Friday, July 22, 2011

The Coalition plans to install 273 solar panels per day. Really.

It'll never happen.

Shane Wright of the West Australian examines its Direct Action Plan:

Australia has had 21 years of direct action to tackle climate change. And, in all but one case, it has been failure after failure.

In 1989 Bob Hawke pledged to plant 1 billion trees over the coming decade as part of an effort to improve the environment.

It’s a good starting point for the history of direct action.

What could be wrong with planting trees?

They make us feel good, they consume a lot of carbon dioxide, they stabilise the soil and they also reduce the air temperature around them.

But, more importantly, did all those trees make a substantial difference in cutting our greenhouse emissions?

Ultimately, you can talk about feeling green and doing our bit but unless the policy is working it is just empty rhetoric that comes at a cost borne by the taxpayers of the country.

Since Mr Hawke wandered around the country urging us to plant trees there have been a host of government efforts to improve the environment and cut greenhouse emissions.

Here’s the bottom line.

Since 1990 Australia’s greenhouse emissions have climbed (by about 6 percent) and are on their way to being about 30 percent higher by 2020.

According to the Grattan Institute, an independent think tank based out of Melbourne which has looked at this issue, the Federal and State governments have tried more than 300 emission reduction policies and programs since 1997.

There’s plenty of evidence available of what works and what doesn’t, of what gets some bang for its buck and what should be dumped because it’s hurting taxpayers and doing nothing for the environment.

One of the key elements of Tony Abbott’s "direct action" is a tendering process for farmers to sequester carbon in the soil...

More than half of the cut in emissions he promises under a coalition government come from this process at a fraction of the cost of a carbon tax (although how it would be monitored and policed is left out).

This is the track record of tendering processes to achieve environmental outcomes in this country.

"Analysis of a range of grant-tendering programs – involving $7 billion in budget funding – shows that they cannot reduce emissions at the necessary scale or speed," the institute’s economists and analysts found.

"On average, for every million dollars the government commits to such schemes, only $30,000 of operational projects result within five years and only $180,000 within 10 years.

"Based on experience, government would need to announce an abatement purchasing fund of $100 billion to meet the 2020 emissions reduction target."

Governments have channelled $5 billion of our money into rebate programs.

They were found to have produced "relatively little" and, to achieve the bipartisan goal for 2020 emissions, would require spending another $300 billion over the coming decade.

Grattan also reviewed energy efficiency standards.

We’ve got energy efficiency stickers on our fridges, dishwashers and big screen TVs, our homes are rated on energy efficiency. Surely it must be working?

Not really.

"Because they are limited in scope and slow to take effect, they cannot play more than a support role in meeting the 2020 targets," the institute found.

One of the Abbott direct action plans is to put "one million additional solar energy roofs on homes" by the end of this decade.

To do this the Government would offer an extra $1000 rebate for either solar panels or solar hot water systems, with a cap of 100,000 rebates a year.

Straight off there’s that rebate issue that worried Grattan, while the thought of 273 roofs getting covered in panels or homes getting solar hot water systems a day, every day, for a decade should worry anyone who watched the home insulation program.

The coalition’s policy document cites a California program of a similar nature as the genesis of this policy.

Which is good, because the Productivity Commission this year had a look at the California program and found the cost of abatement was between $305 and $651 per tonne of carbon dioxide equivalent.

So there’s the choice between letting the public find a solution at $23 a tonne and a government initiative that will cost between 13 and 28 times more.

Sounds a bargain.

Indeed, it looks like the only real success story on the direct action front has been in land clearing.

On that front, an effective ban on native land clearing – which heavily affected Queensland – is the only thing that has stopped Australia’s greenhouse emissions going through the roof.

Emissions from deforestation have fallen from 132 million tonnes back in 1990 to 49 million tonnes expected to average through 2008 to 2012.

But that ban has not been priceless.

Talk to any farmer who has had this fundamental right to do what they like with their land and you’d get a clear picture of the costs involved.

Governments of all persuasions took away a property right from a group of Australians and did not pay them for it.

To put it bluntly, the farmers and regional communities of this country were ripped off.

The Productivity Commission looked at the various bans on native vegetation clearing back in 2004 and delivered a scathing assessment.

"At their most basic, these effects have involved a reduction in the area of land available for agricultural production. But often they also have imposed significant restrictions on the normal operations of agricultural enterprises, preventing many landholders from implementing innovation in technology and farming methods and increases in scale necessary to achieve the productivity improvements required to remain viable," it reported.

"In the longer term, the entry of new younger farmers is likely to be discouraged because of the significant restrictions on any development of new or existing properties which involves clearing native vegetation."

In fact, both the PC and Grattan have recently found that about the best performed, and cheapest, program in this country to have emerged to cut emissions has been the NSW and ACT Greenhouse Gas Reduction Scheme.

Not surprisingly, it’s a market-based system which penalises power companies for not cutting emissions.

It puts a price on emitting carbon – something almost every "direct action" program goes out of its way to avoid.

Two decades on from Bob Hawke and his trees, governments of all persuasions have gone out of their way to find a magic bureaucratic bullet to cut Australia’s greenhouse emissions.

The one shot that delivered, banning the clearing of native vegetation, has come at a cost that most of us choose to ignore.

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