At a high school swimming carnival I once dived really badly off the blocks and, in mid-air, realised that I’d screwed it up; that I’d blown the one chance I had to get a head-start in the pool. I have that same feeling right now. The Rudd Government has just blown Australia’s chance — the small window of opportunity we had — to avert catastrophic climate change.
I’m writing this from the White Paper "lock-up", where the Government gives non-government organisations and business lobbyists an advance copy of the White Paper on the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme. Blair Comley from the Department of Climate Change just gave his speech summarising the scheme’s key design elements.
This White Paper is, in the words of one of Australia’s top commentators on climate change, "totally f*cked".
The target is, as we expected, a "gateway" of 5 to 15 per cent by 2020 — although in reality it is a commitment to the bottom end of that range. So while the rest of the world is committing to carbon cuts of between 20 and 40 per cent, Australia is lagging behind at just 5 per cent.
There exists a remarkable disjuncture between the first sentence of the Executive Summary — "The Australian Government believes that acting on climate change is essential" — and the rest of the White Paper. They can believe it all they like, but they are certainly not acting on that belief.
It’s a sunny day outside in Canberra. We’re in Hotel Realm, where I’ve been before for the "consultations" in the lead up to this announcement. You can normally see the gardens outside, but for some reason, thick black curtains cover the windows today. There’s a steady buzz of conversation. A small corner of the room, where I’m sitting, is filled with climate change and environment and public benefit organisations. The rest is made up of industry representatives and business lobbyists in suits. I’m definitely the only person here under 26 — except for the kid collecting muffin wrappers and used teacups from the tables, who looks about 16. I wonder if he realises how his future is going to be affected by the document in front of me.
I’ve never been to a lock-up before, and it’s a strange feeling. It actually feels a lot like doing my HSC again; we had to hand in our phones and blackberries at the door, and sign a form saying our laptops didn’t have wireless enabled.
The Paper itself is 850 pages long, and every page seems to have something absolutely awful on it. I can’t quite bring myself to fully comprehend all the gory details; it’s not just the target but also the scheme design that has been so severely compromised here.
Here’s a wrap:
The Government’s stated target "gateway" is 5 to 15 per cent below 2000 levels by 2020. However, reading the White Paper, and the explanations given here by the Department of Climate Change, it is very clear that this actually means a 5 per cent target, because that is what they are basing the carbon price ($25 per tonne) and revenue estimates on.
We had hoped that the Government would say that it was going to leave in the possibility of a 25 per cent cut if the rest of the world agreed to a strong global deal in Copenhagen — and even this would be very weak — but they have decided to leave it off the table altogether. Instead, there’s a line that should a global deal based on stabilising emissions at 450 parts per million emerge, the Government would set Australia’s post-2020 targets to ensure we play our part in achieving that goal. Well, by 2020 it may well be too late, because significant emission reductions need to be made in the next four to 10 years to avoid dangerous climate "tipping points" that could see climate change spiral out of control.
The Government has admitted that the economic impact of such weak targets is absolutely minimal: Gross national product per person is projected to be between 20 and 21 per cent higher than 2005 levels in 2020 as a result of this scheme, compared to 22 per cent higher without emissions trading. This is equivalent to waiting four months longer to achieve the same levels of growth.
Emissions Intensive Trade-Exposed Industries get a very sweet deal out of this White Paper. In fact they will actually be profiting from the scheme. Why? Because they receive huge amounts of "compensation" (also known as hush money and free permits) from the Government, and their carbon pollution permits are tax deductible. That means although they have to buy their emission permits up-front, they’ll get a huge reduction in their tax. This scheme actually costs the Government money.
In addition, there’s the issue of free permits. The most polluting businesses get 90 per cent of their emission permits for free. The second most polluting businesses get 60 per cent of their permits for free. This is like giving smokers free cigarettes while asking them to quit. The duration and amount of free permits is tied to the amount of polluting that the companies do rather than how efficient they become. This means there is a perverse incentive for companies to actually increase their pollution rather than become more efficient, because they’ll get more free permits the more they pollute.
As you might expect, the business representatives and industry lobbyists in this room are looking upbeat. I’m stunned by the extent of their victory today. It’s at moments like this that you’re reminded that the Earth isn’t dying, it is being deliberately destroyed, and the people destroying it have names and addresses, wear suits — and many are in this room with me. It makes me feel sick.
I suppose I knew this was coming — we’d all seen the leaks in the media — but when we found out last night that Kevin Rudd would be making the announcement instead of Penny Wong, I had a last-minute flutter of hope. Maybe he’s changed his mind, I thought. Maybe his kids had implored, "Dad, what are you doing?"
But now, I just feel exhausted. I put so much of my life into this process — submissions, consultations, campaigning, media and trying to explain what it meant to thousands of young people. And now I feel so sad, like Kevin Rudd has just betrayed our entire generation.
So many people — especially young people — voted for him because of his election promise to take strong action on climate change. He was elected with a mandate to take courageous and bold action to cut Australia’s emissions and play an international role of leadership. Today he has rejected that mandate; thrown it back in our faces.
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