Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Environment’s Swansong: Budget fails the 350 test

Writing in yesterday’s Sydney Morning Herald, Marian Wilkinson said Labor Treasurer Wayne Swan’s first budget had delivered on its environmental promises. Wilkinson said the budget had committed $2.3 billion over the next four years to boost energy efficiency, water savings and the development of clean energy technology. She cited measures such as low interest loans of up to $10,000 to help pay for solar hot water, PV cells and other energy efficient products. There was also a $500 million renewable energy fund and $12.9 billion on water reform including a major $400 million plan address the over allocation and water inefficiency in the Murray Darling Basin.

However green and activist groups say these measures are not enough to address climate change issues. Getup! described the budget as “an incremental step towards a safe climate future” but cautioned that we did not have the time for such steps. They pointed to the fact that the defence budget was forty times as much as the climate change budget and said the Prime Minister had not grasped the enormity of the problem. Getup! stated that climate cannot afford to wait another year for significant funding for renewable energy.

Greenpeace agreed expressing its disappointment with the lack of budget measures to address climate change. While they welcomed an additional $37 million for the planned Emissions Trading Scheme (which waits on the final Garnaut report due later this year), they said the Budget missed opportunities to invest more money in alternative energy. "The Rudd Government had a golden opportunity to show that it was serious about dealing with climate change," said Greenpeace spokesman Stephen Campbell. "Instead it has let us down by failing to invest heavily in the solutions that we have at our fingertips - renewable energy such as solar, wind and geothermal."

These warnings are backed up by one of the world's leading climate scientists James Hansen. Hansen, head of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York, has recently released a report for Science magazine which says the world’s developed countries need to urgently rethink carbon dioxide reduction targets in the atmosphere because they have grossly underestimated the scale of the problem. While the EU target of 550 parts per million of C02 is the most stringent in the world, Hansen says they are not strict enough and should be slashed to 350ppm. He says the cut is needed if "humanity wishes to preserve a planet similar to that on which civilisation developed".

Environmentalist and writer Bill McKibben agrees with the 350 target and he launched a passionate defence of Hansen’s work earlier this week. In an article called “Last Chance for Civilisation” he cited some of Hansen’s tipping points such as massive sea level rise and huge changes in rainfall patterns if that target is not reached soon. But McKibben laments that instead of taking action to address these problems we are actually making things worse as reflected in the fact that atmospheric carbon dioxide had jumped 2.4 parts per million last year. He says that “at best” we have a few years to reverse course. By the time the successor to the Kyoto Agreement is signed (no earlier than later 2009 and probably not even then) it may be too late.
McKibben has set up a new organisation called Project 350 to demand urgent action.

Their website is designed to be an international campaign based on the 350 ppm meme. McKibben wants to “unite the world around the number 350” using the motif in music, art, political demonstrations and anything else he can think of. It is intended to be a grassroots climate change coalition “to rouse the world to a new sense of urgency and of possibility.” The world certainly needs rousing. It was totally absent from the large set of numbers used by Wayne Swan on Tuesday night. “We think 350 is the most important number in the world, and that at the very least everyone deserves to know it,” said McKibben. ”To understand that the world we've spent millennia building lies now in its shadow.”

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