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Carbon Dioxide: sinister gas or much-maligned friend?
By James Cryer

James Cryer from JDA Print Recruitment offers us some thoughts on the recent government announcement to introduce a tax on carbon emmissions.

The debate between the two competing climate-change policy instruments (carbon tax v emissions trading) is like the one concerning how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. They both miss the point.

Only a scheme which taxes usage at the input stage - not the output - will work, as people or companies will only respond to "pain" charged on what they use (like petrol or electricity) - not what's emitted into the atmosphere. And if governments were "fair dinkum" they could implement such taxes tomorrow - along with subsidies on alternate energy use.

 

This brings me to my "killer" point: you can apply tax at either the input (consumption) end or the output (emission) end.

Furthermore, by presenting carbon as the culprit, governments - and opportunistic companies - are appealing to our simplistic notions to declare "war on carbon", to the exclusion of all the other pollutants.  

 

Mankind seems hot-wired with an uncontrollable urge to jump onboard any band-wagon that rolls past, without questioning its underlying premise. Be it the innocence of hula-hoops or UFO's or weight-loss diets. Or the tendency to embrace more sinister beliefs (such as Jim Jones or Scientology) - or the belief in financial get-rich-quick schemes such as the "South Sea Bubble". And who can forget "Tulip Mania" which gripped Holland in 1637?

It seems we are being similarly engulfed by pop psychology, wrapped in a mantle of pseudo-science, as we fall for the next fad - man-made global warming (see note *, below). We're again being asked to turn off our brains and leave them at the door, while we uncritically accept what the "overwhelming" consensus of scientists tell us what to believe in.

One of the tell-tale signs of a looming fad - easily fuelled these days by the internet - is the number of buzz-words that occur to describe the phenomenon. We also seem hot-wired to accept these words as some kind of sacred mantra that turn our minds to jello as we lie back and accept them, doggo.

Jargon, or "weasel-words" (as Don Watson called them in his book "Death Sentence") are designed to intimidate or stymie discussion, as the utterer is meant to posses superior wisdom and therefore "knows what he's talking about". Words like "global warming", "greenhouse emissions", "carbon footprint" and "climate change" have a certain ring of verisimilitude that causes us lay-people to accept them as gospel. (And that most-rubbery of words, "sustainable", should never be uttered in public again - as any economist knows, everything is sustainable in the short-term - and nothing in the long-term. That's a fair degree of wriggle-room.)

So, we're left wondering, how can we - who know nothing - possibly challenge the climate-modelling outcomes of experts, who predict with absolute certainty, that mankind is causing the world to get warmer?

 

When I was in Los Angeles in 1970, there was a serious pollution problem (no, not smoking pot) and it was called smog. It was photo-synthesised, air-borne particulates from industry and cars, and it was ten times worse than so-called pollution now. But in those days they hadn't invented concepts like the "Kyoto" and "Copenhagen" gabfests - they just acted! They legislated that all vehicles had to have catalytic-converters and all industrial smoke-stacks had to install after-burners - and in less than a year (compare this with how long we've been talking about so-called "climate action") the air was as clean as a whistle.

Perhaps it's so seductive because it chimes with our own inbuilt conceit that Man has the power to control the environment? If we made it warmer, surely we can make it cooler, by simply reversing the process! Such iron-clad logic has an irresistible symmetry which makes it oh, so easy to believe. I wish that life on Earth was so simple - to be controlled just by pulling levers.

 

The other option, that there may just be some in-built, climatic variability within the system (or even external causes such as sun-spot activity), seems too elusive, esoteric or simply un-exciting, to really grab our minds. We need a more vivid, easily "understood" explanation - so along come all the buzz-words. Merely by mouthing them often enough we can convince ourselves of the cause (too much "carbon dioxide") and the solution to global warming: ride a bike to work, change a few light-bulbs … plant a few trees - problem solved!

We so love the simple solutions.

But there's one word which one hardly ever hears, in this headlong rush to kill this post-modernist devil, carbon. And that is "pollution". When I was in Los Angeles in 1970, there was a serious pollution problem (no, not smoking pot) and it was called smog. It was photo-synthesised, air-borne particulates from industry and cars, and it was ten times worse than so-called pollution now. But in those days they hadn't invented concepts like the "Kyoto" and "Copenhagen" gabfests - they just acted! They legislated that all vehicles had to have catalytic-converters and all industrial smoke-stacks had to install after-burners - and in less than a year (compare this with how long we've been talking about so-called "climate action") the air was as clean as a whistle.

