Hopefully today will mark a change of season in a political climate of chaos that has seen both the Government and Coalition appear all at sea on climate change. Government inquiries called then withdrawn, Coalition not backing emissions trading, backing emissions trading, perhaps backing … and all the while, the gales of self-interest from the big polluters strengthen.

Today’s release of the exposure legislation for the Government’s Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme comes as an increasing number of world leaders mount the case for fiscal and policy focus to ensure a recovery driven by a transition to modern, efficient, low-carbon economies.

Out of the chaos, we need a “double dividend” approach whereby domestic action on climate change helps promote a global agreement. It’s an approach that Australians, if not all their political and business leaders, understand.

Firstly, our approach needs to help achieve a global agreement that is in our national interest, which the Government itself said was stabilisation of global greenhouse gas atmospheric levels at 450 parts per million or lower (the science is saying we should be going for 350ppm or lower). Bizarrely, the Government’s current economic and diplomatic strategies aren’t geared to their own test.

Secondly, our approach should help drive a low carbon economic recovery here and abroad and position our economy as a leaner, cleaner and greener engine of job growth now and into our kids’ future.

Such an approach is urgent, as we are now experiencing the costs of climate change. I have previously talked about the tragic bush fires in Victoria, and recent fires in South Australia as the “fires of climate change”. Firefighters themselves describe the conditions as unheralded and their union representatives implore urgent climate action.

Australia’s exposure to extreme weather was highlighted as heat waves in Adelaide and Melbourne caused morgues to overflow and damaged roads, railways and other infrastructure. Meanwhile, areas of Queensland and NSW were fending off floods.

Climate change is not just about warmer weather; it is about wilder weather

Climate change costs. Climate change kills.

It is time to remind ourselves why we are doing this and to stop looking at Australia in a fishbowl — only global action will make the big difference we need on climate change.

Australia’s contributions to the global effort are measured not just in tonnes. Australia chairs the influential Umbrella Group of Nations that includes the USA, Canada, Japan, Norway and New Zealand and these and other nations watch our actions closely. Through decisive climate policy, we can build trust, momentum and assist a framework for an effective global agreement. Topping the list will be both the targets we set and our support for investments in reduction and adaptation in developing countries.

How we develop and build clean technologies that can make a global difference, like solar thermal and geothermal energy, will also be important.

Australia’s current 5-to-15% carbon pollution reduction target is not only short of the Government’s own estimates of our fair share towards their estimate of our national interest, it is also weakens the ambition of others. How can we expect members of the Umbrella Group or China and others to do more?

Scientists estimate that, to achieve that national interest goal of 450ppm or lower, developed countries need to reduce their 1990 emissions, as part of a global effort, by at least 25-to-40% by 2020. Clearly Australia needs to boost its targets one way or the other to offer net pollution reductions of at least 25%.

The Government’s policy on the major polluters became compromised between the Green Paper and the White Paper. Required improvements on energy efficiency were watered down and limits on the growth of already massive handouts of free permits were removed.

Such blatant protectionism may constrain new sectors and encourage inefficient sectors of “carbon ghettoes” in the Australian economy that already contribute to Australia being one of the highest polluting and inefficient economies in the OECD. In 2004 for example, our GDP’s CO2 emissions intensity, or carbon productivity, was better only than Ukraine and Russia.

With fiscal and policy focus we can make big strides in improving our carbon productivity and make existing and new industries competitive in the emerging global low carbon economy. Numerous studies have shown there are thousands of job opportunities in making our homes and workplaces more efficient, in clean renewable energy production and in modern cleaner transport and transmission infrastructure.

Australians back this sort of action, our most recent polling last month showed that only 35% thought we should delay action because of the state of the global economy, only 24% of “swinging” voters backed delay. And 75% of all voters believed addressing climate change created opportunities for new jobs and investment in clean energy.

It’s urgent that we take the debate from chaos to clarity so Australia can help achieve an effective global climate deal as well as boosting investment in clean jobs and a clean economic recovery.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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