Saturday, 5 December 2009

Review: Quarry Vision, Quarterly Essay issue 33 2009, Guy Pearse

This no-nonsense appraisal of the state of government carbon trading at the beginning of 2009 is not only timely, it is a good read. Pearse's experience as a Liberal Party speach-writer, industry lobbyist and PR consultant places him at the nexus of right-wing government, commercial companies, and NGOs. In the era of Rudd and the Labor Party, says Pearse, the call for action from the Left needs to be just as loud.

He says that, under Rudd, nothing has changed from the Howard years. The coal industry is just as active in petitioning government via countless think tanks and industry groups, consulting firms and lobbyists, as it has ever been.

This force in society is pressing for special treatment, which Pearce says the Rudd government is delivering in the form of free carbon credits that average people will have to pay for. He also says that the targets set by Rudd are not much of an improvement over those offered by Howard.

In effect, Labor claims of "11 years of government inaction" can easily be countered with accusations of soft-pedalling on coal. New mines are announced regularly, new exploration leases are granted, new coal-loading terminals are built.

The only thing that would be really new would be to dispense with coal altogether.

Pearse says that, despite what people think, the demise of the coal industry would not damage the Australian economy all that much. Not only are most of the major players overseas-owned anyway - meaning profits get shipped elsewhere - but the fact that Australia could be perceived in the international community as a country committed to clean energy would lead to additional investment.

Not clean coal which, says Pearse, is a pipe-dream.

And it's not just the lobbyists who are putting pressure on the politicians. Howard-era bureaucrats remain in place, says Pearce, making change difficult. Like the lobbyists, these men and women are dedicated to extending the effective life of an industry - coal - which some of them helped to bolster in the 90s under previous Labor governments.

Too much human capital has been invested in the industry, Pearse says, for it to be abandoned now. Yet it must be abandoned, he says, if we are to avoid catastrophic climate change. The coal shipped to China and India will not be burnt 'cleanly' and so Australia is acting like asbestos makers, he says, by supplying unethical operators with a product that will irretrievably damage the global environment within a few decades.

As the Copenhagen climate summit sponsored by the United Nations looms over the next couple of weeks, this Quarterly Essay makes for timely reading. We can only hope that Rudd's anemic emissions trading legislation will be dragged toward the top of its proposed reduction scale, of between five and 25 percent by 2020.

Anything else will be far too little, far too late.

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