At the recent 20-20 talkfest – for that is all it was – a government arts spokesperson stated that Australia’s goal should be to “double its cultural output by the year 2020.” If ever there was an artistic mantra delivered by a bean counter, this has to be it. What does “doubling our cultural output” mean, except an affirmation that quantity is more important than quality? Pushed to absurdist limits, we can only assume that if there was a great Australian opera composer, called Merv Wagner, each of his Ring Cycle operas would have to last eight hours, instead of four. Or that T.E. Lawrence would write a personal testimony entitled “Fourteen Pillars of Wisdom”. Or yet that we would double the number of visual and performing artists, and somehow achieve this in a climate of savage cutbacks in arts budgets, thus leaving even more of our creative talents working full time on incomes below the official poverty line.
This is the danger of a mind-set which, if I may re-word an adage, sees “accountants rush in, where visionaries fear to tread.”
And when it comes to tackling greenhouse emissions and climate change it does appear that governments are turning not to visionaries, but to economists. It seems to me that if our government were seeking enlightenment as to what to do about our greenhouse emissions, Ross Garnaut was the wrong person to appoint as a guru. I do not question Professor Garnaut’s credentials as an economist, though it is perhaps sobering to reflect on the fact that, nearly 20 years ago, it was the same good professor who was instrumental in leading us down the path of privatisations which brought about the user-pays economic paradigm which sees us all governed by, and at the mercy of, corporate self-interest. A system whereby boardroom decisions, made by a few to benefit a few, are becoming increasingly unaffordable to all but a few.
To be fair, Professor Garnuat’s 537 page report, published back in July, did not shy away from delineating some very unpalatable home truths, but it is nevertheless clear that the report lacked the totality of understanding of the broader picture of greenhouse emissions. Instead, it focussed almost exclusively on the more obvious targets, the most visible being fossil fuel emissions from major industries such as power generation. Of course these have to be addressed, and urgently, but I must confess that I was astonished that in the whole report there was not one mention of methane, a greenhouse gas linked to primary industry (especially livestock), and methane is a far more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.
And where was there any elaboration on the seven anthropogenic nitrogen compounds, such as nitric acid and ammonia, depositions of which have increased five-fold in the past 100 years? These compounds produce acid rain, leach into soils and lead to eutrophication of lakes and river systems, and the most damaging of them, nitrous oxide, is a greenhouse gas with more than 300 times the greenhouse effect of carbon dioxide. Once again, these compounds are a product of primary industry, especially in the production of fertilisers, and as the causal link is so clear, any fully inclusive environmental report should have addressed ways and means of tackling the problem.
What the report did recommend – surprise, surprise – was the introduction of a system of carbon emissions trading, and this appears to be the platform, indeed the focal point, of current government thinking.
I have voiced my concerns about carbon trading for the past 17 years, and on several occasions have done so in this magazine. But as government policy is now out in the open, I humbly ask readers’ permission to revisit it one more time, even if I am – pardon the pun – raking over the coals.
Putting things into perspective, emissions trading does have a role to play, but it is only a small one in a much wider picture, and if it includes a stipulation that major polluters should be mandated to report their emission levels – as it does – then this is a very positive step. A step, however, which would be far better addressed if the end result was not the trading of permits, but a much simpler system of carbon taxes.
This is a point well made by Professor Jeffery Sachs, Director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, and one of the few economists whose environmental qualifications are respected worldwide. Sachs also notes that any solution to the problem of carbon emissions has to be global, and not confined within the boundaries of individual nations.
The implication of this is that governments which refuse to set emission reduction targets, simply because other countries (usually potential economic rivals) are doing likewise, are basically behaving like spoilt children. Of course India and China have to cut emissions, and fast, but so do America and Australia, and if Washington tells Beijing that “we won’t cut emissions until you do”, that’s about as infantile as singing “I don’t want to play in your yard”.
A clear illustration of this comes from Washington itself, where the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) spotted a loophole whereby it thought it could pressure the administration into a change of heart. The EPA’s principal mandate is to ensure that commercial endeavours do not impact on the environment in ways that can harm human health. Thus it has the power to conduct environmental impact studies, to prevent chemical plants being built in the vicinity of schools, and so on. In recent times, EPA officials have widened their horizon, and have actually stated that, in their view, climate change endangers human health, thus bringing the big picture within their sphere of influence.
However, the White House refused to accept this conclusion, and all the key stake holders toed the official line. These included – not surprisingly – the Secretary of State for Energy, and – sadly – the Environment Secretary. The office of the Vice President, Dick Cheney, has been influential in ‘re-reading’ the EPA officials’ recommendations, and Cheney himself has pressured those same officials into changing their statements.
