It would be easy to chalk up 2013 as the year that Australia wrote-off climate change. And there is no doubt that the new government has been doing its level best in that regard.
But unlike previous years, where climate policy (and politics) was a story of pivot points, 2013 was the year we saw a more gradual shift. It was the year that the climate laws – that took several years, opposition leaders and prime ministers to enact – began to work.
It received only modest coverage, but one of the more important news stories of the year broke only last week. The cumbersomely named National Greenhouse Gas Inventory reported that pollution from the electricity sector fell by 6.1 per cent in the year to March, or 12.1 million tonnes, the equivalent to more than one million cars being taken off the road.
At the same time, pollution from sectors not subject to carbon pricing, such as "fugitive emissions" in gas and coal mining, as well as from transport, went up. Even bearing in mind the fact that there remains three months of data to collect before we get a full picture of the effectiveness of these laws, we have a pretty good idea.
Incidentally, a key line in yesterday’s MYEFO report provided further evidence of the policies’ effectiveness by indicating that “the removal of the carbon tax is expected to lower headline and underlying inflation by less than 1/4 of a percentage point in 2014-15”. The cutting of millions of tonnes of pollution came at an extremely low cost.
Of course, that didn’t stop the Government leaking another key stat early – the fact that total emissions fell by just 0.1 per cent over the same period. That the Environment Minister then attempted to claim this meant each tonne of abatement came at a cost of nearly $27,000 is indicative of the state of climate politics – as opposed to policy – in 2013.
Likewise, the Clean Energy Finance Corporation began to make the kinds of investments it was tasked with doing (despite a potentially unlawful letter from the Treasurer telling it to stop) and has thus far achieved pollution cuts at a profit.
The first eight months of the year were, beyond the quiet work of cutting pollution, business as usual. The trenches on this issue have long been dug and government and opposition had resigned themselves to firing the same claims and counterclaims across the divide. Meanwhile, the public seemed to disengage from the whole unedifying process.
Since the election, however, the battle lines have been comprehensively redrawn. The incoming government have doubled down on their commitment to remove any policy or body even remotely linked to climate change. A greatest hits list includes efforts to scrap the carbon price, the (profitable) Clean Energy Finance Corporation, the Climate Change Authority, funding cuts to the Australian Renewable Energy Agency and the scrapping of the Climate Commission.
While the Climate Commission’s phoenix-like re-emergence as the privately funded Climate Council was nice to see, and marked a demonstration of the public support for such work, the money that flowed was the kind of surge that only comes on the back of a very public martyrdom.
In early December, we then had the renewed experience of Australia being regarded as an international laggard on climate, as our negotiators were sent to the UNFCCC "Conference of Parties" in Warsaw. Australia’s negotiators were sent (alone among developed nations unaccompanied by a minister) with instructions to make no effort to extend our support for international efforts, such as the Green Climate Fund, intended to provide money to developing nations struggling to adapt with to changing climate making food and water scarce and extreme weather more dangerous.
Towards the end of the negotiations, word filtered back that Australia’s negotiators, left with nothing to negotiate over, were “behaving disrespectfully”, and by the end of the conference we were awarded the ‘international fossil’ award by the gathered NGOs for our ongoing intransigence.
Greg Hunt’s noticeable absence was also indicative of the state of play within Australia’s government. While Hunt had long been a vocal critic of the previous government’s climate laws, he was an equally vocal advocate of international negotiations, and his remaining in Australia raised interesting questions around where governmental climate decisions were being made.
Beyond the policy agenda of the Government, the rhetoric has been somewhat troubling. During a near unprecedented bout of severe bushfires on the cusp of winter in Sydney’s west, both Hunt and Abbott pushed back hard on the link between bushfires and climate change, Abbott accusing the executive secretary of the UNFCCC of “talking through her hat” on the issue, and Hunt volunteering that he was checking Wikipedia to assess international attitudes to the science.
The Coalition’s scorched earth legislative agenda is currently stymied by the combined influence of the Greens and ALP who, despite their tactical differences, have stayed firm on opposing the repeal of their hallmark legislation. The true test will come on 1 July, when the new Senate nestles into the red leather and is asked again to consider the fate of these laws. What will happen then remains unclear with Western Australians likely to return to the polls at some point in the future. A shift that mirrors recent polling may lead to a more hostile senate than Tony Abbott initially expected.
This all comes as the nation remains ignorant of the finer details of the government’s alternative. "Direct Action" remains a series of vague promises around "reverse auctions" and "green armies" planting trees. What we do know, roughly, is this; the government will offer to pay companies to volunteer to make pollution cuts, based on which company volunteers to make those cuts cheapest. One can imagine companies right now sitting on planned pollution cuts, imagining the kind of rent-seeking they can engage in once the public purse is opened up.
They will invest in technology like DICE, which is a new type of clean coal, and is at least a decade from being viable. They will plant trees. And irrespective of how much pollution they will cut, the Prime Minister has already capped the amount they will spend on it.
Which leads to the big question of 2014: what will our pollution targets be? The Climate Change Authority (the one the government would like to abolish) will offer its recommended cuts sometime in late February. Right now, the government remains committed to cuts of 5 per cent on 2000 levels by 2020, having long backed away from the 5-25 per cent range that was once bipartisan.
The world will begin demanding that nations make some substantial commitments in preparation for the UN meeting in Paris in 2015, where the big global agreement to follow Kyoto is planned to be made. The CCA won’t be gone by February, and the government will have a legal obligation to set new targets. They will need to make a public commitment to pollution cuts.
It will be then that we will have the clearest understanding of whether this government "accepts the science" of climate change. Whatever tool it is you want to use, the goal needs to be cutting pollution, and if the Government is serious, we will see it then.
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