That global warming is upon us and that greenhouse gas emissions are responsible is a proposition that cannot be ignored. The potential for global catastrophe is too great. Scientists warn that world emissions of carbon dioxide need to be reduced by at least 50 per cent to stabilise the climate. Yet even with all proposed measures in place, the best estimate is that global emissions will increase by 50 percent by 2050. That is, the problem is not even remotely being addressed in the manner required.

The solution will be painful and costly, which is no doubt part of the reason it has been avoided. Short-term thinking, ignorance and cowardice on the part of politicians, local and national self-interest, and the lack of a global ethic are perhaps other reasons. One might also conjecture that, as with religion, susceptibility to mass delusion and inability to face reality might also be a contributing factor.

Most carbon dioxide is produced by the burning of coal and hydrocarbons in industry, transportation and power generation. Unfortunately, there are few viable alternatives to using hydrocarbon liquid fuels and gas. In any case, supply shortages and rising prices are eventually going to limit their use. We must focus our attention on the use of coal. Most of this is used in power generation. It is here that the greatest potential for substitution may be found. Proposed carbon dioxide emissions trading schemes are inadequate, and in any case, insufficiently targeted. We need to focus on seeking to eliminate the free burning of coal.

Coal is Australia’s primary energy source, and our major export commodity. Coal-fired plants produce the cheapest electricity. It is said that with billions of dollars of new investment, coal-fired plants can be made more efficient and produce less greenhouse gas. This appears to ignore the basic fact that for every atom of coal (carbon) burned, one molecule of carbon dioxide is produced. No amount of political or commercial spin can alter the basic law of nature embodied in this chemical reaction. No further investment should be made in coal-fired plants, and all resources should be devoted to alternatives including nuclear.

The only way to properly address the problem is to impose a tax on the use of coal. This is needed in order to induce reallocation of resources away from coal and into other forms of energy production. Japan has already implemented a small tax in this regard. However there is no reason to suppose that any country would unilaterally disadvantage itself to the extent required. Australia is the world’s largest coal exporter and will continue to dominate the international coal trade. What is not often considered, is that due to inelastic demand, an export tax on coal would increase national export revenues, not decrease them.

As an interim measure, an International Coal Tax should be levied per tonne on internationally traded coal. Given Australia’s dominance of the global coal trade, it is incumbent upon Australia to initiate this proposal. The fact that coal is a highly visible commodity would assist implementation. Administratively, the tax could operate in a manner similar to that proposed for the Tobin tax on international currency transactions. An export tax on coal would serve as a precursor to the introduction of a more general global carbon tax.

This tax would operate in addition to proposed trading schemes for carbon dioxide emissions. International agreement may be easier to secure than for general agreements because of the more limited number of exporters involved, and because incentive could be provided in that revenues from the International Coal Tax could be used to compensate exporters and to assist them in restructuring their domestic energy production industries. Higher world coal prices would provide incentives for diversification of energy production globally. By agreement, all countries should apply a similar tax for domestic use. The tax could be introduced at a rate of US$5.00 per tonne of coal, rated by carbon content. (This is equivalent to a tax of about $1.60 per tonne of emitted carbon dioxide.) The tax would then be increased by an additional $5.00 per a year, indefinitely. A proportion of the International Coal Tax revenue would be used to assist developing countries with the required adjustment.

Whatever the eventual details may be, it is obvious that some measures of this kind are required. They will be expensive and initially unpopular. However, in terms of future global climatic catastrophe, the costs of doing nothing may be far higher. In offering reasoned and rational policies, the imperatives of human survival can provide persuasive arguments.

While all forms of renewable energy should be explored, the economics of which would become more viable with a higher coal price, it seems that the global restructuring of energy production worldwide will be impossible without increased deployment of nuclear energy. The reason that Australia has the world’s highest per capita production of greenhouse gasses is that we have no nuclear power plants. Anomalously, we are a major uranium exporter. Like it or not, we must investigate the commissioning of the construction of nuclear power plants, as a matter of urgency.

Effectively dealing with the problem of global warming is likely to require an international mobilisation of resources never before seen in peacetime. It will require an unprecedented level of goodwill and co-operation. This will not be achieved without the active promotion of a global ethic based on the universal values of compassion, honesty, freedom and justice. Instead the world is currently preoccupied with conflicts based on ancient religious ideologies that should have been confined to the dustbin of history centuries ago.

Few, even among climate scientists and ecologists, seem yet to realise fully the potential severity, or the imminence, of catastrophic global disaster; understanding is still in the conscious mind alone and not yet the visceral reaction of fear. We lack an intuitive sense, an instinct, that tells us when Gaia is in danger. James Lovelock

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