I believe we stand at a crossroads or, more accurately, at the lip of a giant precipice. There have been doomsayers throughout history, and all of them have been wrong (we're still here, aren't we?). Humanity has struggled through disaster, calamity and cataclysmic events, still managing to muddle through to our current position at the top of the food chain, masters of all that we survey.
The difference is that the current environmental disaster staring us in the face is the most fundamental and serious one of all. It all comes down to a very simple fact:
The planet Earth is a closed system.
There are several consequences to this, namely:
- 1. The amount of non-renewable resources at our disposal is finite. Once we pass the peak supply point (peak oil, peak coal, etc.) then, ceteris paribus, we are no longer able to grow at the same ridiculous rate as we did before the peak event.
It is a self-evident fact that peak resource events will result in a need for MAJOR changes in how we conduct our existence on this planet, if we are to avoid annihilation as we fight amongst ourselves for the scraps that are left, face famine, water shortages, etc.
Essentially, imagine the Earth as a very big pie. No matter how we slice it, you can't get more pie out of it.
- 2. Waste from the way we exploit the resources at our disposal (extraction, refinement, manufacturing, obsolescence, etc.) build up in the various ecosystems, eventually reaching the point where the self-regulating properties of the biosphere are no longer able to sustain life in the same manner, if at all.
There is no magic carpet that we can sweep the unbelievable amounts of pollution we produce under. One need only look at the sorry state of our rivers, our oceans and our air to see the mess we have made of the planet.
Action needs to be taken to set things right. It is not a hopeless situation. Humankind can apply their vaunted ingenuity, creativity, imagination, willpower and plain old hard work to set us all on the right path. The planetary biosphere is delightfully powerful at regulating itself, and with our help, much of the damage we have done can be repaired. But even a biosphere as big as planet Earth cannot continue to cope with the stresses we have put it under. We need to fix things now, not in 50 years, or 20, or even 10.
Having said that, I do not believe for one second that an ETS (Emissions Trading Scheme) will do anything to help reduce our ecological footprint.
The major problems with the ETS as I see it are as follows:
- 1. The ETS only addresses carbon emissions. Whilst this is a major contributor to climate change, it does not even begin to address the larger and much more important issue of general pollution.
- 2. The ETS will most likely rely on a grossly over-simplified categorisation of the sources of carbon emissions. Do we place a tax on every cow that farts? What about burning of sugar cane during harvesting? How do we propose to identify every carbon emission contributor during the incredibly complex processes of production and manufacture that underlie the fabric of our society?
- 3. Carbon emissions that are directly under the control of human beings make up a significant but not major percentage of the total carbon emission of the planet. We have no control over methane production of rotting vegetation in swamps, we cannot put a plug in volcanoes.
- 4. The ETS is a cap and trade scheme. That is, a national cap is placed on the amount of carbon emissions allowed. Greenhouse permits will be allocated, and can be traded by companies if they don't use up their quota. It won't take long for the big polluters (who incidentally are the richest) to step in and gobble up all the permits. This means that they will still be polluting just as much as ever (if not more, as they now have more permits), and the poorer industries and sectors will be left with too few permits to conduct their business. They will simply be priced out of the game. So, how will our already near-bankrupt state government be able to afford to put more and more money into buying expensive permits for the public transport sector? Public transport is just one example, but a very important one. There will most likely be cutbacks, leading to more cars on the roads, leading to more pollution, etc., etc., etc.
- 5. The ETS is a cap and trade scheme. Hello?? We will have a whole new stock exchange, fuelled by greed, funded by the public purse (i.e. yours and my taxes). Traders, brokers and agents will be skimming their fees and commissions off the top. The ETS market will be prone to the same boom and bust cycles of the regular stock exchanges.
- 6. How is it proposed to accurately measure the actual reduction of emissions? Will it rely purely on the word of the major emitters? This is hardly likely to be accurate. Will emission measuring equipment be installed in every factory, car, cow, etc.? Hardly. The technology isn't there, and even if it were, it would be prohibitively expensive, and prone to tampering by unscrupulous emitters. So essentially we have no clear way in which to measure the actual reduction of emissions, if any.
- 7. The cost of setting up and running a regulatory body to oversee the ETS (and to measure/enforce emissions) will be very expensive. There will undoubtedly be the usual baggage of red tape beaurocracy, blame shifting, political meddling, vested interests and lobbying by major polluters, leading to an ineffective system at best, and an actual increase in overall pollution at worst.
