The coronavirus and climate emergency challenges may finally break the Coalition's heroin-like-addiction to growth at all costs, and create much-needed economic reform, writes Dr David Shearman.
TOGETHER, the COVID-19 (coronavirus) and the climate emergency offer humanity a unique opportunity for economic reform.
For Australia, already suffering the economic downturn from fire and drought, COVID -19 is compounding the problem by further reducing tourism, trade and international education, and economic growth around the world is already slowing.
In the major stock market correction in 2008, the steadily rising annual growth rate of global carbon dioxide emissions fell by half as a result of reduced consumption of fossil fuels and industrial activity. When growth returned so did emissions and their relentless rise has continued since.
In January and February of this year, NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) pollution monitoring satellites detected significant decreases in nitrogen dioxide (NO2) over China as a measure of both greenhouse emissions and air pollution. Nitrogen dioxide is a short-acting climate forcer and its control is essential. In China, carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas, has reduced by a quarter.
World oil consumption will suffer its steepest decline on record in the first quarter of this year, worse than during the 2008 global financial crisis (GFC), as offices and schools close, and airlines cancel flights worldwide.
It is good for international health that these reductions will reduce greenhouse emissions and air pollution, though temporarily.
The mantra of growth
Now that Australians understand the terrible impacts of global warming, the question arises whether we can curb our addiction to growth, for we must accept the conclusion that unbridled economic growth in its present form is incompatible with the environmental future of the world, which includes us.
This is not a new message to governments blinded by a heroin-like-addiction to growth. In 1974, Nobel Prize Winner (1998) in economic science William Nordhaus described the necessary transition from a “cowboy economy” to a “spaceship economy”. “Cowboy economy” because we use the environment as a sink that could never be fouled. “Spaceship economy” because great attention must be paid “to the sources of life and to the dumps where our refuse is piled”.
As for one such dump, atmospheric carbon dioxide, Nordhaus predicted in 1974 that we were now dangerously on track to carbon dioxide emissions of 487 parts per million by 2030. Clearly now an overestimate, but our leaders are doing their best to reach it with their daily chorus of “jobs and growth”.
COVID-19 is likely to cause thousands of deaths around the world and we have the will and expertise to control it. Climate change is already causing hundreds and thousands of deaths each year and we see only prevarication and deception. We know what is necessary but are retarded by the growth-addicted minds of governments.
The economy must uncouple growth from greenhouse emissions; the Coalition Government may not realise that its commendable initiative on recycling plastic is part of the Green Deal proposed by the European community — perhaps it shouldn’t be mentioned in case the Nationals decide to sabotage it.
Indeed, decoupling may not be enough to save humanity from its own destruction, but at least it offers a learning transition to a completely new and sustainable way of living.
Every one of us prioritises our own health and the health and well being of our children. The forthcoming stimulus package is an opportunity for the “jobs and growth” message to be changed to “jobs and health”.
Jobs and health and the needed financial stimulus
Current vehicle emissions cause about half the 3,000 deaths per annum from air pollution in Australia and many of our cities carry the proven burden of ill health, particularly for the very young and old. A generous subsidy for electric vehicle purchase would boost falling car sales and jobs in the flagging automotive sector. It would fire a necessary transition based on health orientated consumption.
The transition to renewable energy has stalled, yet it is a jobs and health initiative because it reduces air pollution. Country electorates have the most disadvantaged people, the poorest health and inferior health services. Their representatives, mainly of the National Party, have done little about it.
Most of these communities need a hall or building that could become solar powered and have a storage facility to ease the burden of heatwaves and the increasing death rate from heatstroke. This simple policy would become part of national climate adaptation policy — when we have one. Grants for jobs and health where needed most — for country people who provide the true sustainability of Australia.
Most urgently, in health terms, it was obscene to reduce interest rates as stimulus for a dubious increase in consumption, while ignoring the hunger and deprivations of Newstart. Newstart recipients are hungry and in despair; Government policy condemns many to ill health and frequent use of health services. A Newstart increase would be an immediate boost for the economy via the food industry.
Finally, both COVID -19 and climate change should remind the Government that all nations are interdependent and need to work together. Part of our obligation to underdeveloped nations suffering from both emergencies should be to increase aid, not decrease it.
Many more suggestions for jobs and health could be added here — please get to work in the comments section and address your suggestions to the Federal Government.
Dr David Shearman AM is Emeritus Professor of Medicine at Adelaide University and a patron of Economic Reform Australia.
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