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Black Saturday 7 February 2009: Melbourne’s temperature reached 46.4 degrees (116.5 deg F), fanned by strong hot winds 400 bushfires across the state killed over 170 people and destroyed 700 homes. And the dams supplying the state with water are at record lows.

If letters to the editor in the newspaper are any indication, many people are making the link between the terrible events of 7 February and climate change.

Fifteen years ago – on 21 March 1994 in Rio de Janeiro the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) came into existence. This document states that “The Parties should take precautionary measures to anticipate, prevent or minimize the causes of climate change and mitigate its adverse effects. Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty should not be used as a reason for postponing such measures.”

Australia’s parliament ratified the convention in 1992 – before it came into force. The USA ratified it in 1992. China ratified it in 1993. 192 countries around the world have ratified the UNFCCC.

Yet fifteen years on global carbon emissions have ballooned. Clearly the parties have NOT undertaken precautionary measures to prevent of minimise the causes of climate change and mitigate its adverse effects.

Based on my understanding of climate change science had there been concerted action to take precautionary measures fifteen years ago Victoria may have still experienced Black Saturday, although perhaps it might not have been quite as bad. This is because of the tremendous inertia in climatic systems. I’d be happy to stand corrected on this by someone suitably qualified.

However if we had managed to cut global carbon emissions from 1994 on I believe that the likely 50 degree temperatures that I have a feeling Victoria may be experiencing in the next twenty or thirty years probably could have been avoided. And that we may well have in our vocabulary then a complete set of Black days – a Black Sunday, a Black Monday, a Black Tuesday, a Black Wednesday, a Black Thursday, a Black Saturday and a Black Sunday.

Unfortunately based on what I read of the science of climate change this full suite of Black days could now well be locked in because of the great inertia of our climatic systems. However if we do manage to greatly cut emissions now we may avoid even worse weather.

Why, in 2009, are atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases still on the rise? I believe primarily because of fear of the economic costs that may arise if resources were put into cutting carbon pollution. Fear fanned by fossil fuel dependent industries.

Yet ever since former World Bank chief economist Nicolas Stern published the Stern Review of Climate Change in 2006 its been credibly shown that the future economic consequences of inaction far outweigh the economic costs of acting now to prevent dangerous climate change.

Whoever you are that is reading this – if you are shocked by the events of Black Saturday -  let me put it to you that you should consider cutting your carbon emissions to lessen the number of future black Tuesdays. Don’t just say this is the government’s problem and leave it at that. You see most governments around the world are not doing enough to drive the sorts of carbon cuts we need. The Australian federal government is an example of this – the 5% carbon reduction target by 2020 is laughable given what the science is saying.

So it is up to all of us to do something – both at home and also at work. Don’t just bitch and moan about how the government isn’t doing enough. Do something yourself. Take whatever assistance you can get from your government – but don’t stop at that – go beyond that. People of the world – unite to cut our carbon emissions – hopefully our government’s will one day start to genuinely lead instead of just continuing to play the prisoner’s dilemma.  (That is saying they recognise there is a problem, but aren’t willing to act unless other countries act because acting alone would be bad for the economy and that acting along wouldn’t reduce carbon emissions sufficiently to actually make much of a difference). And if you live in Victoria, make a fire plan.

And let me also suggest that choosing to act may not be of that much economic cost now, that in fact if you are particularly wasteful in your use of fossil fuel sourced energy that you may still be in front financially by cutting your carbon pollution – even after you’ve spend some of your savings to buy 100% greenpower.  And that choosing to act now may well be of great benefit to you and your family in the future.

At home get a smaller car. Then substitute a drive with a phone call, a walk or a cycle. Switch off stuff not in use – at the wall. Insulate. Get rid of those horribly wasteful halogen downlights.

At work do an energy audit, or get one done, and act on it. Delamp. Optimise your cooling and heating. Turn off stuff not in use – at the wall. Get energy efficient computers and equipment.

At home and work buy 100% certified green power, or get solar panels (make sure you aren’t selling the carbon savings in exchange for a discount from the supplier).

Climate change demands a vigorous, positive response – the more of us who do this, the greater the likelihood of climate stability in the future.

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5 Responses

  • Ian Westmore says:

    While not selling the carbon credits from solar installations is vital, unfortunately, this is will not prevent the CO2 saved being emitted under Rudd’s ETS.

    By giving major coal-fired generators free CO2 permits for most of their emissions based on their 2004-7 outputs and then allowing them to sell unused permits any CO2 individuals save by installing solar cells/water heaters, energy efficient lights and appliances or otherwise reducing their energy use will still end up in the atmosphere.

