That’s Africa

Okavango Africa.jpgLast Wednesday night I tuned in to the ABC News24 coverage of the memorial service for Nelson Mandela expecting somber reverence or perhaps the kind of party that only Africans can do.

I should have known it would be something else.

The start was delayed by the requirement for every dignitary to make his or her own special entrance aided by typically inept African organizing but, conveniently, heavy rain could take the blame.

And nobody seemed to mind.

Filling in the airtime was anther matter. The ABC wheeled in a former activist who had struggled against the apartheid regime and then escaped [long before Mandela was released] to become an Australian citizen.

Unfortunately he was sadly bitter. His deep hurt and anger had travelled with him and he still had it in spades. His comments ran as though the oppressors were still oppressing and Nelson Mandela had not existed.  This attitude of hatred and recrimination was exactly what Mandela knew he had to diffuse. The miracle was that through courage and compassion he did it for a nation, but sadly not for this exile.

Quickly we abandoned the ABC and its disrespectful commentator and streamed the coverage.

You had to laugh out loud at the antics.

There were the random guys in the foyer as the dignitaries arrived. These are the traditional ‘hangers around’ that are everywhere in Africa, who obviously had nothing to do but hang around. Presumably they had security clearance… presumably.

There was an extraordinary performance by a gospel cum rap singer trying desperately to energise the crowd to God by being energetic himself. As his antics became more and more exuberant another random guy assigned to hold an umbrella over the singer was finding it more and more difficult to complete his assigned task. He was stoic and hugely comical as he did his best.

Then there was the huge amusement of Ban Ki Moon claiming the applause of another African dignitary as the latter ascended the stage to be embarrassingly ignored by the UN Secretary General.

President Obama showed how to calm the restless crowd with an impassioned speech that closed in on the truth of what Mandela gave us. Cleverly he still managed a sly dig at the current crop of African leaders who cannot hold a candle anywhere near the father of the nation. Only he spoilt it later by helping the Danish PM take a selfie — and we thought only Kevin Rudd did that.

And there were the boos for President Jacob Zuma. Not, as I thought at the time, because there was politics even at the memorial service for one of the world’s greatest, but because he had not made the day a public holiday. Fair enough, he deserves a slap for that.

Then we ran out of steam and let the remaining hours of the ceremony go.

The bit we watched was classic Africa, full of cheer, cheek and irreverence layered over famously sloppy organization. It rained and was obviously cold, went on for hours, and still the people danced to celebrate a great life.

I reckon Madiba was watching all the antics as proud as punch with his famous smile lighting up the heavens.

Farming not fracking

land-clearing-farmingStrolling through the village, as you do on a sunny winter’s Saturday morning, is a real treat.  It is a privilege just to take in the bustle of folk going about their weekend business — buying the paper, greeting a neighbor or settling down for coffee with friends serenaded by a teenager with a guitar and dreams of fame and fortune from his songs. This is why we are so fond of community.

Abruptly my reverie was rudely broken.

“No thank you,” I said to a brusque individual who ambushed me from behind the ‘vote green’ placards that were cluttering the pavement. The pamphlet purveyor was most indignant at my refusal and gave me the death stare. If that had happened in the playground it would have been called bullying.

I strolled on by and observed both the wave of annoyance that passed over me, and the slogan on one of the placards that read ‘ farming not fracking’.

For the uninitiated fracking is the controversial process of getting gas from coal seams by injecting fluid into deep rock layers to fracture them. This releases the pressure that holds onto the gas. Once free the gas can be piped to the surface. It is similar physics that happens when the seal is broken on a soda bottle and bubbles start to rise.

The Greens are on to fracking because it is another nasty resource exploitation process that results in burning of yet more fossil fuels, risks pollution of groundwater or local subsidence, and worst of all, will displace farmers from the land. Not all land, but the land gas companies might buy to exploit the gas reserves beneath the paddocks.

No matter that in greenhouse gas terms natural gas is cleaner than the coal that will be burnt instead to meet growing energy demand, that boreholes have always coexist with farming, and that legislation already prevents anything nasty being used as the lubricant.

As a slogan ‘farming not fracking’ is just silly. It is not even the issue.

Deliver it with a ‘holier than thou’ look on your face and even your supporters will cringe. Everyone else will tell you to take a hike, probably far less politely.

