(Image: AAP/Lukas Coch)

What will it take to force Australia to pursue genuine climate action? Its Paris Agreement targets are woefully inadequate to the task of preventing a significant and highly damaging rise in global temperatures, and fail to address Australia’s historical responsibility as a developed country for global temperature rise.

It abolished an effective and efficient carbon pricing scheme in 2014 and didn’t replace it with anything. It refuses to endorse a net zero carbon emissions target despite its four biggest trading partners all establishing one, or announcing their intention to.

Not even the catastrophe of last summer shifted the dial. Despite the conflagration that destroyed vast swathes of the east coast, burned billions of animals, killed 34 people directly and several hundred indirectly through smoke inhalation, Australia has actually retreated further from climate action since then, with the government embracing an absurd “gas-led recovery” that will see taxpayer funding being directed to more fossil fuel power infrastructure and discredited carbon capture and storage technology designed to enable the continuation of coal-fired power.

With more than half of Australian voters believing Australia does not do enough on climate, and more than 70% supporting a net-zero emissions target, the failure of the government to take meaningful climate action, while senior members continue to support climate denialism, appears intractable.

That reflects that the core political business model of the Coalition under Scott Morrison is to take donations in exchange for influence over, or even the right to dictate, policy. The “gas-led recovery” policy was literally dictated by current or former gas company executives representing major Coalition donors.

Labor under Anthony Albanese has a similar problem: key donors the Australian Workers Union and the mining division of the CFMEU oppose effective climate action, as do a rump of denialists and destabilisers within the party’s parliamentary ranks.

Labor is unlikely to demonstrate the policy bravery of Bill Shorten, who went to the 2016 election with a commitment to a carbon price, and to the 2019 election with Malcolm Turnbull’s national energy guarantee coupled to a higher emissions reduction target.

A significant part of the problem, as Turnbull has repeatedly pointed out, is that the foreign political party masquerading as media outlet News Corp is a vehicle for denialism that will attack anyone who deviates from a fossil-fuels-first party line.

In the absence of the removal of these structural impediments — a biased, oligopolistic media market, flawed political donations laws — it seems unlikely that Australia will end its growing status as a global climate pariah obsessed with serving the needs of a diminishing group of increasingly unviable fossil fuel companies and a foreign billionaire who floods the country with denialist propaganda.

What can force policy change? It seems only some form of international sanctions will compel Australia’s governing class to accept climate reality and the need for meaningful action.

Greens leader Adam Bandt recently urged South Korea to impose carbon tariffs on Australia to make up for the absence of a carbon price or any other form of effective climate action. That prompted acting Nationals leader and climate denialist Michael McCormack to accuse Bandt of treachery.

In fact, the case for carbon tariffs applied to Australian exports is a strong one economically and morally. Australia is a free rider on international climate efforts. While other developed countries are taking much stronger action and embracing net zero targets, Australia refuses to act, giving its exporters an unfair advantage against competitors who are taking meaningful emissions abatement action.

The International Monetary Fund (IMF), not normally to be found advocating either tariffs or extreme green policies, supports the carbon tariffs under consideration by the European Union.

“A top priority should be an agreement on a carbon pricing floor among major emitting countries [which] would be a powerful means of reducing global emissions,” IMF managing director Kristalina Georgieva said in September.

In the absence of an agreement on carbon pricing – which would be by far preferable – applying the same carbon prices on the same products irrespective of where they are produced could help avoid shifting emissions out of the EU to countries with different standards.

Australia, with its “gas-led recovery”, corrupted political process and continuing reliance on fossil fuels for exports and energy, is moving from climate laggard to climate criminal as we head for another record warm year — possibly the warmest ever.

Global sanctions in the form of tariffs on every Australian export — not just the limited range of energy-intensive products identified by the EU — to make up for our lack of action is economically justified and morally compelling.

Should Australia face sanctions to force action on climate change? Let us know your thoughts by writing to [email protected]. Please include your full name to be considered for publication in Crikey’s Your Say column.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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