Politicians in race to lag on climate Opinion Article

Feb 05, 2013 - 12:30pm

This article first appeared in Climate Spectator on 5 February 2013.

John Connor
CEO, The Climate Institute 

As climate physics move from risks to record breaking realities of heat and floods, the credibility of Australia’s 2013 climate politics is off to an underwhelming start. 

Warming oceans and atmospheres have loaded the dice for warmer, wilder and wetter weather events. Research released on Friday demonstrated the link between rising temperatures and extreme rainfall events, and supported warnings of more to come.

Meanwhile, the early climate positioning of the Coalition and the ALP was largely overshadowed by election announcements.


To help protect the climate, and their campaigns from derailment, both major parties have more to do.


After earlier Romney-esque jokes about the carbon laws and climate change, the Opposition Leader on Thursday repeated the claim that “the rest of the world was not going anywhere near carbon taxes or emission trading schemes”.

This myth has been busted for some time as our map of global action demonstrates.  But in an unfortunate coincidence for the Coalition, the OECD had just released Taxing Energy Use: A graphical analysis. The OECD again exposed this myth and the Coalition’s other that somehow placing a price or tax on energy was unusual.

In fact the OECD found that in mid-2012 such actions, while varied, were widespread.

Within OECD countries, effective taxes on CO2 from energy range from EUR 107 per tonne ($AU 140) in Switzerland, which is outside of the European Union’s trading scheme, to EUR 2.80 ($AU3.70) in Mexico. The weighted average of all OECD countries is EUR 27 ($AU 35) per tonne.

Australia’s carbon price of $23 (EUR 18) comes in near the bottom of the list of 34 countries – well below Japan, South Korea and the UK, among others.

Emissions trading schemes are going to start in China and South Korea, adding to existing schemes in the EU and New Zealand and those that began recently in California and Quebec. South Africa is introducing a carbon tax.     

On the plus side, the Opposition leader did repeat the view “that climate change is real, that humanity does make a contribution and that you need a strong and effective policy to deal with it”. The jokes and the views of his newly appointed senior business adviser did nothing to help his credibility.

On Wednesday, the Prime Minister acknowledged that we are “liv[ing] through climate change” and reflected that the Government had “done, painfully but for good, the single biggest thing we need to in order to reduce carbon pollution – pricing carbon.”

Describing the carbon laws as just a price is strange from both a political as well as a policy communication perspective. It is better than calling it a tax, a much rued mistake from early 2011, but the laws are more tap than tax. They aren’t perfect but they are a flexible system of limits.

The laws contain a minimum reduction of 12 million tonnes a year from 2015. This default is broadly in line with the minimum target shared by the Coalition and the ALP of a 5 per cent reduction off 2000 carbon pollution levels by 2020.

Importantly, however, the laws enable stronger pollution limits, following advice from the Climate Change Authority, on the most appropriate target for Australia.  This enables Australia to achieve the stronger target, also shared by both parties, of a 25 per cent reduction, conditional on ambitious global action.

Given that there is already a strong case for Australia to move to a 10/15 per cent target, the value of such flexibility should not be underestimated. But both parties appear to be frantically attempting to focus media and public attention just on the 5 per cent figure

The Government’s first post-election announcement climate release short-changed the potential of the laws. It said the test for the Coalition’s Direct Action Policy was to show how it would achieve the minimum target.

The Coalition’s Real Solutions Policy booklet just referred to the minimum 5 per cent.

Yet both, either in international commitments or in selective public commentary before and after the above announcements, continue to affirm the 5-25 per cent range.

In coming months, The Climate Institute will strive to fact-check the claims of major parties, expose the fudges and test the strength and effectiveness of their policies.

The key test is the ability of a policy package to significantly reduce Australia’s carbon pollution by 2020 and eliminate it before 2050. Because our polluted atmosphere has no boundaries, the test is on net pollution reduction.

But in a world which must be carbon constrained, boosting Australia’s carbon productivity will be critical to our future prosperity.

Laws that limit domestic carbon pollution and encourage investment in clean energy, energy efficiency and carbon capture and storage are crucial.  Removing pollution limits escalates credibility thresholds.

As the realities and risks of extreme weather events grow, so too must our readiness which is patchy at best. Urgent action is needed to strengthen Australia’s social and economic resilience.

And no climate policy is credible if it can’t demonstrate how it will help build global agreements, common rules and coordinated action.

While we are off to an underwhelming start, the rollercoaster ride of each of the last five years, not to mention the emerging realities of climate physics, virtually guarantee surprises ahead in Australia’s climate politics. 

To help protect the climate, and their campaigns from derailment, both major parties have more to do.

John Connor

John Connor is CEO of The Climate Institute. Whilst qualified as a lawyer, John has spent over twenty years working in a variety of policy and advocacy roles with organisations including World Vision, Make Poverty History, the Australian Conservation Foundation and the NSW Nature Conservation Council. Since joining The Climate Institute in 2007 John has been a leading analyst and commentator on the rollercoaster that has been Australia’s domestic and international carbon policy and overseen the Institute’s additional focus on institutional investors and climate risk. John has also worked on numerous government and business advisory panels.

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