Australia should stop using China as a scapegoat for climate change inaction and recognise that it is one of the the world’s three biggest drags on reducing greenhouse gas emissions, according to the Gillard Government’s top climate advisor Ross Garnaut.

Speaking in Sydney yesterday to launch his second Climate Change Review update paper, Professor Garnaut said that, rather than moving ahead of the rest of the world, Australia is matched only by the US and Canada as a climate change laggard.

“Australia has been a significant drag on other countries’ mitigation efforts,” Professor Garnaut said. “Stopping being a drag is a big step forward for us.”

On the ABC’s Lateline last night, Labor Minister Anthony Albanese said he rejected Garnaut’s assessment that Australia was a laggard.

“I don’t think it’s a reasonable comment,” he said. “I think that Australia, certainly under this government, has taken climate change seriously. We’re determined to act on it. And that contrasts with the inaction and denial of the Howard government, who pretended that it didn’t exist.”

China, the world’s largest emitter, is often cast as a leading climate villain because it builds a new coal-fired power station every 10 days.

But Professor Garnaut singled out the rising superpower for praise yesterday, saying that China had voluntarily committed itself to stronger than expected emissions reductions targets.

In his 2008 review Garnaut said that a 35% reduction in China’s emissions intensity by 2020 would be a fair contribution to international action.

Yet China’s leaders have committed to 45% reduction by 2020 — a figure they have hinted could go higher if developed countries take strong action.

China has invested heavily in rooftop solar panels, electric cars, wind energy, new train lines and nuclear power as part of its stimulus package, Professor Garnaut said.

Professor Garnaut urged Australians not to underestimate their nation’s influence on overseas efforts to tackle climate change despite our relatively small population and low overall contribution to global emissions (less than 2%).

He said the rest of the world looks to Australia for leadership because of our highest per capita emitter ranking, reputation for effective economic reforms and the fact we are more vulnerable than most to the risks posed by global warming.

“Australian success in introducing a carbon price is likely to assist the United States and Canada to maintain momentum in policies to reduce emissions,” he said.

“We, and other developed countries, can through inaction exercise a veto over effective global mitigation.”

When asked whether it is appropriate for the Australian Government to base its greenhouse reduction targets on the outcome of international negotiations (with a 5 per cent target rising to 25 per cent if an ambitious deal is signed), Professor Garnaut said merely keeping up with the rest of the world would be significant progress for Australia.

While the economic risks of moving away from coal are often discussed, Professor Garnaut said the potential opportunities for Australia to prosper in a low carbon economy are too often overlooked.

He said Australia has “exceptional advantages” in its plentiful reserves of uranium, geothermal energy, natural gas and solar power — all likely to be key players in a carbon-constrained future. China has invested heavily in rooftop solar panels, electric cars, wind energy and nuclear power as part of its stimulus package, Professor Garnaut said. And despite Barack Obama’s failure to legislate an emissions trading scheme — “the US is far from sitting still”.

The Environmental Protection Agency is using regulatory pressure to close the dirtiest coal-fired power stations, leading to an increased use of gas for power generation.

While noting the much-hyped Copenhagen Climate Summit was a “diplomatic fiasco”, Professor Garnaut said that a binding global treaty was still needed to keep global warming under two degrees.

Without a deal, he said the famous “prisoner’s dilemma” — why should a country take action when it will allow others to freeload? — would be almost impossible to resolve. There is also no other way to create an effective global trade in emission entitlements.

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Peter Fray
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