Climate Tasmania

A Tasmanian take on the thorniest global issue since the dinosaurs. Based on Peter Boyer’s newspaper column in the Hobart Mercury.

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After the carbon price, what?

We are now more or less back where we started in 2007. Except, luckily, for the RET, the CEFC and one or two other quite useful acronyms. [22 July 2014 | Peter Boyer]

Greg Hunt and Tony Abbott at a Parliament House press conference following the repeal of the carbon tax legislation. PHOTO AAP/Lukas Coch

Greg Hunt and Tony Abbott at a Parliament House press conference following the repeal of the carbon tax legislation. PHOTO AAP/Lukas Coch

So this is it. A decade of effort by thousands of Australians based on the best scientific and economic advice the world can offer has come to nought: no carbon price, no “direct action”, no climate policy. A big round zero.

This is a first-order political failure. Tony Abbott got the numbers and declared a win, but it’s a pyrrhic victory won at his nation’s cost. We’re all losers. Some will greet this assessment with derision.

Belittling the science and economics behind human-induced climate change and the carbon price has been one of the characteristics of Australia’s endless debate over climate policy, with Abbott’s true believers leading the charge.

But their posturing does nothing to change reality. On the same day as the senate delivered the last rites to Australia’s carbon pricing scheme, the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released its 24th annual “State of the Climate” report.

There’s nothing surprising in the NOAA report, meaning only that global warming continues unabated. In 2013, one of the six warmest years ever recorded and Australia’s warmest on record, sea level continued to rise while carbon dioxide concentrations reached historic highs.

I’d be willing to bet that no-one voting for the repeal of the carbon price paid any heed to such information. Politics is the order of the day when politicians come together, not science. What counts is who’s on top.

Tony Abbott was definitely on top when he fronted media soon after the vote with environment minister Greg Hunt. He’d just slain the dragon, the “useless, destructive tax which damaged jobs [and] hurt families’ cost of living”. What’s more, he said, it did nothing for the environment.

Actually, it did, though you need to look for the signs. Studies I’ve discussed in recent months have found many signals that the carbon price was changing the energy landscape in Australia, giving a lift to renewables while bringing down electricity consumption and cutting emissions. To those assessments can be added a study by the Australian National University’s Centre for Climate Economics and Policy, just concluded, of the impact of carbon pricing on the National Electricity Market.

Using conservative parameters, the study found that the price on carbon had caused a decline in electricity demand of between 1.3 and 2.3 per cent of the NEM, with a reduction in emissions of 11 million to 17 million tonnes of carbon dioxide. The study found that by allowing renewable alternatives to compete with coal, the carbon tax had caused coal-power operators across Australia to switch off a significant amount of generating capacity. The end of the tax will be the nod for those idle generators to be fired up again.

The ANU study was released on the day of the senate vote. Like the NOAA report, it was too late to change minds. A parliamentary train in motion rarely changes course.

Interviewed that evening by ABC Lateline’s Tony Jones, Hunt said he’d seen the ANU study but preferred Australian Energy Market Operator data that indicated the Renewable Energy Target was mainly responsible for declining emissions, not market forces shaped by a carbon price.

Hunt’s dismissive response to an independent expert analysis, highly relevant to climate policy, follows a pattern. Since his leader staked his career on a complete rejection of carbon pricing, Hunt has been very selective about what information he takes on board and what he rejects.

The Coalition has taken upon itself to determine what should be done about the totally unprecedented policy dilemma of climate change while rejecting the vast bulk of professional research that points to an alternative path. That is a very risky course.

Now the Coalition will be forced to test that risk, first by getting a majority in the senate to support its $2.5 billion Emissions Reduction Fund in August, and if that gets through then getting the scheme to work within its strictly limited budget. Both are dubious propositions.

Unfortunately, the ERF’s effectiveness will be nullified completely if the government can’t stop big polluters abandoning all emission limits. It has still not produced “baseline” compliance measures to prevent such behaviour, and they’re now unlikely to appear before next year.

