Wednesday 06 Oct 2021 | 22:15 | SYDNEY
Wednesday 06 Oct 2021 | 22:15 | SYDNEY

New climate policy not the change we need

11 May 2009 15:11

Fergus Green is an energy and climate change lawyer and a former Lowy Institute intern.

Last week the Australian Government released a set of significant changes to its climate change policies. Media coverage has focused on the domestic ramifications, but there are also important international implications.

On its face, the raising of the Government’s conditional offer to reduce Australia’s emissions from a maximum of 15% to a maximum of 25% on 2000 levels by 2020 appears to be a welcome change of policy. As I’ve argued previously, it was hard to see how Australia's diplomacy could have been credible with a 15% offer when we're trying to convince other developed nations to make far deeper cuts. Raising our offer to 25% could reinvigorate our diplomacy, encourage other nations to aim higher and build momentum towards the Copenhagen climate conference in December.

It’s when one digs a little deeper that the flaws in the new policy begin to appear. The 25% target has been criticised on the basis that it is conditional on a new global agreement being reached that conforms to a set of criteria — effectively the Government’s blueprint for a new agreement — which seem unattainable.

The mere fact of imposing ambitious conditions on our participation is not a bad thing, as it could force other countries to make concessions to obtain our participation. But this will only happen if the Government is serious about promoting an agreement based on its conditions and if those conditions are perceived to be fair and reasonable in light of our 25% offer.

The latter is debatable. The caveat that 5 percentage points of our 25% cuts would be achieved through direct government purchases of international credits after 2015 may attract scepticism from other countries. Moreover, some conditions, such as the last two, are too vague and need to be clarified before we can make an informed judgement about their reasonableness.

The extent to which the Government is serious about promoting its purported new vision for a global agreement is also unclear. Until the Government outlines its plan for a concerted diplomatic campaign to convince the rest of the world to adopt its blueprint, there is good reason to be sceptical. Without such vigorous diplomacy, the Government’s conditions are mere political fantasy.

Beyond influencing our international diplomacy, one of the best ways our domestic policies can contribute to tackling climate change globally is by developing effective models, practices and institutions on which other countries can build. As one of the first countries to experiment with emissions trading outside Europe, we are being closely watched.

From this perspective, the other climate policy changes announced by Prime Minister Rudd last week send precisely the wrong signals. By proposing to delay the commencement of its scheme until July 2011, to fix the carbon price at a meagre $10/tonne for the first year of its operation, and to provide yet further free permits to emissions-intensive trade-exposed industries, the Government has sent a powerful message about the political pitfalls of taxing emissions during a recession: don’t do it now, it’s too hard; try again later.

Dilatory arguments such as these have been used to great effect by industry lobbyists and politicians everywhere. However, they rely on the flawed assumption that from the rubble of the global recession will emerge a stable economic utopia, ideal for the transition to a low-carbon economy. But vested interests will always find reasons to delay; structural economic change is rarely painless for everybody. (Remember the first half of 2008, when oil and other commodities reached record highs, driving up inflation and interest rates? Back then, there was enormous pressure to delay climate policies until petrol prices had fallen to more 'acceptable' levels and inflation had been tamed.)

Finally, I think the Government’s climate package will have deeper implications that exceed the sum of their parts. The way the Government achieved its political objective of turning a policy that was fervently condemned by everyone into one that was magically (if grudgingly) accepted by key groups with wildly opposing interests left me uneasy. The policy has now been so emasculated through successive compromises and sops to diverse constituencies that it is virtually impossible to discern any coherent philosophy behind it.

Climate policy should propel changes in the way we use energy and manage finite resources. It should promote conservation and encourage innovation, spur new industries and alter our perceptions of economic value. But with its excessive and arbitrary levels of assistance to heavy polluters, overreliance on 'outsourcing' our emissions reductions through the unlimited purchasing of overseas credits, cent-for-cent petrol tax cuts, and now its delayed commencement, the Government’s scheme is overwhelmingly weighted towards the preservation of existing interests and practices.

Against this backdrop, a 25% target appears as just an empty number to spruik at an international conference. More worryingly, this increasing disparity between process and principle in Australian policy plays into one of the major weaknesses of the UN-based 'treaties, targets and timetables' approach to climate change, in which extraordinary effort is focused on distant goals that are at best indirectly related to the causes of the problem.

There is a real danger that other countries will follow the Australian model, adopting ever-loftier targets that are not supported by policies designed to produce urgent economic, technological and social changes (predictably, the US is already showing signs of going this way). One can’t help but feel that at the same time we’re edging closer to the deal we want, we’re drifting further from the change we need.

Photo by Flickr user Catholic Westminster, used under a Creative Commons license.