The ethics of carbon

Taking on the topic of 'carbon ethics' was always going to be a challenge, but it came off well for Green Capital's November 2008 events in Melbourne and Sydney. This is an opinion piece written by Jeff Angel and myself.

It’s a question of carbon ethics

The Rudd Cabinet will soon debate and decide its ‘White Paper’ formula for carbon trading. Early next year legislation for the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme (CPRS) will go to Parliament, facing an Opposition intent on delay and the vagaries of a Senate controlled by balance of power players, the Greens, Family First and Nick Xenophon.

If a viable scheme emerges from that legislative gauntlet, trading could start by mid-2010. Less happily, if the CPRS is emasculated by many cuts and compromises, undermining the integrity of its basic architecture, then all bets could be off as public support erodes.

Political decision-makers will be under great pressure to protect Australia’s short-term economic position, in the midst of likely ongoing global financial turmoil and downturn, by delivering a ‘soft start’, if not delaying or abandoning the CPRS.

Given that climate change is a longer-term issue, with powerful inter-generational and equity dimensions, Total Environment Centre’s Green Capital program canvassed Australia’s thought-leaders and key low carbon lobbyists on the core question of ‘carbon ethics’ – the fundamental policy issues of short versus long term and who will get the new carbon wealth from pollution permits. What are the moral values that should guide the positions of lobbyists, decision-makers and the final outcome?

Peter Colley, of the CFMEU, the coal mining union which you might think would be in the anti-CPRS camp, says: ‘… it is not ethical for fossil fuel and power businesses, or those that are heavy energy users, to be spending their time arguing about deployment dates for emissions trading, and for compensation and the like. Their primary effort should be towards reducing the greenhouse gas footprint of their industries as fast as technically and commercially possible.’

When you ask the ethicist, he takes aim at business motives. Simon Longstaff, head of the St. James Ethics Centre told us: ‘…I suspect that those organisations standing for and acting for something more than self interest may end up being the most prosperous – not least because they inspire trust and creatively engage with the world in a way that allows them to recognise and seize opportunities that others, with different commitments, may not see. That is, our motives may matter as much as our actions.’

Of course it will be important to consider the impact on low income people of a carbon price as it flows through to everyday purchases. John Thwaites, former Victorian deputy premier now social sustainability advocate said: ‘Carbon costs consume a higher proportion of low-income household budgets. Poor family households spend 9.5 percent of their household budget on transport fuel, electricity and gas compared to 4.5 percent for wealthy families. This is despite the fact that low-income earners on average have a smaller carbon footprint than higher income earners.’

What about the banks? Much maligned in recent years and still a major source of investment funds in new power stations, but there are signs of change. NAB: ‘Carbon ethics will come into play for both individuals and companies, as we evaluate the actions we take in response to mitigating and adapting to climate change. Science can provide us with facts, but we also need a sense of values, justice, accountability and an understanding of what matters most to us, to help determine how we respond.' Westpac: ‘We support an emission reduction trajectory that strongly references the climate change science and minimises the amount of complexity and politicking. We believe there is a case for adjustment support mechanisms to allow business and members of the community to transition into a carbon-constrained economy. However compensation measures should not undermine the integrity of the scheme or alleviate the impact of the introduction of a carbon price.’

Environmentalists have been hard at work for many years and are now facing one of their greatest policy battles. Don Henry, Director of the Australian Conservation Foundation believes: ‘Some of our country’s most treasured, iconic places are at risk unless we take much stronger action to tackle climate change. The fate of the Kakadu wetlands, the Murray-Darling Basin, our wine regions, the Wet Tropics, South-West WA, the Australian Alps and the Great Barrier Reef are directly linked to the targets to reduce greenhouse emissions we and the world set – and meet.’

John Connor, head of the Climate Institute decries the prospect of a slow, soft start to emissions trading claiming: ‘Much of business now professes to take the science of climate change seriously but many clearly don’t heed the urgency of the scientific message at all – a dramatic ethical disconnect. We need to achieve a CO2 concentration of 450ppm and below and for Australia to do their bit towards 25 – 40% reductions from developed countries to encourage commitments from developing countries and curb global emissions by 2020.’

These are some of the voices fighting to be heard in Canberra amid the clamour of special deals for affected businesses and CPRS modifications. The public may get it, but does government and business?

TEC has developed key principles that we believe should test the positions of the lobbyists and ministers. They include:

The well-being and stability of the global environment is paramount, as it supports all life and all human endeavour.

In accordance with the basic tenets of sustainability, current generations are obliged to consider the needs of future generations, and not to compromise their ability to meet those needs.

The wealthier, developed world nations who have enriched themselves while contributing 75% of the human induced greenhouse gases, are morally obliged to be the first movers on climate action, and poorer developing nations are morally obliged not to repeat the same environmental degradation and pollution mistakes made by their economic predecessors.

Restructuring of the economy and society towards a low-carbon profile will create short-to-medium term disadvantage for some, and demonstrable inequity should be addressed by policy-makers with financial compensation and other measures to level the playing field, including in areas such as investment and job security, energy efficiency and also social harmony and equity.

Ultimately all people should share equal rights to the atmosphere, to the extent that anyone has such rights, and all should carry an equal share of the burden of reducing pollution.

The time to choose is now.

Jeff Angel is Executive Director of the Total Environment Centre, and Murray Hogarth is an external adviser to its leading corporate sustainability initiative, Green Capital. See more on carbon ethics at