Outlining a Progressive Future

US Climate Bill An Okay Start

As US legislators debate the content of the biggest climate bill ever introduced into the US congress, debate is raging as to whether this bill will deliver the action required to curb US Greenhouse emissions. Whilst we are not going to know exactly what the bill will look like if and when it passes the US House or Representatives and Senate, probably by the end of this year, we can make some major guesses based on the drafts that are now being discussed in the committees of Congress. These drafts give a picture of something that although may not be perfect is quite dramatic and will see a real shift in the energy policies of the United States. The question still remains however; will this bill provide what is needed for the US to take real action on climate change?

The Bill

There are really three key issues regarding the effectiveness of such a climate bill; the reduction target, the renewable energy target and how much the bill forces polluters to pay for their pollution. Here is how the bill looks regarding these three issues:

Reduction Target: The bill proposes the introduction of a massive cap and trade scheme in the United States, which has the current aim of cutting Greenhouse emissions by 17% by 2020 (based on 2005 levels) and 83% by 2050. The target for 2020 was originally a 20% cut, but this has been watered down due to concerns from some Democrats in the House.

Renewable Energy Target: The bill would also require energy companies to source 15% of their power from renewable sources by 2020, a cut from the original proposal of 25% by 2025.

The price polluters must pay: Whilst the original bill proposed the sale/auction of all pollution permits it looks almost certain that changes intended to gain the support of key Democratic Senators from the greenhouse intensive rustbelt states (i.e. Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania) will see at least some of the permits given out for free to greenhouse polluters. For example, Business Green reports that drafts available would see 35% of permits given to the energy industry, 15% to heavy industrial firms and 3% to auto makers, leaving the other 47% to be sold.  At the moment I cannot find any sort of discussion regarding how much these permits would originally be priced at, which is another key point regarding the bill.

The Reaction

There is no doubt that there are people who are disappointed with how the bill is going at the moment. The watering down of the original targets related to emissions reductions and renewable energy targets as well as the fact that many of the permits will be given out for free has many people complaining, some who argue that the bill is now worthless. For example, Greenpeace claims:

“A piece of legislation that started out as a real opportunity for the US to combat climate change has been co-opted by special interests and now threatens to do more harm than good.”

Whilst I believe Greenpeace has succumbed to using a little too much hyperbole, their arguments are fair. Whilst the cuttings of the targets could be considered to be minor (given that the reduction target has only dropped 3%) the fact that permits are now going to be given out for free is a serious concern. Giving out free permits not only takes money away from possible investment to create a ‘green economy’ but also has been proven to be a policy disaster in a range of ways (see the European experience, where the existence of free permits dramatically dropped the price of carbon, making greenhouse reductions extremely difficult).

However, on the other side of the coin one needs to ask whether these sorts of compromises were ones that we should have expected from the US climate deal and if so, can we deal with them? I think there is no doubt that this bill was going to be watered down. In its original form this bill was extremely ambitious, which is great. However, even with the control of the Democrats in both houses of Congress there was always going to be problems, especially from those Democratic Senators from the ‘rustbelt’ area. It seems like these changes will allay the fears of these Senators and will probably ensure the passage of the bill.

So, do these changes compromise the bill and will they stop the it having any effect? Whilst the cuts in the bills targets are extremely disappointing, I don’t believe they create the biggest problem for these bills. Cuts of 17% by 2020 and 83% by 2050 are quite impressive coming from a US Congress that has historically been dominated by climate sceptics and even though 17% by 2020 is not enough, the bill importantly improves on this by 2050, which is a key date. However, the bigger problem lies in the giving out of free permits. It is very likely that this will cause problems for the bill in the future and it does divert a large amount of money (at current estimates $40 billion) from possible investment in green industries.

I am not sure if I am convinced, however, that this will make the climate bill as useless as Greenpeace claims. It is an unfortunate reality of the US political system (unlike Australia, the EU and other industrialised countries) that having a climate bill with such targets and with such a large amount of money being poured into it is a huge achievement and whilst this bill is definitely not perfect, has been compromised to some extent and should be better we must be happy that it is most likely going to be passed. The US environment movement should and will need to continue to fight for changes in the bill once it is passed (as has occurred in the EU) but it must also be happy with the fact that the country that used to lag behind the rest of the world is now probably going to leapfrog a number of countries (i.e. Australia) when it comes to climate action. This is not the perfect start but it is probably better than I would have expected, which is nice for a change.

June 6, 2009 Posted by | Climate Change and the Environment, Options for a Progressive Future | , , , | 4 Comments

Will A Double Dissolution Make a Better Climate Deal?

With the Australian Government yesterday announcing a range of changes to its Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme, including delaying the scheme for one year, setting a fixed price (a bargain of $10) for each tonne of carbon for the first year and increasing the possible reductions target to 25% if there is a strong deal in Copenhagen, the questions now on everybody’s lips are (a) will the Senate pass the legislation and (b) if not will the Government use this issue to force a double dissolution?

In this post I am going to briefly have a look at these two questions, making the conclusion that a double dissolution is very possible and am then going to have a look at what I think a double dissolution may do to the climate legislation in the future and my hopes for a stronger deal. Firstly however, I would like to state that I write this piece under the belief that there are serious problems with the Governments CPRS. Whether it be the extremely low target (only 5% committed), the very low initial price of carbon (which makes reducing carbon emissions very difficult) or the fact that permits will be given out for free (which experience from Europe has shown creates huge problems with the eventual pricing of carbon and therefore the reduction efforts) this scheme is fundamentally flawed and in my opinion requires a complete revamp. However, this post is not about that, but is about how I see the scheme may progress in the future and the possibilities that are available to make this scheme stronger.

Where to from here?

The basic lay of the land for the CPRS looks somewhat like this. In an upcoming sitting session (probably around midyear) the ALP look likely to introduce the legislation behind the CPRS into Parliament. The legislation will easily pass the House of Representatives, but looks almost certain to fail in the Senate. The problems here are that the Greens are pushing for a much stronger and more aggressive scheme, the Coalition is still looking to weaken it and the two independents are both opposing it (I think they both want the scheme weakened). In a nut shell, apart from the ALP there is no one who supports the scheme, meaning it is in big trouble.  

The only way I perceive that it could pass in the next sitting session would be if the ALP managed to cut a deal with the Liberals (as to cut a deal with the minor parties would mean dealing with people who both want a stronger scheme and people who want a weaker scheme, creating inherent problems). However, I cannot see this happening. This is because both the ALP and the Liberal Party have become extremely stubborn on this issue since it was introduced in December, meaning a back down now by either would be perceived as a sign of weakness.

A Double Dissolution Then?

It seems logical therefore to state that this legislation will fail in the Senate and with this comes the possibility of a double dissolution. I agree with Bob Brown in saying that I think the Rudd Government would be quite happy to use this legislation as a double dissolution trigger for the following reasons:

  • They know that the wider community wants at least some form of action on climate change, even with the global financial crisis.
  • They know that the Liberal Party still have a very unformulated and unpopular policy on climate change, which would make it very difficult for them to fight an election on the issue.
  • They would be more than happy to create a situation where it can push out the two independents from having any role in the future Senate.

However, with these positives comes the strong evidence (as shown with WA, NT and QLD in the pass year) that the voting public tend not to like early elections and are more than happy to punish a Government for going to the polls early, an issue that may push the ALP away from going to a double dissolution.

 What Would this Mean for the Legislation?

The good thing about the possibility of a double dissolution is that the most likely outcome it will bring will be the possibility of a stronger CPRS. The reasons for this are pretty simple. Firstly, if a double dissolution occurs I do not see any possibility of a Coalition victory (given their still extremely low polling all around the country), giving the ALP the mandate to continue to push the legislation. Second, are the important changes this will bring to the Senate. As predicted by Ben Raue, the likely results of a double dissolution would be the Greens taking full control of the balance of power of the Senate (with 8-9) seats, allowing them to create a majority with the ALP.  For the CPRS this creates three possibilities:

  1. The Government presents the legislation again in its current form and the Liberal Party accepts it based on the idea of it being the mandate of the ALP to pass it as it is.
  2. The Government presents the legislation again, but the Liberals stay determined to vote against it, forcing the Government to cut a deal with the Greens.
  3. Deciding that they want to see the Coalition continue to vote against any climate action the Government cuts an early deal with the Greens to strengthen the deal and introduces new legislation that the Coalition opposes.

Although this still provides the opportunity for the current legislation to be passed as is, this option at least gives a greater opportunity for a stronger CPRS, something that I think is almost impossible in the current Senate. However, this does not only have to come with a double dissolution. Most predictions will tell you that they same sort of shape for the Senate will occur even if it is just a regular half Senate vote, meaning that this sort of situation could also occur if the Government decides against using the CPRS as a double dissolution trigger.  

May 4, 2009 Posted by | Climate Change and the Environment, Options for a Progressive Future | , , , , , , | 4 Comments

The Politics of Population

As an environmentalist I find myself regularly concerned with the way the environment movement, through organisations such as ‘Sustainable Population Australia’, is framing the discussion on population policies. As climate change and environmental degradation are becoming more real, environmentalists are increasingly turning towards population control as a method of saving the environment. Often discussed policy initiatives include lessening migration intake and even implementing policies such as the ‘one child policy’ that exists in China today. The logic here is pretty simple; by creating policies that aim to directly reduce population we reduce the amount of people who have the ability to degrade the environment and in turn reduce the impact humans have on the environment. From that sort of logic it seems like a pretty benign act. Unfortunately however, such policies can create terrible consequences through creating an insular society that ignores the problems of the rest of the world and restricts the rights of its own population.

Framed in a ‘Western’, ‘First World’ perspective populations policies such as those from, ‘Sustainable Population Australia’ tend to fall into two categories; (1) migration and (2) aiming for lower birth rates. I will have a look at both of these policy issues, within the framework of ‘first world’ and discuss some of the serious problems with such policy prescriptions.

Migration: Populations organisations often target lowered migration intakes as a desirable policy, as it provides an easy target that is measurable and somewhat politically favourable. However, such policies don’t create any beneficial environmental circumstances and simply causes serious social problems through inflicting harm on some of those who deserve it least. There are two real problems with policies of reducing migration. First, there is the obvious social problems that occur when a people reject a call for help from another group of people. Living in a society where people care and help for each other no matter where someone comes from or who they are is the sort of society I desire to live in and reducing migration intake fully rejects this ideal. Instead it creates a mantra that states:  ‘Because I was born here and was lucky enough to gain ‘citizenship’ from this nation, I deserve these resources and you don’t’. It is a simply fact that resources are spread unfairly throughout this world and rejecting migration simply says that this is something we are happy to continue to happen, which I cannot stand for.

Second however, and more interestingly for the environment movement, is that the reduction of migration simply doesn’t achieve anything, except social harm. No matter where we  live, we are all people who use resources. Whether I live in Africa, or Australia or anywhere else I live in a state that is based on a carbon intensive energy sector and moving to a different country will not change this. Therefore targeting migration doesn’t reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but simply changes where they occur. Therefore, a focus on migration simply doesn’t work and we would be better off targeting the production and consumption of resources on a worldwide basis to create a sustainable world population, rather than creating an insular society that focuses entirely on its own impact. 

The second policy provision that is often touted is one that is aimed at the current population of an area; birth control. There are two real problems with birth control policies. First, is the very obvious social issue of the right of a state to control ones sexuality and desires to have children. I strongly believe in the right for one to practice their desired sexual experiences as they wish (as long as consent is provided by all parties) and believe that having children is a part of this experience. I therefore have serious problems with stopping people from having children as I see it as a fundamental removal of one’s sexual rights.

Second, and again more interestingly for the environment movement, is the simple fact that stopping people from having children is a terrible policy idea. Whether we want to believe it or not, breeding and creating a future generation is somewhat important for continuation of human kind and given the extremely low birth rates in the majority of Western countries is seems somewhat ridiculous to claim that we need to drop births rates even lower. The simple fact is that if we do it, we won’t be producing enough children to support the current population when we grow old, which will create serious problems. This still ignores the serious social problems that can arise through the implementation of birth control measures, as seen in China, which are often hard to predict and difficult to solve. 

So what is the answer? There are obvious reasons to have concerns about the world’s growing population. We are now living in a world that holds 6 billion people and it is estimated by the UN that this population will continue to grow to 9 billion before we even have a chance of it dropping. We must look at how we can help curb this growth in population, but targeting migration and forcing people to stop having children is not the answer. Most studies will show that one of the most effective birth control measures is proper family planning facilities and the proper provision of methods of safer sex, especially in poorer areas. If we wish to have an impact on populations we would be much wiser to target these issues in our aid provision, not only helping population issues but also providing great social benefits for those who need them most. We cannot continue down the path that many wish for us to do as it will only lead us to a society that not only refuses to help others, but also neglects to help the environment in the meantime. 

March 22, 2009 Posted by | Analysing the Left, Climate Change and the Environment, Human Rights | , , , , | 6 Comments