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Cutting through the crap

Climate change politics in Australia

An interview with Miriam Pepper on climate change politics in Australia

Lai Phal lives in Samphin Village in Sambor District, Cambodia. She has a little over one hectare of rice paddy with which to supply her household of five with food for the year. Most years this is ample and can even produce a surplus that can be sold. However, the biggest threat to Lai Phal's rice crop is not getting regular rains through the wet season - there is no irrigation where she lives. This year the wet season began well but then the rains stopped for a couple of months - until September, when heavy rains brought major flooding. Thousands of families have lost their entire crop. Climate change models predict that this sort of weather will become more common in Southeast Asia, posing a major threat to agriculture. Photo by Glenn Daniels

Miriam Pepper is a member of Uniting Earthweb and secretary of the multi-faith network, the Australian Religious Response to Climate Change. She worships at Maroubra Junction Uniting Church, which is the home of Project Green Church and now a part of the South East Climate Action Coalition. Miriam has a PhD on "Christianity and Sustainable Consumption: A Social Psychological Investigation". Here we ask Miriam to help us disentangle the confusing mass of information and media reporting on the Australian Government's climate change response. The views expressed in this interview are hers and not necessarily those of the groups with which she is involved.

Currently the Australian Government has set a target to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions by 5%-25%. Can you explain what that means, and what the significance of that target is?

Broadly speaking, the aim of setting targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is to reduce our impact on the Earth's climate. Our greenhouse gas emissions are causing the Earth's temperature to increase, and the more it increases the greater the impacts, especially on the poor who have contributed least to the problem. In particular, we need to do our best to prevent what is being called 'dangerous climate change', which is generally seen as a rise in average temperature of more than 2 degrees above pre-industrial levels. A rise greater than this places us at a very high risk of reaching what is called a 'tipping point', which is a point which starts a dangerous feedback loop in the Earth's climate, resulting in things like the melting of the Greenland Ice Sheet and rapid sea level rises.

The Australian Government's target towards this goal is, at best, to aim by the year 2020 to be emitting 25% less greenhouse gases than what we were emitting in the year 2000. This target is conditional on the world achieving an international climate agreement that meets certain conditions. Otherwise our target could be as low as only a 5% reduction.

Actually, it is not even quite that much, because when the rest of the world talks about reduction targets they are talking about reductions based on 1990 levels, while the Australian Government has chosen to use 2000 levels as its base. If we use 1990 levels, then the Australian target is for a 4-24% reduction.

What sort of target do you think we need?

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) says industrialised countries as a whole should aim for a reduction of 25% - 40% (based on 1990 levels) to decrease the chances of an increase of 2 degrees, but this is based on old science. We are now already at the upper end of the climate projections made by the IPCC, so these targets are probably too low.

African countries, small island states (such as in the Pacific), Latin American countries, China and others are asking for at least a 40% reduction by 2020. Environment groups, development organisations and campaigns like Make Poverty History have also taken this position.

Personally, my view would be that we need a target of at least 40%. And actually, there is now a growing global movement, including the World Council of Churches, saying that we need stabilisation of carbon dioxide at lower than 350 parts per million - currently we are at about 390ppm. So we are already well beyond a safe level. We need to go as hard and fast as we can go.

The way in which the Australian Government is currently proposing to reduce our emissions is through a 'Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme' (CPRS), which basically sets a limit on the amount of carbon that can be emitted each year, and then allows people to buy and sell permits to emit that carbon. There has been a lot of confusing media around the Labor and Liberal approaches to this scheme, which has focussed on all sorts of technical aspects of the legislation. But you have been critical of the whole concept - can you explain why?

The CPRS is deeply flawed. Treasury modelling of the scheme says that in 10 years time our emissions won't be any less than they are now. This is because there is no limit on the 'carbon credits' that we can import from other countries; that means we can get other countries to reduce emissions instead of us. Also the price of carbon within the scheme will just be too low to cause the large shifts away from fossil fuels that we need. The scheme also contains billions of dollars of subsidies for the big polluters, such as Xstrata, Rio Tinto and BHP Billiton. Effectively, the scheme will reward polluters, allowing them to continue to pollute. What this means is that taxpayers will have to pay for emission reductions - in whichever way they are sourced.

Another big problem with the scheme is that the 'cap' that is placed on emission levels is also effectively a floor on reductions - meaning that we are locked into producing a certain amount of pollution. The logic of emissions trading is that people who make the choice to reduce their own emissions beyond the floor effectively free up extra permits for others to pollute more.

But couldn't some of these things be fixed by amendments to the scheme?

