The Rudd Government’s ratification of the Kyoto Protocol, and its support by the new Opposition, buoyed spirits in global climate talks at Bali. Australia gave crucial momentum to the talks which no doubt helped them fall over the line with the Bali Action Plan.
12 months later, negotiators gather in Poznan. Australia, in its formal submissions, encouraged other nations to release their medium-term targets. In a disappointing and slightly curious move, on the eve the talks opening, the Australian Government then announces it will not release its mid-term targets until December 15 – three days after the meeting closes! This will limit Australia’s role in Poznan. Whether that is a good thing or bad thing we’ll see in two weeks.
Asked by our researchers the overwhelming public response is concern about dithering. “They did that Kyoto thing in Bali but since then…” This helps explain the polling slump the ALP has experienced in the “better party to handle climate change” ratings since Bali. It’s still tracking better than a Coalition oscillating between delay and extreme delay, but the gap between them has narrowed.
In some ways the punters verdict is unfair with consultation needed on the fetchingly named Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme. The Global Financial Crisis presented a plum opportunity to delay the CPRS but to its credit the Government has persisted.
But around the Budget the Government certainly appeared to lose its climate mojo. It missed opportunities for tax reform, fumbled funding for renewable energy and controversially introduced means testing of solar panel rebates. Rebates are fragile instruments and if we are serious about developing a solar industry here then more sustainable feed in tariff systems are needed.
An even greater priority for pollution reduction outcomes would be more robust energy efficiency measures, especially for lower income households for whom energy bills form a disproportionate part. Over the weekend COAG dithered again on this, postponing a national strategy decision till next year.
Both ALP and the Coalition crumbled to petrol price concerns promising petrol excise offsets that would demonstrably be unfair and unhelpful squandering resources which could be better targeted.
There’s been a considerable focus on carbon capture and storage, a promising technology in our view. But more needs to be done if it is more than a promise and can play its part amongst a diverse commercial scale clean energy portfolio by 2020. Crucial to this latter policy goal is the promised 20% renewable energy target by 2020 and withstanding the Canberra econocrats resisting this policy, refusing to acknowledge that this would accelerate Australian innovation. The ALP made much of renewable industry moving offshore during the Howard years and risks more if this is left to languish further.
Professor Garnaut added real sophistication to the debate over the year, setting out the national interest in strong global targets of stabilising atmospheric greenhouse gas levels to below 450 parts per million. He raised the stakes by crystallising the consequences of going above 450 ppm for Australia as loss of the reef “as we know it” and the “viability of the Murray Darling”. After some confusion it was clear that he recommended Australia put on the table 25% reductions off 1990/2000 levels by 2020 as part of a global effort towards this goal. Leading climate scientists decided to write to the Prime Minister to back this ambition.
With the Treasurer releasing modelling which showed just a “whisker” of economic difference between the 25% and less ambitious and much riskier 15% reduction targets, you’d think there’d be little option. But there has been a carnival of rent seeking and business lobbying whipped into fresh fervour by the GFC.
We’ve attempted to counter many of the polluters arguments in our report Clearing the Air released today which also details we’ll need to invest around $5 billion per year (public and private) to 2020 in the clean energy infrastructure needed to power a low carbon economy. (Using our Australian Emissions Reduction Model where you can play Penny Wong setting your own targets).
On balance the ups have outweighed the downs but December 15 will be the real judgement day for the Rudd Government’s achievements of its first year and a vital marker toward its climate change legacy.
John Connor is CEO of the independent Climate Institute www.climateinstitute.org.au.