Canada was once a global leader in environmental protection. It gave birth to the Montreal Protocol to protect the ozone layer and hosted the initial global conference on climate change, which sparked the process to negotiate the first global climate change agreement. That was then.
Now Canada, unlike most other major advanced economies, actively undermines global progress on emission reductions by walking away from international obligations to reduce emissions and its own carbon pollution continues to spiral upwards out of control. Will Australia’s climate policy future look similar?
The next federal government will determine whether Australia will help or hinder global solutions to climate change, continue the historic decline in emissions from key sectors, accelerate low carbon investment and boost preparations for unavoidable extreme weather and other climate impacts.
The Climate Institute updates its Pollute-o-Meter for every federal election, examining the commitments, statements and actions of the main parties and sitting independents. We also model the potential emission reductions resulting from the policies of the two major parties.
Little has changed since the last election. Our research in 2010 showed two positions: weak and weaker. Although the ALP made a stronger investment in international solutions, we found its feeble domestic policies (Remember the citizens’ assemblies and weak power station standards?) would increase carbon pollution by 19 per cent by 2020. The Coalition’s 2010 policy would increase emissions by “only” eight per cent.
The Pollute-o-Meter is an interactive tool that allows users to compare how Australia’s political parties stack up on emissions reductions, low-carbon investment and preparing us for climate impacts. The tool was developed by Sydney-based data visualisation firm Small Multiples.
This year’s results aren’t promising. Even with some generous assumptions, modelling indicates that under the Coalition’s policy framework emissions will increase by around 9 per cent by 2020. The funds committed are almost certainly insufficient and with no broad-based price signal to reduce pollution, Australia’s emissions will continue to rise.
Critically, the Coalition’s policy to remove the emission limit, or cap, on major emitting sectors will likely put Australia’s 5 to 25 per cent reduction targets out of reach without billions of dollars of additional budget expenditure.
The Government’s policy is by no means perfect. Our assessment with the World Resources Institute found that the emissions trading scheme can achieve the full emission target range, if a strong cap is placed on emissions and the scheme links to international carbon markets.
However, the carbon price is not enough to drive significant domestic emissions reductions without support from existing policies (such as the Renewable Energy Target) and new policies (such as fuel economy standards for vehicles).
The advantage of an internationally linked trading scheme is that Australia can drive more ambitious carbon cuts at no extra cost. The risk is that we rely overly on international permits without doing enough to address our own carbon pollution.
Australia needs to step up its efforts to reorient its economy on a low carbon foundation. This is the only way to succeed and prosper in the long term and a greater focus on energy productivity and efficiency in particular is needed.
We also judge party policies on the extent to which they prepare us for the impact of climate change. This was an important feature of US President Barack Obama’s Climate Action Plan. Our Climate of the Nation 2013 research into public attitudes found that the majority of Australians recognise that climate change is already affecting Australia and elsewhere.
Both major parties recognise that Australia’s national interest lies in avoiding two degrees or more of global warming. But they are yet to offer policies in crucial areas, like infrastructure and health, to prepare Australia for a two degree world, let alone the four degree world we’re currently heading toward.
On both Labor and Coalition policies, Australians will be exposed to the extra costs and dangers already evident as global warming boosts the intensity and frequency of bushfires, storms, floods and drought.
Australia is at a critical juncture. Internationally, we are approaching critical international climate negotiations in 2014 and 2015, which could bring about a legally binding international agreement covering all major emitting countries. At home, plummeting costs for renewable energy and low pollution technologies are threatening existing business models and attitudes towards old 20th century industries.
As our recent work on Australia's Unburnable Carbon has shown, much of those assumptions rest on a speculative bubble of climate denial, indifference or dreaming. But they also rest on the advantages of incumbent market positions and familiarity with the status quo.
The dismal nature of the federal election campaign suggests that this may not be the most opportune moment to expect Australia to show leadership and ambition, in its domestic and international deadlings. But we need it to, or we’ll become an obstruction like Canada — a climate pariah.
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