Some people even have a bet both ways, by referring to carbon "pollution" - there's no such thing. Current levels are so far below what they were during previous eras we're not even close to "pollution". And the suggestion that too much carbon will lead to "ocean acidification" is just another example of fear-mongering by phraseology!

Unfortunately, the concept of being inundated by a blanket of tiny black particles has taken hold in the primitive recesses of our mind.

My point is, that by focussing on "carbon dioxide" (thanks to the climate alarmists) we're chasing the robber down the wrong street. Forget carbon dioxide - it's NOT the bad guy you've been lead to believe. Forget your carbon footprint - go to a good chiropodist if you're having foot problems.

Forget trying to reduce carbon - you may as well try and reduce oxygen while you're at it - or nitrogen - or any other element that happens to be on the "wanted list". One good volcano - or a few good sun-spots - will bugger up all that effort you went to in re-cycling your toilet-paper and using only bio-degradable shampoo on your pet poodle.

So who started this obsession with carbon? My theory is that governments wanted to be seen to be doing something, but didn't have the guts - until some bright spark invented the "carbon emission trading scheme". This got everyone off the hook and produced only winners.

 - Governments loved it because they could lurk in the background without actually having to do anything.

 - The polluters loved it as they could "buy" credits but still keep polluting.

 - Merchant bankers loved it because they could make a fortune as the middlemen, without actually "producing" anything.

 - And the greens loved it because it sounded like a great idea!

Whether you actually NEED a carbon-trading scheme got completely overlooked (go back to LA, circa 1970, above).

Eventually the penny dropped that a carbon emission trading scheme would be an expensive folly, but the imperative persisted that we had to do something to eliminate this latter-day, demon - carbon. So another bright spark came up with a more "direct" mechanism - the "carbon tax". And although it's got an authoritative ring to it, you may as well impose a tax on "ships and shoes and ceiling wax, and cabbages and kings" (with apologies to Lewis Carroll).

How on earth do you measure "emissions"? The thought of bureaucrats walking round paddocks holding bags jammed in cows' behinds beggars belief, but it may yet become a new job spec within the Dept of Climate Change. If you can't measure it - you can't manage it!

So what's my solution? Go back to first principles: forget carbon.

Pollution (in various guises) is the real "bad guy". The answer is not just one simplistic carbon-reduction program as if carbon was a bunch of rabbits to be eradicated.

Unless there are guarantees of tax reductions in other areas, carbon taxes are just another cynical "grab for cash" by governments. It's been proven many times that people (and companies) only respond to direct pain or pleasure, ie, taxes - or subsidies - linked directly to things we can see or touch, ie, consume (as opposed to emitting).

This brings me to my "killer" point: you can apply tax at either the input (consumption) end or the output (emission) end. My assertion is that the current obsession with taxing emissions is completely mis-guided, as by then it's too late - and certainly too difficult to measure. So forget about trying to tax carbon - carbon dioxide (being a gas) is too elusive and hard to measure (refer cows, above).

 - Therefore, the simplest initial response would be to simply apply a surtax on the usage of fossil-fuels (typically petrol) - both for vehicles and industry. This would prompt the immediate response of everyone taking their own steps to reduce consumption - and thereby pollution. And you'd put the additional revenue into subsidising alternate energy-sources and into public transport.

 - The next step would be to add small incrementing additions to the tax on the use (not emission) of coal-based energy - and offer tax incentives on other renewable sources. (I hate to admit it, but I'm starting to think that coal, if properly "cleansed", is probably not too bad after all - but that's another story, as is nuclear power, the cleanest of all.)

 - Increase fines for illegal industrial discharges (either into rivers or atmosphere) and ensure stricter after-burner controls (ie, even finer particulates).

By simply doing the above you'd address 90% of the problem without creating massive bureaucracies, time-wasting committees and the costly delays which have plagued all the other more "sophisticated" proposals.

Most problems have a simple, elegant solution - or a convoluted "political" one. Carbon trading schemes or carbon taxes are merely attempts to complicate an otherwise simple issue - we really don't need either. Let's go "back to basics" with simpler, less complicated solutions. It's not rocket-science!

- - - - - -

Note on Climate Change:

We're getting hotter … aren't we? Back in 1791, just after the first settlers arrived in Sydney, Lt Watkin Tench recorded several days in summer which exceeded the high-40 degrees (F). This would be almost unheard of these days.

He also recorded that there were "several" snowfalls during Sydney's winter. But I thought the climate experts said we now experience greater climatic "variability"?

You be the judge whether the experts really know weather.

James Cryer
JDA Print Recruitment
www.jdaprintrecruit.com.au