Brief Summary of Climate Action in Australia

In 1997 the Kyoto Protocal was created, an international agreement created under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. Its aim was the reduction of collective greenhouse gas emissions of developed countries by at least 5% below 1990 levels during 2008 to 2012.

Australia did not ratify the Kyoto Protocol.

Many people in Australia felt deep and growing concern at the lack of action or even recognition of climate change by the then climate sceptic Howard government.

However, late in 2006 the film “An Inconvenient Truth” was shown in cinemas across Australia, the Stern Report was published, and over the next 12 months pressure mounted steadily as the result of an amazing increase in awareness right across society.

In 2007 eminent scientists world-wide were warning that we had less than 10 years to make an impact on greenhouse gas levels to prevent climate change spiralling out of control.

In November 2007 Australians turned out in massive numbers all across the nation in the first Walk Against Warming. It became clear to Federal politicians that in spite of neither party having policies that would significantly and urgently address climate change, it was the top priority of the voting public.

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After the 2007 elections, a new Labor government was in power under Kevin Rudd, and seemed to be moving in the right direction in regard to climate change. Rudd called climate change “the greatest moral, economic and social challenge of our time”, and in December 2007, signed the Kyoto Protocol.

However, as early as January 2008 we were being warned of the huge influence of the coal industry lobby, and of the need for continued public pressure in order to achieve a responsible greenhouse policy. Australian government investment funds were putting nearly 50 times more money into the fossil fuel and uranium industries than into renewable energy. In addition to this, the fossil fuel industry was receiving taxpayer subsidies of $9 billion annually.

The coal industry and the Federal government were positioning so-called ‘clean coal’ (Carbon Capture and Storage CCS) as the solution to climate change, and in need of even more Federal subsidies, despite the lack of any evidence that the technology would ever be viable on a commercial scale, and certainly not in the time frame needed to avoid the worst consequences of climate change.

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In late 2008 came the Global Financial Crisis, and the issue of climate change suddenly almost disappeared in the media. Prime Minister Rudd made no mention of it in his plans for dealing with the crisis.   When the deeply flawed Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme (CPRS) was announced, there were no incentives for the renewable energy industry, while coal-fired electricity was virtually given a free ride. Professor Ross Garnault, the Government’s own advisor, strongly criticised the government’s plan for compensation of the biggest polluters.

In spite of pre-election promises by both parties for an emissions trading scheme, after Tony Abbot replaced Malcolm Turnbull as Coalition leader, the Opposition opposed the CPRS outright, and without support from the Greens in the Senate, It lapsed.

In March 2009 two major scientific conferences took place. The first was the UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, a gathering of the 2000 of the world’s leading climate scientist. The second was Greenhouse 09 in Perth WA, where 500 scientists, industry figures and policy makers met to hear the latest Australian research on the impact of climate change.

‘The message from the two conferences was clear. They brought together state-of-the-art global climate change research to confirm:

  •  the world is heating up faster than we can handle;
  • humans are making it happen;
  • we have the tools to stop it happening, but not yet the political will.

In Copenhagen, the varied group of 2000 scientists – liberal, conservative and apolitical – issued a direct and unprecedented plea to the world’s politicians, saying weak 2020 targets for greenhouse gas cuts would let the world slip into catastrophe, and called on political leaders to reduce the influence of vested interests.

At the Greenhouse 09 conference, Australia’s top climate scientists had never sounded so pessimistic. Privately they spoke with genuine despair about the growing gap between the decisions being taken by political leaders and the research showing that parts of Australia would be hit ferociously hard by climate change.’

In spite of this, the Federal government announced the National Low Emission Coal Initiative, providing $500 million over 8 years for CCS research, while the NSW government announced an investment of $205 million for the expansion of the state’s second largest coal-fired power station at Eraring, and a $20 million taxpayer handout to one of the state’s biggest coal companies, Centennial Coal, to help it export more coal. It also approved plans for massive expansion of coal mining under Sydney’s drinking water catchments, and claimed to be “a leader in climate change action”.

In November 2009 at the UN Climate Conference in Copenhagen, the world’s political leaders did nothing but posture and pretend, and the headline for the Sydney Morning Herald read “The World Has Grown Weary of Climate Change”.

