Can you be too green?

Back in 2009 the Australian Greens helped the opposition to vote down the then Labour governments Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme legislation. They said that it was weak on emission reduction targets; the proposed 5% was too distant from the minimum 25% the Greens wanted.

Now, as a much weaker carbon-tax-to-trading-scheme hybrid proposal is debated, they are prepared to compromise.  The Greens propose to accept a modest carbon price prior to a ramp up later. This is the very same approach they previously rejected. The fundamental premise of a cap-and-trade system is to manipulate supply and demand in a way that changes behaviour. The only difference with the current proposal is it begins with a clunky and hugely unpopular new tax.

After years of delay that has seen debate erode policy options and scarify public support, the Greens are agreeing to an option that is even less likely to achieve the outcomes they support.

It is time to call them on this blunder. Back in 2009 their inability to see that effective climate change policy is a long play, tipped the result over to inaction. Structural economic transitions never happen overnight. Economies adjust, they do not jump, and any policy that forces change too rapidly risks collapsing the system. Wise policy recognizes this and finds a more gentle and expedient path. The rough edges of a CPRS are a compromise worth taking to achieve smooth transition.

In 2009 the Greens missed this reality. The risk they take this time is to botch it again. They may accept the tax now only to balk again at the emission targets set in any subsequent trading scheme. Do so and decades of hard work progressing the environment into the public psyche and onto the political agenda will be undone.

Politicians of all hues need to understand that climate change policy is a once in a millennium opportunity. And for the Greens a carbon market will inject serious funds into the environment and begin the long and necessary process of business accounting for environmental costs. How else, other than through a market approach, will we see manufacturing, development and energy accounting for natural environmental services.

Perhaps when oil hits US$300 a barrel and our continued carbon intensity cripples our exports we will look back to 2009 and say, if only.  Let’s hope the same will not be said of 2011.

Lest we forget

April 25 each year is a public holiday down under and every Australian knows why. It is ANZAC day, a time to remember the brave and courageous soldiers who lost their lives in war. Many thousands attend dawn services across the country come rain or shine.

Australians also know about the Easter and Christmas holidays when many a shrimp finds its way onto a barbie. A fair number also know the religious significance that prompts these days of leisure.

Earth Hour is not a holiday but it is a similar sort of homage, this time to the environment. It began in Australia and is now a global gesture toward restraint in our appetite for energy. There is not a holiday for the environment though. So World Environment Day (5th June) passes without notice; as do the minor events such as World Tree Day (18th September).

There is strong public opinion that the environment is important. Not long after the 2006 release of the documentary movie, The Inconvenient Truth, that went on to make over US$50 million worldwide, action on climate change was palpable. People in Australia took to the streets, “take action,” they said.

Since that time there has been policy paralysis.

Unable to handle lobby group pressure, fearful of what might happen to a carbon intense economy fueled by minerals revenue and coal-fired energy, and an unwillingness to take the real issues to the public, the politicians have achieved nothing.

Initially there was goodwill. Australia signed up to the Kyoto protocol in Bali and there was bi-partisan talk of a market mechanism to price carbon. But the greens said it was not enough and the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme was voted down. An odd call that.

The topic was rested.

Then there was failure in Copenhagen, little more in Cancun and deathly quiet over the prospects for Johannesburg. Leverage for the true believers has faded. The vacuum has been filled in part by skeptics, not about the science per se, but about the need to do anything about emissions. And the public seem to have forgotten what all the calls for policy initiatives were about.

We don’t remember that the idea was to become less emission intensive through energy conservation and shifts to alternative energy sources; perhaps even sequester some carbon into the landscape. It has also been convenient to forget that, given the way our economy works, a trading scheme was a handy mechanism to achieve these goals.

We also see to have forgotten that signing up to Kyoto means setting an emission reduction target. As at 2007 emissions were 597 million tCO2e or 77 million tCO2e more than the 5% reduction on 1990 levels. And emissions will, notwithstanding economic slowdowns, rise and grow the actual tonnage of reductions required in the absence of a policy to reverse the trend. Or, of course, Australia could renege on even a modest target.

The noise over a carbon tax is just a smokescreen, a handy way to keep the real policy issues hidden. Perhaps this is because a focused debate, something that talks about what was asked for, would remind us of what we may have forgotten. That a few short years ago most people wanted something done about the challenge of climate change.

Perhaps we should have a climate day, make it a holiday and then we will not forget.

Don’t argue the mechanism, set the target

The UK Prime Minister David Cameron surprised everyone this week by proposing to write into law a 50% emission reduction target over 1990 levels by 2025.  A bold step perhaps, albeit one that serves his political ends as much as benefiting the atmosphere. The audacious move even managed to leave the environmentalists with nothing to argue about. Mr Cameron probably allowed himself a wry smile into his shaving mirror.