We’re lucky that we still have an effective Renewable Energy Target, but for how much longer is anyone’s guess. Climate sceptic Dick Warburton, Abbott’s hand-picked chairman of a review panel, is soon to hand down a verdict on its future. Lower power usage makes the basic RET (20 per cent of renewable energy by 2020) a real doddle. That stays, Greg Hunt said last week, but he didn’t mention a 2011 addition that gave the RET more bite, 41,000 gigawatt-hours of renewable energy a year by 2020. That’s the bit that bothers Abbott.

We’re also lucky that the Clean Energy Finance Corporation, the Australian Renewable Energy Agency and the Climate Change Authority, all Labor-Green carbon price agencies, still exist. The Abbott-Hunt climate plan was to get rid of them, but the senate crossbench voted that down.

The survival of the Climate Change Authority must really rankle with Abbott. It has advised that (consistent with the ANU study) Australia would easily achieve the bipartisan 2020 target of 5 per cent emissions reduction and should aim for a stiffer 19 per cent target. But that advice was given when we had a carbon price.

Now, with the strict spending limits Abbott has placed on the ERF, we’re unlikely to reach even the 5 per cent target. The most conservative independent ERF analysis says this will cost nearly double the amount budgeted.

I hope that in the wake of the senate vote the government enjoyed its moment in fading sunshine. Now we should all get ready for a long, hard night ahead.

Axing the tax is not so simple, after all

We owe it to our obstructing Senate for helping to reveal the true cost of abandoning carbon pricing. [15 July 2014 | Peter Boyer]

Senators Ricky Muir, Jacqui Lambie, Zhenya Wang, Glenn Lazarus and Janet Rice seated in the Senate for their introduction to Senate procedure PHOTO DAILY TELEGRAPH, SYDNEY

Senators Ricky Muir (seated, top centre), Janet Rice (top right), Zhenya Wang, Jacqui Lambie and Glenn Lazarus taking their seats in the Senate for their introduction to Senate procedure. PHOTO DAILY TELEGRAPH, SYDNEY

If it hadn’t actually happened, no-one would believe the story of the lingering death of Australia’s carbon pricing scheme. So absurd, it seems like a dream. But for the government it’s been a nightmare.

The plot has deviated wildly from the plan announced by Tony Abbott over a year ago, well ahead of the election. That scenario had a submissive parliament acting quickly and without fuss to repeal the carbon tax and abolish all the Labor-Green abatement apparatus.

Instead, the Abbott government has found itself embroiled in a protracted debate on climate policy, in which it’s been forced to defend itself on territory it thought it had conquered.

The Coalition insisted the carbon price saddled households and businesses with an intolerable financial burden while having no effect on carbon emissions. Neither claim stacks up.

Every tax has its impost. If income tax were abolished we’d all feel a lot more prosperous for a while. But eventually we’d realise the prosperity was illusory, because the tax served a purpose.

Over time we’ll be able to judge the hip-pocket impact of no carbon tax, but I predict it will be short-lived and marginal. We may notice slightly lower electricity and gas bills, but total savings to you and me will be nowhere near Abbott’s claimed average saving of $10.50 a week per household.

On Friday environment minister Greg Hunt said that the repeal laws would allow the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission to fine supermarkets and airlines if they fail to subtract the carbon tax element from their prices. Supermarkets and airlines don’t agree. Virgin, Qantas, Coles and Woolworths all say they absorbed the cost of the carbon tax when it started and won’t be lowering prices on the back of its repeal.

But the important question, the one the government keeps avoiding, is this: What do we lose by abolishing carbon pricing?

National accounts reveal that over three years to the March quarter 2014, with population rising by over five per cent and overall household consumption up by nearly eight per cent, per capita household energy consumption dropped by nearly 10 per cent. While Australia’s economy expanded over the year to May this year, emissions from generating electricity dropped by 5.3 million tonnes. The Climate Institute calculates that the scheme has to this point had the effect of cutting carbon pollution by nearly 40 million tonnes.

