Monday, July 11, 2011

Five percent reduction in CO2 emissions by 2020: Too little, too late?

Staring into the climate abyss

Can we avoid the tipping point or, as the Mayans predicted, is mankind once again on the path to near extinction?

While the debate concerning the role of CO2 as a factor in current and future climate continues to rage, a majority of those scientists with the capacity to understand climate change who have put their views on record favours the view that present climate variations are both anthropogenic in origin and directly proportional to the amount of CO2 entering the atmosphere. There are, however, significant dissenting voices which cannot be discounted as mere cranks or tools of the petro-chemical industry.

The proposed Australian carbon tax appears to target the so-called ‘big polluters’, energy companies whose fossil fuel technology ensures that they are also major producers of CO2. The carbon tax presents a number of dilemmas which have not been fully explored by other than devoted followers of the climate change debate. It is these problematical issues which have been poorly presented to the general public by the media, politicians and spokespersons for the scientific community. This accounts in no small measure for the doubt, scepticism and confusion in the public arena regarding climate change.

The carbon tax itself appears to be a blunt edged instrument designed to force the big polluters to change their ways. Energy producers relying on fossil fuels cannot retool their entire industries at the drop of a hat. The notion of even a nation such as Australia, with abundant sunshine, wind and the space to site large energy gathering structures, relying entirely on renewable energy seems like pie in the sky.

Major changes to the way in which energy is produced seeming unlikely in the short term, the cost of the carbon tax to producers is likely to be passed in its entirety to the consumers, ordinary businesses and households. The government has foreseen this and is talking of rebates or subsidies for lower income households. In so doing we are creating, to borrow a phrase from the ABC, a ‘money-go-round’ where the first people to fall off are likely to be those most vulnerable to higher electricity costs, ordinary householders and small business operators.

While some time could be spent envisaging the economic, if not outright physical, pain likely to be suffered by ordinary Australians before they begin to curb their use of electricity to the point that the producer-polluters sit up and take notice, an elegant solution to the likely greatly increased cost of electricity presents itself. By all means tax the major CO2 emitters if there is a genuine belief in the role that manmade carbon dioxide plays in climate variation.

Fossil fuels produce many toxins and pollutants which present a more immediate threat to human life and the environment than otherwise inert CO2. No matter what is happening to our infinitely variable climate, we do need alternatives to fossil fuels, not least because so much of the world’s petroleum is locked up in other countries, many unstable and potentially hostile to the free West. Australian has plenty of coal, but its mostly brown coal, less efficient and not as clean burning as the highly prized black coal.

Be that as it may, how does Australia encourage big energy producers to look at other options without engaging in the pointless exercise of taxing producers, who charge consumers more, the consumers in turn being compensated by the government using the revenue raised from the producers. At every stage of the ‘money-go-round’ there will be compliance and administration costs, perhaps even requiring the creation of yet another government department.

One solution would be to give energy producers the option of offsetting the carbon tax against measurable direct investment in a combination of emissions controls, technology enabling – in the short term – cleaner combustion of fossil fuels and, most importantly, renewable energy sources. Producers claiming deductions against the carbon tax would need to demonstrate that they had not passed any part of the tax onto consumers.

While the United Kingdom, for example, is investing in gas fired power plants, making it heavily dependent on imported natural gas, it is debatable whether the burning of natural gas, or any combustible fuel – however ‘clean’ by comparison with coal and oil – actually produces less CO2. This, presumably, would depend on the efficiency and thermal capacity of the fuel being used in relation to the amount of CO2 produced during combustion. In layperson’s terms, does natural gas give more electricity in return for less CO2 and other pollutants? If so, should we be selling our natural gas to other nations as fast as we can extract it? Is there not a case for taxing the exporters of fossil fuels at source before the fuel disappears overseas and we have no control over the manner in which it is used?

Regarding nuclear, the less said the better. Suffice it to say that no engineer or scientist can, with a good conscience, guarantee the absolute integrity and safety of a nuclear power plant. We might be able to adapt to climate change; we cannot live with radiation at toxic levels which destroys all life exposed to it.

In short, a tax on producers who simply pass to the cost on to consumers, many of whom do not have the capacity to pay more for electricity or the capacity to modify their environments so as to use less energy and/or contribute to ‘green’ energy production, seems both unfair and unlikely to do much to change the status quo in the short term. According to climate theorists, the long term is not an option.

What is needed is a tax on producers who will, in turn, be encouraged to invest directly and immediately in more efficient power generation with lower emissions as well as in renewable energy. A producer who can claim offsets or tax deductions against such investment will not be eligible to ‘double dip’ by passing the entire tax on to consumers/customers.

Lower income households particularly need encouragement to invest in improved insulation, evaporative air conditioning systems rather than energy hungry reverse cycle units, gas heating, solar hot water systems and solar panels connected to the grid. There is no reason why small wind turbines, known as ‘wind chargers’, used extensively to power low voltage electricity systems in rural areas in the not too distant past, should not become a feature of our suburbs. The many large buildings, including government complexes, in Australia which rely on air conditioning 24/7 should long since have been sporting solar arrays. This sort of investment by individual consumers and businesses should be rewarded by tax deductions rather than by the imposition of a punitive indirect tax on consumers.

Further to the point about insulation, as a long-time resident of an area prone to sub-zero winter nights, in a standard brick veneer home ceiling insulation helps but is not enough. Ideally walls, floors would be insulated and windows double glazed, especially if those who say the world will start cooling again are right.

A final note about people renting who cannot easily modify their environment to save on energy costs. Something needs to be done to encourage landlords to make their properties more energy efficient. In a tight rental market, so-called market forces are as likely to encourage landlords to neglect their properties as anything else.

Perhaps the greatest weakness of the emissions reduction campaign has been the focus on an invisible, largely inert and – if one discounts the greenhouse effect – harmless natural element, viz. Carbon dioxide. Climate change, climate alarmism and climate doubt are all fertile grounds for misunderstanding and confusion. The other toxic, health damaging and environmentally degrading by-products of the extraction and combustion of fossil fuels are plain for all to see, whether its miners dying a slow and painful death from lung disease, brain-damaged children in polluted urban environments, oil-soaked sea-birds or, as so movingly portrayed in “The Last Mountain”, the destruction of an entire community and the ecology which supported it, are plain for all to see.

We do need to break the stranglehold of fossil fuels on our community. The only questions to be answered relate to the best and most effective manner to wean ourselves onto green energy. A graduated tax appears at first glance to be an inefficient response; too little, probably too late. We need to cut emissions now and we have to be prepared for the changes to our lifestyle which this will entail. Until we take real, practical action we shall remain slaves to the technology which threatens to destroy us.

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