Last week, the Senate established two Inquiries into greenhouse issues. One, to be conducted by the Senate’s Economics Committee, will look at the exposure drafts of the government’s Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme legislation. It is due to report by 14 April when the Senate is out of session.  The other inquiry will be conducted by a Senate Select Committee, formed specially for the purpose, to examine Australia’s overall climate policy. This one is due to report by 14 May, just after the federal Budget is brought down.

The most consistent criticism of the government’s CPRS has focused on the free permits for polluting industries and the inadequate emission reduction targets.  To me, this reinforces the core problem with the political debate on climate change, which is that it is somehow trying to pretend that we can seriously reduce emissions without very much change to our own lifestyles and the structure of our economy.  Sure, cleaner energy production and other technological changes will be crucial, but the simple fact is we will also need to significantly change the way we live.  That is something most people don’t want to hear, and if there is one thing politicians tend to be very good at, it’s avoiding telling people things they don’t want to hear.

This was demonstrated again recently with some publicity regarding some research commissioned by the Australian Farm Institute.  Agriculture is currently exempt from the government’s CPRS, but the report raised concerns that once farmers are required to buy emissions trading permits, there will be a big impact on the viability of beef, sheep and dairy products.

Given the very high greenhouse emissions from livestock farming, one would have thought it was self-evident that products produced from livestock would get more expensive once a price was put on these emissions.  It’s sort of the whole point of carbon pricing – to make high emission activities more expensive so people will choose lower emission options.  But such a notion was greeted with horror in media reports and the suggestion that this outcome must be avoided.

Federal Agriculture Minister, Tony Burke, is on record saying that “any push to reduce (livestock) emissions needs to happen without reducing production.”  This is rather like saying ‘any change needs to be done in a way which ensures no changes occur’.

The same seems to be applying to the way the federal government is approaching the setting up of their CPRS.  Put a price carbon, but then compensate the industries that are affected so they can keep operating as close to business as usual for as long as possible.

We might be able to afford such luxuries if such a scheme had been set up when concerns about climate change were first raised in federal parliament twenty years ago. But we are now close to approaching the point of no return on climate change, and we can no longer kid ourselves that we can avoid it without significantly changing our own lifestyles and economy or trying to just shift the burden to people from poorer countries.

While at least one of the Senate Committee inquiries will no doubt find plenty to criticise about the federal government’s climate policy, I wonder how much focus it will put on the need to convince the public we will all need to wear the costs of significant change.

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