Choosing Between Nothing and Worse-than-nothing

11 June 2009

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Today, 12 environmental organisations representing more than 400,000 Australians launched Plan B, calling for immediate action on climate change in the absence of an effective policy to price greenhouse pollution and cut emissions.

Penny Wong once said that the Government’s Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme, as a vehicle for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, was “no Ferrari”. It would appear not, but whatever kind of vehicle does suit the CPRS analogy (my old scrap-heaped EA Falcon springs to mind), it has clearly stalled.

With the opposition refusing to allow the legislation to pass until next year and the Greens holding out for unconditional targets that at least show some respect for the science, the CPRS is looking dead-on-arrival into the Senate.

We’re facing the likelihood of being two years on from the last election and still without a policy instrument that forces Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions to fall. That’s an awfully long time to wait. Especially when climate scientists are warning that we only have a few years in which to make major cuts in emissions.

Of course, the CPRS in its current form was never going to be that policy instrument. A pathetically low target; the ability for polluters to offset all of their emissions through the international market; granting of property rights to polluters; obscene levels of compensation; and too many other flaws to list here, have turned the CPRS into dangerous legislation for the climate, locking Australia into high emissions. The treasury modelling also indicated that despite the government having an aspirational target of 60 per cent by 2050, actual emissions by that time would be the same as in 1990.

This being the case, we should watch with relief as the CPRS flounders in the Senate: not to say we abandon the idea of a policy that puts a price on carbon – a well-designed policy of that ilk would play an important role in the transformation to a low-carbon society. However, as far as the CPRS is concerned, it’s back to the drawing board.

So what to do in the meantime? The science tells us that climate change is still just as urgent and each day we delay takes us ever closer to triggering runaway climate change. It’s time to implement Plan B. If we are going to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions in a way that reflects the urgency of climate change, it will mean a massive shift from coal-fired electricity to renewable energy over the next decade. We can act now to prepare Australia for this energy revolution.

We need to set our sights high, and with our unparalleled renewable energy resources and the technical reality of large-scale baseload renewable energy, Australia should be aiming for all of our electricity to be coming from renewable sources by 2020: 100 per cent.

That’s a challenging proposition – 100 per cent renewable energy by 2020 – but preferable to the frightening prospect of catastrophic climate change. But here is the point. Any major transformation in how we produce and use energy will depend on early action to give us the capacity to deliver this rapid change. This is why we need to lay down our ambition now: it will force us to contemplate what action we must take now to achieve this transformation.

And having thought about it, there is plenty Australia can do right now to make deep cuts in our energy emissions. Here are just a few examples:

  • double the size of the renewable energy target, using it to support wind, biomass and hydro power, which are the technologies best suited to take advantage of this policy;
  • use feed-in tariffs, where renewable energy producers are paid a premium rate for their energy, to drive the uptake of solar thermal, solar PV, geothermal and wave power. These technologies can then be developed independently of the renewable energy target, allowing an even greater share of renewable energy into the mix;
  • redirect subsidies that encourage fossil fuel use towards restructuring the electricity network to support large-scale renewable energy;
  • introduce a program that gives every building in Australia an energy and water efficiency overhaul in the next decade, including mandatory solar hot water;
  • plan with education sector to introduce courses, apprenticeships and on the job training that will create the green collar workforce required to deliver the energy revolution; and
  • develop a plan to provide new opportunities, compensation, re-training, priority access to services and other support measures to communities adversely affected by the transition from coal to renewable energy.

All of this could be done in the next 12 months and we certainly don’t need to wait for an effective emissions trading scheme to make them happen. Of course, much more than this list alone will be required, but the point is that with immediate action, Australia can make deep and rapid cuts in greenhouse gas emissions.

We were always going to need a plan B to deliver the necessary cuts, with or without the CPRS. Fortunately the solutions can still be implemented, making a genuinely low-carbon future achievable.

Originally posted in Online Opinion