Climate of fear at Belshazzar’s feast

The carbon tax will not be a repeat of Belshazzar’s feast, with a few facts in the matter highlighting just how mild the impact will be on the economy. The real environmental challenges lie ahead, however.

It was the party that Tony Abbott would like to repeal. On Saturday night, at the very hour the new climate tax came into effect, a hundred Labor environmental activists were noisily partying into the night at the Trades Hall to celebrate the turning point of their campaign. The party was named “How I stopped worrying and loved the carbon price” – plagiarising a line from the Cold War disaster-satire, Dr Strangelove.

Down the road a ‘Carbontaxageddon’ party was being held by the Greens to mark the same turning point. Around the country similar celebrations were being held as campaigners celebrated – not the end of the climate war – but the end of its first phase.

According to the Coalition parties, it was the moment that “the lives of all Australians, changed forever”. The crack of doom for Whyalla, the coal industry and smelters across the land. Jobs are to be exported faster than our coal. Pensioners will be reduced to shivering misery as exorbitant power bills and frequent power shortages remove the creature comforts of our lives.

The Bible describes the huge feast thrown in Babylon by King Belshazzar in 539 BC on the very night that the Persian army was stealing into the city to end his kingdom forever. Belshazzar famously saw the “writing on the wall” but failed to interpret it until, too late, the Prophet Daniel interpreted its message of imminent disaster.

Tony Abbott would relish the role of Daniel. He has survived the lion’s den of Parliament and has many strings to his bow as a prophet of doom.

Was the partying by the activists premature? Will it turn out to be another Belshazzar’s feast? Who will turn out to be right when historians summarise the bitter climate debates and their aftermath?

After a decade of debate and indecision, Australia has at last set a price on carbon to cut our contribution to global pollution. The scheme that was finally wrestled through Parliament is so complex, it is incomprehensible to most people. So misunderstood, it has become the root of numerous scare campaigns and dubious business promotions.

Opinions are strongly and deeply held both for and against. Scientific findings that five years ago were verified and widely endorsed are now hotly disputed and scientists themselves under savage attack from a plethora of on-line bloggers.

The public is totally confused and increasingly focussed on the hip pocket nerve – which according to the government is being soothed by compensation, whilst the Opposition claim that vital nerve is about to get an unprecedented electric shock.

A few facts might make the new tax less scary.

Australians now joins 863 million other people in 33 countries and four major regional areas of China and the US who will live with a carbon trading scheme by the end of 2013. South Korea will be the next country to join this list. Although this is only 12 per cent of the global population, the list includes many industrialised nations who are significant emitters of greenhouse gasses.

Since the announcement of the carbon price, Australia’s GDP has increased a further 3 per cent and new business investment has increased by 20 per cent.

The goal is to reduce Australia’s carbon dioxide emissions by 159 million tonnes compared to their projected growth to 2020. This is a cut of just under a quarter of the projected emissions and would leave the national total 5 per cent less than the level in 2000.

Put simply, Australians on average contribute 25 tonnes of carbon dioxide a year to the atmosphere. After population and economic growth, we need to cut that to around 20 tonnes per head by eliminating the current huge waste of energy. To achieve that we need to give everyone an incentive to cut emissions. It is challenging but achievable

But the big savings are not going to be made by individuals – it is the large producers who can change the way they operate, turn to renewable energy sources and capture fugitive emissions of greenhouse gases.

Recent analysis by Professor Mike Sandiford, the Director of the Melbourne Energy Institute at the University of Melbourne, shows electricity demand is now declining – falling 4 per cent behind economic growth since 2008. This is the equivalent of three Loy Yang B power stations less than the demand being forecast for Australia only four years ago.

This is due to the economic slowdown, energy conservation (including a 200 megawatt saving from the much vilified “pink batts” scheme) and hundreds of thousands of solar roof panels which mean homeowners are buying less electricity from the grid. Australia is now on track to reach its target of 20 per cent of electricity from renewables by 2020 with over 1000 megawatts of solar and 2,480 megawatts of wind already operating.

If you have been able to read this, then at least you will know that our world did not come to an end on June 30. Whether the dire predictions made by Tony Abbott turn out to be equally overstated remains to be seen. The real message of the “writing on the wall” concerns, not Australia’s economic health – but the environmental health of the planet.

Australians may simply find that as the weeks pass, very little has changed – their power bills are up a bit but their pay packets and pensions have also gone up. This “turning point in history” will not be a repeat of Belshazzar’s feast, the Persian army is not at our gate and our way of life goes on. The real environmental challenges lie ahead.

Andrew Herington is a former Labor Ministerial Adviser now a Melbourne freelance writer.

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