From this we can see that even though the present administration has only days to run, it still thinks it is business as usual, and until either Obama or McCain is sworn in, the USA’s environmental agenda is still being dictated by the profit margins of the Halliburton Corporation. As recently as the 12th of July this year, President Bush argued that the Democrat controlled Congress should allow more oil drilling permits, including, and especially, in the Alaskan hinterland. The Democrats countered – correctly – that the focus should be on the 68 million acres already allocated to drilling permits, as this vast area has not been exploited to its full potential. Naturally, we all know that oil as a major energy source is now on death row, awaiting execution, but all the same, Congress’ point is well made, at least in the short term, and it would allow some breathing space while alternative energies are sourced and developed.
And this is happening. American investment in wind farms, for example, has increased fivefold since 2004, and whilst I believe wind power is of only limited application, and of relatively low efficiency, it can generate substantial megawattage in those areas where the topography and prevailing winds are suitable.
In fact, the word ‘wind’ gives us a clue as to why politicians and their economic advisers are being so silly with their “we won’t if you don’t” attitude to greenhouse emissions. Why? Because there is no such thing as ‘American air’, or ‘Chinese air’, or Indian or Australian. Every country’s emissions can impact on every other country, simply because air, like water, is mutable.
When Chernobyl went into melt-down 20 or so years ago, did the radioactivity conveniently sit over the Ukraine, and nowhere else? Of course not. The wind blew it over Scandinavia and acid rain fell on Germany’s Black Forest. When Krakatoa blew its top in 1883 the entire planet experienced darker skies and temperature reductions for two years, and the spectacular sunsets and sunrises continued for another ten. Tailings from goldmines and chemical factories, and effluent run-offs from farms, can and do travel down rivers and streams, into estuaries and oceans, and over time can find their way even to remote – and melting – Antarctica. Similarly, the smog blankets hovering over major Chinese cities can be wind-borne, via westerly air currents, across the Korean Peninsula, to Japan, and thence even to the USA, whilst the North East trade winds can carry American pollution across to China. This in a ‘normal’ year. During an El Nino event all this happens in reverse, but, obviously, the end result is exactly the same, and proof, if it were needed, that carbon and other emissions have to be treated as the ultimate global issue, and that all the major polluters have to pull their weight equally. Targets must be set; those targets must be meaningful and not just politically expedient cosmetic exercises, and all countries must synchronise their efforts, with pre-agreed starting dates.
Furthermore, companies, and for that matter entire nation states, should not go down the road of introducing emissions permits, because – as I have said before – these merely turn pollution into just another tradeable commodity, like nickel or pork bellies. Under this ridiculous system, a company which under-uses its permits can sell the surplus to another company, allowing it to pollute more. A country, such as Russia, where half the factories have been mothballed, and which therefore contributes fewer greenhouse emissions than it used to, can likewise trade its spare permits with countries whose economies encourage them to increase emissions, such as China or the USA.
Emissions trading, if used as the linchpin of government environmental policy, will accomplish nothing. In the short term, if anything, global emissions will increase; in the longer term the best we can expect is stasis, with levels remaining exactly the same, and any desirable notions of achieving a reduction to 60% of 1990 levels will be nothing more than a pipe dream.
Furthermore, the costs of complying with a system of carbon emissions permits would inevitably be handed down to the consumer. So, too, could the imposition of carbon taxes, but there are two ways in which to mitigate this.
The first – and quite achievable – is to inculcate a corporate philosophy which sees the major polluters using the same commercial models as they presently use to generate profits. By this I mean that they should view emissions reduction as a profit generating exercise. And it can be. If, for example, a company was given a pollution index of, say, 100, and its pollution was 100, then everything would stay the same. However, if it exceeded its index, and scored 110, it could be fined (a system of fines is more difficult to pass onto the consumer, as government watchdogs could, and probably would, intervene.) On the other hand, if it achieved a reduction to 88, it could be rewarded with a tax break. That would equate to an increase in profit, and an increased dividend to shareholders.
The second solution is more audacious, for it flies in the face of every economic model that has been adopted since the mid-1980s. It cannot apply to publicly listed commercial enterprises, such as gold and coal mining, but it can with respect to those industries which are – or were – public utilities. Energy and water supply are two of these, and if they were returned to public ownership then we could remove ‘shareholders’ from the equation, and replace them with ‘stakeholders’. And the principal stakeholder in public utilities is precisely the public those utilities have to serve.
Under this plan, power and water supply could operate as non-profit organisations, much as some health insurance companies do today. There would be no need to pass excessive costs onto consumers, as there would be no profit motive, and the companies could use those already-substantial revenues which they presently receive, and channel much larger proportions of them into cleaning up our water courses, establishing a viable national water grid, and adopting ever greener power generation solutions, including investment in those private companies which are presently developing truly exciting, and cleaner, technologies such as hot rock thermal exploration and tidal power.
All we have to do is persuade the economists of this, and that may not be easy, for while we seem hell-bent on relying on economists to come up with the answers, we should not forget that it was largely their advice that got the world into this mess in the first place.
David Scheel is a concert pianist, composer and humorist. Away from performing he is also a highly respected writer and broadcaster on conservation issues. He lives in the Blue Mountains, NSW.
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