How about this instead?

We don’t like fracking or exploitation of coal seam gas so we have come up with this solution.

The energy that would have come from gas can be generated from alternative sources [solar, wind, wave, geothermal] plus some savings from improved energy efficiency. Both initiatives could be resourced from a small but compulsory ‘no fracking’ investment of say $500 from every household in the country — this one-off payment from everyone  would raise roughly $4 billion.

The return on investment is twofold. Cheap energy in the long run as alternative sources would get over the commercial hump and there will be environmental benefits from avoiding pollution risk. Plus, there would be lower greenhouse gas emissions from the soon to be necessary shift to alternative energy sources again saving money on transition costs.

All this for the annual expenditure to households of one weekly coffee and cake in the village.

The pamphleteer would probably look at me aghast and blurt out, “You mean to ask people to give up their Saturday morning coffee and cake, what are you thinking?”

Then he would spontaneously take up the chant “farming not fracking, farming not fracking…”

And no doubt the young songwriter could weave it all into a lyric.

Spillage

The ghost of Abraham Maslov would be having a chuckle right now, or maybe a wry smile at a spectacular confirmation of his hierarchy of needs theory played out in Australian politics. Elected members of the Australian Labour Party so frightened for their psychological health at the prospect of losing their jobs, last night rolled the first woman prime minister in favour of the previous prime minister they rolled when they were feeling a bit more secure.

The short version of events is that Kevin Rudd was elected prime minister in 2007 on a majority. His colleagues deposed him in 2010 in favour of Julia Gillard who, despite starting with a healthy lead in the polls, returned after the 2010 election to lead a minority government in a hung parliament. She and the party fell so far behind in popularity that all seemed lost. The upcoming election would see a wipeout so severe that it would hand power the opposition for several terms. So, almost at the eleventh hour, the party spilled her out to put Kevin Rudd back in. And yes it is farcical — you are probably surprised that it’s not in the alloporus “sounds crazy” series.

Only Dr Maslov has a perfectly sensible explanation. We all fill the safety and security buckets of our emotional hierarchy before the self-actualization one that holds morality, lack of prejudice and acceptance of facts. When the position is precarious self-preservation automatically sets in. We allow ourselves to put aside what, in the good times, we espoused. We do what it takes to save the ship from sinking.

Clearly some of the motivation behind changing the collective mind on who should be in charge [again] came from the need of individuals to survive, to keep their jobs. No doubt this was part of it. Except that we heard many times in the brief lead up to the leadership spill that it was “in the best interests of the party” and “the best interests of the nation”.

Obviously the party benefits if it goes into damage limitation to maybe reduce the margin of defeat at the election or even have an outside chance of a win. Loose by a few seats and recovery can be swift. Loose many and history tells you that it will take many election cycles before those seats are recovered. So if it has to lose, the party benefits by limiting the margin of defeat.

But why does the nation benefit? Well the conventional wisdom is that in party democracies, good government requires a strong opposition and that usually means a two party system. The public gets to pick one of two options — one to govern and the other to ‘keep the bastards honest”.

Sounds sensible enough. Only the smell of self-preservation in this argument is strong. In the long run the two party option favours both parties — check out the hilarious Spitting Image skit below where the Margaret Thatcher and Neil Kinnock puppets explain the logic.

The two party system can work if the process of ‘keeping honest’ produces innovation, new ideas and ideologies that match the circumstances of the day. The parties evolve with the times.

The spillage Australians witnessed last night was because this did not happen. Going back to the future was the consequence of a failure to evolve to cope with the needs of the day. The incumbent and her cabinet did not deliver enough policies that worked for the majority of people. And even when policies did work the government failed to communicate the benefits. They lost the trust of enough of the electorate to suggest a massive election loss and with no more time to get it right the party decided change was the only option they had.

Failure can often look chaotic. It became bizarre because Kevin Rudd was still around to get his old job back and that in itself is telling. If he really was a bad prime minister who dithered, back-flipped and regularly lost the plot with his staff and colleagues, then giving him another go confirms the desperation.

What might send us all cascading down the hierarchy of needs though is that Rudd was still the best option in a two party system.

 

Environmental values | A national park should be a national park

EucalyptusForestMany years ago I was driving along a dirt road in rural Zimbabwe.

