Ian Dunlop and Rob Sturrock. As the tide comes in, Australia chooses to remain the climate laggard

Aug 17, 2015

Amidst growing pressure and heightening expectations, on Tuesday Australia announced its intended nationally determined contribution (INDC) target to take to the Conference of Parties in Paris in December. It reinforces the notion of Australia as climate laggard going against the tide of science, action and opinion.

Tuesday’s announcement provides a meek objective of 26% emissions reduction by 2030 based on 2005 levels. The Government’s INDC is extremely inadequate for several reasons. Primarily it does not contribute to keeping temperature increases to 2⁰C above preindustrial levels. It does not aid Australia’s decarbonisation of the economy over the longer term. By comparison, the Climate Change Authority called for a minimum reduction of 45% on 2005 levels. Overall Australia will remain the highest per capita emitter commensurate with its role as a major contributor to the global fossil fuel industry. It reaffirms that Australia will be a fringe player at COP 21 in Paris, seen as marginal at best and obstructionist at worst in achieving genuine progress. Our commitment is less than Canada, another mining-centric climate-sceptic nation. The Australian Financial Review called the announcement ‘policy rubbish’.

In remaining a climate laggard, Australia continues to go against the global trend. What has become increasingly obvious recently is that the tide is coming back in on climate change action at home and abroad. A growing international community consensus for action is noticeable. Recent research by the Pew Center showed that climate change was seen globally as the biggest international challenge. New momentum on climate leadership has been provided by the United States and China. The two great powers made a bilateral agreement in November 2014 to substantially reduce emissions by 2030. China reaffirmed its commitment to peak emissions by this date in its INDC target released in June. On 4 August President Obama announced the Clean Power Plan mandating American power plants to reduce carbon emissions by 32% by 2030. One of the most conservative institutions in the United States, the Department of Defence, has been addressing climate change for years, even releasing a new report in early August showing how it is working with international allies on adapting to a changing climate. With these two great powers providing strong leadership, the prospect of substantive progress with the rest of the international community in Paris is high.

The pressure from business, civil society and the public on the Australian Government to follow suit is intensifying, and the demands will only persist after this latest announcement. In late June a roundtable comprising divergent stakeholders such as the Business Council of Australia, the Australian Industry Group, the Climate Institute, the Australian Council on Social Service, the Investor Group on Climate Change, and the ACTU demanded the end of the politicking and uncertainty over climate policy and demanded Australia catch up with the rest of the world. Australians want climate change taken much more seriously. A total of 59 per cent of respondents to a recent Climate Institute survey agreed that the Government is under-estimating the seriousness of climate change, and agree that Australia should be a world leader in finding solutions. The Australian community also understands the impact climate change has on other areas of life. In a poll recently done for CPD, 68 per cent of respondents agree that damage to our food supply chain and our agriculture due to increases in extreme weather is a national security threat.

The Government framed the INDC announcement around being economically responsible when it is in fact reckless for both the short and long term given the acceleration of climate impacts. The business and investment community are increasingly anxious over the future cost to the economy of inaction. Australia is poised to miss out on the trade and employment opportunities climate action presents through the development of renewable energy and other climate based industries, technologies and services. Large scale renewable energy investment in Australia has fallen a staggering 90 per cent in 12 months prior to the announcement of the RET review. Whilst the Government talks of protecting the ordinary household, it ignores the economic pain already being brought by climate change. The Assistant Treasurer even admitted that skyrocketing insurance premiums in North Queensland (over 80 percent between 2005 and 2013) are due to frequent extreme weather over recent years. Climate change will directly affect our primary industries, our food supply as well as place enormous strain on economic and social infrastructure. Yet Direct Action has been labeled a ‘holding policy’ that fills the vacuum of not having a genuine policy. The economic costs of inaction are mounting whilst the Government makes the hollow case that climate action means a weaker economy.

The Abbott Government seems determined to ignore the climate science, dispute the emerging solutions, downplay international agreements, stymie renewable energy proposals and refuse to accept our responsibility to lead. Tuesday’s announcement is another symptom of our broader policy failure. Despite the fact that we are one of the most vulnerable developed nations to climate change, we will remain unwilling to find adequate solutions in our own interests. As a concert of nations go to Paris to capitalise on international momentum, Australia will sit on its own on the shoreline, trying desperately to push back the incoming tide.

Ian Dunlop is a Fellow of the Centre for Policy Development and was formerly an international oil, gas and coal industry executive, chair of the Australian Coal Association and CEO of the Australian Institute of Company Directors. He is a Member of the Club of Rome, and a Director of Australia21. 

Rob Sturrock is a CPD Analyst and author of ‘The Longest Conflict: Australia’s Climate Security Challenge’.

This article for appeared in The Age on August 14, 2015.

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