  • Bruce Rowse says:

    Ian, you are right – to a point. If I understand you correctly what you are saying is under the ETS the generator claims the savings from my energy savings (because ultimately whatever I save reduces demand back to a power station somewhere). Whether I reduce my energy consumption or not the generators will need to meet a reduction target (presumably the 5%). If I reduce my energy consumption I just make it easier for the generators.

    Keeping the maths very simple – assuming zero growth in demand for fossil fuel generated power – if 10% of electricity users voluntary cut their consumption by half, resulting an overall 5% saving, the generators wouldn’t have to do anything at all to curb emissions. The voluntary reduction therefore wouldn’t be additional to the legislated reduction in the ETS.

    Where your argument falls down is if there is a mass movement by most electricity users to reduce their usage of carbon-based power. So lets say 50% of all electricity users cut their use of carbon-based power by half, we would then have a 25% carbon saving. This would be an additional 20% on top of the 5% mandated by the ETS. 20% that would not have been saved otherwise.

    So to a point the ETS is a perverse disincentive for voluntary electricity conservation. And I hope that this can be changed. But given the need for urgent carbon reductions I don’t believe that this should be a reason for inaction. We need large carbon reductions, well beyond 5% by 2020. So yes, lets press the government to be more ambitious and change the rules so that voluntary action no matter how small, results in a carbon saving that otherwise wouldn’t have happened. But we can’t afford to just leave it to the government and hope for policy changes. If enough of us act we can voluntarily achieve large carbon reductions well in excess of 5% by 2020. And for a stable climate we do need this kind of mass voluntary reduction as our government has clearly stated with its puny 5% reduction target that it is not serious about avoiding dangerous climate change.

  • Ian Westmore says:

    So lets say 50% of all electricity users cut their use of carbon-based power by half, we would then have a 25% carbon saving. This would be an additional 20% on top of the 5% mandated by the ETS. 20% that would not have been saved otherwise.


    Because then the generators, the worst of which BTW get 90% of the permits free, can then sell the permits for the 20% carbon saved to polluters who *will* send that ‘saved’ carbon up their smoke stacks/exhaust pipes etc.

    That is one of the problems of this type of scheme (especially when many of the permits are free). It controls not only on the maximum emissions but also the minimum.

    Furthermore, while the ETS is supposed to gradually reduce the number of permits available to 5% below current emission rates by 2020, this is an overall target. There is no mechanism to reduce it by industry sector, so generators do not necessarily have their permits reduced by 5%. In fact, the number of free permits issued to them will actually rise as they increase capacity, putting an increasing burden on other industries because those extra permits will be taken from the overall ‘pool.’

    The only way of achieving that additional 20% reduction would be buying permits on the open market and not using them. People may be willing to do their bit by driving less, taking shorter showers etc, but handing over cold hard cash? I doubt it in these economic times, especially when they are being, IMO, mislead to believe the government is taking care of the problem.

    And if you believe the government is really serious about reducing emissions you may want to contemplate the mechanism they have chosen to cap the market price of the permits. Instead of a legislated limit they are giving the regulators a ‘magic bag’ containing an unlimited number of additional permits to be used to flood the market whenever the price exceeds the maximum price set (initially $40/tonne).

    The 5% target is a joke. Not only won’t it have any significant affect on climate change, given the number of fudge factors built into the ETS, I don’t believe we will even achieve that minuscule target. The only tangible result will be in polluters’ bank accounts.

  • Bruce Rowse says:

    Hi Ian,

    Thanks for that explanation. I see what you are saying now. Its very depressing.

    An extension of what you are saying would be that a lot of voluntary action would push down the price of carbon, which would make it easier for major polluters to buy more permits if they needed them…

    So thinking through this… the only way greater than a 5% reduction could be achieved would be if a large majority (almost all) of the 700 to 1000 companies that are subject to the ETS voluntarily set their own internal reduction targets much greater than 5%. In essence this would make the carbon price zero, because there would be no demand for permits. The few companies that didn’t have ambitious targets would benefit from this, but not sufficiently to take too much away from the savings achieved. Of course for this to work it would need almost all of these companies to have strong commitments – probably at least 80% of them.

    The other scenario is breakthough energy conservation practices, energy efficiency and renewable energy generation technologies that make it financially stupid to generate a lot of carbon.

    Neither of which the ETS will drive.

    Which comes back to the argument for voluntary reduction – not so much for you or I but for the companies subject to the ETS. And on the other hand for technological innovation and entrepreneurship to make saving carbon a no brainer from an economic perspective.

  • Pingback: The ETS wipes 7 years off my life and perhaps yours too » Blog Archive » The ETS wipes 7 years off my life and perhaps yours too.

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