It is only a coincidence that today’s post starts with a reference to another Treasury Secretary, Ken Henry, whom I have never met, to the best of my knowledge, and who went to UNSW, not UNE — though he is another country boy (Taree), like Bernie Fraser (Junee) and me (Armidale). I heard him on the ABC suggesting that an emissions trading scheme is far and away the best way to reduce emissions — every economist thinks so, he added. He didn’t say, at least on air, that we ought to reduce emissions, but that was at least the message I heard.
Now to be fair, economists are people who look at what you want to do, and suggest the better way to do it. Ross Garnaut, whom Henry mentioned, is a good example. Nicholas Stern is another. But it is not long before the economist is drawn into defending not merely the mechanism he or she has suggested, but the purpose for which the mechanism was suggested, and both Garnaut and Stern have become ‘believers’ or at least ‘defenders’, and not simply of their proposed mechanisms.
There is a widespread view, it seems to me, that ’emissions’ ought to be reduced. ‘Emissions’ sound dirty, and can be connected with ‘pollution’, as they indeed were in the phrase ‘carbon pollution’, much used by the previous Labor governments. And, given that the present Government doesn’t like the word ‘carbon’, at least in the phrase ‘carbon tax’, it may be that the game is shifting to a softer, more appealing phrase — ‘reducing emissions’. I’ve heard people argue that it’s a good thing to do anyway, even if it doesn’t much affect global warming. If you ask them why, you get a hand-waving expression of virtue: we should be better stewards of the planet, there’s too much dirt, too many gaping holes left by miners, we need to clean up the world, pure air is important, and so on. ‘It’s just a good thing to do anyway,’ they’ll say.
It’s probably time for those of us who are sceptical that carbon taxes and their like could have any beneficial effect on our society (and who are still waiting to be shown that the earth is actually warming and, if it is, that the warming will be catastrophic, or even harmful) to put in a good word or two about the likely benefits of leaving carbon dioxide emissions alone. For those who worry about it all, let us start with the recurring television image of what appears to be smoke belching from power station chimneys, especially the wide-based ones. What you see there is actually steam and water vapour, and has nothing to do with carbon dioxide.
Even the real smoke issuing from real chimneys is not carbon dioxide: it is a mixture of particulate matter, like soot, and other partly burned residues of whatever the fuel was. It also contains quite nasty gases like carbon monoxide and sulphur dioxide. CO2 is certainly there, but invisible. Australian power station chimneys employ ‘scrubbers’ to ensure that what goes into the air is as clean as possible. A minimum of 95 per cent of particles, and most of the gases, are removed. We have done a pretty good job of reducing those emissions. Plainly some other countries, like China, have a long way to go, but they will do it in time, too, as we did. In the meantime, more carbon dioxide has meant a greener world, as some Australian scientists showed recently (and yes, in a peer-reviewed paper too).
Carbon dioxide is neither visible nor a pollutant in any way. It is the essential food for all plants, and therefore the basis for all animal life that depends on plants, our own life included. I drove a lot through forests over the last few weeks, and it was salutary to realise that every tall eucalypt that I saw owed its height, strength and mass to the carbon dioxide that it drew from the atmosphere through photosynthesis. I am in favour of planting trees too, but my approval is based on the microclimates that trees generate, the way they keep water in the soil through their shade, and their beauty. Yes, they extract carbon dioxide from the air, but it is a loan only, because the tree will eventually die, burn or be chopped down, and over time that carbon dioxide will return to the air.
So why are we agonising about ‘reducing emissions’? Well, it is code, I think, for The Great Problem: humanity’s supposed despoiling of the planet, as the extreme environmentalists see it. I know that Mr Henry is a protector of wombats, just as I have a certain sympathy for the huntsman spider. But that doesn’t make me a believer in AGW, and I hope that Mr Henry has enough commonsense to recognise that there really isn’t any compelling reason to reduce carbon dioxide emissions.
But, like Mr Fraser, he may have become a ‘believer’, in which case he will have abandoned common-sense for faith and an attraction to theory, because that is really all AGW is based on, untested theory.
I finish with an oldie but goodie. The King summoned his Economist to complain that people were unhappy, unemployment was high, productivity was low and revenue was shrinking. He asked for a policy, and the Economist, after due consideration provided a prescription for what should be done and the way it should be handled. The King did not like the proposal, and followed his own commonsense. A year later he recalled the Economist.
‘I didn’t much like your prescription, he said, ‘so I followed my own hunch — and you see, it worked! The people are now happy, everyone is in work, productivity is right up there, and revenue is rolling in to the Royal coffers!’
‘Yes, yes, yes,’ replied the Economist dismissively. ‘That’s all very well. But where’s the theory?’