Opportunities in a warming world


Sydney Morning Herald, 30th July 2008

By Chris Bowen

In politics, we like to think that every day we are dealing with issues of vital importance - decisions that improve life for generations to come.

The reality is, however, that only a couple of issues in any parliamentary term are of generational importance - in areas which, if we do not make the right decision now, future governments will not be able to correct them.

Climate change is one such generational issue.

How we respond today will be judged by those who come after us. They will ask: "Did they do enough?"

If we are not to disappoint future generations we must act now. And the best way to act is to put a price on that which is causing the damage: carbon. An emissions trading scheme will do this.

Sceptics have essentially given three reasons for not embracing an emissions trading scheme as soon as is practical.

First, they say, we cannot make an appreciable difference to global warming, that we should wait for China and India to act. This is an all too familiar argument. Some used to argue that Australia should not sign the Kyoto Protocol because the United States had not.

Their argument also ignores the fact that, when it comes to emissions, Australia punches above its weight in the worst possible way. With the highest emissions per capita in the OECD Australia adds as much carbon to the atmosphere as France or Britain. Do we really think we can sit on the sidelines?

Second, some people argue we should not act because we are not really sure that global warming is a problem, or they contend that climate change is not man-made. Tony Abbott recently attempted to make this argument when he posited that "the science is evolving". The world's most eminent scientists disagree. The United Nations panel on climate change has found that "warming of the climate system is unequivocal". This is strong language from anyone. From 2000 scientists, it is extraordinary.

Finally, it is argued by some that the costs of introducing an emissions trading scheme are just too great.

The Economist, a fierce defender of free market economics, has argued the alternative point of view eloquently. In 2006 it argued " the chances of serious consequences are high enough to make it worth spending the (not exorbitant) sums needed to try to mitigate climate change".

And, as Ross Garnaut and Sir Nicholas Stern have argued, the costs of action are far less than the costs of inaction.

Every challenge is an opportunity.

Although the carbon pollution reduction scheme will have costs, it will also provide opportunities for Australian businesses to innovate and lead the world - in solar energy, for example.

We need no reminding that we are a hot country, but the International Energy Agency has found that Australia has the highest average solar radiation of any continent.

As countries such as Israel have led the world in the development of solar technology, Australia has slipped behind.

The imposition of a price on carbon will send a powerful signal and an incentive to investors that solar energy is worthy of a capital injection.

The potential for solar energy is significant. Technological improvements, together with the increased costs of more conventional energy, mean that solar technology will soon be economically viable in markets that have worked hard to develop the technology, such as California and Italy.

Of course, solar is not the only alternative energy source. Wind, geothermal and wave technology all have huge potential, as does geosequestration. But I point to solar as the example of an industry in which Australia has a natural advantage that is not being capitalised on.

It is easy to focus on the costs of action; anyone can sit on the sidelines and predict doom and gloom.

There is no doubt that climate change presents a huge policy challenge to Australia. Professor Garnaut's description of the challenge as being "diabolical" is close to the mark.

At their heart, the arguments against starting from 2010 all have the same starting point - let's delay because it is too hard.

Not only have Australians always stepped up to face crises head on, but equally it is at such times that our ability to seize an opportunity has come to the fore.

The reality of climate change poses just such a challenge for today's generation of Australians. If we can turn this challenge into an opportunity, future generations will look back and say this generation passed the test.

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