Friday, March 27, 2009

The power to make a difference

Adam Morton 
March 28, 2009

PUT Andrew Bray's life on a poster and the environment movement would have something to stick up around town as a how-to guide. There are solar panels on his roof, fluorescent bulbs in his light sockets and green power charges on his electricity bill. His family of five get around Ballarat in a small car. That's when they drive — most of the time they jump on bikes or, if they are heading to Melbourne, the train.

A little over a year ago he gave up red meat, not wanting to encourage greenhouse-intensive cattle farming. His family's food is as local and organic as possible, and kept cool in an energy-efficient fridge that cost Bray several hundred dollars more than other less environmentally friendly appliances.

Not content with just reducing emissions at home, he last year quit his three-day-a-week job teaching music theory at Ballarat University to volunteer with BREAZE (Ballarat Renewable Energy and Zero Emissions), a community climate action group.

Bray knows more about emissions trading than most people would consider healthy. But there is a difference between understanding how it works and deciding the best way to respond. Even for someone with Bray's expertise, the scheme throws up questions that are hard to answer. Such as this one: if the Government's carbon pollution reduction scheme passes the Senate, should individuals cut their own emissions?

Under one view, individual action will do nothing immediately to reduce the national carbon footprint. This position has gained momentum recently, largely thanks to a campaign by Australia Institute executive director Richard Denniss. He argues emissions reduction by individuals, community groups and governments — anyone except the 1000 biggest carbon-emitting businesses covered by the scheme — will be a waste of time and effort.

The argument gained further credibility this week when The Age revealed a high-level Victorian Government ministerial brief had advised that state climate change programs — for example, large-scale solar power stations and compulsory energy ratings for new homes — will be redundant once emissions trading is introduced.

Concern about this has thrown a cloud over a coming climate change policy paper and is creating havoc in local government, with some councils wondering if their pledges to be carbon neutral by 2020 will be nothing but hot air. It is understood the most recent draft of the Brumby Government's policy paper makes no mention of its 2006 election promise to cut emissions by 60 per cent by 2050.

For Bray, the debate prompted an internal wrestle about whether his plans to install a solar hot water system will be worthwhile if the current model gets up. He believes they will — at least eventually, when the country finally accepts it must make deeper cuts to emissions than proposed by the Rudd Government. But he understands why some think otherwise. "I am in a minority, but it's a reasonably significant minority, in that I will act this way because I think it is right. Most people are not going to act this way unless there is a clear benefit."

Brunswick environmental consultant Peter Allan is beyond persuading that it is still worth playing his part. Already this year he has removed solar panels from his roof in frustration over what he sees as a lack of support for the industry by state and federal governments. To him, the design of the emissions trading proposal is just a further sign of Canberra's contempt for the environmentally minded.

"If I was making my decisions now, the $16,000 I have put into solar and the equivalent amount I've put into cars and lighting and so forth, I would be spending on political lobbying," he says.

Why is Allan so angry? It comes down to an inherent feature of emissions trading schemes. By definition, they involve a cap being placed on annual greenhouse emissions. Enough carbon permits are issued to allow the industries that pump out the most greenhouse gases — coal-fired electricity, aluminium smelting — to emit up to that level. Permits can be traded. The cap is designed to be tightened over time, forcing industries to eventually find ways to cut their carbon pollution.

But the cap is not reset quickly. For example, let's say enough households put solar panels on their roofs to substantially reduce the amount of coal-fired power needed. This will do nothing to reduce the number of permits in the system. Coal-power companies can sell any leftover permits to other emitters. Unless concerned activists buy permits and take them off the market, the national emissions for that year remain the same. According to Denniss, "the harder households work, the harder the councils work, or the harder the state governments work to cut emissions, the less the big polluters have to work".

This issue is further confused by the Government's legislation allowing industrial polluters to buy as many international permits as they want to cover their emissions. As it now stands, there is no need for a company to cuts its emissions in Australia at all — as long as it is paying for enough cuts in developing countries to offset its footprint.

