Expert Climate Change Panel Responses

ACLW’s Expert Climate Change Panelists were asked:

What are your views on what the Gillard government is attempting to put in place to reduce Australia’s carbon emissions?

Do you see it as providing a good transition plan to a to a net zero-carbon economy?

Below are responses from Giselle Wilkinson and the Hon Eileen Claussen from USA.

Giselle Wilkinson:

“The carbon tax would have been better expressed as a ‘fine on climate pollution’. Few decry the fining of container ships that dump their pollution out at sea while bringing us the goods we need and want. The same should apply to the deliberate polluting of the aerial ocean that encompasses our Earth and that we all share.  

This ‘carbon tax’ is a positive, albeit tiny, first step that has opened the way for further, more powerfully effective measures. It has also put the wind in the sails of those working on clean technologies and social solutions and for the restoration of a safe climate future.  

The Gillard government’s plan includes the decommissioning of 2000 megawatts of coal power which, with any luck, will mean the shutting down of the decrepit Hazelwood power station, indisputably Australia’s dirtiest and least efficient coal plant. However, since it’s at the end of its life anyway, it would be mad and setting a very bad precedent indeed to give in to the ridiculous claims for compensation from the owners who know full well it’s due for retirement anyway. Such money from the public purse would be far better spent on ensuring a just transition for the workers. Another grave risk in this package is that we may see this fossil fuel powered station being replaced by another one, gas or otherwise. The BZE Stationary energy report clearly demonstrates we have renewable energy options. The increasingly dangerous days of fossil energy are almost over. 

If it is true that things get most dangerous when they’re in their death throes and we’re currently seeing a coal rush of frightening proportions happening in many parts of Australia, perhaps this can be seen as a good sign. A sign of imminent change. Around 80% of Queensland is under mining lease. NSW is similarly at risk of great destruction. Some of our most productive land, such as the Queensland Darling Downs with its up to 10 meters deep of rich topsoil,  is being mercilessly fracked and mined right now. The Lock the Gate Campaign is gathering momentum to stop it. France has banned the devastating practice of coal seam gas fracking (the first country to do so) and other parts of the world are urgently instituting moratoriums, yet we here are going gangbusters to mine it, dig it up and ship it off as fast as possible before we’re stopped – as we know we will be.

 The Transition Plan to a zero-net economy is not there yet. The Labor government now has a hung parliament and a strong Greens presence to deal with which is setting the scene for some meaningful action in this area at long last. However, they are setting targets of 80 per cent emissions reduction by 2050 which is way too late and not enough. The first 10 and 20 per cent will no doubt be the hardest anyway, after which the infrastructure, momentum and community acceptance will be in place to make the rest of the transition relatively easy.  

We need our political leaders to pay close attention to the science; to the moves starting to be seen around the world; the evidence of the noticeably intensifying climatic events; the telling and record-breaking loss of Arctic ice this very year; and the growing concern in the community and among well-informed people that we have to move much, much faster.  

Hans Joachim Schellenhuber, from the Potsdam Institute in Germany, and many others are stating unequivocally that we must peak our emissions by 2020 “in order to avoid the unmanageable”. He is saying this in the context of having a 60 to 70 percent chance of avoiding a 2 degree temperature increase. BZE talks about these odds being equivalent to playing Russian roulette with two bullets in the barrel. Not good odds.  

I believe, as do a growing number of others, that we need to achieve zero emissions by 2020, to have begun to draw excess carbon out of the atmosphere to bring about the conditions we know give us a safe climate and we need to cool the already overheated planet.  

What we need from the Gillard government is simply responsible risk management and good governance. We need our governments to be paving the way with intelligent community education campaigns, appropriate policy development now; and preparation for the pulling of the big levers (coal off, renewables on) to change direction, transition to clean energy and to, in effect, step-up to the need for whole systems change.  

The time for incremental change is over. We now urgently need a rapid social and structural transformation on a massive scale.  Underlying all our profligate energy use, rampant consumerism, retail therapy and huge waste, is our misplaced faith in a growth economy and the flawed concept that infinite growth on a finite planet is possible. We have to live within our limits. We need good government now more than at any other time in human history and we need proactive government to participate in the planning, already underway in the non-government sector, for a rapid transition to zero net economy. 

The Gillard government is at least, and at last, providing a good first step to an urgently needed transition plan to a net zero-carbon economy. We need to congratulate them on this initiative, encourage much stronger measures and demand this critical transition be treated with the greatest urgency.” (16 July 11)

Hon Eileen Claussen:

“The Gillard government is to be commended for placing such a high priority on climate change and working so hard to craft a workable solution.  Experience and analysis show that an efficient and effective way to reduce pollution is to put a price on it.  As we have learned through our own work in the United States, designing a pricing system for greenhouse gases is no simple matter.  And each must be designed to fit the specific needs of a given country or jurisdiction.  The government has offered a unique approach aimed at striking a reasonable balance between environmental effectiveness and economic efficiency while minimizing costs for taxpayers and carbon-intensive industries.  

By beginning with a fixed carbon price, the proposal does not immediately offer the efficiency of an emissions trading system.  But a set price rising gradually over three years provides industry with the certainty and predictability it needs to plan critical business investments.  Wisely, the government is also proposing to recycle the revenues raised to ease the impact on trade-exposed industries and workers; boost investments in renewable power, energy efficiency and other low-carbon alternatives; and offer tax relief shielding consumers from cost impacts.  According to the government’s calculations, many taxpayers would actually realize a small gain.  Only Australians can decide whether the government’s proposal achieves an equitable distribution of effort.  From a distance, it appears an honest attempt. 

By planning to later transition to an emissions trading system, the government shows that it also understands the power of the market to deliver the greatest emission reductions at the lowest possible cost.  A trading approach gives businesses not only the flexibility to choose how to meet their emission limits, but also an ongoing incentive to ferret out low-cost reductions.  It provides a motive, in other words, to innovate. 

As one of the world’s major economies and it highest per capita carbon emitter, it is important that Australia take a lead in addressing climate change.  Australia is not going it alone.  While at the federal level the United States has not yet taken decisive action, our states are moving ahead.  California – with an economy more 50 percent larger than Australia’s – will launch its economy-wide cap-and-trade system in 2013.  So will the four Canadian provinces of the Western Climate Initiative, with a combined population and GDP similar to those of Australia’s.  Meanwhile, China, which is already taking a lead in the clean technology race, recently announced plans for regional pilot cap-and-trade systems with the aim of a national carbon market in 2015. 

Taking action on climate change is not simple for any country. Australia’s Clean Energy Future Plan is a strong signal that Australia is willing and able to face the many challenges of addressing climate change, and in doing so, to be among the leading low-carbon economies of the future.” (16 July 11)

 Eva Cox: 

“I am not an expert, but it is a start, and many experts seem to like it.” (15 July 2011)

Diann’s article: A clean energy future should be about more than money

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