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Pricing Carbon: where morality meets economics

UnitingJustice Australia Director Rev Elenie Poulos

No-one much likes the Government’s Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme (CPRS). If we believe the coal industry, it will have us all using candles and riding horses! This is nonsense. If we believe other critics, it is so flawed and toothless that we’d be better off with nothing. This is dangerous.

We must put a price on carbon and we must do it soon. It is morally the right thing to do and it is the smart economic thing to do. What’s on offer is far from perfect but it is a start and far better than nothing.

There is currently no viable and developed alternative to the proposed CPRS. If we miss this chance, it will be a long time before we get anything.

The Uniting Church shares the concerns of those who believe that the current emission reduction targets for Australia for 2020 are too low. The best scientific evidence available shows that the Government’s emissions reductions targets of 5-15% will be drastically ineffective in avoiding dangerous climate change. The Government is giving far too much support for the coal industry (which has had years to make changes) and far too little support for the research, development and commercialisation of clean, renewable and low-emission technologies.

It is generally well accepted that the longer we go without pricing carbon the more expensive it will become for us. There is no doubt that the cost of both inaction and inadequate action will be borne by future generations. This is not a legacy we should leave to our children. Concern with our own short-term economic wellbeing (and political security) is both morally indecent and economically stupid.

Australia has a chance to be a major player in the emerging “green” global economy. We have a chance to wield some influence internationally if we demonstrate our own commitment. Both opportunities are at risk with a weak scheme and no scheme.

The Senate Inquiry will be an opportunity for us all to tell the Government that we want deeper targets for emissions reductions by 2020 than the ones they have proposed.

We also need to tell the Government that we expect them to put the right supports in place – support that prioritises the needs of poorest in Australia over those of business and shareholders; support for workers in polluting industries before support for increasing company profits; reasonable support for emissions intensive trade exposed industries (it makes no sense to just let them take their business elsewhere) and encouragement for them go clean; serious and well developed support for clean, renewable energy industries; and aid for developing countries who are already bearing the brunt of our polluting.

Implementing a good emissions trading scheme will signal Australia’s seriousness and willingness to be part of the global climate change solution, which we have refused to do for many years. Failure to implement the CPRS would be disastrous for our participation in the international climate change negotiations at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen in December this year. What credibility will Australia bring to these negotiations, and beyond, for strong international climate change action if our efforts domestically have been so lacklustre? Although Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions on a whole-of-country basis are small on the global scale, we are still in the top 20 countries in terms of our emissions and our per capita emissions place us near the top of the pile internationally. It would be hypocritical of Australia to sit back and do nothing whilst we demand other nations, both developed and developing, reduce their emissions. We should be seeking to make a comparable effort.

The Uniting Church regards climate change as a most serious threat to our future. The current global financial crisis is no excuse not to proceed with urgent action to address this unfolding disaster. Rather, climate change is another major demonstration of the failure of the current economic system to sustain life and prosperity. The challenges thrown up by the current crisis give us the opportunity reassess the relationship between humanity and the environment, to move to a climate-friendly economy which values the atmosphere for its intrinsic worth as part of the sacred gift of the planet and its absolute importance in sustaining all life.

Photo : UnitingJustice Australia Director Rev Elenie Poulos