We had been following a game fence for several miles, a formidable veldspan barrier between a tired looking patchwork of withered maize fields, goats, and clusters of rondavels out the passenger window, and the intact open woodland of a game reserve on the driver’s side.

Dirt roads allow plenty of time to take in the scenery and I couldn’t help but notice how one of my fellow passengers, a former student recently appointed to the wildlife department as a trainee scout, was so captivated by it. Not the savanna with its prospects of a kudu bull framed by an acacia thicket, an elephant ambling along ready to tug at the sweetest smelling grass tussock, or maybe even a leopard draped across the bow of a marula tree; no he watched with great intent the farmland.

“Which do you like best,” I asked him, “the savanna or the lands?” He looked back across at me with eyes wide, forehead furrowed and cheeks raised and said nothing. He turned back to his left to look out of the window and said softly “the lands”.

It was not the only time during a decade in Africa, that included the great fortune of visits to half a dozen countries, where the locals made it very clear how important agricultural land was to their very soul. Fields and pastures are, after all, the source of sustenance to us all and a place of protection and community. Human modification of the wild and dangerous savanna into safer and more comfortable countryside is the achievement that founded our ongoing numerical and lifestyle success.

In the west we sometimes pretend that the wild mountains, forests and windswept moors are our places of true beauty, but actually we too have quite the soft spot for farmland. Countryside would end up as a more popular choice for most than wilderness. Even the words themselves evoke opposites: cozy comfort aside inglenook fireplaces with a slice of apple pie, or gray skies, damp smells and wind that howls.

Given these deep and innate responses it’s no surprise that there is a conflict over what to do with wild areas. Should we set some aside and then keep out of them to be what they are as unfettered cauldrons for nature? Or should we designate them and, with a calming hand, mollify all that that wildness? After all we are under more pressure that ever to make every hectare of the land productive and available to yield fuel and raw materials for our voracious economic engines.

Australia is slipping into the midst of this conundrum.

After many decades of increasing environmental protection with laws set to slow or stop landscape modification, restrict pollution, and set aside close to 7% of the land [529,380 km2] as conservation areas, change is afoot. State governments in Victoria, Queensland, and NSW are variously allowing areas designated as national parks to be used by recreational hunters, mineral prospectors, graziers and even foresters.

Whatever your politics, hunting, livestock grazing, digging big holes and cutting down trees do seem rather odd activities to allow within a national park. Remember that the majority of these areas are either rugged and remote [part of their initial charm] or unproductive for all the usual commercial things we like to do. Allowing them environmental value seems to make perfect sense.

There is also the important ecological reality that once an area of land is grazed by livestock, or cleared, or a road cut through it, or big holes dug into it, then it will never again be as it was. Our modifications are irreversible.

We can [and should] restore landscape after the effects of our worst excesses but, by definition, we cannot return a landscape to pristine wilderness. All we can do is set areas aside for nature to be and preferably areas that we have not messed up too much already.

Recognition of environmental value, so that each set aside area has meaning, is a really smart thing to do.

Yet in doing so we are at odds with our instinct for the safe place that is productive. We all want to look to the left of the dusty road at the brown stalks of the harvested mealies just as the young wildlife scout did, because at core we are all control freaks. We are desperate to keep the nastiness of nature at bay and make the land safe and productive for our families — something inside says that that wild wood must be tamed. Let’s send in the guns, the herders and the chainsaws.

Only we are better than this. Surely there is enough in us to recognize that we do not have to be afraid of lions or wolves anymore and we can let some small proportion of the planet be close to what it was before we swarmed across it.

And surely we don’t have to go back to the trenches of environmental warfare where passion to protect and equal passion to exploit creates sides that throw dirty grenades at each other and the only winner is the peddler of vitriol.

For goodness sake let a national park be a national park.

Sounds Crazy #3 | Baby bonus

Newborn babyEvery hour of every day there are enough babies born to ensure that the global human population grows by 8,000 souls. In a week there are newborns enough to use up half a million disposable diapers a day. Human instinct to make more is a strong as ever. The net result is that we are not short of people.

Now lets switch the focus to one country, a developed one.

