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Carbon: A life and death issue

How can I or WE make a difference?

Imagine yourself contributing towards creating a healthy planet by affirming and visualising “I can make a difference” We can make a difference! Imagine yourself and then imagine all your friends and co-workers joining with you to make a difference. Take the opportunity to do this alone or with others, when Sydneysiders celebrate EARTH HOUR.


On Saturday March 31, Sydney will turn off its lights for one hour commencing at 7:30 pm as a major step towards reducing the city’s greenhouse gas pollution. Create an energy-free ambience alone or with friends and keep watch for the world for one hour, with an active imagination! To find out more about Earth Hour visit the official website.


Carbon: A life and death issue

One of the most serious ways we are polluting the environment and affecting climate at present is through carbon (greenhouse) emissions. The most urgent response we need to make is to find viable energy alternatives for fossil fuel.


Carbon is one of the building blocks of life, but it is also death dealing if produced in quantities too great for the natural systems of the planet to handle. Over millions of years, carbon has been taken out of the atmosphere by trees and other decaying matter and stored safely as gas, coal, shale or petroleum in the bowels of the earth, to be used by growing plants. In less than two hundred years since the industrial revolution, much of that safely stored carbon has been released back into the atmosphere by the human’s insatiable need for fuel and energy.


Protecting the earth’s atmosphere is a very thin ozone layer, within which a “greenhouse” like environment moderates the temperature of earth, protects its creatures from harmful radiation, and creates conditions for life to flourish. Under normal circumstances this “greenhouse” atmosphere, which is capable of regulating itself up to a point, maintains a balance that is “just right” for the garden planet.


But the point has been reached when carbon emissions (carbon dioxide CO2, methane CH4 and water vapour H2O) far exceed other gases. In quantities that have tipped the balance in the direction of “danger” for the earth’s atmosphere and its thin, fragile, protective ozone layer, carbon emissions have created a “double doona” or enhanced greenhouse effect around the planet. This means that CO2, CH4 and H2O are prevented from escaping. Instead, they are deflected back to earth and cause temperature rise and climate change, which have serious environmental, social and economic impacts. Scientists argue about the critical time-frame and ultimate effects of global warming and climate change, but there does not seem to be serious disagreement in the scientific community about the fact that signs of global warming are everywhere.


What to do?

We are all urged to do what we can to cut back on carbon emissions. And we can indeed make a difference personally: e.g. by installing energy efficient shower heads and light bulbs; walking instead of driving; switching off our electrical appliances instead of leaving them on “standby”. But unless we can persuade government and industry to take this matter seriously, we are, so to speak, “whistling in the wind”. Democracies are ineffectual unless the people speak! There are political avenues available for ensuring that our voice is heard on this issue, and the political climate is right for our voice to make a difference.


The sun is the earth’s natural and original source of energy. Indeed, all energy sources have a direct connection with the energy of the sun. Solar heating is an obvious replacement for burning fossil fuels in a country like Australia. But so far, we lack the political will and creative imagination to invest in solar energy. Wind farms and ocean currents are other possible renewable energy sources, but oil and coal industries and now the uranium lobby are powerful “keepers of the status quo”, and their very convincing justification for their position is “the economy” – personalised in the threat of job losses and unemployment. Hybrid and electricity powered cars are still too expensive for ordinary people to consider.


Plant and protect trees

One of nature’s most effective strategies for removing unwanted carbon from the atmosphere is trees. Young trees absorb the carbon we exhale when we breathe, or that we emit in the course of meeting our fuel and energy needs. Older trees safely store carbon in the soil, where it is used to nourish new growth. But excessive land clearing for agriculture – especially for cash crops like cotton and rice in Australia – has struck a severe blow to that natural means of carbon absorption.


Carbon trading

This refers to the trade in “rights to pollute” be they in the form of pollution quotas set by governments or “credits” generated from offset projects. This strategy, introduced by industry and governments, particularly in the USA and Europe, is supposed to “offset” carbon emissions, in that the polluter “pays” for the right to continue polluting. But the carbon “offset” industry “can’t see the wood for the trees”, argues Adam Ma’anit in New InternationalistRead the article


Rather than stop the flow of oil, coal and gas, the “offset” industry tells us that we can continue as normal. It is a seductive argument, especially for a country like Australia, which has the highest rate of carbon emissions per capita in the industrialised world, and huge deposits of fossil fuels that both industry and government want to continue to exploit. In addition to this, countries and other groups that do not pollute sell their conservation credits to the highest bidder, rather than the highest polluter. Overall emission reductions would need to come from a reduction of permits available in the system, in order to make carbon trading effective.


Carbon offsets

These are projects that are designed supposedly to “absorb” carbon from the atmosphere or that assume savings in emissions that wouldn’t otherwise have been made. Greenfleet is such a project, whereby people who drive cars contribute $40pa for tree planting. These plantations are called “carbon sinks” and must be maintained beyond the planting stage. In Australia, organisations and individuals wishing to participate in carbon “offset” schemes, must register with State Governments, who issue carbon credit (“green”) certificates to participants. See


The carbon market

The Carbon Market refers to the market in “offsets” as well as pollution permit trading. There is an “official” carbon market set out under the rules of the Kyoto Protocol, which includes both “offset” projects and permit-trading for compliance purposes. And there is a “voluntary” market whereby individuals and companies volunteer to “offset” projects. A critical and complex part of the bargain is enforcement. Although commonly referred to as a “commodity” (e.g. oil and coffee) market by traders, the World Bank recently likened the global carbon trade to “currency”.


What’s happening in Australia?

The Australian Government refuses to sign the Kyoto Protocol, in spite of a concession to increase our carbon emissions cap by 8%, rather than decrease it! The Australian Government established a Task Group in December 2006 comprising senior representatives from business and public service, to advise on (i) the design of a workable global emissions trading scheme, in which Australia would be able to participate, and (ii) the additional steps that might be taken in Australia, consistent with the goal of establishing such a system. See


For further information see and


How big is your carbon footprint?

Google  Carbon Footprint Australia“ and explore the websites that will reveal all this and more.


From: Specific Issues Committee, Eco-Justice (Sisters Margaret Abbott, Mary Dennett, Patricia Powell and Mary Tinney). The Committee warmly invites your response to the article or the issue. Email:


Contact: Carmel Heagerty RSM, Institute Justice Co-ordinator Email: