A new Australian position on climate change


The international climate change conference in Buenos Aires in December was neatly summed up by the US newspaper headline ‘U.S., Allies Block Effort to Reduce Emissions’. Such was the conclusion of both pro and anti Kyoto interests.

The outcome suited the Australian Government, so it is interesting that the Environment Minister, Ian Campbell, has since gone to some effort to re-spin Australia’s position.

In order to sustain the Government’s dual role as allied spoiler and servant of the Australian people (in the face of physical reality and world progression) some re-posturing has been undertaken to maintain Australia’s increasingly conflicted position and, just quietly, to make way for a more responsible climate change policy.

In 2005 there isn’t a qualified climatologist in the world prepared to dispute that our climate is changing because of the additional greenhouse gases we are adding to the atmosphere. Our cities, our environment, our very subsistence, rely upon the continuation of historical temperature regimes, water cycles and weather patterns. Climate change is set to undermine all development on earth. Walk to your nearest university, go to the meteorology department, find a climatologist and ask for yourself.

The real issue is what to do about climate change. The issue being debated in the court of public opinion however is quite different. Due to the pervasive economic and social implications of climate change, the issue has been defined not by scientific fact and available options but by the competing perspectives of certain interests. There are two main interests groups: 1) those who want to limit the adverse impact climate change will have upon the world’s people and 2) those who want to limit the impact group 1’s mitigation measures may have on their economic interests. The sum of these competing interests, chiefly their efforts to persuade governments, has led to much confusion and, thereby, inaction “ a desired outcome of group 2.

There remain, of course, a few self-asserted experts who continue to dispute scientific consensus. These people, and their arguments, are better known by their association (usually financial) with group 2 than by any merit to their argument. Unfortunately, their assertions are afforded disproportionate credence because of their considerable PR resources and a media that defaults to dichotomous reporting whenever technical detail needs to be conveyed. Thus two ‘apparent’ sides of a debate are (misleadingly) presented rather than a balanced account.

There is also a third group; those that acknowledge the climate change threat but believe greater threats are posed elsewhere. While world problems do need to be compared, and such claims should be considered, mostly these arguments are comforted by unfounded doubts about climate change science.

The Kyoto Protocol comes into force on 16 February. It is the result of years of negotiation to coordinate as many countries as possible to reduce as much of the world’s emissions as possible. Barely more than half the world has accepted binding targets, and their obligations are so modest that the Protocol can only be regarded, as it was intended, as a start. Scientific consensus is that a cut of at least 60 per cent in world greenhouse emissions is necessary to avoid the worst impacts.

Australia’s effective position is that of the US; not to restrict our economy’s carbon emissions. In part contrast to the US though, our stance includes tepid acknowledgement of climate science. John Howard said in June 2004 ‘The potential for climate change is real.’ Our stance on Kyoto is that ‘we will not ratify unless the US and developing nations are onboard, as it would impose unfair costs on our economy.’ The Government maintains this position by highlighting projections that Australia will meet its Kyoto agreement in any case (an increase of 8 per cent upon 1990 levels) and by drawing attention to post Kyoto (2012) considerations.

The Government cites three particulars to justify their climate policy record. The first is that we will meet our Kyoto target; the second is that we have made significant reductions with voluntary measures; and the third is that increased economic output per greenhouse emission (emission intensity) demonstrates policy success. None of these arguments have much meaning.

The target Australia negotiated at the international climate change conference in Kyoto in 1997 was a concessional 8 per cent emission increase. It was the result of canny negotiation on the basis of apparently unique national circumstance. Targets were negotiated on the basis of equal burden; Australia, Norway and Iceland were permitted to slightly increase their emissions. Australia, it has transpired, has had no need to shoulder burden in order to reach its target. Coincidental changes in land clearing have almost entirely offset significant increases from electricity production and transport (28 per cent) since 1990.

The assertion that the Government’s programs, chiefly their voluntary programs, have made significant reduction relies on an unrealistic interpretation of what constitutes business-as-usual. Senator Campbell contends that Australia’s emissions will be 15 per cent lower in 2010 than if the Government had taken no action. This contention assumes that business and agricultural practices do not normally develop, upgrade or retire, and that one can prove that Government programs have caused certain actions that would not otherwise have occurred. It is difficult to measure what might have been; the Government’s claims about greenhouse gas saved are neither forthright nor demonstrable.

Recently Senator Campbell boasted that ‘We’re in fact one of the best performers “ we’re on track to double the size of the economy yet only see our greenhouse emissions increase by 8 per cent.’ And ‘I challenge anyone in the world to find a nation that’s achieved that sort of performance on greenhouse while they’ve had an expanding economy.’ The truth is that our economy, like all developed economies, is growing in sectors which are not energy intensive, e.g. the retail and service sectors, and that a reduction in greenhouse intensity is par for the course. The greenhouse intensity in the US has dropped by over 15 per cent every decade since the 1930s. China has seen GDP growth of 204 per cent since 1990, while their carbon dioxide emissions have grown by 44.5 per cent. Chinese and US climate change policies are not responsible for intensity improvements; like Australia, their emissions are actually increasing, and that’s the problem.

During the Buenos Aires conference, the US and Australia reaffirmed their opposition to Kyoto, though the US went further and stymied future considerations, saying it was ‘premature’ to discuss potential post Kyoto agreements. Senator Campbell, not prepared to forsake his own crutch, seized the opportunity to move to the middle ground. He concluded ‘The difference between the US and Australia is that we are prepared to engage in a new agreement (post Kyoto) as long as it is comprehensive ‘

Paula Dobriansky, the head of the US delegation, continued the science skeptic line by saying ‘science tells us that we cannot say with any certainty what constitutes a dangerous level of warming, and therefore what level must be avoided.’ Senator Campbell, like the Environment Minister Kemp before him, is well aware of the scientific realities, and chose again to differ, saying after the conference ‘The Howard Government sees climate change as a serious global threat…’ and that ‘…the evidence is real and cannot be ignored.’

