Monday, June 22, 2009

Canberra plays politics as others pick up pace on climate

THE November 2007 federal election was held a week after the release of the final report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which found that evidence of global warming was "unequivocal" and its effects could be "abrupt or irreversible". Kevin Rudd, then opposition leader, said: "The panel is sending out a very clear warning to the leaders of this country and of the world to act now on climate change." Now, more than halfway through the Rudd Government's term, Australians have seen little of the promised action. Instead, their leaders are locked in a politically driven dance of delay.

This is particularly disappointing given that Mr Rudd faces an opposition leader in Malcolm Turnbull who, as environment minister in the Howard government, was known to have urged his colleagues to do more on climate change. He pushed unsuccessfully in cabinet for Australia to ratify the Kyoto Protocol, which imposed mandatory caps on greenhouse gas emissions by signatories. Both the Coalition and Labor promised to implement emission trading schemes, differing only marginally in the timing. Mr Rudd said Labor would set an interim target for emission cuts by 2020 within six months of taking office. The Government took 18 months to do so, and also pushed back by a year the starting date of the scheme to be put to Parliament this week.

Americans voted emphatically for a change in policy a year after Australians did, but Barack Obama began delivering that change from day one. Rather than using the excuse of economic crisis to play down the urgency of action on climate change, as both sides of Australian politics have done, from the moment of his inauguration in January President Obama actively sought to build public and political momentum on the issue. By April, a spokesman for the Sierra Club, the oldest US environment group, said: "This Administration has done more on the environment and tackling global warming in two months than was done in two decades."

Last week's release of a report by 13 US federal agencies, Global Climate Change Impacts in the United States, was aimed at convincing US industry and the public of the dangers of further delay. The Obama Administration has already begun massive investment in reshaping the economy, recognising that the need to turn to renewable energy to reduce reliance on fossil fuels is driven as much by the soaring costs and insecurity of future energy supplies as by considerations of climate change. In his economic stimulus in February, Mr Obama set aside $100 billion for green energy and transport projects. In the same month, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited China, with progress on global climate change policy on top of her agenda. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi wants to hold a vote on a climate change bill before Congress breaks up for the July 4 Independence Day holiday.

The tired cop-out from Canberra, that any action by Australia counts for little if the US does nothing, has had its day. Mr Turnbull is still advocating a "wait and see" approach, however, in advance of December's climate change conference in Copenhagen. Fearful that their climate policies might be blamed for job losses during a recession, both the Government and Opposition have concentrated on mollifying industry and business. Unlike Mr Obama, who sees this as the time to build an economy for the future, Australia's leaders' focus is still on preserving the "old economy".

The Australian debate all but ignores the German example of green policies generating jobs and economic growth. In that cloudy country, solar technology turnover rose in the past six years from about 450 million euros to 4.9 billion euros and employment in the industry leapt from 2500 in 1999 to 50,000 by 2006. By then, 250,000 were employed across the renewable energy sector, a 56 per cent increase from 160,000 jobs in 2004. Back in Australia, the policy confusion is still hindering job creation in a nascent energy sector. Indeed, the solar power industry is warning that hundreds of jobs will be lost as a result of the Government axing the highly effective solar rebate program before it has put a replacement solar credits scheme in place.

Of course, the Government is being frustrated by the Opposition's tactics of delay. Mr Turnbull has openly conceded that the only constraint on such tactics is the need to avoid providing a trigger for a double-dissolution election, with voters likely to back the Government on this issue. Yet even as he explained the political calculations to business leaders last week, they bluntly told him that the Opposition position was not clear. Indeed, it was perceived as having no position other than to delay emissions legislation until next year. That is a reflection of Mr Turnbull's difficulties in managing Coalition divisions over climate change.

Last week's retirement announcement by Peter Costello, who opposes the emissions scheme, leaves no obvious leadership rival to Mr Turnbull. That frees him up to restore credibility on this issue. Mr Turnbull and Mr Rudd publicly agree on the need for an emissions scheme. Both must focus on negotiating legislation that can pass through Parliament. Voters expect their leaders to act with all the urgency they promised.

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