> December 2006 - Tim Stephens

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December 2006

At negotiations for the Kyoto Protocol Australia secured a couple of great concessions - the most significant being that we were allowed to increase our emissions to 108 per cent of 1990 levels by 2008-2012. But despite maintaining that this target will be reached, Australia never ratified the Protocol. In its most recent projections, the Australian Greenhouse office now says that Australia's greenhouse gas emissions will reach 603 Mt CO2 -e over 2008-12, which is 109% of 1990 levels. One per cent is hardly a blowout, but what follows surely will be. Rather than emissions coming down as a result of Government policy, they will continue to rise, to a projected 127% of 1990 levels by 2020.

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When the Prime Minister recently established a task group to examine what a global carbon trading scheme might look like, he attracted a lot of flak for not appointing a single representative from the renewable energy industry, or from an environmental group such as the ACF. Well news yesterday that at its first meeting the carbon task group decided to get input from beyond its narrow fossil fuel industry focus. It will release a discussion paper in February and invite interested groups to respond. This seems a rather long way from meaningful involvement by the players in renewables who will be central to any comprehensive carbon trading scheme, national or global.

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An interesting statistic in the recent draft nuclear power review by the Switkowski panel has been largely overlooked by nuclear enthusiasts but picked up by the Climate Institute. The review shows that even on the most optimistic assumptions of nuclear power uptake, where 25 nuclear plants are built across Australia, total greenhouse emissions would still increase by 40% by 2030. If 25 stations were built then emissions would plateau at 700 Mt CO2-e by 2050, 150 Mt CO2e below the business as usual scenario. Yet emissions would still be 200 Mt CO2-e above 2001 levels. This makes reading James Lovelock's The Revenge of Gaia even more depressing, as Lovelock places so much store in nuclear power as a way for humanity to buy some time while we work out a way to abandon fossil and other non-renewable fuels.

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Generating a lot of weblog chatter is a proposal by economist Warwick McKibbon for a carbon trading scheme that might just work to cap and then bring down greenhouse emissions, even with no target being set. The whole idea is to make carbon permits valuable and widely held in the community in order to create a constituency that is interested in carbon prices being always on the up (like baby boomers enjoying rising house prices). The scheme is described by McKibbin in a revealing interview with Peter Martin.

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Until recently the Federal Government has shunned the concept of carbon trading. That might change in May 2007 when the Prime Minister's task group on emissions trading reports back. But we shouldn't hold our collective breath for individual carbon rationing as recently proposed by the UK Environment Secretary David Milliband. Or should we? Malcolm Turnbull, the Federal water supremo, has already been thinking about how rationing could work for water better than the restrictions currently in place (which stop the kids running through the sprinkler, but allow mum and dad to spend all day in the shower should they wish). Households would each be given a water entitlement and if they exceeded it they'd have to pay a premium for extra water. Under this type of system we could sell excess water to our neighbours if they wanted it (indeed we have a fair bit of H2O at the moment, thanks to the 4000l rainwater sac we had installed under our house this week).

Climate change has finally arrived on Australian shores as a political issue, even though we've already experienced a faster rate of warming than the rest of the world (temperatures in Australia have increased by around 1 degree C, as compared to the gobal average of 0.6 degrees C). But rather than making new policy the Prime Minister has been busy making new taskforces. The first, on nuclear power, recently released a draft report. Regardless of one's perspective on things nuclear at least the report pulled no punches in highlighting the threat of climate change nationally and globally. The second task force, on carbon trading, was established last Sunday and its composition and terms of reference suggests that it will be far more ambivalent in recognising the existential threat of climate change.

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