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Australia's spoiler role in Bali

by Kamala Emanuel

They say that despair is one of the main obstacles to be overcome for those who take more than a casual interest in the global warming crisis facing humanity. Consider the recent UN Climate Change Conference at Bali which heroically set no targets (not even "aspirational" ones) but instead agreed to talk some more over the next two years.

Even now, before these further talks begin, carbon dioxide emissions are rising faster than the most pessimistic "business as usual" model considered by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

The Bali decision would be somewhat akin to an army general, on hearing the news that the invading troops are just over the hill, resolving firmly to sit down with tea and biscuits while consulting a diary to determine the most appropriate time for a meeting to nut out the details of a battle plan.

Of course, there was a lot of talk about targets at the conference itself – particularly the 25 to 40 percent reduction advocated by the IPCC. Even Kevin Rudd flirted with that target for 24 hours or so – before reassuring us that he would put on hold any measures to save the world until after he'd received an economic report about whether the inflation rate would be affected.

Ultimately, even with the change of government, Australia must be considered to have played a spoiler role at Bali – hindering, not helping, the efforts needed to achieve the global changes necessary.

Also, uncomfortable as it may be, we have to pose the question: is the 25 to 40 percent reduction by 2020 advocated by the IPCC really enough to save the world? The honest answer is "no".

The temperature rise to date has already resulted in a loss of four fifths of summer Arctic sea ice compared to 40 years ago. The rest could be gone by 2013. If this happens, it would greatly increase the chances of losing the Greenland and then the West Antarctic ice sheets according to NASA's leading climate scientist James Hansen. This would mean an approximate 25 metre rise in sea level.

So the temperature rise so far – a mere 0.8 degrees Celsuis – is already dangerous. The 2020 target of 25 to 40 percent cuts is based on a temperature target of 2 to 2.4 degrees. Such a target is not safe. The take-home message is that we need to cut emissions as deeply and as quickly as possible – and that means at least 60 percent reductions by 2020.

If Bali demonstrates clearly how much resistance there is to adopting even inadequate targets, what hope do we really have? It is this realisation that can lead to despair.

Fortunately, there is cause for hope. Even as we skate perilously close to the edge, it is always worth remembering that political reality can change and things that seem impossible today become feasible tomorrow.

What are some of the elements of the plan that would be needed to stave off a climate catastrophe?

Firstly, and substantially, we need an emergency plan to phase out fossil fuels altogether. Far from approving new coal mines and coal export terminals as the NSW government is doing, we should be building new renewable energy power stations and working on a government-sponsored energy efficiency drive.

We should be putting solar panels on rooftops around the country – a much better way to spend the $31 billion earmarked during the federal election campaign for tax cuts.

Cars should be driven off the roads – not by administrative decree but by the provision of a superior alternative. We should be planning a massive expansion of public transport – especially electric powered light and heavy rail services – that is reliable, frequent and free. Where private cars are still required, we should move towards electric vehicles.

In agriculture, we need a big push towards organics in order to avoid fossil fuel-based fertilisers and pesticides. And we need a push towards urban agriculture to minimise the transportation of food.

While a significant community campaign would be needed in the current climate to realise any one of these measures against government and corporate resistance, none of them is so far-fetched as to be impossible. And there is a compelling reason to give it a go: because humanity (and much else besides) is worth saving.
Kamala Emanuel is the national climate change campaign coordinator for the Socialist Alliance and co-edited the Alliance's climate change charter, It Happens to be an Emergency. She writes for Green Left Weekly and is an organiser of the April 2008 Climate Change - Social Change conference. Emanuel is also a medical practitioner.

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