Some governments lead, some governments follow, and some governments pretend to lead.

The presentation of the renovated Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme as a stronger commitment to a 25% target has bamboozled some. Yet the conditions that must be met for the 25% target to be adopted are deliberately impossible. Even if by some felicitous freak of the negotiating process they were met, the Government has promised a rubbery process of “ratification review” that seems tailor made for weaseling out of the promise.

The principal trigger for an Australian cap of 25% is that the world agrees to a treaty committing the Parties to stabilize greenhouse gas concentrations at 450 ppm of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2-e), which corresponds to a target of around 380 ppm of CO2, less than the prevailing concentration of 387 ppm.

The Waxman-Markey Bill now before the US Congress is widely regarded as an ambit claim by progressive Democrats. Its target of a 20 percent cut from 2005 levels by 2020 is strong, but it’s a long way from 25% below 1990 levels when we remember US emissions grew 14 % between 1990 and 2005.

Waxman-Markey seems to be aiming at 450-500 ppm CO2. If the US adopts a cap-and-trade scheme this year, which is by no means certain, the implied global target is more likely to be above 550 ppm, the target that the Stern Review and the Garnaut Report said is politically feasible, if still very difficult.

The G77 group of developing countries have made it clear that if the US goes to Copenhagen with this sort of domestic target there will be no incentive for developing countries to do anything. That would strike out one of the conditions for Labor’s 15% target, which would leave Australia arguing for a 5% commitment at the December conference. It’s a long way from Bali to Copenhagen.

The Government also wants advanced countries to take on commitments of “at least 25% below 1990 levels”. We can be sure that if by some astonishing stroke this was agreed at Copenhagen the Government would pull out the Garnaut Report’s argument that a “comparable” target for Australia should be substantially lower because of our faster population growth (even though population growth is largely a policy choice).

The Government knows all of this. Its trivial commitment to an unconditional 5% cut (unless of course it changes its mind again) will make it just that little bit harder to reach a strong international agreement, because it excludes one more country from the group that will be pushing hard for a great stride forward.

In the new package there are yet more billions of dollars of hand-outs to exactly those industries whose profits must decline if the new industries are to grow and replace them. The Howard-Costello Government faced a more difficult political task to get the GST through the Senate, but displayed much greater backbone than Labor has over the CPRS. That was because Howard and Costello truly believed in the rightness of what they were doing.

It seems that Labor has decided it will not manage the inevitable transition from an economy based on polluting fuels to one based on clean energy, but will allow the imperative to be thrust upon us in a decade or two. Perhaps the Coalition, increasingly under the sway of climate denialists, will be in power when the pressure becomes almost unbearable and Labor will make earnest promises to the electorate to bite the bullet and do what the Coalition is unwilling to do.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey