Imagine a librarian sitting in the corner of her library, wishing that her noisy library was quiet. But the only thing she does to make this happen is to be quiet herself.
There might be dozens of people scattered around the library, but she wouldn’t try to work out where the noise was coming from. Nor would she ask the noisy patrons to keep it down, perhaps by persuading them of the benefits of a quiet library.
She would simply sit in her corner, quietly telling herself she was doing the right thing and setting a good example.
This recipe for frustration and failure is akin to Australia’s approach to greenhouse gas emissions. While we sit in our corner of the world, promising ourselves to reduce our emissions over the decade ahead, the rest of the world increases its emissions.
Even using the rosiest projections, just the increase in global emissions will be double Australia’s total emissions in the decade ahead. So even if Australia disappeared — twice — global emissions would still rise.
It’s as if the librarian sewed her lips together, yet still the noise in the library became deafening.
If we were genuinely concerned about global emissions, a good start would surely be to establish which countries are set to increase their emissions, particularly if those countries are already big emitters.
In Senate Estimates, I have been asking the bureaucrats in Canberra about the projected emissions of big emitters over the coming decade. Anyone who thinks climate change is our greatest moral challenge would have found the replies disappointing.
The bureaucrats didn’t know the projected emissions of the big emitters. Many of the world’s biggest emitters haven’t bothered to advise the rest of the world how much their emissions are expected to rise over the coming decade. And it seems Australia has not only failed to seek an answer to this basic question but has also not made its own projections.
Others estimate that China, whose annual emissions in recent years were nearly 12 gigatonnes, might come close to doubling its emissions over the next decade. India, whose annual emissions have recently exceeded 3 gigatonnes, might double its emissions too. And countries like Saudi Arabia and Iran, each with much bigger annual emissions than Australia’s half a gigatonne, also fail to report their likely emission increases.
And it seems, at least from outward appearances, that our governments and bureaucrats don’t care.
It’s as if our librarian won’t even wander the aisles to see who the noisiest patrons are. Or perhaps she secretly thinks the patrons have a right to make as much noise as they want. Yet, if this is the case, the library is destined to be noisy and it is pointless for the librarian to take a vow of silence herself.
The greenhouse effect is a global phenomenon. We don’t have big screens at our borders keeping Australia’s emissions in and China or India’s emissions out. Emissions from any one country swirl around the globe. If anything is to be done about the greenhouse effect, it has to involve the major emitters. It is quite pointless for Australia to reduce its emissions unless they do too.
It is farcical that Australia is engaged in an acrimonious debate about which side of politics is doing enough to combat climate change. Australia’s commitments, no matter what anyone thinks of them, are quite pointless unless they are conditional on action by the world’s big emitters.
And of course, the big emitters are barely even aware of Australia’s efforts, let alone influenced by them.
Nonetheless, the cost of implementing Australia’s commitments is far from trivial. We have world record electricity prices and a precarious supply situation as a result of policies discouraging new fossil-fuels-based generation. Thousands of jobs in energy-intensive industries are heading overseas and even more depend on whether we develop or expand coal mines.
And despite being opposed to a carbon tax, on Monday the Coalition Government committed $2bn of taxpayer’s funds to paying emitters to emit less than some hypothetical benchmark. The money, naturally enough, will come from tax revenue.
Debating Australia’s emissions policy while ignoring what is happening in the rest of the world is nonsensical. And it is made worse by the fact that our experts in Canberra, who recommend policy to the government, are barely even aware of what else is happening in the world.
David Leyonhjelm is a Senator for the Liberal Democrats