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Which way forwards in response to climate change?

By Tristan Ewins - posted Monday, 18 January 2010

Towards the conclusion of 2009 perhaps one of the most significant events of that decade was the failure of the Copenhagen conference on climate change to authorise a comprehensive and binding response to the climate crisis.

Given the virtually universal consensus across the entire body of global scientific opinion, with regards to the reality of human-induced climate change, resistance to action must be seen as being harder and harder to justify.

Apart from the threat of rising sea levels, other effects of continued global warming could include damage to eco-systems and biodiversity. Acidification of oceans may result in extinction of many species - with the consequences of the disruption to the food chain ultimately flowing to humans. And with extremes of weather, life for many would become more uncomfortable.


But while some from the conservative Opposition in Australia saw the failure of Copenhagen as a vindication of sorts, the potential consequences of this failure are such that none should be seeking to milk these developments for opportunistic political gain.

In Australia, with regards to the environment, the Rudd Labor is besieged on both sides.

Bipartisan support between the government and the Coalition Opposition for an Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) in Australia has collapsed after the relatively liberal Opposition Leader, Malcolm Turnbull, was usurped by arch-Conservative, Tony Abbott.

Now, while the Australian Greens deplore the government’s target to reduce greenhouse emissions to somewhere between 5 per cent and 25 per cent of 2000 levels saying it is vague and insufficient, the conservative Coalition is generating fear about what their leader Tony Abbott derides as “Labor’s great big tax”.

But what is the proposed ETS anyway?

“In a nutshell”, the Emissions Trading Scheme advocated by the Australian Labor government comprises a “cap and trade” system whereby polluters are provided with a limit on greenhouse emissions. After this “cap”, polluters need to invest in emissions permits if they are to continue such activity. A market is effectively created: usually whereby polluters must buy permits from economic actors whose activity is not so intensive in carbon emissions.


Importantly, Labor claims the ETS does not comprise a tax in the commonly-accepted sense of the word. For the government this is important: as it is official Labor policy not to increase tax as a proportion of Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

Given the need for investment in social services, welfare and infrastructure, critics may well point to the short-sightedness of this policy. But advocates of the Labor ETS might believe it is a way to potentially “have one’s cake and eat it too”. Although after corporate compensation - and compensation for those on low and middle incomes - there is not much left over.

Ultimately, though, the proposed ETS would still comprise a system of “sticks and carrots”: impositions upon business and consumers to pressure them into changing their habits when it comes to investments and the purchasing of goods and services.

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About the Author

Tristan Ewins has a PhD and is a freelance writer, qualified teacher and social commentator based in Melbourne, Australia. He is also a long-time member of the Socialist Left of the Australian Labor Party (ALP). He blogs at Left Focus, ALP Socialist Left Forum and the Movement for a Democratic Mixed Economy.

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