Monday, 5 October 2015

Changed policies, changed system, same power centre

A year ago today – though I forgot – I read an article from the West Australian dating back to 1980, the year of the appalling Lonie Report whose effects will be seen this week in record hot October temperatures.

In my early 2000s university classes, it was taught that Australia only became a dreadful laggard on environmental issues with the demise of the Hawke Government following swings against Labor in Victoria with the 1990 Federal election. This has been outlined much more recently by the magazine Chain Reaction in Maria Taylor’s Global warming and climate change: What Australians knew and buried ... then framed a new reality for the public (available for free download here).

In some respects Australia’s environmental policies during the 1980s did not stand out so badly as they did in the 1990s and beyond – for instance we possessed much tougher pollution legislations than the UK and New Zealand.

Australia’s lesser laggardness in the 1980s is enhanced by the fact that many seminal environmental papers showing the continent’s unique ecology had not yet been published. None of The Future Eaters, Tom McMahon’s studies of global runoff (Global Runoff: Continental Comparisons of Annual Flows and Peak Discharges) plus Barry Lovegrove’s study ‘The Zoogeography of Mammalian Basal Metabolic Rate’, which reveals the exceptionally slow metabolism of Australia’s largest native mammals compared to large mammals elsewhere (though a search failed to find the supplementary material I was looking for), were published before 1990.

However, this article by later Age journalist Tim Colebatch, titled ‘Japan Cleans Air, Cleans Up Myths’, suggests – as the incidence of unnecessary road projects even before the Lonie Report made me suspect – that there was an extremely powerful lobby eliminating the ability of Australia to be anything but a laggard in environmental policy.

Colebatch shows that in 1980 Australia’s car industry was rigidly opposed to legislation to move Australia’s pollution standards closer to the strictest standards of Japan and California, despite the fact that motor cars were clearly the cause not only of a significant proportion of greenhouse gas emissions but also of toxic pollutants like nitric oxide and nitrogen dioxide. Given that Australian environments are much lower in volatile elements than the Enriched World, Australian native species likely have smaller tolerance for these toxic pollutants, and it thus stands logical that Australian environments required much cleaner air than those of Europe or Japan.

It is true that Colebatch ignore Australia’s lack of engineering skill compared to Japan or Germany – undoubtedly a direct result of Australia’s superabundant land and lithophile minerals which allow it to be very wealthy without these skills – and the potential influence of unions to slow adoption of new technologies. Nonetheless, Australia most likely had the skill to develop the technology to radically reduce both emissions and fuel consumption to a quarter of the long-term standard of approximately 11.5 litres per 100 kilometres (20.5 miles per US gallon). Greater fuel tax revenues and even the 57.5 percent import tariff then in use could have been used to permit the vast investment in rail transit that was overdue even in 1980, and import quotas could have been used to restrict car availability with improved public transport.

However, lobbying from car manufacturers and mortgage belt voters – who would struggle financially if petrol in Australia cost the environmental price of its use, which modern ecological knowledge suggests as minimally ten times present Australian fuel prices – would undoubtedly have made these radical changes politically suicidal.

The essential conclusion from ‘Japan Cleans Air, Cleans Up Myths’ is that Australia’s status as an embarrassing environmental laggard is much older than Maria Taylor presumes. In fact, Australia’s descent to such a woeful laggard became inevitable with demands for lower taxes and reduced regulation from the late 1980s. By 1987, it was clear our massively protected local car industry (protection in 1984 was equivalent to a 135 percent tariff) was economically unprofitable even with that protection. The powerful mining industries no doubt sensed potential increased profits with no import quotas and much lower car taxes. With the support of car-dependent and family-oriented mortgage belt voters on a uniquely abundant land supply, there was no way Australia’s politicians were clearly incapable of achieving even the very modest 20 percent reduction planned in 1990 – although that would have threatened the powers-that-be in the mineral, coal and road industries enough.

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