Pushing the laggard nation – hard

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Climate change is, without a doubt, the single biggest threat facing humanity. Yet the resistance of governments to tackling it is mind-boggling. The fumbling around by governments at all levels, the slowness with which they are even acknowledging climate change is happening, the refusal to ratify the Kyoto Protocol, the incredible imbalance between the billion-dollar fossil fuel subsidies and the pocket change given to renewables, the blameshifting, the excuses, and the greenwashing means that something has got to give.

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That something is apathy. If governments are to take the steps so urgently needed to avoid dangerous global warming, apathy must give way to community anger and action.

As Australians, we owe it to the world to ensure that we take action on climate change, not least because we are the highest emitters of greenhouse gases in the world. Our emissions per capita are six times as high as China’s and we emit more greenhouse gases than Indonesia, which has 10 times our population. Yet even when it comes to supporting renewable energy technologies, Australia is very much the laggard nation.

The amount of stationary energy we get from renewable sources sits at around eight per cent, which includes almost seven per cent hydro-electricity. This has dropped from 10 per cent in 1997, as Australia’s uptake of renewable energy hasn’t kept pace with the growth in energy demand. In comparison, India has a renewables target of 15 per cent by 2020 and China’s is15 per cent by 2020. Germany is among the world leaders with a 12.5 per cent renewables target by 2010, while the UK’s is 10 per cent by 2010 and 20 per cent by 2020.

The proportion of energy we get from renewable sources must, and can, be increased to at least 25 per cent by 2020. This needs to be legislated or we risk losing the investment so desperately needed now to ensure a thriving renewable energy industry. The renewable energy industry is one of the fastest growing new global industries, growing faster than IT or tourism. Australia should be among the world leaders in this industry and the Federal Government should be throwing all available support behind this sector, which would lead to enormous job opportunities, many in regional Australia.

We have the technology to reduce our greenhouse emissions now. What we don’t have is the will – the will of governments to stand up to big business and industry, and the will of communities to demand action and change. The fact that Australian governments are not moving away from activities which they know will render parts of our planet uninhabitable for humans and around one quarter of all species extinct is nothing short of criminal.

This undoubtedly has a lot to do with the fact that governments, including state governments, are in bed with the fossil fuel industry. A working paper by Chris Riedy of the Institute for Sustainable Futures found that in 2001-2002 about $8.9 billion was given over in subsidies to the fossil fuel industries within Australia [1].

Ninety three per cent of these subsidies went to support the production or consumption of oil or petroleum products. Only around nine per cent of the identified subsidies actually reduced greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuel usage.

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It is perhaps stating the obvious to note that a changing climate doesn’t recognise a nation’s borders. If our goal is actually to save the climate and our kids’ futures, not just to make ourselves feel better, we must accept responsibility for the greenhouse gas emissions that will be produced by us and for us.

The hard fact is that the only thing that will reduce our greenhouse gas emissions to the levels needed to avert dangerous climate change is to begin winding back our use and export of fossil fuels. For this we need an ambitious, courageous action plan to redirect the massive support which the fossil fuel industry has been receiving for decades to the renewables industry and energy efficiency technologies. And we need it soon.

We clearly cannot continue life as usual, consumption as usual, energy wastage as usual, fossil fuel subsidies as usual, or government and community apathy as usual, because climate change will overtake us, our environment and our lifestyles.

It is time for us to get off our tip-toes and start sprinting like hell — towards a clean energy future, not away from it.

We need climate change to make headlines. Meetings, summits, policy commitments, glossy reports are all meaningless unless governments have the will to act now and the courage to turn their back on the fossil fuel industries and embrace the clean renewable technologies that are waiting in the wings. Governments need to shake hands with the coal and oil companies, give their condolences, say ‘sorry it didn’t turn out, mate’ and walk away.

Now is a time for courage — we need people everywhere, public servants, politicians, sporting identities, industry CEOs – to break ranks, to risk their careers, to join unlikely alliances around climate change and to become the heroes of this worthy cause.

We need to harness the commitment and energy of each and every concerned individual to build a movement on climate change that is too big to be ignored. Many of us will have to get out of our comfort zones and start doing whatever it takes to give state and federal governments no choice but to act on climate change.

People are starting community groups all over the country to provide a collective voice for a cleaner, safer future and more and more individuals are becoming local leaders on climate change (see www.climatemovement.org.au).

We need thousands of people, putting in thousands of hours, linking in with the thousands of other people worldwide to win the battle to save our environment: the one battle we can’t afford to lose.



Endnotes:

1 Riedy, C. 2003, ‘Subsidies that Encourage Fossil Fuel Use in Australia’, Institute for Sustainable Futures working paper CR2003/01

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