Unless Australia acts on renewable energy, we could miss out on a lucrative partnership with our biggest trading partner, Deputy Opposition Leader Tanya Plibersek says.
At the end of her first visit to China last week, Plibersek told Crikey that climate change and renewable energy had been raised in a string of meetings with a wide range of officials at vice-minister and senior party committee level in Beijing.
“The Chinese are keen for a partnership with Australia on renewable energy,” she said, describing this as a potentially “massive” opportunity.
China already has six pilot emissions trading schemes in place and is set to announce a seventh this week ahead of a planned national scheme. It is pouring billions of dollars into renewable energy programs as part of its plans to significantly reduce dependence on coal for its electricity needs, the world’s most voracious. In the past four months it has signed agreements to co-operate on climate change with the United States and European Union.
The environment is arguably the single biggest challenge to China’s continuing rapid development, and a significant number of the economic reforms announced at last year’s landmark Communist Party Third Plenum (of its 18th Congress) meeting were squarely aimed at the issue.
“I believe that carbon taxes and emissions trading schemes are the wrong way to go. There are no signs that trading schemes are increasingly being adopted. If anything trading schemes are being discarded, not adopted.”
Crikey has struggled to find evidence of this, and it’s certainly not the case in the world’s three biggest economies: the United States, China and Europe (in fact, quite the opposite). We put the question to the PM’s office but have not heard back yet.
The climate issue has been raised by China as Abbott rushes to meet his self-imposed deadline of inking a free trade agreement with China, which takes a whopping one-third of our exports, but Plibersek says she has been warned by Australian business-people in China the deal should not be rushed. “What better way to reduce your leverage by setting an artificial timetable,” she said.
As Australia turns its back on renewables, the United States is taking decisive action. At a commencement address to students at the University of California, US President Barack Obama likened people who deny mankind’s actions contribute to climate change to those who think the moon is made of cheese.
“I’m not a scientist either,” he said, “but we’ve got some good ones at NASA. I do know the overwhelming majority of scientists who work on climate change, including some who once disputed the data, have put the debate to rest.”
“We also have to realise, as hundreds of scientists declared last month, that climate change is no longer a distant threat, but has moved firmly into the present. In some parts of the country, weather-related disasters like droughts, fires, storms and floods are going to get harsher, and they’re going to get costlier.”
The American President could just as easily be talking about Australia.
Beijing is already seething at what it sees as Canberra’s interference in its interest in the escalating battle for territory in the East and South China Seas and its overt embrace of Japan’s rising military ambitions; China’s aggression towards Japan, the Philippines and most recently Vietnam has emerged as the biggest threat to regional peace in recent years. Plibersek confirmed senior officials pointedly raised both issues in her meetings.
In the US last week, Abbott was right when he said that it “is in our interest, our national interest to have a good relationship with our old friend and our newer friend and increasingly important partner”.
But actions speak louder than words, and China must be wondering why a wealthy country like Australia can’t make what are relatively small short term economic sacrifices to at least try to, to use Abbott’s own words, “treadlightly”on the planet.
Australia’s economy is now being hit by long term downward re-rating of commodities prices — for instance iron ore, our biggest export, is now trading at about half its February 2011 high of $190 per tonne and is forecast by most analysts to sit at US$100 or lower over the next five years.
As Plibersek noted: “Climate change is an environmental problem, it’s an economic problem but it’s also incredible opportunity — if we grasp the boom”.
Abbott has said he wants his foreign policy to focus on trade and investment. A multi-billion dollar partnership with China on renewable energy could have the dual benefit of showing we do want to be friends and helping set Australia’s economy up for a future beyond the quarry and the sheep’s back.