The Carbon Supremacy


Two weeks ago, WWF asked Sydneysiders to spend one hour of their Saturday night in darkness. According to pollsters AMR Interactive, 57 per cent of the city’s residents claimed to have joined in the effort. Putting aside that the dramatic pictures of the Emerald City plunging itself into darkness proved to be fakes the Sydney Morning Herald, the major sponsor of Earth Hour, admitted to doctoring the photos to embellish the impact the blacked-out skyline confirmed that many citizens were willing to answer the call.

While the Green movement might be tempted to celebrate this milestone in the public’s acceptance of the need for emissions cuts, the message for campaigners is much darker.

When it comes to the issues of human-caused carbon emissions, climate change, and the need for carbon abatement, the Green movement has clearly captured the public’s imagination. It has also captured the attention of politicians. Both the ALP (normally in thrall to resource and industrial unions) and the Liberals (pro-business and anti-Kyoto) will compete on the issue at this year’s Federal election.

That carbon emissions have come to eclipse other environmental issues should come as no surprise. Carbon is a relatively convenient environmental problem easy to grasp; simple and profitable to abate.

But the supremacy of carbon comes at a great cost to the Green movement. It threatens to starve other environmental causes of attention and funding, and it ties the credibility of the entire movement to the infant science of climate modelling. All this without yet convincing people to make the sort of sacrifices needed to meaningfully cut carbon emissions.

The ‘carbon supremacy’ has its origins in 1980s Britain. The then UK Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, sought to secure the country’s nuclear weapons program by backing the nuclear power industry. Supporting nuclear power also dovetailed with other Thatcherite priorities, such as reducing Britain’s dependence on Middle Eastern oil and the union-dominated coal industry.

Building on concerns raised by a 1979 conference on global warming, Thatcher began to make public money available to scientists examining the environmental impact of fossil fuels. That money and research hasn’t stopped flowing.

Today, carbon is as convenient a political target as ever. The United States mistrustful of big oil exporters such as Russia, Venezuela, Iran and the Arab world has firmly established ‘energy independence’ (and therefore, carbon) at the centre of its political discourse.

Australia’s current interest in exploring the nuclear energy option, backed by Prime Minister John Howard , is certainly a way to slash carbon emissions but it offers the added prospect of a vastly expanded uranium-export industry.

For business, carbon represents an opportunity to cheaply discharge their newly assumed ‘corporate social responsibility.’ Business has embraced carbon because, unlike other environmental nasties, carbon emissions can be ‘offset,’ mainly by planting trees. Whereas community concerns about leaded petrol or CFCs could only be overcome through costly technological change, a carbon emitter can go on emitting as before if they buy enough offsets which are easily integrated into a global commodity trading system.

Better yet, the need for public action implies the need for public money. A range of industries stand to benefit from government responses to climate change. In 2005, the new European Emissions-Trading Scheme generated an £800 million windfall for British power companies alone.

Australia is no different. The National Farmers Federation is using the threat of climate change to bolster its perennial claim for more public money, and Labor is promising to further subsidise the car industry to the tune of $500 million, with the aim of greening it.

Voter concern about the environment is undoubtedly less mercenary. According to a Newspoll last month, 67 per cent of NSW voters rated the environment as a ‘very important’ election issue, up from 54 per cent in 2003.

Thanks to Scratch

For households, past environmental nasties were either too inconvenient to eliminate (CFCs and leaded petrol) or simply lay beyond the control of ordinary people (salinity and species loss). That solutions to the ‘carbon problem’ appear so simple has driven abatement to the top of the environmental agenda. Any household can ‘make a difference’ easily and cheaply by switching to renewable electricity and feel good about it.

But are these ‘solutions’ good enough? Earth Hour cut Sydney CBD power use by 10 per cent. But if the scientific consensus on carbon is correct, we’ll need to do much more. Nicholas Stern, the British economist behind the Stern Review, says that Australia’s carbon emissions must be cut by 90 per cent over 50 years   and not just on Saturday nights.

The most comprehensive scheme to address climate change is the Kyoto Protocol, which has a global price tag estimated at US$94 trillion (at 1990 prices). Yet, even if Kyoto were fully implemented, it would slow global warming by a mere six years.

The Green movement concedes this, characterising Kyoto as only an important ‘first step’ in the battle against carbon. But given the enormous cost and negligible benefit of this first step, the idea of a bolder second step seems like wishful thinking. Consumers and voters have their limits. Tasmanian voters’ rejection of Latham Labor in 2004 is just one example. For the nation’s poorest State, which had already locked away 38 per cent of its land area in conservation reserves, Labor’s demand that it make further concessions to greenery was a step too far.

According to the National GreenPower Accreditation Program, enthusiasm for renewable energy continues to outstrip uptake. A 2005 survey, found that while 81.4 per cent of respondents considered a shift away from fossil fuels to be ‘very important’ and 60.8 per cent knew that renewable energy was already available, uptake among respondents languished at five per cent, with one third citing the expense ($440 a year)  as an excuse.

GreenPower is clearly part of the solution, so why isn’t it catching on?

If the free-rider effect is at work and consumers are unwilling to pay for carbon abatement without a guarantee of widespread participation, the Green movement has a serious problem. What would those consumers have Australian policymakers do when faced with a world that is not yet serious about emissions cuts? As Howard has been arguing, until big polluters such as China, India and the US make substanti
al cuts in emissions (and Kyoto signatories meet their targets, rather than just promising to) Australia’s efforts alone cannot stop climate change. Voters will factor this into their decisions.

Unless the economics of renewable energy change substantially, the Green movement may find that Earth Hour represents the high-water mark for community acceptance of carbon abatement. But given Australia’s abundant coal deposits, any substantial shift to renewables may not happen for decades. Even so, voices within academia and business will continue to demand further (and ever more expensive) carbon abatement and public money will continue to be spent on the problem.

This should worry Green activists. The carbon supremacy has allowed business to cloak itself in green while demanding a share of environmental spending. At the same time it has addicted consumers to the idea of simple solutions to environmental problems. That’s bad news for efforts to combat more intractable problems such as invasive species, habitat destruction, salinity and water pollution.

If the carbon threat, or our capacity to stop climate change, turns out to have been overstated, Greens may never recover from the ignominy. The Green movement will be held responsible for a costly emphasis on carbon that was, from the beginning, driven by government and industry. The Earth Hour message that making meaningful cuts to the world’s carbon emissions is as simple as switching off a light was always going to be an easy sell. But Greens must do more to challenge the carbon supremacy, or risk ceding environmental leadership to government and business.

Otherwise, the risk is that when the Green movement calls for deeper cuts and more complex solutions voters and consumers will be quick to switch off.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.