Naturally there is a get out of jail free card in the form of a review in 2014 to see if other European nations have followed the lead. Plus UK emissions are already 23% lower than 1990 thanks to initiatives on easily achieved reductions. Yet no one doubts the ambition, for it will become increasingly harder to close in on the target.

So why did Cameron impose such a mission on a country with an ailing economy and huge government debt requiring draconian actions to cut public spending? Because there is nothing like a mission impossible to galvanise people; a collective cause get people fired up enough to take action, innovate and embrace risk.

Cameron has taken a gamble. Success will see UK business change to be more efficient and grow new sectors in innovation, especially in clean energy, and the gamble is that a mature economy has the smarts to achieve it. Plus he has the market mechanism of the EU ETS and an electorate who already understand the cause. The downside is that cause may not be strong enough to ignite passions and the target too distant and potentially too costly. On balance though, what appears bold is solid politics and an understanding that transition to a less carbon intensive economy is inevitable; in short, leadership.

Not so surprising this week were opinion poll numbers in Australia.

The Prime Minister Julia Gillard is currently less popular and the Labour Party primary vote is lower than when the jitters struck and the party ousted her predecessor and she became Prime Minister almost a year ago. The pollsters take is that the Australian public is not listening anymore and they don’t want a carbon tax. Only it would be suicide for the government and the party to capitulate again. Somehow, someone somewhere has to come up with a policy on emissions.

The problem is that, unlike the UK, Australia is in a time of plenty. It may feel precarious to be so reliant on a resources boom and there are fiscal challenges, not least the effect of a strong currency on trade exposed sectors, but really, these are good times. And in good times mighty challenges have trouble finding traction. Any call for a ‘fight on the beaches’ spirit just sounds odd. So instead of a cause we have a 5% emission reduction target, a laughable proportion already massively exceeded by the UK.

Now suppose the PM embraced the risk and made a 50% emission reduction by 2025 her carbon policy. Forget the tax for the moment, go back to basics and set the target.

Such a policy has meaning, can be explained and provides the context for any number of mechanisms to achieve the result. The debate can then be about the most efficient way to reach the target.

Success would see Australia emit 225 MtCO2e in 2025.

In reality this will be a net emission, combining emission reductions and sequestration. Quietly amongst the ‘great big new tax’ spin the Carbon Credits (Carbon Farming Initiative) Bill 2011 is in front of parliament, the mechanics of a domestic carbon offset scheme that could see 20 MtCO2e per annum sequestered by the agricultural sector alone.

Take a punt on this offset option, educate for energy saving, keep the feed in tariffs, even try a CPS style market instrument and the target is achievable. And, best of all, the electorate will understand why it was all necessary.

Who knows, the public might even respond to such leadership in the polls.


It is often said that the end cannot justify the means. This adage comes for the logic that an immoral act is an immoral act irrespective of when it occurs or for what reason.

The other day I witnessed an argument that left me thinking how this is adage is rarely applied.

The discussion began over a conservation problem that is becoming widespread in the eucalyptus forests of eastern Australia. Mature canopy trees are dying from infestations of sap sucking insects that proliferate to reach huge numbers sufficient to defoliate the tree. This explosion of insects and damage to leaves happens where a bird species, the bell miner, is abundant.

Rather than eat the insects, bell miners eat the sugary lurps that the scale insects use to protect themselves – it is a little like harvesting, for the insects regrow the lurp that covers them and the birds come round again.

Bell miners are aggressive birds and chase away other species. This lowers the predation rate on the insects that, over time, means more insects. The insects feed on the leaves that eventually succumb. When the trees loose too many leaves they die back. The process has been given an acronym BMAD; bell miner associated dieback.

Bell miners do well in disturbed forests suit because they like the dense undergrowth that comes when a forest is altered by fire, logging or other human interference.

Once established the best way to slow the spread of BMAD is active management involving the removal of shrubs. This means suppression through mechanical means, sometimes fire or, more usually, the application of herbicides.

These are drastic interventions of the kind that the conservation movement opposes with religious fervor. Only BMAD is far worse. So even among the ardent conservationists it has been accepted that intervention to remove shrubs is necessary. It is acceptable to manage with interventions of herbicide a habitat that was disturbed.

All good so far. The argument came of over the next issue.

Someone made the comment that ecologically endangered communities could be managed for improvement.

‘No, no, no you cannot do that’ was the indignant cry. ‘You cannot mess with an EEC, you just can’t.’

It was seen as a morally abhorrent suggestion. If something is designated as endangered it is suddenly untouchable.

But why not actively manage? Is it not exactly the same as the intervention proposed to tackle BMAD. In that thorny issue the end justified the means. But the same means cannot be applied to an EEC.

So in the real everyday world we have selective morality.

No surprise perhaps, but it makes you wonder what grounds our logic if its not a sense of morals.