In case you weren’t aware, the Kyoto Protocol came into force in Australia yesterday. While it might be taking the recent obsession with anniversaries a bit far, both the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition rose to endorse Kyoto before Question Time yesterday.

You win some and you lose some, as John Howard noted. Chalk that one down as a loss, Mr Howard.

What precisely has the Government done, now that we’re officially part of the climate change solution rather than the problem?

Well, not a great deal thus far, but there’s an awful lot of activity within the new Department of Climate Change. DCC is headed by ex-Treasury and PM&C economist Martin Parkinson, and is a mixture of ex-Treasury, PM&C and Environment staff.

DCC is developing the emissions trading scheme that will be unveiled late this year. Wong herself announced the design principles in February and her bureaucrats are doing the heavy lifting in anticipation of Garnaut’s final report. Significantly, though, in spite of Garnaut’s interim recommendation that the trading scheme be as wide as possible, the DCC scheme will only cover 70% of Australia’s emissions. The status of agricultural and forestry emissions remains uncertain.

But however well-designed by Parkinson and his team, it will have to pass muster with the politicians. The scheme may change significantly on its way through Cabinet, although with Treasury and PM&C involved in the process as well, the bureaucratic entanglements should be minimised. Only the potential to scare voters will be the stumbling block.

There’s also a range of complementary initiatives, ranging from the significant, like the renewable energy target of 20% by 2020, to the minor, like funding for various solar power projects — the sort that the Howard Government for years tried to dress up as a major contribution to greenhouse abatement.

But for what the Prime Minister yesterday called an immense economic, moral and environmental challenge, there are other, more immediate initiatives that could’ve been launched, most particularly within Government itself. Instead of “auditing” the Public Service’s energy usage, as Wong has promised, the Government could have used Lindsay Tanner’s new, centralised approach to impose energy efficiency measures across the Government’s 155,000 or so employees.

Senior Executive Service bureaucrats could’ve been given hybrid vehicles as their current car leases expired. Teleconferencing could be used to cut air travel. Carbon emission requirements could be added to Commonwealth contracts and grants. The Federal Government is one of the biggest employers and commercial customers in the country and is in a strong position to pursue an energy efficiency agenda.

It could also do more to support the process Garnaut is currently undertaking. Yesterday Garnaut released an Issues Paper raising congestion pricing as one of several possible tools to reduce transport emissions. It virtually sank without trace. Congestion pricing may be political poison, but it’s the sort of hard decision that governments will have to eventually confront if they’re serious about climate change.

Peter Fray

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