The emerging difference in climate policy between Australia and the US is not caused by differing understandings of climate science or its impacts. The evidence is freely available from the world’s scientific community and the world’s largest polluter (US) and the world’s largest polluter by capita (Australia) understand its ramifications. They are caused by the different justifications each country employed to reject measures to limit carbon emissions. These constructions have not stood the test of time. As the science has become ever more precise and as domestic political interests differ, the policy solution each country developed, around the political objective not to limit carbon emissions, have not advanced in unison or maintained cohesion.

With Australian and US policy differences exposed, and Australia’s position eroding, Senator Campbell appears to be doing what the previous Environment Minister was not able to; open up some options to put Australia on a path, or in his words last week ‘go on the front foot’, to actually do something about Australia’s emissions.

By announcing that Australia was ‘very vulnerable’ to climate change and that the Government is considering carbon ‘currencies’, to ‘create a credits system,’ Senator Campbell has created political wiggle room. Such overtures appeal to realists and scores badly needed points in a policy area where the federal opposition have a clear advantage.

Public reaction has been minimal. Generally overshadowed by the Tsunami catastrophe, the Sydney Morning Herald editorial though managed to note the change of heart, as well as certain inconsistencies, and called on the business community to engage. The Anti Kyoto set, headed up by the coal lobby, were initially alarmed by talk of carbon currencies but were assuaged by the same rationale that permitted the Prime Minister to approve the change: the existing position was becoming untenable and the re-posturing can be viewed as benign.

Within the Business Council of Australia, where the climate change issue has polarized membership (leading to their bold ‘non-position’; though they have just received yet another consultant’s report on the topic), the change of heart over the summer break has prompted much chatter. Members and industry representatives are busy asking questions and re-examining the landscape. Because some sort of currency system will now be introduced in Australia (to keep pace with, though not benefit from, intra-Kyoto trading developments), businesses and industry sectors are revising their business and lobbying strategies.

Most now accept the coming of carbon markets and are maneuvering to influence and reorganize to minimize their exposure and or take advantage. Most will lobby for carbon ‘coupons’ to be levied as far upstream or downstream from their sector/business as possible.

The most vocal opponent of carbon limits, emission trading and the Kyoto protocol in Australia are the Coal and Aluminum industries, though within their ranks these days there is growing concern their best interests are not being served by this stance.

The coal industry recognize that coal will continue to be a primary fuel source worldwide for decades to come, particularly in the developing world where energy scarcity remains a primary barrier to poverty alleviation. In a carbon constrained world Australian high quality (export) coal would attract a premium price, in preference to lower quality coal currently available to countries like India. Value adding by increasing calorific value or removing other pollutants is also a viable option to make Australian coal a preferable product.

The aluminum industry will benefit in a carbon constrained world as its light weight and life cycle greenhouse benefits are clearly superior to competing materials. Aluminum production is energy intensive but this is only an issue if the energy comes from a greenhouse intensive source, alternatives sources and more efficient processes are increasingly available. The opportunity presented by increased demand for aluminum will more than outweigh any penalty associated with carbon costs.

The two most popular technologies touted as solutions in lieu of carbon restrictions are nuclear power and geo-sequestration. These options are, in short, expensive. It is questionable whether they will compete in terms of cost and abatement with bulk renewable energy technologies.

Processing and safely storing nuclear fuel (and its byproducts for thousands of years) is an expensive additional cost. Nuclear power is also handicapped because uranium is another finite fuel. If nuclear power entirely replaced coal power, the world’s uranium reserves would run out in about thirty years, reserves could be prolonged if uranium was used to produce plutonium, but this would incur further expense and risk.

Geo-sequestration is handicapped because of its inherent energy penalty. Apart from worldwide development, implementation and operational costs, the additional energy needed for ongoing carbon capture, compression, transportation and burial, significantly reduces power station efficiency and thus increases costs. The availability of conveniently sized and situated underground storage sites is also limited and therefore a further restriction, even assuming the waste can be securely contained.

In the time it takes to implement either technology to a point where it will make any difference, bulk renewable energy will be competitive. The point at which the cost of bulk renewable energy falls below fossil fuel energy (which is already far below nuclear) will be an investment tipping point, whereby the billions of dollars currently invested in traditional energy production will divert to renewable energy development. In a carbon constrained world this tipping point will only be hastened. The Australian Wind Energy Association estimate the likely date to be between 2015 and 2020.

In 2002 China emitted 3.2 tonnes per person, the US emitted 19.4 tonnes per person and Australia emitted over 26 tonnes per person. In net terms, developing nations are expected to produce more greenhouse gases than OECD nations by 2020. However from an historical perspective, that is the sum of all historical emission added together, the developing world is not projected to overtake OECD sum emissions until 2090. Some models even predict that with expected technological innovations they may never exceed OECD’s emissions.

Australia’s most effective contribution to mitigate world climate change is to ensure a carbon light development internationally. Australia needs to be in a position to play an international leadership role. Developing countries continue to battle disease and poverty, the additional task of carbon light development will require even more assistance (particularly technological) than ever. The sooner the world is united in an effort to actually reduce emissions the better.

We need to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions, and lead the world to do the same. Contrary to this imperative, the Howard Government is walking an increasingly compromised line in the name of peculiar interests. The recent policy adjustment may indicate the Government is moving in the right direction but its utility as a further stalling device is a salient feature.

Climate change affects the whole world. Its physical impacts and the international developments it drives will largely shape Australia’s future. A climate change policy that leads international development to reduce the impact of climate change will maximize our say in our future.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.