- 8. Emitters will choose the cheapest possible way of reducing their emissions (or reportable/measurable emissions) instead of being forced to adopt a much more efficient and long-sighted systemic change that will have a lasting impact on our ecological footprint. But then that would require the government of the day to have the balls to make some unpopular political decisions and actually make a difference, instead of this watered down tax-funded travesty of a system.
- 9. The hardest hit will be the poor and those living in rural areas. City dwellers and the well-off middle classes, who are very much the largest slice of the emission pie, will have nowhere near the same level of economic incentive to change their wasteful ways.
- 10. The ETS, if introduced, will have major and far-reaching consequences to our quality of life, with very little benefit to the environment. And yet, the average person on the street knows sweet dick all about what the ETS actually is, and what it will mean for us. It has been shrouded in secrecy by the politicians on all sides, and the media has focused more on the political turmoil than on actually informing the public about the facts (wow, how unusual). There should be a major education and information campaign about it. It should be brought out into the open, instead of being behind closed Senate doors, so that we can all debate the issue and form our own opinions. Dare I say that, living in a democracy as we do, we should put it to a referendum?
The whole emphasis of the current debate is on reducing emissions. This is doomed to fail, as it is an over-simplified view of things. What we should be focusing on is setting up carbon sinks to soak up the excess carbon. Plant more trees and other vegetation. This will have a much greater impact on the well-being of the natural processes and balance of the biosphere than any arbitrary tax or half-arsed emissions cap by 2020.
Another major benefit of this is that Australia, whilst not being a major emitter in the world scheme, has the potential to be a major carbon sink. We have just about the largest amount of open, unused space on the planet, ready to be greened. This would have flow-on benefits such as changing our weather patterns for the better, improving natural processes, processing and cleaning pollution, allowing for much greater productivity and fertility in our depleted soils, and would just about get rid of our salinity problems.
If you think this is pie in the sky stuff and that I've suddenly turned over a new, naive leaf, then think again. The greening of Australia is eminently achievable well within our lifetimes. It won't be easy, but it can be done.
Most Australians will probably not have heard of Peter Andrews. He is an amazing Australian who has fought most of his life to achieve this very end. He has lost much in his struggles against government, entrenched farming ideas that our forefathers brought with them from Europe, and blinkered science-of-the-day thinking. His knowledge of land and water management is not just esoteric book-learning, but rather a lifetime's work in practicing what he preaches. With his Natural Sequence Farming techniques, he has rejuvenated areas that most had given up on.
We would be able to create hundreds of thousands of new jobs, to tend the fields and forests. It wouldn't take much effort to re-skill all of those workers in the heavy polluter industries either.
Yet another flow-on advantage of this is that self-sustainable rural communities could be set up throughout the great wide spaces, away from the coasts. These communities would house the workers and families tending the new green areas. This would solve the wasteful trend of population concentration in urban centres, thus greatly reducing the stresses on the ailing infrastructure of our major cities. The people of Australia would be able to save tens, perhaps hundreds of billions of dollars on increasing infrastructure capacity, and instead spend it on setting up the rural communities.
Also, ask yourself this simple question: would you be happier living a life that is harming the planet or living a life that is healing it? Discontent would be replaced with pride in our actions. Australia would become Mother Earth's green lungs, and we would all be able to breathe easy in the knowledge that we were a major contributor to healing the planet. Now that's what I call progress.
So, what is stopping us? Let's get on with it, and forget all this rubbish about an ETS. The time to act is now, because it is almost too late. This is the single greatest threat we have ever faced, and if we do not act accordingly, we will not survive. Even more tragically, we will take a large portion of the blessed diversity of life on this planet with us. If we rely on our politicians to argue about a new tax and how to protect the big polluters, we will have missed our chance.
We need to stand up and be counted. We don't just need free thinkers, but free doers. In my oh so small way, I am trying to reduce my ecological footprint, to stutter along the path to self sufficiency, to try to better understand this amazing planet for what it is - a wonder of creation, and to attempt to place myself in what I believe is our rightful place in that creation - as custodians of all that we survey, instead of as consumers and destroyers of all that we survey.
It is time to shake ourselves out of our comfortable middle-class existence and make some concrete changes to the way we live. If we sit back and wait for the politicians and the "free market" to do something about it, then we deserve everything that's coming to us.