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Some are more equal than others - what does the emissions target mean?

This post was published originally this morning at ABC Online

One of the most important numbers in Australia's history was revealed yesterday - a number that carries with it the hopes and fears of millions of people and embodies our priorities as a nation, our balancing of the relative worth of human beings.

It has been argued that the 5 per cent 2020 emissions reduction target that Prime Minister Rudd announced is no more or less than a political balancing act - navigating a midway path between the competing demands of business and scientists, of the Coalition and the Greens. But that is an extremely superficial view, and one that fails to see just how all-encompassing climate change is. There are much deeper choices at the core of any decision on emissions targets.

Perhaps the most obvious of these choices is the question 'do we value our children as much as ourselves?' That question, fundamentally, is the reason why we have just been through the lengthy and expensive process of Treasury modelling. The Government wanted to work out if it is worth our while to invest our money now in protecting the planet for our children and our children's children.

There is something unsettling about this question. Surely, at the heart of all of us lies the evolutionary imperative to protect and nurture our children, to do everything we can to ensure that they survive, prosper, and carry our hopes and dreams into the future. But, if the question is unsettling, the answer Mr Rudd gave is deeply troubling.

Even though every economic model for years has demonstrated that the cost of acting now is dwarfed by the cost of failing to act, and that our inexorably increasing wealth will hardly be dented by slashing our emissions, Mr Rudd still thinks it is too much. Even though his own modelling shows that the economic difference between 5 per cent emissions cuts and 25 per cent cuts is vanishingly small (he was too miserly to even investigate the scientifically necessary 40 per cent cuts), Mr Rudd will not invest our current wealth to ensure that our children can prosper.

Is that a choice Australians support?

Next is the question 'do we value our farms as highly as our aluminium, our beaches as highly as our coal, our renewable energy innovators as highly as our resource extractors?'

John Howard famously said he would not sacrifice Australia's coal and aluminium workers on "the altar of environmentalism". But what he did not say is that, by refusing to ask those in polluting industries to change, he was directly sacrificing all those whose livelihoods will be destroyed by climate change and whose new, clean-tech manufacturing jobs will never appear. From farmers whose land will dry up to tourist operators who will no longer have a reef to attract people to, to the millions who live close to sea level along the coast. If runaway climate change takes hold, we all will be sacrificed because the few refused to change.

Kevin Rudd's emissions trading scheme might be painted green, but it is designed around John Howard's frame. Rather than the promised economic transformation, we have a scheme geared towards maintaining the status quo - protecting polluters while locking out clean industry and condemning those most at risk. Fifty per cent of all revenue raised will go to shielding polluters from the scheme's impact. Forty-seven per cent will go to shielding householders from the impact through the short-sighted mechanism of cash handouts instead of the long-sighted approach of energy efficiency to reduce costs and pollution. A measly 3 per cent of the scheme's revenue will actually go towards helping anyone reduce emissions and driving the new renewable energy and energy efficiency revolution.

Is that a choice Australians support?

Finally there is the question 'do we think we Australians deserve to pollute more than everybody else?' This is the vexed 'per capita' issue that Professor Garnaut so cleverly inverted - taking what had been a powerful argument for change and turning it into a weapon in the hands of climate naysayers. He took the 'contraction and convergence' model that is the only equitable basis for a global agreement, and perverted it by talking up future population while sidelining current per capita pollution, stretching out convergence - the point where all people have the same pollution allocation - to the far future, and ignoring historical responsibility.

The message at the heart of Rudd's emissions trajectories is that Australians, who have built our riches by polluting, deserve to keep polluting more than anyone else on the planet for another 42 years.

The way we Australians make these choices will say a lot about who we are. Are we wise and generous, or selfish and short-sighted?

I firmly believe that the great majority of Australians want us to make the compassionate, fair and reasonable choice: to do everything we can, scrimp and save, innovate and create, so that our children can prosper; to all pull together, each of us doing what we can to support the others; and to play our responsible part in the 'Green New Deal' to pass on our planet in a fit state for those who come after us.

Mr Rudd, you made your choice yesterday. It is clear that you do not have the vision to see Australia as a prosperous, green energy hub. Instead of a White Paper, you raised the white flag of surrender.

But, soon enough, the people will make their choice. Don't say we didn't warn you.

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