The issue of whether to tell the environmentally conscious that their efforts mean nothing — or take the logical, but drastic, next step of encouraging them to stop making greenhouse cuts — is causing no small amount of angst within the green movement. How, they ask, can we even be having a discussion about whether it is right to reduce people's carbon footprint?

A growing number of environmentalists are calling on the Federal Government to change its proposal in order to directly and immediately reflect voluntary cuts. Household cuts are tiny in the scheme of things (voluntary acts through schemes such as green power are equivalent to only 1 per cent of Australia's national emissions), but campaigners say people must feel empowered — that they can make a difference.

FOR this to happen, voluntary cuts would have to be measured and the cap available to big polluting industry reduced by this amount. Is this possible? Experts say yes — in some cases. Alan Pears, an RMIT academic and a member of the interim board of the Voluntary Carbon Markets Association, says green power sales are independently audited, and the impact of energy efficiency measures is already being calculated by the NSW Government. He says reducing the amount industry can pollute by the amount of savings from these verifiable household schemes would be straightforward.

"At the moment the scheme discriminates against a legitimate way of making cuts … We need credible ways of documenting the voluntary abatement and once we have done that, the Government needs to tighten the cap."

Environment Victoria campaigns director Mark Wakeham says schemes such as green power — with about 900,000 subscribers and responsible for two-thirds of measurable voluntary cuts — must survive under emissions trading. Most expect it will fall over if the current scheme gets up. "We have been told constantly by all governments that it is up to all of us to solve climate change. Why, then, cut voluntary effort by businesses or individuals out of the picture?"

Not everyone wanting to see a successful emissions trading scheme agrees with this emphasis. For a quiet minority, most of whom will not speak publicly for fear of starting a slanging match within the green movement, the debate about voluntary action is a distraction from the main game — campaigning to get the Rudd Government to set more ambitious greenhouse targets.

It is noteworthy that, while the Federal Opposition has embraced the populist appeal of saying personal action must count, the Greens refuse to enter the debate. They are much more focused on arguing for the Government to go further than its proposed 2020 target of a 5 to 15 per cent cut below 2000 levels.

Most who are concerned about voluntary action, including Wakeham, agree that securing a stronger emissions reduction target is more important. They say a target of say, a 25 per cent cut, would force a radical change in the way industry operates. There would then be a legitimate argument for everyone to pull together.

There is another view: that the push for personal cuts to be recognised under the scheme is misleading people. Tony Wood, a former Origin Energy executive and an adviser to the Garnaut Climate Change Review, says the push to tighten the cap to reflect voluntary action suggests a fundamental misunderstanding of how emissions trading works. The whole point, he says, is to price carbon so companies are forced to find ways to recover the cost. These include embracing technology that limits emissions, and passing the cost on to consumers.

He says the idea that steps by households and governments to cut emissions would give polluters a free ride fails to acknowledge that emissions trading is meant to lower the cost of change across the board. As electricity prices rise, putting up rooftop solar panels immediately becomes more cost effective. So does improving energy efficiency through insulation or double-glazing. And there remain good arguments for governments to invest in, for example, large-scale solar power stations. On one level it will create jobs. On another it will address a market failure that discourages people to develop new technology.

Bureaucrats and even supporters privately express frustration that Climate Change Minister Penny Wong is struggling to sell the merits of the Government's scheme to the public.

The message Wong is trying to send is that the scheme does take voluntary action into account, but the importance of personal cuts should not be overstressed. Under the proposed legislation, the Government can take evidence of cuts by the wider community into account when deciding the next cap. But the cap is set five years out — community-level cuts in 2011 will not lead to a tighter cap until 2016. And widespread action on greenhouse abatement beyond the big polluters will do nothing to change the Government's 2020 target.

Wong told The Age: "What all of us do to reduce our carbon footprint is important, but the fact is that what the Government is proposing through the scheme will achieve far greater reductions in emissions across the economy than even the most determined groups of individuals can achieve on their own."

Despite this, nearly all determined groups contacted by The Age said they would continue to encourage people to make cuts if the scheme were passed by the Senate. Most take a similar approach to that adopted by Andrew Bray at community meetings in Ballarat.

"I just tell people, this is the right thing to do and in time things will change."

Adam Morton is environment reporter.

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