- Robyn Eckersley
- WA Today, December 15, 2008
CLIMATE change was one of a handful of policies on which the Labor Party distinguished itself from the Coalition during the 2007 election campaign. Following Kevin Rudd's ratification of the Kyoto Protocol immediately after his election, the international community hoped that Australia would shift from a climate laggard to a climate leader.
Twelve months later, the long-awaited white paper on a carbon pollution reduction scheme, the centrepiece of the Rudd Government's response to climate change, suggests this hope has been misplaced.
The success of any national carbon trading scheme depends on the comprehensiveness of its coverage of greenhouse gas emissions, the fairness of its distribution of the burden of mitigation, the effectiveness of assistance and other compensatory mechanisms provided to disadvantaged members of the community and, above all, the robustness of the emissions reduction trajectory or targets.
An Australian cap-and-trade scheme that is impeccably fair from the perspective of domestic stakeholders may be still considered a travesty by the international community, particularly the most vulnerable nations, if its emissions reduction targets are weak.
It is the medium-term 2020 target that really matters most. This is not simply because today's cabinet will no longer have to take responsibility for meeting this target from their retirement homes or graves in 2050. It is because the best available climate science tells us that deep and early cuts in emissions in the next decade will be most effective in reducing the risk of dangerous climate change.
Last year, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recommended — and Australia supported — emissions cuts of 25 to 40 per cent by 2020 for developed countries to reduce the risk of warming beyond 2 degrees, which still carries significant risks of coral bleaching, species extinction, water scarcity, extreme weather, coastal damage, mass migration and increased incidence of tropical diseases.
Instead, the Rudd Government has committed to a minimum, unconditional cut of 5 per cent below 2000 levels by 2020, rising to 15 per cent if "all major economies commit to substantially restrain emissions and all developed countries take on comparable reductions to that of Australia". "All major economies" includes developing countries such as China and India.
The white paper's version of "comparable reductions" is interpreted in a self-serving way to adjust for Australia's fossil-fuel dependence and rising population. So, for example, Australia's target is considered "comparable" to the European Union's 20 per cent cut, rising to 30 per cent if other developed countries accept strong commitments.
Against this background, the Rudd Government's preferred target of a 5 per cent reduction falls desperately short of what is required of an affluent nation such as Australia, which is among the world's top per capita carbon emitters and in the top 20 per cent of aggregate emitters.
The targets are weak not only in terms of well-understood scientific requirements but also the moral and legal requirements of leadership under the climate regime. The Government accepts the pessimism of the Garnaut Climate Change Review Final Report that an international agreement to stabilise atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases at about 450 parts per million of carbon dioxide equivalent, while desirable, is unlikely, and that Australia must adjust its own emissions reduction trajectory accordingly so as not to penalise domestic industry.
The white paper acknowledges that "leadership from the developed world encourages other countries to join the global fight".
Leadership surely means showing the way by going first, inspiring others and, as an affluent country, observing the burden-sharing principles of the climate change regime by performing relatively more of the heavy lifting. It does not mean waiting to see what others will do before taking concerted action. Nor does it mean postponing concerted action until substantial commitments are made from countries in which millions of people live below the poverty line.
An unconditional minimum commitment to a 5 per cent reduction by 2020 is unlikely to unleash the depth of technological innovation and collective commitment that is necessary to shift towards a low carbon economy and inspire countries such as China and India to leap-frog over the fossil-fuel development path.
The core burden-sharing principle of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change requires developed countries to take the lead in combating climate change on the basis of their greater historical responsibility for emissions and their greater technological and financial capacity to pursue mitigation.
This is summarised as "equity and common but differentiated responsibility". The preamble to the convention also explicitly declares "that the largest share of historical and current global emissions of greenhouse gases has originated in developed countries, that per capita emissions in developing countries are still relatively low and that the share of global emissions originating in developing countries will grow to meet their social and development needs".
While it is widely recognised that most of the future growth in emissions will come from rapidly developing countries, the best way of addressing this problem is through exemplary leadership, the demonstration effect and massive technological and financial assistance, rather than through the subversion of the burden-sharing principles of the climate regime.
Regrettably, most of the debate in Australia over the Garnaut Review, and the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme green and white papers, has focused on who should bear the burden of adjustment within Australia. From the standpoint of protecting the planet, these questions are secondary to the relative burden Australia should accept as a developed nation.
Robyn Eckersley is a professor in the School of Social and Political Sciences at the University of Melbourne.