In 2010 Rudd was replaced as Labor Party leader by Julia Gillard.

After the 2010 election resulted in a hung parliament, Gillard negotiated a fixed price on carbon pollution with the Greens and two Independents and in February 2011 proposed the Clean Energy Bill. The legislation was approved by the Lower House in October and the Upper House in November.

The Opposition branded it a carbon tax and a broken promise, and vowed to overturn the legislation if elected. From then until the election in 2013 Tony Abbot campaigned remorselessly against it.

In 2011 the Gillard government established The Climate Commission to communicate “reliable and authoritative information” about climate change in Australia.

In 2012 it established the Climate Change Authority (CCA), the Clean Energy Finance Corporation (CEFC) and the Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA).

Despite the catastrophic impacts predicted by the Coalition Opposition, the Climate Institute of Australia states in a policy brief that the carbon tax has not negatively impacted the nation’s overall economic performance, and that it is one of the factors responsible for emissions from electricity falling by 10.3% since it was introduced.

However, since its election to power in 2013, the Coalition government has repealed the carbon tax, and abolished the Climate Commission.

Only the Palmer United Party siding with Labor and the Greens has so far prevented the abolition of the Climate Change Authority, the Clean Energy Finance Corporation and the Australian Renewable Energy Agency.

Instead of relying on the legislated review of Australia’s Renewable Energy Target (RET) by the Climate Change Authority, Tony Abbot instigated his own review by the PM’s Business Advisory Council (PMBAC), with a hand-picked panel led by climate sceptic Maurice Newman.

Its controversial recommendation was that the Target be drastically down-graded and parts of it scrapped. However, the CCA review recommended against changing the Target, stating that the benefits of changing would not outweigh the costs of reducing investor confidence, which is critical for continuous long-term investment in renewable generation.

Intense lobbying from the renewable energy industry and backbench MPs give some hope that the Government will back down on the PMBAC recommendation.

At the United Nations global leaders’ climate summit in New York at the end of September 2014, Barack Obama said that climate change had surpassed terrorism as the biggest threat to life on earth, and that “it will define the contours of this century more dramatically than any other.

He said “We are the first generation to feel the impact of climate change and the last generation that can do something about it. We cannot condemn our children and their children to a future that is beyond their capacity to repair”.

The Prime Minister of Australia told the UN General Assembly that Australia was “trying to lead by example”. He spoke of climate change only in the context of being easier to fix once higher economic growth is achieved, and said “Australia has abolished the carbon tax, abolished the mining tax, provided environmental approval for $800 billion worth of new projects and begun the task of eliminating our budget deficit within four years”.

Australia’s only commitment to share a post-2020 emissions target was after it reviewed those of all its trading partners and competitors.

In spite of all the evidence of the huge contribution to climate change by the burning of fossil fuels, the Federal Coalition government, and the mining states, remain committed to massive support of the coal industry. In June 2014 the PM told a meeting of business leaders in Texas that coal would fuel human progress for many decades to come, and in October 2014, while opening a $3.4 billion coal mine in central Queensland, he said “Coal is good for humanity, coal is good for prosperity, coal is an essential part of our economic future, here in Australia and right around the world”.

The price of coal is falling, but the coal industry hope to double Australia’s coal exports in the next decade or two. Coal remains profitable if it can be exported in higher quantities.

The Coalition’s actions on climate change so far have been to wind back, or attempt to wind back, the few reforms put in place by the previous government, attack renewable energy, and champion the coal industry, while proposing only its discredited scheme Direct Action of paying the biggest polluters not to pollute.

Opposition Leader Bill Shorten has said “It’s time to listen to the rest of the world: climate change is happening and genuine action needs to confront it”. He said Australia risks being seen as the climate-sceptic capital of the world. The rest of the world is moving towards taking real action on climate change, yet we’ve got a government that’s slammed the nation into reverse gear and retreating away from action”. In October 2014 said he would take a market-based system to set a price on carbon to the next election.

The position of most big businesses is that carbon pricing is inevitable. Their argument with Labor’s carbon tax was that the price was set too high compared with European prices, but if Shorten proposes a scheme that integrates with international prices he will not find the business community united in opposition.

There is mounting public concern about the Coalition’s extreme idealogical stance on this issue that is so vital to the whole human race.

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