The real price of carbon

16. 36EARTHCAREAs the federal election campaigns come to an end the future for Australia’s commitment to carbon reduction seems to have waned to levels worthy of great concern.

At both a political and—if surveys are to be believed—a community level, the need for urgency in limiting global warming has been side-lined for shorter term issues.

The central problem is the vast differences between political cycles, often measured in days and weeks, the fiscal cycles measured in months and years and carbon cycle lasting centuries and millennia.

Consequently any well-founded aspirations to address global warming seem to continually get gazumped by financial and political imperatives.

The world is at a point where essential long-term imperatives can no longer be compromised by short-term political gains.

There is now an acknowledgment in both the scientific and general community the many extreme weather events experienced across the globe in recent years are the result of climate change.

Interestingly, the Climate Institute’s CEO John Connor reported recently that Climate of the Nation research had shown severe droughts, bushfires and being hit by two consecutive once-in-100 year storms were not enough to convince the south eastern Queensland community climate change was real, but what finally catalysed its realisation was US “Super Storm Sandy”, which received blanket coverage on Australia’s evening news.

Mark Stafford Smith, Science Director of CSIRO Climate Adaptation Flagship, is concerned decisions made today on vital infrastructure such as bridges, suburbs and urban design are not made with the consequences of climate change in mind, putting such infrastructure at risk during their lifespan.


It is crucial the western world’s high polluters, including Australia, rein in our emissions as a matter of urgency. Yet without a carbon tax or emissions trading scheme there are no effective mechanisms in place to do so. The carbon tax is at risk of being annulled on the grounds of cost, yet the cost of failing to act on climate change mitigation makes its cost pale into insignificance.

If we are to limit global warming to the generally accepted two degrees centigrade we must significantly cut emissions now. This is an issue that has to be front-loaded—we cannot wait until the limit is almost reached, and then act. The longer we wait to take real action the more stringent action will have to be.

Let’s be clear: Our economy is at risk due to the adverse effects of global warming, far greater risk than any carbon tax or emissions trading scheme could present. Our largest investors, including the Australian Future Fund and major superannuation funds, have portfolios that are significantly exposed to climate change. Those situations are antagonised by heavy investment in fossil fuel industries.

This comes as no surprise as these are “safe” investments due to government backing of those industries. Alas, the same cannot be said of the renewable energy industries that are seen as investment risks due to lack of government support.

There are two things for certain: We can no longer hide behind our relatively small population to exempt us from fulfilling our obligations to substantially reduce our carbon emissions, and our economy has to be decarbonised. A case in point is the recent $200 million subsidies committed to the car industry, to continue to build old-technology polluting cars. This money should have been used to fuel an Australian electric car industry. Likewise, taxpayer-funded subsidies to old fossil fuel energy generation systems should be redirected to renewable energy projects.

We all have a responsibility to reduce our consumption of carbon-emitting energy, and to review our investments, including superannuation to ensure they are with ethical, low-carbon funds and banks.


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