I have to say that the current scheme for reducing Australia's emissions of green house gases sounds like a complete joke. The gist is that it doesn't matter what you do to reduce your "carbon footprint", the gains you make are taken up by losses of someone else. Emission impossible: the sad truth Ross Gittins February 25, 2009 Permit me to ask you a personal question (as long as you don't ask it back of me): how are you going reducing your carbon footprint? There's a host of things you could be doing, from turning off lights and appliances on standby and installing compact fluorescent bulbs, to taking shorter showers, using air-conditioners less or turning thermostats up a little in summer and down a little in winter. If you want to get more committed you can install ceiling insulation, a solar hot water system or solar panels. This can be expensive, but the Government may* give you subsidies to encourage you in your good works (*conditions apply). Then there's your consumption of fossil fuel for transport. Short of buying a Prius, you can buy any car that's more fuel efficient, use more public transport, ride a bike to work or even walk to the shops. I suspect many people are trying to be more carbon aware and do the right thing. And many of those who haven't done much know they should be trying harder. (If you must know, I've bought a much smaller car, am doing better with lights and appliances and walk to work more often. But my use of an air-conditioner is less than exemplary.) And remember, every little bit we do to reduce our personal consumption of electricity and petrol helps save the planet from global warming. Or does it? I thought I knew a fair bit about Kevin Rudd's proposed carbon pollution reduction scheme, but I've been surprised and disappointed to discover it's impervious to voluntary efforts to reduce our emissions. As Dr Richard Dennis, executive director of the Australia Institute, has been tirelessly explaining, nothing we choose to do for moral reasons will do anything to reduce the nation's total emissions of greenhouse gases. That's because the nation's total emissions will be controlled by an annually reducing cap, designed to reduce our emissions by 2020 to between 5 per cent and 15 per cent (it's yet to be decided) less than our emissions in 2000. And because, left to their own devices, our emissions would continue growing quite strongly, the cap serves not only as an upper limit on our total emissions but also as a lower limit. It's both a ceiling and a floor. So when you and I voluntarily cut back our emissions we don't reduce the nation's total emissions, we just make more room for other, industrial polluters - say, the aluminium, steel or cement industries - to increase their emissions. If you didn't know that, you could be forgiven. It seems you have a lot of mates. In a poll of 1000 people conducted for the Australia Institute, respondents were asked what effect it would have on Australia's total greenhouse gas emissions "if every household in Australia reduced their electricity use in the future". About 8 per cent weren't sure, but 78 per cent said our total emissions would go down. Only 13 per cent got the right answer, that total emissions would stay the same. That's a seriously misinformed electorate - which is why I'm writing this piece. It gives me no joy to further complicate the life of an embattled Government that, in its own heavily compromised way, is trying to do something concrete to reduce climate change. The pollies shouldn't be under any doubt that people want to be able to do their bit. More than 87 per cent of respondents agree that "households and individuals should be able to contribute to reducing Australia's greenhouse gas emissions". Unfortunately, the Government hasn't only failed to ensure people understand the workings of the scheme it's seeking to introduce, it hasn't resisted the temptation to actively mislead people. In spruiking the part of his $42 billion stimulus package offering subsidies for ceiling insulation and solar hot water systems, Kevin Rudd claimed that this "energy-efficient homes initiative" could, once fully implemented, "result in reductions of greenhouse gas emissions by 49.9 million tonnes by 2020, or the equivalent of taking 1 million cars off the road". As understanding has dawned about this hidden flaw in the trading scheme, the Minister for Climate Change, Penny Wong, has been quite tricky in her seeming rebuttal. There had been "misunderstanding" of the impact voluntary action by households can have under a cap-and-trade abatement scheme, she wrote in a newspaper article on Monday. "Some argue that household action simply frees up carbon pollution permits for others to use," she said. "In fact, individual and community action to be more energy efficient not only saves them money, it will contribute directly to Australia meeting our emissions reductions targets. "Strong household action also helps make it easier for governments to set even more ambitious targets in the future." That statement comes under the heading of literally true, but calculated to mislead. It's true that if you reduce your consumption of petrol or electricity you'll save yourself money. It's true only in an arithmetic sense that anything we do "contributes directly" to Australia meeting its emissions target. Everything contributes to the bottom line of the sum. But, because the bottom line is controlled under the scheme, any helpful contribution we might make just leaves more scope for others to make unhelpful contributions. When Wong says strong actions on our part help make it easier for governments to set lower emissions targets in future, the future she means is after 2020. As it stands, the only changes governments can make under the scheme are to the "trajectory" or path we travel to get to an unchanged destination level of emissions in 2020. Why has the Government constructed its scheme in such a strange, off-putting way, which fact it has then wanted to conceal and obfuscate? Because to date it's been more worried about business resistance than public approval. Any voluntary effort we make has been presented to businesses as a bonus, reducing the amount of adjustment they have to make (and, note, reducing the amount by which electricity prices will need to rise under the scheme). Now its little game has been rumbled, however, the Government will need to modify its scheme to keep faith with the more conscience-stricken among us. Fortunately, that won't be too hard.