The Labor Federal Government got its plan to cut carbon emissions through the lower house of parliament but was blocked by the right-of-centre opposition in the upper house. If the legislation is blocked again in November, Labor can go to the polls to try to get a majority in both houses. Effectively, the country will be asked to decide if it is serious about getting on with tackling climate change now.
Why does it matter?
It may be great to see climate change at the heart of political debate. However, Australia, a country of barely 20 million people, is a fair way down the list of major CO2 emitters. If Aussies went zero-emission tomorrow, it wouldn’t make a lot of difference to the global climate.
Don’t be fooled though. There are several reasons why it matters and why Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme – inadequate though it is – should be supported.
The first is that, while Australia’s absolute, direct contribution to climate change may be small, for every Australian and every dollar spent, it remains one of the worst carbon polluters in the world.
The most recent UN figures show that each Australian produces pretty much the same amount of CO2 each year as his or her US counterpart (and nearly twice as much as each UK citizen).
Each dollar of Australian GDP also generates more than half a kilo of CO2 – significantly more than each dollar of US GDP and nearly twice as much as a dollar of the UK economy. So, Australia is an extremely CO2-intensive economy and society. Any serious moves to wean it off bad habits must be welcomed.
Why must the government’s policy succeed?
Australians generally recognise that, even though they are a modest-sized country, they have to make a serious contribution to tackling climate change. Which brings us to the second reason why it’s important the government’s policy succeeds.
For more than a decade under the former Liberal (right-of-centre) Prime Minister John Howard, Australian policy was dominated by climate sceptics and nay-sayers. Labor made a manifesto commitment to tackle climate change and the voters supported them. One of Kevin Rudd’s first acts as Prime Minister was to ratify the Kyoto protocol, something his predecessor had refused to do.
Even the current opposition leader, Malcolm Turnbull, believes climate change needs to be tackled. However, he is struggling to keep together a coalition that includes die-hard sceptics, mainly from back country areas. It would be a depressing signal for Australia to send to the world if these few stymied any progress.
The opposition says there’s little point in committing to anything ahead of the Copenhagen Summit because any deal done there could change the context and render Australian policy redundant. Superficially, it is an appealing argument, especially since the start-date for Labor’s scheme has been put back a year on account of the global recession. What’s the rush to legislate, runs the argument?
However, if Australia wants to be heard at Copenhagen, it needs to show its commitment. What better way than getting on with change now?
There’s another reason why Australia’s position may matter more than its relative contribution to direct CO2 production may suggest. If you drive two hours north of Sydney and take a helicopter ride over the sea outside the port of Newcastle, you might see fifty or more large ships on any one day waiting to dock and load up with coal. Newcastle exports up to 8.5 million tonnes of coal a month.
Australia also exports vast quantities of iron ore and other minerals from Queensland and Western Australia, all for use in energy-intensive industries, much of it in China, which is now the world’s largest CO2 emitter. Australia’s economic interest in the carbon economy extends well beyond its own domestic use of fossil fuels. Therefore, its commitment to reducing global reliance on them is more important than its modest size suggests.
Does the scheme do enough?
The Australian Greens voted down Labor’s legislation because they say it didn’t go far enough. It is hard to disagree with that.
The Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme aims to cut Australian CO2 emissions by up to 25% by 2020 (depending on international agreements). That is less than is really needed. The mechanism is a cap-and-trade scheme designed to put a price on carbon throughout the economy. However, some of the biggest polluters will get free permits – at least in the early years. Agricultural emissions and deforestation are initially not included.
The Federal Government has also committed (and successfully legislated) to generate 20% of Australian electricity from renewables by 2020. That is significantly less than some US states and far short of what a country with so much sunshine and coastline should be capable of producing.
Labor’s scheme is clearly deeply flawed and it is hard to believe that in years to come it won’t have to be extended radically.
However, in winning (albeit heavily qualified) support from significant voices in the Australian environment movement and industry, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has succeeded in cementing the position of climate change policy at the heart of the political debate, marginalised the naysayers and marked out the pitch on which future battles will be fought.
If the government’s scheme gets through, there will be no going back. The only question will be how far and how fast policy can be pushed forward.
Simon Morris has been a journalist for over 20 years. He currently lives in Sydney, where he is the Multimedia Editor for The Sydney Morning Herald online. He was formerly a Political Correspondent for BBC Wales. Moving from a country whose immense coal exports started the industrial practice of chucking CO2 into the atmosphere to a country whose immense coal exports continue the practice without the excuse of ignorance, he can see the need for practical solutions!