Friday, May 29, 2009

Time to take the lead

Australia, with its abundance of energy sources, has no excuse for political inaction.

THE main players in the Senate's political stand-off over the Rudd Government's emissions trading scheme seem to have lost sight of what is at stake in the climate negotiations scheduled for Copenhagen in December. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned in 2007 that global aggregate emissions must peak by 2015 and thereafter rapidly decline to reduce the risk of dangerous warming above two degrees. Any delay will considerably increase the risk of species extinction, water scarcity, food shortages, extreme weather, major health risks and swelling numbers of climate refugees.

The commitment period after Kyoto of 2013 to 2020 provides the crucial window to prevent dangerous climate change. The interim 2020 targets will therefore determine our climate future and the panel has recommended that developed countries aim for emissions reductions of between 25 and 40 per cent by 2020 from a 1990 baseline.

The official negotiating position of China and the G77 at Copenhagen is that developed countries must accept targets of minus 40 per cent. Major emerging emitters in the developing world acknowledge the need to stem their future growth in emissions, but action on their part is conditional on leadership by the developed world in the form of strong targets, technology transfer and financial assistance. Anything less is seen as tantamount to the rich "kicking the ladder down" for the poor.

The European Union is pushing for a 30 per cent reduction in emissions and committing to an unconditional reduction of 20 per cent from 1990 levels. Germany is the climate leader, with a 2020 target of minus 40 per cent while Britain has committed to minus 32 per cent. Both enjoy bipartisan support in countries. The EU will lose any modest leverage it has with China if other developed countries fail to step up to the plate.

Against this background, the tiny margin of bipartisan agreement between Labor and the Coalition for an unconditional target of minus 5 per cent (from a 2000 rather than 1990 baseline) is pitiful. While sceptics make much of the fact Australia's aggregate emissions are small compared with, say, China and the US, we are still in the league of top 20 aggregate emitters and among the world's highest per capita emitters. The Coalition's wait-and-see climate policy is a case of weak "followership" trumping strong leadership.

We don't need to wait for the US. The world already knows that President Barack Obama is seeking at least a stabilisation of US emissions at 1990 levels by 2020, which translates into a cut of 14 per cent from 2005 levels. This still may not be enough to satisfy China.

Climate change politics represents a classic case of double-edged diplomacy, which requires considerable creativity on the part of governments. The international community is expecting the Rudd Government to show leadership as one of the most affluent countries in the world, but the Government must be able to win sufficient domestic political support to enact its climate policy. It could have used the high stakes at Copenhagen as leverage for building domestic support for a strong national climate policy. Instead, it has played to the local opposition.

In fashioning its Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme, the Government initially tried to steer a course between the Greens and the Coalition; this has ended up pleasing none of the non-Labor senators. As the Government has attempted to woo the Coalition and industry, the scheme has now moved further away from the recommendations of the Garnaut review. The introduction of the emissions trading scheme has been postponed until 2011 and further flexibility and huge assistance have been offered to energy-intensive industry.

The review should have allowed the Government to go on a climate offensive, by highlighting the costs of inaction and the economic and environmental benefits of early action. To fulfil its election promises and retain international credibility, the Government must now woo the Greens and independents. Given the distance between the Greens and senators Steve Fielding and Nick Xenophon, this is a tall order. If the redesigned bill fails to pass the Senate twice in three months, a double dissolution of Parliament will be triggered. The big winners will be the minor parties, who generally fare better in a full Senate election than a half-Senate election.

In preparing for an election campaign on climate change, the Government should not simply revamp its emissions trading scheme, but also offer a wide suite of complementary policy measures to usher in a low-carbon Australian economy. Its renewable energy target of 20 per cent by 2020 is is not enough to drive the necessary technological revolution. The planet will only be saved when renewable energy is cheaper than the price of coal in China. This requires a huge government-sponsored effort so that renewable energy is readily available and affordable; it is not enough to simply raise the price of fossil fuel through an emissions trading scheme.

Australia is blessed with plenty of sun, wind, big tides and geothermal energy and so is well positioned to lead this revolution. Yet in this month's budget, $2 billion of its $3.5 billion clean-energy infrastructure fund has been committed to so-called clean coal, and only $1.5 billion to the solar flagship program (the equivalent of one coal-fired plant).

The climate change debate during the last election campaign was dominated by the narrow issue of ratification of the Kyoto Protocol. Next time around, let us hope that there is a debate about what's really at stake.

Professor Robyn Eckersley is head of political science at the University of Melbourne.

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