Nothing direct about ‘Direct Action’

Saturday, October 18th, 2014
“It’s not because things are difficult that we dare not venture. It’s because we dare not venture that they are difficult.” Seneca (1 BC–AD 65) (With thanks to
The Abbott Government’s “Direct Action Plan” is currently undergoing public scrutiny via a Senate Inquiry into the policy. More specifically the Inquiry will look into “the Abbott Government’s failure to systematically address climate change”.
I use the “air quote” marks deliberately as there is little that is direct about this policy, as it is largely about using taxation revenue to funnel, through complicated administrative schemes, publicly funded subsidies to polluting industries for emissions reductions they might make anyway, and reduces any incentives for long term emissions cuts due to a short program time frame.
Despite being touted as the cornerstone of national climate policy, the Direct Action Plan will not even achieve the wildly inadequate emissions reduction target of a 5% cut on 1990 levels by 2020. In the words of The Climate Institute: “No independent analysis to date has shown that the policy framework as outlined can achieve Australia’s international obligations and emission commitments.”
Bit of a worry, isn’t it?
A more direct way of achieving emissions reductions might be to impose a financial penalty or disincentive to pollute. That would increase the costs of emission per tonne, raise the relative costs of emissions intensive practices and create an incentive to find lower emissions alternatives. It would also make cleaner, lower emissions pathways relatively cheaper, compared to now. But, oh wait… that’s what we already have in the form of a carbon price (which is not a tax – although that would be better). But the Abbott government, to the consternation of the international community, and against the advice of leading economists, climate policy experts, the OECD and the World Bank, is seeking to abolish it.
Other elements of the (poorly spelled out) plan include the employment of masses of young people to plant trees. A laudable aim, both for youth employment and for revegetation projects, but as an emissions strategy, it’s a bit like saying you’re going to stop the warming of the ocean by picking up litter on the beach i.e. nice idea but hopelessly inadequate in tackling the core problem.
The core problem, as it stands, is our fossil intensive energy system, based as it is on coal, gas and oil. Until we begin to transition away from these energy sources and take advantage of our abundant, cost effective (because they carry few or none of the “externalities” of fossil fuels, like environmental harm and damage to people’s health) renewable energy resources like wind  and solar, we’re basically ‘pissing into the wind’, to adopt a crude, but accurate, analogy.
Despite the rhetoric, the DAP and its Emissions Reduction Fund will not fund lowest cost, effective emissions reductions with minimal administration – it promises to do the opposite and support high polluters with large subsidies to make little or no emissions reductions AND to see a massive increase in paperwork with a project by project approach that will cost more and disproportionately burden smaller organisations.
But the core issue in regard to the Direct Action Plan for health and medical professionals is that this and other proposed climate and energy policies fundamentally overlook the full truth about climate change – that it is not an environmental problem, and cannot be solved by a single portfolio approach. It is a profoundly complex issue that impacts on every corner of society, every industry, every person, every species.
But while it is complex, and no other challenge like it has been faced by human society before, we know what to do. It’s not like we’ve just found out about it. A recent note from the Australian Parliamentary Library chronicles the sad and chequered history of climate policy in Australia, starting back in 1972, riddled as it is by the fingerprints of rent seekers, big coal, oil giants, gutless politicians and climate deniers and those who are willing to willfully gamble the lives and futures of our children, our grandchildren and a future for the extraordinary miracle of human existence on this tiny blue planet.
Climate change is, as the international medical journal The Lancet wrote in 2009, the biggest threat the global public health this century. Climate change threatens the future of human civilisation. As leading climate scientist Hans Schellnhuber from the Potsdam Institute in German says, if we hit a temperature rise of four degrees, projected for mid century on current rates of emissions, the difference between that and our (also too high) target of two degrees, may be “human civilisation”. That’s a big gamble to take.
And it’s not one we need to take. As the European Commission 2050 Roadmap outlines, the pathway to a low carbon economy offers lower energy costs, cleaner air, a healthier community, and the preservation of vital natural capital. In its flagship report on a global low carbon transition, the German Advisory Council on Global Change is emphatic that the key ingredients for this necessary transition are available – they state: “the technological potential for comprehensive decarbonisation is available”, the business and financial models are available, and “the political instruments needed for a climate friendly transformation are widely known”.
Here in Australia, two sets of comprehensive modelling, from Beyond Zero Emissions / Melbourne Energy Institute and the University of NSW, show affordable technologies for a 100% renewable energy supply for Australia are available now, at a lower cost than polluting ones.
The Abbott government would do well to look beyond its rhetoric and determined opposition to policies that have global and expert support. To do otherwise risks failing in its duty of care to act in the interests of Australian citizens, by leading us on a global warming pathway which looks to carry the kinds of profound consequences only those well versed in the Bible may yet have contemplated.
The Climate and Health Alliance submission to the Direct Action Plan Inquiry can be found here.

Health groups seek urgent action on climate

Wednesday, August 21st, 2013

With the federal election date looming, many Australians will be seriously considering their voting intentions and the issues that will shape them. So far the hot topics in the media have been the leader’s gaffes and characteristics of candidates, along with the state of the budget, asylum seekers and education.

But are these the issues voters and community leaders would prioritise given the chance?

One key issue that has so far escaped much attention is that of climate change, outside the narrow debate of shifting to a floating carbon price or, in the case of the Coalition, abolishing the emissions trading scheme altogether.

But while it may not be popular politically, and many in the media either misreport or avoid it, climate change is a key issue in the minds of the public and civil society.

Coal and csg rush clashes with health and climate obligations

Thursday, February 21st, 2013

Australia is currently in the middle of a coal rush. Coupled with the exploration of coal seam gas expanding at a rapid rate across Queensland and New South Wales, this looks (on paper) to be one of the country’s biggest and most rapid industry expansions in our short history.

Australia is currently the world’s largest exporter of metallurgical coal and ranks sixth in exports of thermal coal. In 2012, we sold around $60 billion worth of coal, mostly to Japan, South Korea and Taiwan.

Looking to the future, Australia’s national energy policy, the Energy White Paper, anticipates strong demand from these nations for Australian coal and prioritises coal production as a core element of energy for the coming decades.

Around 30 new coal mines and coal mine expansions are planned for New South Wales and Queensland, and if they proceed would more than double Australia’s current coal exports of more than 300 million tonnes per annum.

Much of the current expansion of coal is predicated on rising demand from China, and India; a stable global economic environment; and industry denial about climate science.

These assumptions have shaky foundations and investors should heed the clear warning from risk experts of the imminent destruction of value of high-carbon investments and that climate change will continue to deliver systemic shocks to regional and global economies.