It is telling that even as we see the debates about the CPRS going on in parliament and in the press, we see the fossil fuel industry expanding, with proposals for new fossil fuel power plants and also the doubling of Australia's coal export capacity. It is an indication that it is not only the CPRS that is flawed, but the whole concept of emissions trading.

International experience shows that emissions trading schemes are inevitably captured and watered down by special interests. While they do increase the price of polluting, they don't increase it by enough to foster the speed of change away from fossil fuels that we need. A trading scheme tinkers around the edges instead of providing a structural shift.

Furthermore, when a trading scheme is international (which ours is) it leads to injustices in poorer countries. There are already notorious problems in developing countries, such as keeping dumps open which are earning money for carbon credits, when at the same time they are poisoning local communities; or massive commercial plantations which lower the water table and affect community agriculture. We should be taking notice of voices from poor communities, and these are being consistently raised against internationally traded offset projects. We should ask ourselves questions about what happens when you get a simple commodity - carbon - created out of systems that are so complex. Who benefits from this commodity and who is left out?

Finally, we need to pay attention to the lessons of the global financial crisis, which provides a great example of how markets go out of control. Essentially, emissions trading schemes are set to create the biggest financial derivatives market the world has ever seen - and we have seen where the excesses of derivatives markets lead us.

What are some alternative strategies the Government could implement to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions?

The important thing is that we need a whole raft of strategies - not one silver bullet, and certainly not a central reliance on markets. And the place we should start is to begin to roll back all the subsidies that we are currently providing to fossil fuel industries, which amount to up to $10 billion annually.

We need much bigger investment in energy efficiency and renewable energy. For example, in NSW if we simply replaced inefficient off-peak electric water heaters with solar, heat pumps or gas, it would make new baseload power stations unnecessary for years to come.

We need fair and effective public transport systems that reduce reliance on cars, and we need much better walking and cycling facilities in our cities. We need to stop deforestation in Australia, not just overseas. We need to move towards more local food production and consumption to reduce the fuel needed to transport food, and we need more organic production which doesn't use fossil fuel-based inputs.

These are just some of the strategies.

What about a simple tax on carbon?

That could be part of a solution, and it avoids some of the problems of emissions trading. However, relying on a price signal can only give part of the picture. Again, it could be one tool among many.

There has been a lot of focus on what position the Australian Government carries to the big international climate change meeting in Copenhagen in December. What would you like to see happen at that meeting and what is Australia's role there?

I, and others in Australia and around the world, would like to see emission reduction targets that put us on the path to reducing our greenhouse gas levels to 350 parts per million. It is also important that those who are historically responsible for where we are, now take the lead in reducing their emissions, and don't outsource them to other parts of the world. Emission reductions in low-income countries are important - but not as a substitute for reductions in industrialised countries.

I also hope that Copenhagen produces an agreement that puts money on the table for people who are worst affected by climate change, such as in Bangladesh, experiencing a worsening and increasing severity of storms, people on Pacific islands who need relocation, and those in need of drought assistance in sub-Saharan Africa. All these people need money to adapt - and for those who have to migrate, places to go.

Australia needs to take a leading role in this, but our negotiators have been trying to change the rules around land use and forests so that we can get the highest possible emission reductions on paper while minimising the changes we need to make in practice - this isn't good leadership! Australia is the highest per capital polluter among developed countries and that means we have a particular responsibility. If we are not taking responsibility, how can we ask others to?

What do you think Manna Matters readers should be doing right now?

Get informed and get connected with people in your local community who are active on climate issues, such as a local Climate Action Group. Write to, or visit your MP - tell them you want a fair deal at Copenhagen and that you want Australia to take responsibility to reduce our emissions and not outsource them. Organisations like TEAR and the Australian Religious Response to Climate Change (ARRCC) have letter writing guides that can help.

Do what you can to live out the changes we need to see more broadly. This means things like reducing electricity use, switching to GreenPower, using our cars less, and - really important - reducing our meat consumption. Consumption of meat is large contributor to a household's greenhouse gas emissions.

Talk to others in your church about the issues and why it is of concern for us as Christians. This is not an issue that is going to go away, so keep it in your prayers.

One thing that I and many others are doing is to take part in rallies and nonviolent direct action (NVDA) at coal infrastructure and at government offices, drawing attention to some of the sources of climate change and demonstrating the depth of feeling about the issues. Although NVDA isn't for everyone, there is a strong Christian history of leadership and involvement, and it is a part of effective movements for change. I encourage readers to find out more about NVDA, and to support people who choose this path. Rallies, on the other hand, are community events where everyone can be involved - so look out for the Walk Against Warming at a place near you on 12th December.

Can't do all of this? Choose one thing and do it!

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