The Real Obstacles to Greenhouse Action

[A related article was posted on On Line Opinion 2 Aug 2010.]

The smoke screen obscuring the real obstacles to reducing Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions is unlikely to be dissipated by the imminent election campaign, whatever the global warming policies the Gillard Government.

We will hear the same old claims that action will be technically difficult and expensive, that it will chase industries and jobs off shore, that gigabuck technology will eventually save us, and that we should not act seriously until the rest of the world acts.

None of these claims is true.  Each of them is regularly discredited with readily available evidence.  Yet they persist.  The reason they persist is that they serve the selfish interests of the presently powerful.

The real obstacle to reducing our greenhouse gas emissions is the political influence of the presently wealthy and powerful.  They wish to maintain their wealth and power, and therefore they oppose any shift in our industrial and social structures that would favour new industries and provide new sources of wealth.  In the process they condemn our grandchildren to a difficult world.

There are by now many smart designs available that dramatically reduce the energy usage of buildings, factories and, potentially, transportation and cities.  With a serious program to implement and retrofit smart designs, our energy use and emissions could start to decline immediately, and within a decade could have been reduced by tens of percent.

As our energy needs decline, so renewable energy sources become more feasible and sufficient.  A smartly managed mix of available geothermal, hydro, wind, solar and storage could provide a rapidly increasing and reliable proportion of our declining energy needs, thus further reducing emissions.

Economic studies show that with a coherent policy framework to encourage these shifts the net cost to the economy could be minimal, a reduction of the growth rate by a few tenths of a percent.  This could mean, for example, that instead of doubling our wealth within twenty years we double it within twenty one or two years.

Some studies even suggest there could be net savings to the economy, which means we should do it regardless of what other countries are doing.  Even if there is a modest cost, we should still do it, because it will demonstrate good policy to other countries and we would gain an advantage in the new industries, a race that we are currently losing badly.

The crucial word here is “net”.  The net cost to the economy can be minimal.  Some sectors of the economy would prosper, whereas others would not.  A political difficulty arises because the new industries are mostly not yet wealthy and powerful, whereas the old industries that will decline are very well established with great political influence.

Thus implementing good policy will require strong political leadership, leadership that steps back and balances the noisy squeals of protest from present vested interests against the more muted but meritorious interests of the whole country and the new industries.  Such leadership we manifestly lack at present.

The power of present vested interests was recently demonstrated dramatically by the mining industry’s campaign against the proposed tax on super profits.  Through saturation publicity promulgating exaggerated and outrageous claims the industry dethroned a prime minister and considerably reduced the tax.

Some jobs might well have been lost from the mining industry, though surely far fewer than the miners claimed.  However the additional wealth that stayed in the country instead of being lost to foreign shareholders would have generated other jobs.  A smart and responsible government would have emphasised this trade-off and might have neutralised much of the miners’ scare campaign.

An example closer to home of the power of vested interests has appeared recently in the Canberra Times, revealing how people are pressured to build less energy-efficient and larger houses than they desire.  The pressure comes not just from builders but from the virtually the whole industry, including architects and planners.

The present building industry keeps its costs lower if it simply does what it has always done, namely building energy-guzzling houses, and it increases its profit if houses are larger.  Good policy would modify these incentives as well as countering the selfish arguments of the industry.

The outstanding example of the power of vested interests is the coal industry, which has virtually dictated global warming policy to recent governments.  Any effective policy on greenhouse gas emissions must reduce coal burning.  However no policy has been implemented or seriously proposed that would significantly reduce coal burning, and thus coal profits.

The coal industry also promulgates the claim that carbon emissions can be captured and stored underground.  This has to be the most conjectural technology of any proposed to reduce emissions, it would surely be extremely expensive if it ever worked at all on the required scale, and it would not in any case become effective until perhaps 2030, by which time global warming would very likely be running out of conrol, if it is not already.

We will not have effective policy on global warming unless and until we have leadership strong enough to face down selfish vested interests.  Neither major party shows significant evidence of such leadership.  Both have allowed themselves to become dependent on wealthy donors and thus beholden to the presently powerful.

We will only have effective action if the voice of the people is loud and clear, and is expressed through action as well as words.  We should also seriously consider banning political donations and funding elections from the public purse according to an equitable formula. We, the people, need to reclaim our democracy.

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