The scheme’s working, and virtually all economists in Australia and elsewhere believe it’s the most cost-effective abatement method, easily beating a regulatory scheme like Direct Action. So if carbon abatement is your objective, you’d want to keep what we have.

But carbon abatement has never been Abbott’s objective. Winning was number one, then “opening up for business”, including enhancing coal’s position as a primary driver of the economy.

In opposition he conducted a relentless campaign to “axe the tax”, which took pride of place among the handful of slogans that he used to communicate his program for government. Measured against his aim of winning at all costs it worked very well.

But even before the September election the Coalition was aware of a catch to their strategy: how to be fiscally responsible while “axing taxes”. So it took care to mention among its election slogans Labor’s “financial mess” that the Coalition would have to fix.

As we now know, this signalled the government’s post-election declaration that, contrary to many assessments including those of international credit-rating agencies, it had inherited a “debt and deficit disaster” requiring some harsh measures to get the budget back into surplus.

But party strategists ignored the probability that the election wouldn’t deliver the government the numbers it needed in the Senate to put its plan into effect. Tony Abbott now has to bargain with minorities, which is proving difficult. Negotiation isn’t his strong suit.

The responsibility to fix this mess isn’t just the government’s. No matter what your politics, the loss of $30 billion or more in revenue because opposition and cross-bench politicians oppose particular budget measures is not good for the country at large.

Party politics is an ugly business. It was wrong for the Greens to oppose the rise in the fuel excise, because it went against their own position that transport fuel, like coal, had to be taxed. Similarly, Labor shifted positions on some educational measures that it had supported in government.

Clive Palmer and his senate team must also take some blame. Political deal-making requires that both parties maintain agreed positions, but in the turmoil of the senate carbon tax vote last week the Palmer United group seemed to revel in surprising and embarrassing the Liberals.

But the main culprit is the government. It created the illusion of a Liberal-National nirvana in which repealing the carbon tax, stopping the boats and building big new roads would fix everything.

Fiscal deficits and expert abatement advice notwithstanding, it’s now locked into replacing an effective carbon pricing scheme raising revenue of between $7 billion and $8 billion a year with untested, unsupported, revenue-negative Direct Action. That makes another net loss from abandoning the carbon price option: a hit on the budget bottom line of around $9 billion a year.

That’s even without considering the other positives flowing from the carbon price, like supporting renewable energy investment, future-proofing industry and keeping Australia sweet with climate-conscious trading partners. Each of which, in the long term, is good for business.

All this got into the Senate Hansard because cross-benchers, including Ricky Muir who stopped the debate being gagged, wouldn’t lie down at the government’s bidding. We should thank them.

Hope and grief in our unnatural future

A Hobart conference provides much to ponder, wonder and grieve about. [8 July 2014 | Peter Boyer]

The spectacular death of the Chelyabinsk meteor, 15 February 2013. PHOTO MARAT AHMETVALEEV

The spectacular death of the Chelyabinsk meteor, 15 February 2013. PHOTOGRAPHY BY MARAT AHMETVALEEV <>

You’re driving along a highway on the outskirts of Chelyabinsk, 1500 km east of Moscow, around nine o’clock on a clear winter morning in early 2013, when a dazzling light appears in the sky.

As the light streaks across in front of you the burning object suddenly brightens to fill the sky, accompanied by a loud bang and breaking glass, before a smaller trail disappears over the horizon to the southwest. The blast, you later discover, shattered windows across an area 100 km wide.

The Chelyabinsk object was a large meteor that flashed many times brighter than the sun as it broke up. A 650 kg piece of it was recovered last October from a lake 70 km west of the city.

Russian cars are often fitted with camcorders to record the view ahead, so there was a lot of video of the Chelyabinsk meteor, available since the event on YouTube. Which is where Phil Bagust, a communications specialist from the University of South Australia, comes in.

