By agreeing to establish their own carbon-trading system, Australia’s state premiers have taken the lead on a response to climate change. This is a break-out from the lethargy and confusion that has hindered a national response so far.
Climate change has been a lurking problem for politicians. Politicians look for certainties and quick fixes calibrated to set them fair for a future election. Climate change scientists have not been in a position to offer such certainties, their predictions limited by the extent of present scientific knowledge.
Up to now in Australia, a lethargic, largely uninformed public has remained baffled by a muddy pool of information, attitudes, agendas and anxieties with no sense of national leadership.
Happily the premiers’ agreement coincided with the issue of the Millennium Ecosystems report, the first of several, which sets out the world’s situation clearly. The assessment panel includes 13 of the world’s leading social and natural scientists, advised by the findings of 1,300 experts from 95 countries. Its findings cannot be dismissed lightly.
Basically, the report says, that approximately 60 per cent of the ecosystem services supporting life on Earth - such as fresh water, capture fisheries, air and water regulation, and the regulation of regional climate, natural hazards and pests - were being degraded or used unsustainably. Scientists warn that the harmful consequences of this degradation would grow significantly worse in the next 50 years.
Although evidence remains incomplete, there was enough for the experts to warn that the ongoing degradation of 15 of the 24 ecosystem services examined was increasing the likelihood of potentially abrupt changes that would seriously affect human well-being. This included the emergence of new diseases, sudden changes in water quality, creation of “dead zones” along the coasts, the collapse of fisheries and shifts in regional climate.
Australia has a whole continent to be concerned about as well as a duty to near neighbours. “One of the difficulties we’ve got is that the public is not engaged in this (climate change),” Bob Carr, New South Wales Premier and a member of the International Climate Change Taskforce, earlier commented during an ABC Radio National’s Earthbeat program. “It’s tragic, but the public sees this as something that’s distant, unbelievable, or too complicated to fix.”
He was referring to a Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) report (pdf file 9.35KB) in November that stated NSW could face up to 70 per cent more droughts, and over 50 per cent more days above 35 degrees by 2070 and that a rise in global grain prices was likely to force action. It was also forecast that some parts of NSW could become uninhabitable within the next 70 years, if the world continued to emit greenhouse bases at the current rate.
The US and Australia are the only two developed nations to refuse to sign the Kyoto protocols, endorsed by 141 countries in February 2005. The protocol requires most of the world's developed countries - including Canada, Japan, Russia and all of the European Union - to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 5 per cent from 1990 levels by 2012. But Kyoto is acknowledged to be only a first step.
In Australia there are at least four independent moves afoot to find national answers:
- Victoria initially designed a plan of its own and has successfully encouraged states and territories to join in;
- the National Farmers’ Federation proposes a national vegetation plan on the lines of the National Water Plan, involving the co-operation of federal and state governments;
- Dr Brian Fisher, Australian Bureau of Agriculture and Resource Economics (ABARE), has said carbon capture and geological storage technologies applied to coal and gas fired electricity generation could provide significant opportunities to reduce carbon dioxide emissions over the period to 2050; and
- the Academy of Science invited three scholars to write a paper on climate change, particularly about the uncertainties involved. One of them, Professor Warwick McKibbin, ANU economist and a professorial fellow at the Lowy Institute for International Policy, has proposed an alternative model, the McKibbin-Wilcoxen Blueprint, which, compared to Kyoto, he believes relies less “on controls with their unbounded costs, and more on clear incentives for national governments, firms and households to manage the risks from climate change.”
The Victorian plan
The original Victorian Government plan, likely to be reflected in the state premiers’ eventual scheme, envisaged a national trading scheme aiming to create jobs, deliver investment and reduce emissions in the energy sector. According to Premier Steve Bracks, under the proposed emissions trading scheme, a cap would be established limiting the amount of total emissions into the atmosphere. All companies would be awarded credits at the start of the scheme reflecting their level of emissions.
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