Monday, July 28, 2008

Why wait for the world when the world can't wait?

As more of the developed world embraces the need to reduce carbon emissions, the Coalition risks being awkwardly out of step.

IN FEBRUARY 1983, back in the days when climate change meant the difference between sun in the morning and rain in the afternoon, the Liberal Party launched its federal election campaign at the Malvern Town Hall. Its slogan, set to a song performed by Colleen Hewitt on a stage full of blue-bloods including then prime minister Malcolm Fraser, John Howard and Jeff Kennett, was "We're Not Waiting for the World". Alas, the Liberals' non-waiting game didn't succeed; Labor (not to mention the world) passed the Coalition by, leaving it in the cold for 13 years.

Flash forward to July 2008. A federal Labor Government is again in power; climate change has become a major national and international concern; and the Coalition is rephrasing its refrain of '83 simply by removing the negative: "We're Waiting for the World" has become the alternative government's catchcry — which is what it said in government, less than a year ago, when Mr Howard held to the all-together line, preferring, like his ally George Bush, to wait for all global offenders to join the carbon-emissions fight before committing his country. Since then the Rudd Government has ratified the Kyoto Protocol, and has released its green paper on emissions in response to the Garnaut report; three weeks ago, the US supported the G8 accord to at least halve the world's carbon emissions by 2050. Although there are still formidable obstacles — China and India, the most obvious — the significance of recognising that there is a goal to realise is in itself a substantial advance.

This newspaper's position has been consistent: climate change needs a holistic approach and, if it is to be tackled successfully, this must happen swiftly. Earlier this month, in endorsing the draft of Ross Garnaut's final report, The Age said: "As a nation we must change the way we live if we are to mitigate the grave consequences of climate change, which, if left uncontrolled, will have significant long-term effects on the economy and society in general." So, given this sense of urgency, what is the Coalition doing? It appears to be out of step, still waiting for the world to share the climate-change battle.

Opposition Leader Brendan Nelson is wrong to think that he will benefit from taking a tougher line on the proposed carbon trading scheme — that his standing within his party and within the electorate will be bolstered. The go-slow policy appears to be heading for endorsement at tomorrow's party room meeting in Canberra. However, Dr Nelson is playing shortsighted wedge politics — against some in his party and against the Government — and is failing to grasp the opportunity to demonstrate true leadership on one of the most important issues of our time. Dr Nelson may be unduly focused on trying to silence the environmental credibility of shadow treasurer and ever-hopeful leader-in-waiting Malcolm Turnbull, and of the shadow climate change minister, Greg Hunt. Both men, who have favoured carbon-trading schemes, are showing signs of diluting their arguments. On Friday, Mr Turnbull said "international agreement is vital" for effectiveness; and Mr Hunt, in an interview published in The Age today, takes issue with Professor Garnaut's references to "climate-change deniers", saying "people have not just a right but a responsibility to question it for themselves". These statements weaken the previously stated positions of Mr Turnbull and Mr Hunt.

While clouds form within the Coalition party room, these are minor compared with what is happening in the wider world. As Professor Garnaut has said, too many years have already been wasted in debating climate change to spend any more time in futile delay.

Yet despite such dire warnings, Dr Nelson is calling for another delay, arguing that Australia should not launch a carbon trading scheme until the world's big emitters sign up to similar processes. He is right to worry about the economic handicaps Australian businesses may face. He is wrong to wait for the world. He should be arguing for bigger investments — public and private — in research and development.

As the Rudd Government has correctly noted, Australia needs leadership on climate change now. It needs to launch a carbon trading scheme as soon as possible — a scheme that lowers emissions while building in safeguards to allow the biggest emitters time to adjust their production processes and develop and implement new technologies. It will be ideal if this can be achieved by 2010. If it takes until 2011 or 2012 to build the most appropriate scheme, so be it. The scheme can be amended when more of the world signs on to the cause.

No comments: