PROFESSOR ROSS Garnaut, establishment economist and China expert, dropped a bombshell in his interim report on climate change, jointly commissioned by state and federal governments.

He bluntly warns that time is running out and only “urgent, large and effective global policy change” holds any hope of avoiding the risks of dangerous climate change.

While Garnaut endorses Labor’s target of 60 per cent reduction of greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 he also proposes a 90 per cent Australian reduction target both to stabilise emissions at a safe level and to kickstart serious negotiations for an effective global agreement.

The call for a 90 per cent reduction of emissions as a possible Australian target was too much for the Rudd government. Minister for Climate Change, Senator Penny Wong promptly downgraded the importance of the report from its pre-election framing as the core source for Labor policy, to being a “key contribution to government thinking”.

The report exposes the serious impediments to reaching a global agreement drastic enough to stop dangerous climate change. Garnaut calls them “national interest” and “geopolitical considerations”. We would call it imperialist rivalry.

Garnaut was evidently shocked by the scientific evidence of greater warming and rates of emission growth since 2000. He states that Australia is doubly vulnerable, both from the direct impact on our highly variable climate and from the adverse effect of warming on developing countries in our region.

While the press made much of the 90 per cent target they missed the more important point Garnaut makes repeatedly, that Australia cannot wait for the complex and difficult international agreement to begin reducing emissions. He argues for Australia to act now and for bilateral and regional agreements with Indonesia and Papua New Guinea to start reducing emissions and sharing costs and technology. The point is to demonstrate to developing countries that the cost of dealing with climate change will not be keeping them poor.

Garnaut outlines an Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) for Australia, arguing that it would need government intervention including regulation, public funding and action to counter market failures. However, the fact he identifies market failure as an impediment to ETS effectiveness should set off warning bells.

An ETS, even with a high price for emission permits and stiff penalties for non-compliance, will not achieve the reduction in emissions necessary. It is market-based competition, putting profit before human need and equitable use of resources, which got us in this mess. Similar trading schemes across the world have failed to deliver real change. Trading schemes place more power in the hands of corporations who are responsible for global warming.

The report itself recognises that for poor households and poor countries alike the costs of adaptation to climate change and a low-emission economy must be spread equitably to ensure the success of long-term policies. In any market-based solution, it is the poor that end up paying.

Garnaut mentions a carbon tax but doesn’t bother to discuss it. He knows there is no audience for this argument in government or business. But direct regulations such as a tax are required to force change, and would put money into government coffers to help subsidise poor households adapting to low-emission requirements.

Investment in renewable energy could allow a just transition for workers in polluting industries and create thousands of new jobs.Climate change is a union issue.

It will cause humanitarian crisis around the world and massive job loses, higher prices for water, electricity, transport and food at home.

That’s why the most important front for combating global warming is the NSW electricity privatisation struggle. A privatised power industry will be an enormous barrier to change, and shift the cost of restructuring to low-emission production onto the workers and domestic consumers. But a win against the NSW government on this serves notice that together we can force government to act in all our interests.

As socialists we need to make the argument to environmental campaigners and unionists alike that we must take up the cause together to prevent more global warming.

Garnaut’s report is intended to signal to government and business that real change is needed and will have costs. Their response has not been encouraging-and signals the seriousness of the fight ahead.

by Anne Picot

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