Around 22.6 million people call Australia home. Many of these people were born elsewhere or are the children of immigrants. Indeed Australia has a diverse populace and is justly proud of its multicultural tolerance. Most inner city primary schools can claim 20 or more first languages among their students, the result of a liberal immigration policy that has seen more than 7 million people arrive from all around the world since 1945.

Current immigration is around 180,000 per year. This rate ensures that the population grows and labour is available for economic activity.

Devotees of the economic growth gods would say this population growth is essential because people buy goods and services. It is hard to keep the economy moving when everyone has a house full of white goods. A growing population maintains demand for houses and fridges.

But if it is people that you want then there are many more around the world itching for a visa to enter Australia, many more than are granted permission. Some of them can’t wait and try to access the back door.

Most Australians see themselves as egalitarian, believing that people are people, apologizing for past intolerance of indigenous peoples, accepting of modern differences and building a society from people of many cultural backgrounds. And given a history of immigration and multiculturalism would accept the logic of immigration at rates sufficient to support economic growth

But here is the crazy thing. Government policy since 2002 has been to pay Australians to have babies.

It’s called the baby bonus and gives parents $5,000 per eligible child paid in 13 fortnightly instalments.

Why encourage, at significant cost to the taxpayer, more babies when we have so many already?

I wonder what you think the real reason is?

The heart of the matter

This article was written back in 2010 and was published online on The Climate Spectator. Nearly three years on it still makes fascinating reading as the rhetoric ramps up ahead of the federal election.

rocky shore NSWRecently the NSW Natural Resources Commissioner, Dr John Williams, hosted a workshop in Canberra on resilience thinking that was attended by a platoon of scientists, agency staffers and consultants, all concerned about the environment.

In his opening remarks, the Commissioner urged the participants to consider a simple enough question: What matters most?

A ripple went around the room as things that matter jostled for space in everyone’s head. No doubt thoughts of happiness, love, friendship, the mortgage and a few thoughts we don’t usually admit to arrived, and it was clear that there was not just one thought. The one thing that mattered did not appear instantly to everyone.

Caught as we are in the policy vacuum on climate change, with backflips and peculiar ideological positions to frustrate us, it might be useful to ask the same question of the climate change debate: What matters most?

Those representing heavy emitters will cry that exposure, unnecessary liability and uncertainty matter. Few of us like threats to business as usual. However, some exposed businesses have used climate change as an opportunity. We have all been offered the option to offset a flight or visit a carbon neutral office, where the most important thing is to be seen to be doing something good. Catastrophe can make for great PR, and so matters most, but for very different reasons.

Unless you install roofing insulation, climate change is of little consequence to small business. There is not much beyond the upward creep in the quarterly energy bill to keep your attention away from more pressing issues of cashflow, customers and the late arrival of a key staffer.

A couple of years ago, the general public in Australia thought climate change itself mattered most. They even elected a new government with a Prime Minister who claimed it was “the biggest moral challenge of our time”. Today polling suggests the majority see climate change as just another opportunity for politicians to renege on a promise. And a third of them think we should not pay a cent to fix it.

Climate scientists, at least those gathered under the banner of the IPCC, reached a consensus that greenhouse gas emissions matter most. Concentrations of gases that absorb reflected radiation, the atmospheric blanket that makes life as we understand it possible, were the key regulators of climate. Human activity was upsetting the delicate balance of greenhouse gas composition and we needed to stop that or risk catastrophic warming.

Emissions matter most because they lead to warming that puts more energy into the cyclical systems of atmosphere and ocean, changing the pattern of circulation, making it wetter, drier, and perhaps more stormy on an increasingly voluminous ocean. In short, having some very specific local climate effects.

The diplomats at the UNFCCC thought this mattered too, but not as much as the necessary diplomacy. So they negotiated at length to agree that net emission reductions matter, but that we need to negotiate some more to agree on the reduction targets and how to achieve them. Clearly, among the policy makers, it is debate that matters most.

Ask residents on the beach front at Byron Bay the question and it’s all about saving their homes from storms. They may not even know that warming will raise sea levels and may make some storm surges more acute, for it has always mattered that the ocean was only a wave away from your beachfront retreat. Save a thought for the 200 million citizens of Bangladesh on the Ganges delta who don’t even know that sea level rise matters most to them.

