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The 'no worries, do nothing' approach to greenhouse gas emissions

By Martin Callinan - posted Friday, 26 August 2005

Aside from the feel-good hype, the Asia-Pacific Climate Change Pact seeks to legitimise three crooked ideas: reducing emissions will hurt our economy; Kyoto is rotten; and technology will save us.

Rather than this neo-conservative foundation, four evaluations should underpin our greenhouse policy: the costs and benefits of reducing our emissions and the costs and benefits of not reducing our emissions.

Virtually all numerical analysis in Australia has examined just one part of one evaluation: possible costs to energy intensive industries. The totality of the lopsided “hard” evidence, mainly produced by the Federal Government and the anti-Kyoto lobby, has enabled the construction of a slam-dunk case against reducing Australian emissions. The 152 nations and economic organisations that have ratified Kyoto aren't buying it of course, but it has nevertheless provided pivotal domestic support for emissions-as-usual.


This deficient policy assessment leaves one glaring question that the Howard Government absolutely refuses to answer: how can the cost of emitting more and more greenhouse gas be zero?

The no worries, do nothing option is only valid if the cost really is zero. If the cost is not zero, as the Kyoto ratifiers' domestic law acknowledges, then who owns Australia's debt?

The lopsided analysis has ensured that the benefits of reducing emissions remains poorly publicised; for example, the Australian coal industry would boom if we were part of an international scheme to reduce emissions. The humanitarian demand for energy is urgent. Over two billion people do not have access to modern energy services to enable provision of basic sanitation and safe drinking water; the lack of which contributes to the death of ten million children under the age of five every year. In terms of energy per emissions, Australian black coal is naturally so much better quality than Chinese, Indonesian or Indian coal that it would be competitively advantaged in a carbon-constrained world.

The International Energy Agency forecasts US$8 trillion in energy investment in non-OECD countries over the next 25 years. Australia's coal industry ought to service as much of this economic, social and environmental market as possible while it exists, because in the next few decades climate change will render coal combustion prohibitively expensive. The “clean coal” concept is a false saviour because the nearer you get to purely clean coal, the more it costs. In all likelihood, widespread application of pure clean coal technology will not occur before its rising price will meet, and then exceed, the naturally falling price of alternative energy.

Australia has the opportunity to drive demand for our coal in the medium term by pushing carbon-lite global development and also by adding additional value to export coal. Tertiary processing can further raise calorific values and further lower impurities, like particulates and sulphur, which currently pollute the developing world's emerging mega-cities.

If trends continue, the world's poor, and our ecosystems, face an increasingly stressful future. The terrible consequences of such development is what has pushed President Bush and the prime minister to acknowledge that climate change is real and that we really have to do something about it. So we're back on the same page we were on in 1997 when the world, the US and Australia quite prominently, designed the Kyoto Protocol as a first step.


Kyoto is professionally demonised because it requires actual reductions to be made. In the eight years since 1997, the Howard Government's preference for voluntary action and, recently, technological saviours, has undermined global efforts and permitted Australia's energy emissions to grow by more than 15 per cent. As true today as when it was said at Kyoto in 1997, further rhetoric is akin to taking a placebo for cancer.

Technology offers about the same prospects for cancer as it does climate change. A cure is the goal but the practical reality is that lives are saved by existing and developing prevention and treatment options. Because scientific development is unpredictable and incremental, waiting for a cure just isn't a sensible option for people or planets in deteriorating conditions.

The environment minister's clutch at technology is as surprising as it is convenient. Australia is not committed to reducing emissions by any timeframe, and we are not really investing in peer or business directed research. Since Kyoto, government and business research and development spending has fallen to 1.54 per cent of GDP which, compared to the OECD average of 2.26 per cent, provides little option beyond business-as-usual. The story is the same in tertiary education where, since Kyoto, 8 per cent fewer Australians are now studying undergraduate engineering.

Inconsistencies continue to dog Australia's greenhouse policy. On one hand we can reduce emissions according to a timeframe and co-operate with world efforts to do the same, and thereby lead global development in Australia's interest. On the other hand, we can continue to emit greenhouse gas as usual, investing instead in maintaining the status quo and have faith that an affordable climate change cure will turn up before the environmental, economic and political implications of climate change hurt us.

It is uncertain which path we will take.

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A version of this article appeared in The Courier-Mail on August 15, 2005.

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About the Author

Dr Martin Callinan works for the US Democrats and is a former advisor to Federal Shadow Cabinet Minister Kelvin Thomson. He attended the 2005 Montreal Conference on Climate Change.

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