Assisting the region adopt renewable energy
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Assisting the region adopt renewable energy

It’s a much overused pun, but the debate on climate change is starting to warm up again in Australia. The federal Labor government is pressuring the Opposition Liberal Party to pass legislation in the Senate instituting an emission trading scheme – formally called a Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme (CPRS) – before the end of the year when the crucial climate change conference at Copenhagen is held. The Senate only has three weeks of sittings in which to deal with the legislation, and the government is currently negotiating with the Opposition to see if they can reach agreements on amendments to the legislation.

This weekend, hundreds of events of varying sizes have been held throughout Australia, including one on the steps of the Sydney Opera House. They coincided with others around the world reinforcing a call for greater cuts in carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions to bring the world back to a level of 350 parts per million of CO2 in the atmosphere.  The Australian government’s legislation currently sets a target of 450 by the year 2050. The overseas activity in support of this campaign which got the most media attention in Australia was the underwater Cabinet meeting of the Maldives government.

Meanwhile, public action group GetUp! have so far managed to raise over AUS$150,000 (US$138,430) in public donations to pay for the screening of a television advertisement to counter some of the public relations campaigns currently deployed by the coal industry in the lead up to the Senate’s vote on the issue.

Most of the media commentary on the issue has focused on the politics, in particular whether the issue will leave an already divided Opposition even further weakened. Much less attention has been paid to whether the CPRS as it is currently designed – with large amounts of compensation to big polluters – will produce the necessary amount of emission reductions. Even less attention has been given to the adequacy of its long-term costings, as a piece in The Australian newspaper by Lenore Taylor notes. 

In particular, she states “the economic responsibility argument comes down to how Australia should use the billions of dollars it raises from selling pollution permits,” an issue which is yet to be addressed beyond the first year or two of the scheme’s operation.

The chances are there will be significant amounts of revenue derived from the CPRS which has yet to be allocated for spending. The article quotes two independent estimates which range between AUS$11.5 billion (US$10.7bn) and AUS$21 billion (US$19.5bn).

An obvious potential future use for such revenue is in assisting developing countries cover the cost of shifting to a lower emission economy. Edwin Espejo writes at Asian about the current high cost of renewable energy in the Philippines compared to power derived from fossil fuel. Each country will have its different options, but his view is that the only viable renewable energy option for the Philippines is solar. Assisting less wealthy countries in our region by sudsidising the development of renewable options is an obvious role for an Australian government. Governments traditionally don’t like to be seen to be overly generous towards other countries, in case it leaves them open to criticism from their own citizenry about not putting their own people first. But if political and other leaders make the case for such support for others in our region, I believe it will not cause any political damage in Australia. 

The shocking tragedy of the Boxing Day tsunami in 2004 led to an unprecedented level of support at both government and general community levels in Australia, particularly in regards to assisting Indonesia, with the only political controversy being whether the support was being delivered fast enough. Climate change is an issue where people can easily understand that we’re all in it together. There is little point in reducing our own emissions in one country if we don’t ensure other countries are also able to adapt. We recently saw the human, physical and financial damage caused by floods in the Philippines, and we are likely to see more such events in our region given that most climate modelling predicts an increase in extreme weather events in coming years.

Of course, Australian governments on the whole haven’t been terribly good at dedicating major amounts of money to transforming the way we generate power, putting a lot of their hopes (and a fair bit of money) into carbon capture technology, which is still unproven, at least on the scale of operation which would be required. It will be great if it works, but meanwhile existing renewable alternatives are still getting spasmodic support. Helping countries in our region roll out solar and other renewable technology could make a significant contribution to reducing emissions, whilst also assisting with much needed improvements in quality of life for many in our region.