Irrigators along the Murray River in NSW who, despite having a legal license to extract water, have not seen any reach them for a long time, have another answer. What matters most to them is the real prospect of losing their livelihood altogether.

Clearly, there are as many things that matter most about climate change as if we had asked the question without the qualifier. Climate change is a threat and an opportunity, a challenge and a risk. For some it is real, but for most of us it is not the most important thought in our heads. So perhaps what matters most is not climate change at all.

Perhaps we have missed the real risk, the real challenge that we face, and the hint of what that is comes from all these specific concerns. What matters most is that we have the capacity to adapt and transform to a changing world.

It is critical that we give ourselves the flexibility to make our food production more efficient, ensure our environments will deliver all the services we take for granted and that our economic and social structures remain viable as they transition.

It also matters that we act on that capacity now, for the world is changing rapidly. The shifting climate just makes some of the inevitable the changes more acute and immediate. None of this should be a surprise, given that there are now close to seven billion souls trying to fix what matters most to them.

———

Here in April 2013 I am not sure if the timelessness of the sentiment in this article is what matters most.

Perhaps we should get our arses in gear.

Protecting Mother Nature

“We must protect mother nature from our worst excesses” is the headline of an article in the Enquirer section of The Weekend Australian this week.

The tagline “We can raise our living standards without destroying the natural world” introduces an opinion piece about growing human numbers and our deepening psychological motivation to keep up with the Joneses. Two things that are leaving us with stress and putting strain on the environment. And yet the ”wonderland of nature” is still there to us inspire the spirit. Natural glories abound that should garner our respect and “a determination to protect Mother Earth from our worst excesses.”

All good stuff you would think.

There are posts a plenty on this blog and by many thousands of other bloggers saying pretty much the same thing. Hey, it is even the main tenet of my latest book Missing Something.

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Missing Something | get your print on demand copy from Amazon or download a paperless version Missing Something Kindle Edition.

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So why mention this piece from the sunday paper? Well, the curious thing is that the article is attributed to Craig Emerson, the federal Minister for Trade and Competitiveness in the struggling Labour government.

Now if the juxtaposition of topic and source doesn’t make you smile, then it is worth remembering that the newspaper is as brown as it gets [being owned by News Limited is a bit of a give away] and is always sticking the knife into anything with a green hue.

Clearly the editor was having a laugh and providing a great gotcha opportunity to catch the hapless minister sometime later in the election year.

It is shameful that the sordid media cycle and political agendas do this to such important ideas. We do need to be more mindful of nature, more concerned about our exploitation of natural resources, and even to take time out to feel the wonder for ourselves.

What the Minister did, apart from being suckered, was miss the opportunity. It is not enough to say that there are now very many of us putting the environment under pressure, we have to confess to our dysfunctional desire to exploit and find the emotional fortitude to think before we act.

Maybe my lesson was to enjoy the chuckle I had at reading a green rant from a trade minister and leave it at that.

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It is true, I do have a new book that is all about how we perceive natural resources and those wonders of nature.

Check out a description here or better still order a print-on-demand copy of Missing Something from Amazon or download the Amazon Kindle edition of Missing Something right now.

The elephant in the bathroom may have farted

elephant02Well it would seem that somebody close to the policy makers might have noticed the elephant in the bathroom.

This week an article in the Financial Review talked of a carbon tax budget hole that could be $4 billion deep thanks to a carbon price that might not continue to rise after the fixed price period after all.

Blind Freddie can’t help but chuckle and the elephant’s stomach rumbles with contentment.

It seems that there has been some new modeling of the carbon price beyond the fixed price period on behalf of Australia’s Climate Change Authority. The numbers suggest a “fall from July 2015 to $10.72 a tonne”.

This should be no surprise given the current European market prices are hovering around $5 tCO2e — this difference from $23 per tCO2e and rising to the reality of current market price is the elephant standing quietly next to the bassinette.

Now if you are a government that has been struggling to get the balance sheet back in the black because it was one of the core things you promised to do, then $4 billion less revenue is a problem. Especially given that the carbon price policy was hugely unpopular in the first place and will continue to give you trouble in an election year.

If it was just a revenue shortfall [$10 instead of $23+ per tCO2e] that probably wouldn’t be too bad. Only the revenue is already either spent or committed, mainly to ease the pain for exposed industries and for consumers, making a market price dip in 2015 a double whammy.

