the profits these companies are making, there is no possibility of them leaving the country.

I think its time for directors and managers of the major industries to stand up and tell us why they have been taken by surprise. Were they aware of climate change but just chose to take a business risk and ignore it? Were they simply negligent and failed to prepare to avoid an obvious risk? Or, are they hoping for a big profit underwritten by the Australian public? If not, it is time for them to get on board, support the Government's carbon pollution reduction scheme and stop cadging for public handouts.

WWF-Australia CEO Greg Bourne spent 35 years working for the oil and gas company BP, including five years as regional president of Australasia.

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