Image for Carbon tax is a first step in climate fight

You don’t have to be a cynic to conclude that the timing of Julia Gillard’s announcement that the government would be introducing a carbon tax in July 2012 was to get the resignation of her chief scientific adviser, Penny Sackett, out of the headlines.

Sackett said her resignation was for personal and professional reasons. It has emerged that she had never had a meeting with Gillard and only one meeting with former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd.

More revealing was Sackett’s comments to a Senate estimates hearing last week. Asked whether the government’s range of actions on climate would be consistent with holding global temperatures to no more than a 2-degree rise, Sackett said no, existing commitments were ‘‘insufficient, even if acted upon’‘.

Two years ago, the scientific modelling of climate change suggested that if the growth in global temperatures could be held to below 2 degrees, there was reason to hope that the worst outcomes of global warming could be avoided. But not now.

As NASA’s chief climate scientist, Dr James Hansen, says: ‘‘We have reached a point of planetary emergency … Climate is near dangerous tipping points. Elements of a perfect storm, a global cataclysm, are assembled … The oft-stated goal to keep global warming below 2 degrees is a recipe for global disaster, not salvation.’‘

Even so, to limit global warming to 2 degrees means stabilizing greenhouse gases at their current level. For Australia, as the highest per capita emitter in the world, this means becoming a zero-emissions economy within a decade.

And yet science is telling us this is not enough. A safe climate scenario requires that the present global warming of just under 1 degree not be exceeded. Globally, this requires the end of the fossil fuel industries.

According to David Spratt, co-author of Climate Code Red: the case for emergency action, ‘‘This requires emergency action, and probably 10 per cent or more of world production will be required for a sustained period to build a new energy system and economy. This is huge but is about a third of the production countries such as Australia, the United States and Britain diverted to defence production during World War II.’‘

The latest scientific modelling of climate change suggests that if the globe warms by 4 degrees - the likely result if the commitments made at Copenhagen in 2009 are all that is done - the consequences would be far more serious than if the allies were defeated in WWII.

According to Professor Kevin Anderson, director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change in Britain, ‘‘If you have got a population of 9 billion by 2050 and you hit 4, 5 or 6 degrees, you might have half a billion people surviving.’‘

Even climate sceptics must accept that the scientific modelling on which these forecasts are made is much more credible than intelligence that Britain and the US used to justify the 2003 invasion of Iraq. The sceptics must accept, too, that the risks of not acting to avert climate change are far higher than any conceivable consequence of not invading Iraq. Given the consequences, a climate sceptic would be irresponsible to bet on the climate models being wrong.

Expenditure on defence is pure consumption. By contrast, expenditure needed to reduce our carbon footprint is life-enhancing - even if the climate scientists were proved wrong. For example, making cities more liveable and healthier by reducing vehicle dependence is a worthy objective in its own right and a sensible response to ‘‘peak oil’‘.

Sackett told the Senate committee her greatest concern was that the growing evidence of human-induced climate change found by scientists around the world and across every discipline of science was not being communicated effectively to the public.

Introduced sensibly, a carbon tax would be far less disruptive than the 2003 introduction of the GST. The tax should be high enough to make it attractive for investors to back renewable energy, make new investment in new coal-fired power stations unprofitable, and compensate middle and low-income earners for increases in living costs, due mainly to higher electricity prices.

A broad-based carbon tax of $10 a tonne would raise about $5 billion a year. The tax will have to be about $40 a tonne in order to make both coal and gas-fired electricity uneconomic and make renewable baseload power, especially solar, thermal and geothermal power, profitable. The revenue should be used to subsidise green infrastructure as well as cut taxes on low and middle-income earners. A prolonged commodity boom based on coal and gas exports is incompatible with avoiding catastrophic climate change.

Above all, the government should not make the mistake inherent in the carbon pollution reduction scheme - using the revenue to subsidise the polluting industries the tax is meant to discourage.
But remember: a carbon tax is only the beginning.

After more than three decades, this is Kenneth Davidson’s last weekly column. He will now appear on the last Monday of each month.

February 28 2011

The Gillard Government’s announcement that there will be a price set on carbon from July 1 2012 has been met with caution by farmers.

The Government has recognised the complexities faced by farmers and has guaranteed that the sector’s direct emissions will not be covered under the proposed cap and trade scheme.

“Nonetheless, farmers will still be disadvantaged by increased costs,” Tasmanian Farmers and Graziers Association chief executive Jan Davis said today.

“Farm emissions may be exempt from the tax, but we are under no illusion that this will insulate us from the impacts of a carbon price. In fact, it won’t. Farmers are exposed to many energy and energy-related costs, including electricity, fuel and fertilizer,” Ms Davis said.

“These are all fundamental to farming and will soar under the proposal. With no compensation available to offset these rises, and little ability to pass on cost increases, farmers will yet again be expected to take the hit.

“While we support the concept of accounting to the environment for emissions, our fundamental disagreement is that Australia is stealing the march on the tax and an emission trading system, ahead of our major trading competitors.

“The danger is that, while we may feel warm and fuzzy inside, we will be hung out to dry in international markets.”

Ms Davis said this was at a time when Tasmanian farmers were expected to increase their productivity and diversify their businesses to help meet the target of a 70 per cent increase in production by 2050 to keep feeding the world.

“The Government has to ensure that farmers are not hindered in meeting that objective,” she said.

“Australia’s farmers are world-renowned as leaders in high quality, efficient and sustainable food and fibre production. Recently the Federal Department of Climate Change and Energy Efficiency reported that Australian farmers had cut their emissions by 64 per cent in the last 20 years.

“Farmers have to have a seat at that table in developing the yet-to-be-seen detail around this proposal to ensure our farmers’ future – and Australia’s food production – is secure.”

Last year, a Tasmanian research survey found that 78 per cent of the Tasmanian farmers who were interviewed said they had a social responsibility to reduce carbon emissions on their farms, but that they shouldn’t be financially penalised for doing that.

“There’s a fair degree of equity attached to that view,” Ms Davis said.

“You will recall that another study, by Tamar Natural Resource Management, found that Tasmanian farms were, at worst, carbon neutral, but more often net sequesters of carbon.”