Without an empowered citizenry a sustainable future is beyond reach

Michael Keating’s summary and review of Ross Garnaut’s latest book Reset: Restoring Australia after the Pandemic Recession is stimulating and important. While massive sustainable transformations in Australia’s economy and society are required, the emphasis on macroeconomic policies and the faith shown in technology is concerning.

Books can never be satisfactorily summarised, and neither Garnaut’s conclusions nor Keating’s critique should be judged based on a blog post. Both are well-credentialed to comment on macroeconomics and fiscal policy. Nevertheless, Keating’s piece leaves some questions hanging.

Garnaut is quoted as saying that Australia is exceptionally well-endowed“ in relation to “the absorption of CO2 into land and sea and growing biomass”, and that  “Australia has a cost advantage” with respect to biomass. Yet CO2 sequestration options for soil, geological formations, or in the oceans is still unproven at scale and very costly, and won’t be commercially available for many years, if ever. But most problematic is the biomass solution.

The effectiveness of biomass for energy in achieving zero or negative CO2 emissions depends on the feedstock used, the production techniques, and the transportation distances and methods. It also depends on the basic efficiency of the process for converting biomass into electricity. Where forest timber, including from sustainably managed forests, is the biomass source, there are potential adverse environmental, ecological, and biodiversity outcomes and the expected overall net CO2 reduction outcome is a matter of scientific dispute.

Garnaut, according to Keating, writes that CO2 sequestration “can provide one-third of the cost-effective climate mitigation needed between now and 2030 to stabilise temperature increases below 2.0°C, and one fifth of the required reductions between now and 2050”. It is beyond aspirational to believe that in 9 years these nascent sequestration techniques can be developed, effective markets created for them, and the investment found to deploy new technologies or retrofit legacy infrastructure.

Australia must, of course, make the necessary contribution to these among other global efforts.  But whatever Australia does alone will not avoid 3.0°C plus warming this century and the prospects are slight of Australia even partially achieving the transformations required for the reduction of CO2 emissions to zero in 2030 or 2050 timeframes. Currently, Australia is not even planning on zero emissions by 2050.

The messianic belief in a just-in-time technological solution is not a substitute for real action. More pertinent is the unrecognised need to go well beyond adjusting macroeconomic settings and tax regimes, not that they don’t have an important role. But the pandemic has demonstrated how important government intervention into social, health and economic matters is in big crises. However, unless the general population understands and accepts that actions are in their interests, governments will not be able to move forward on the big crises.

On top of a post-pandemic economic revival, global warming, biodiversity loss and environmental degradation inevitably will require disruptive economic and social transformations. Without a citizenry that has a stake in making the sacrifices involved the changes won’t happen. People will need to believe that their cooperation will deliver a better life experience for themselves and their descendants than would the alternative of maximising short term benefits. Why bother to embrace a transformation that doesn’t have as a key goal a better life for themselves and their children?

The policies Keating attributes to Garnaut are easily set out in impersonal macroeconomic terms.  In practice they will impose disruption and costs on citizens; and generate anxiety and uncertainty. That’s why strengthening citizens’ rights and the effectiveness of welfare provision are important for mobilising general support for the necessary changes. Governments must accept that establishing a just and equitable system of welfare, and a fair distribution of the benefits as well as the costs of action, is essential.

At international conferences, in Cabinet offices, and in boardrooms, commitments to action on the crises are everywhere.  But in the absence of widespread engagement by citizens, even the best intentions and most vigorous actions of the political and business elites will fall far short of success. For citizens to become engaged, a revolution in the prevailing social and political norms must accompany climate action, putting the rights and obligations of the citizen at the centre of governance.

Employment needs to be made more secure. Wages liveable. Housing more affordable. Quality healthcare and quality education more accessible. And they must be sustainable in a hotter, less habitable, drier future. More than that, citizens will need guaranteed access to a fair justice system and a clearly enunciated set of enforceable citizens’ rights to free speech, freedom of assembly, privacy, and freedom of conscience. These things are not available for many Australians, and without them they have no stake in the future.The public’s sense of impotence in the face of big-tech, big-finance, big-pharma, big-agri, and big-security needs to be addressed.

Over recent decades, confidence and trust in democratic governments around the world has plummeted in parallel with the outsourcing or privatisation of vital functions and services. Citizens have been turned into customers and consumers, while being spoken to in macroeconomic terms. Citizens have seen basic services become more costly, private debt grow, and a massive transfer of public wealth to a small elite of private actors.

If Keating, and Garnaut, hope to deliver their ambitious projects they will need to explain to the public how they will be better off. They will need to create an enthusiastic ownership of their projects among an empowered and positive citizenry. Australians will need to be prepared to make life-style adjustments in order to deal with climate-related challenges in the short term, while undertaking the social and economic transformation required in the medium term, and planning for living with a hotter world later in the century. Without supportive citizens governments will fail. Without a citizenry that can see a more equal, just and better future progress won’t happen.

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