As a speaker in “Unnatural Futures”, a University of Tasmania conference in Hobart last week, Bagust presented video from Chelyabinsk. Those few fleeting seconds of video are riveting, grabbing and holding your attention even when repeated multiple times.

Bagust made his point that while disasters are dreadful things, they can also be enervating, thrilling, even sexy. That is, he added, so long as you’re not part of one yourself. Bearing in mind that a bright light in the sky, an asteroid, heralded the dinosaurs’ extinction 66 million years ago.

Unnatural Futures, supported by the university’s Arts Environment Research Group, brought together academics from Australia, New Zealand and the UK investigating how we imagine the future with all its risks, and how we might go about navigating it.

The meeting was laden with foreboding and full of sobering reminders, yet I’m sure that many, like me, found it enjoyable. It may be that like viewers of the Chelyabinsk videos, we got sucked in by the morbid fascination of it all. Or perhaps there’s still much from which we can take heart.

Many presentations had nothing to offer in the way of hope. “We are the asteroid” was a recurring theme. Today’s business-as-usual is itself a disaster, said one presenter, but political demands cause leaders to promote it instead of seeing it and calling it for what it is.

If it’s true that corporations’ pursuit of profit, governments’ exercise of power and our own demand for paid employment are driving us headlong into environmental disaster, we could find no more apt illustration of it than the changing landscapes of the upper Hunter Valley, NSW.

A presentation about the visual impact of this astonishing transformation, caused by demand for coal to meet energy needs here and overseas, showed how gently-undulating valley landscapes are being transformed into holes and spoil heaps on a huge scale. Such is the power of homo sapiens.

A concentration of energy, population and political and economic power, we were told, was leading to an unprecedented level of inequity, a breakdown of law, and ultimate social chaos. New state weaponry now being developed using robotics and nanotechnology could only hasten that process.

Then there’s insurance. For a quarter of a century this industry has stood out from others in flagging its concern about climate change. Its future depends on being able to keep premiums affordable, and its records say that this is getting steadily harder with each passing year.

A discussion of the importance of place raised the prospect that insurance as a business will in coming decades become an unaffordable luxury, starting with properties at highest risk of loss. The answer might be communities taking joint responsibility for property loss or damage.

A lighter moment of the conference was a quirky presentation about how book and film fans are creating their own geography. New Zealand now has to cater to tourists’ demands to see Lord of the Rings filming locations, even to the extent of giving them new placenames.

Future Tasmanian tourism may have to contend with something similar. Internet rumours have it that a teenage witch called Kiki, heroine of a 1989 Miyazaki movie, once worked in our very own Ross Bakery, and Japanese visitors to Ross are already asking for directions to “Kiki’s room”.

The most profound moments of “Unnatural Futures” involved discussion of our personal responses to transformation and loss. One of these came in a keynote paper by Lesley Head, of the Australian Centre for Cultural Environmental Research at the University of Wollongong.

Head addressed a climate-constrained future in terms of abundance, scarcity, hope and grief. She spoke of the false hope that government measures like a carbon price will fix everything, without us having to change ourselves. In a sense, she said, we’re all climate change deniers.

The impact of a changing climate on the provision of goods, water and food, said Head, required us to “unsettle our understandings”, such that we intuitively see all of this in terms of cycles of abundance and scarcity, and reframe failures as “productive disruptions”.

Hobart sociologist John Cianchi is interested in how people derive meaning from their world, especially the “non-human” part of it, and has surveyed radical environmental activists to try to understand what drives them in pursuing their ideals.

His paper recounted the profound grief felt by activists at the felling of trees or the slaughter of whales, and stressed the importance of this “nature culture” in their activism. The issue of grief has not come up in discussion about Tasmania’s proposed forest arrest laws, more’s the pity.

Unnatural Futures was essentially for university people, so it’s unsurprising that no political figures attended. But it’s sad that politics will in all likelihood remain uninformed about the imaginative and innovative thinking on show at this memorable event.