Awkward for the Australian government but stayers among carbon traders in Europe are not too worried. The say it is just what markets do, they will show price volatility around long-term trends. And just now the price is low. Later it will rise again, not least because this is a regulated market designed specifically to manipulate credit supply to raise the price and reduce demand. Like all markets, success comes from the long play.

Then there is another thing that the elephant symbolizes.

Remember that the carbon price is for a permit to emit and fewer permits purchased mean fewer carbon emissions. This was the policy objective: to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases by making it more expensive to emit than the alternatives.

And as President Obama brings action on climate change to the State of the Union address, it will be hard to ditch the policy now. So here are a couple of options given we can see the elephant.

Ostrich option | Bury the report or, if the electorate cotton on, spin it like a fury.

After all 2015 is a long way off. There is plenty of time for anything to happen, perhaps even something positive. Remind yourself of the positivity of the ballsy carbon traders and wait. In the meantime, do whatever is possible to make the whole thing go away.

Be a honey badger | take hold of the policy, believe in it and shake it hard.

The idea of a carbon price was that it should deliver behavior change and make Australia less carbon intensive.  So embrace that and with the tenacity of a honey badger stick with it. Allow an aggressive permit allocation limit, ease the coupling to the EU carbon market by changing the proportion of credits emitters can source from overseas and explain why to consumers. There is no reason that the domestic market cannot have a higher carbon price than elsewhere other than the fear of ceding competitive advantage.

In short, show leadership.

Now there is a thing.

Dangerously quiet

King Parrot, NSWIt has been 23 months since the NSW Labour government left office after more than 16 years in power.

Normally when a left leaning administration is replaced by a right leaning one the inevitable shift in attitude to nature and natural resources would galvanize the environmental movement.

When hard won conservation legislation, planning rules and funding for environmental management are chipped away there might be an objection, some resistance, or at least some verbal argument. Only there has been very little noise.

No great shouts against the inching away from protection — not even allowing shooting in national parks seemed to get a reaction.

Only the nationally significant issue of coal seam gas, particularly how it will be extracted and the possible impact on farmers, seems to have stirred the pot.

Regular readers will know that alloporus is not overtly green — a regular guy who owns a car, takes plane rides, watches a plasma TV and wrote a book called “Awkward news for Greenies” has little moral ground to claim great environmental advocacy. Yet this quiet is eerie — makes you wonder.

Is it the calm before the storm, the tirade that must hit when the environment is no longer considered?

Or is it something else? Perhaps there is no energy left. It could be that the era of loud advocacy has passed. Maybe the malaise of personal entitlement has swept across us all, even the card-carrying activists.

If it has then we have a problem. Whilst screaming from greenies is about as welcome as a crying baby in the quiet carriage of the commuter train, it performs a vital function.

It keeps the b—-ds honest

And when all that goes quiet it is dangerous for us all.

€0.40 per tCO2e | the elephant in the bathroom

Elephant-01I wonder what it would be like if there was an elephant in the bathroom given a  mature female African elephant weighs 2,000+ kg, stands over 2m at the shoulder and will drop 100 kg of dung in a day.

She is here folks, right here in the bathroom, the smallest room in the house. And she is so big that she could not hide even in her Majesties powder room.

€0.40 per tCO2e

There she is, wafting her trunk gently from side to side, chewing quietly on some acacia bark.

€0.40 per tCO2e

Can you see her yet? Did you hear her stomach rumble?

€0.40 per tCO2e

Oh yes, there she is. The market mechanism designed to make alternative energy sources more attractive by making greenhouse gas emissions expensive.

Remember, emissions are permitted but only so many of them and you need to buy a permit for some or all of them. These permits cost you money. You can buy offsets against those permits from energy efficient projects, even from projects that reduce emissions from land management, and these would be cheaper than the permits and so create an opportunity for trade.

Only to achieve the outcome of overall emission reduction the offsets cannot be too cheap, otherwise what is the incentive to change your emission profile? That, after all, is an expensive thing to do.

€0.40 per tCO2e

If you would like to read about how not to see this elephant, for after all an elephant in the bathroom makes taking a shower a challenge, try here

Time to save the global carbon markets