It finally happened

After back stabbing, vacuous argument and dithering for long enough for us to have been in and out of the next ice age, and despite (or perhaps because of) a hung parliament, yesterday Australian politicians passed a carbon pricing bill through the lower house by a couple of votes.

Champagne all round for the warmers, gnashing of teeth for the deniers and plenty of “why did they do that?” from the majority of the populace more concerned with their own stuff.

And a wry smile from the historians, for this is truly a moment for them to record.

It is the point at which a conservative country in a remote corner of the western world, bound to a colonial past that created significant wealth by exploiting natural resources, made a tentative, but hugely symbolic step towards accounting for externalities.

A brown economy allowed its politicians to introduce a policy that starts to capture the hidden environmental costs of doing business. Those costs that never make it onto the company accounts, the externalities, or what the policy people prefer to call spillover effects.

On the balance sheets of 500 companies and organisations with the largest greenhouse gas emissions there will now be a line item that will show they have made payments for an environmental impact. Not from a point of pollution into the creek that runs by their factory, or for installing mufflers to counteract machine noise, or the filters and scrubbers to remove particulates from the smoke stack, but for an invisible and diffuse environmental effect.

Truly this is historic.

And what history will record is that on 12th October 2011 Australia made its move down the road of major economic reform. It started the process of converting from a fossil fuel based economy with centralized energy infrastructure built with entrenched investment structures; to a fluid, entrepreneurial, environment friendly era of economic development.

And this happened because it realized that even though a capitalist system fits the human psyche like a glove, capitalism is not sustainable unless profit is real. It cannot be profit declared by hiding costs in the environment. For, in the end, the environment stops absorbing those costs and closes down, cutting off production.

There will, of course, be u-turns and moments of doubt about this historic decision. There will also be kick back from the old ways that claim emissions are just hot air. And those claims may turn out to be true.

Only this path is as inevitable as peak oil, because even if it’s not about emissions, it is about knowing and accounting the true environmental costs of doing business.

Only then we can live well and live within our means.

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