Sunday, June 14, 2009

Stop wasting time and save the planet, Mr Rudd

YESTERDAY, thousands of Australians called on the Federal Government to drop its carbon pollution legislation and start large-scale investment in renewable energy. Here's why.

We are in a climate emergency, which demands emergency action. The speed and severity of global warming is exceeding even the worst predictions, leading many to suggest that greenhouse gas levels are already too high.

In Australia, the evidence includes record heat, more severe fires, drought, declining agriculture and a threat to national treasures such as the Great Barrier Reef. Yet they are only the beginning of the catastrophe unless we urgently drive down carbon pollution and prevent feedback loops causing runaway climate change.

Former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan says climate change is already costing 300,000 lives a year and this toll will grow as global warming displaces millions of people.

In the Arctic, 3 million square kilometres of sea ice, which helps keep the planet cool, is disappearing in summer 80 years earlier than projected. The head of the US National Snow and Ice Data Centre says Arctic ice is in a "death spiral".

Its demise will unlock a greenhouse time bomb of billions of tonnes of carbon from the frozen permafrost.

Faced with such an emergency, the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme constitutes a failure by the Rudd Government to protect Australia and its people. It is also a failure to match the community expectation for action that helped Labor to office.

The legislation deserves to die in the Senate. From the beginning, the Government played politics with the scheme instead of making the need for urgent action drive the policy. Petrol was exempted, big polluters were given billions of dollars in free permits and the scheme was delayed in an attempt to wedge the Coalition.

Low targets will lock in a high-pollution economy and don't come close to what is necessary. Polluters will be able to buy carbon credits overseas, effectively outsourcing pollution cuts to developing countries. Treasury says this means there will be no pollution cuts in Australia until 2030. Offsets are flawed because they promote the notion that the cuts can be made in either rich or poor countries. Action is needed in both. Just creating a carbon market was never going to create the transformation required.

In an emergency, such as war, time is short and delays make the problem much worse. Price mechanisms do not drive emergency responses; markets are not geared to provide fire trucks or sandbagging contracted to the cheapest bidder and competition rules can't provide tanks and warplanes. Governments lead by planning and directing the response and resources necessary to address the problem faced.

This is why a coalition of environment organisations representing more than 400,000 Australians have proposed a plan B of public-led investment.

The plan B: an agenda for immediate action on climate change sets out steps in energy efficiency, renewable energy, sustainable transport and forest protection that could be implemented in the next two years regardless of the fate of the CPRS. The plan would set Australia on a path to halving carbon pollution in a decade and create thousands of green-collar jobs, including in areas reliant on fossil-fuel industries, such as Victoria's Latrobe Valley.

It outlines how a doubling of the renewable energy target coupled with a national feed-in law that creates a guaranteed price for solar and other renewable energy, and other measures, would enable a moratorium on new coal power and then a phase-out of the oldest and the dirtiest stations.

The Government can no longer hide behind the defence of not "picking winners" while continuing to pick losers with its $7 billion subsidy of the fossil-fuel industry.

Faced with the widening gulf between public expectation and a floundering Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme, the Government announced in the May budget more than $1.3 billion for four solar power stations that together would generate as much power as a 1000 megawatt coal-fired power station.

This is one ray of hope in a year in which fiscal policy including the stimulus packages missed the chance to kick-start a new low-pollution economy.

The global financial crisis, as the Prime Minister points out, should make us wary of neo-liberalism and its reliance on unregulated markets. But putting all our money on carbon trading risks repeating that mistake.

When the Senate votes down the Government's carbon pollution scheme, the Prime Minister has two choices: he can continue to play politics, or he can take a deep breath, sit down at the drawing board and switch to plan B.

Damien Lawson is the national climate justice co-ordinator with Friends of the Earth Australia.

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