Friday, December 19, 2008

The heat is on over policy

ROSS Garnaut is a former Labor adviser and diplomat, but old allegiances and professional habits mean little when 18 months work is being undermined for short-term political ends. And when you believe so much is at stake.

The veteran economist has taken a baseball bat to the Labor Government's climate change package, effectively accusing the Government of abandoning efforts to secure a substantial global climate change deal before 2020.

Roughly translated, his message can be broken into three key points. First, a global deal to limit climate change is in Australia's interests. Why would it not put up a target that might achieve that — a 25 per cent cut as part of a deal to stabilise carbon dioxide at 450 parts per million, as recommended by climate scientists — even if it thought an agreement at this level was unlikely?

With Barack Obama in the White House, there is a small chance that a substantial deal is possible. Unless it shifts, Australia has ruled out being part of it.

Second, the Rudd Government arrogantly wants a global deal designed to its own specifications. It wants per capita emissions taken into account because Australia's projected population growth justifies a smaller target than stagnant Europe. But the per capita argument is a two-sided coin: Australia has the largest per person emissions in the developed world, and must ultimately make much deeper cuts if all countries are to converge to the same level.

Third, there is no justification for giving billions of dollars to coal-fired power plants. The failed first European emissions scheme did this, and the big polluters just pocketed the cash and passed the extra carbon cost on anyway. Similarly, its formula for compensating trade-exposed industries is unprincipled and determined by politics.

Much of Garnaut's criticism can be boiled down to the disconnection between Government rhetoric about taking a lead in finding a global solution to climate change and the defensiveness of its white paper.

Foreign governments share this concern. A senior European official this week told The Age that Australia was acting as if this was just another trade negotiation, where everyone puts up its defensive position while preparing to carry on if no agreement is reached. Unfortunately, as anyone who has paid even passing attention to Garnaut this year could tell you, climate science doesn't work this way.

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