Just two weeks out from the federal election, then Shadow Environment Minister Greg Hunt told The Australian newspaper that the G20 summit would present a ‘one-off opportunity for Australia to try to put together a G4 agreement’ which would bring China, the United States, India and the European Union together to reduce carbon emission. It would be his ‘personal project', Hunt said.
The Minister’s comments were hugely encouraging, suggesting he was a man with a progressive and creative approaches to climate change. If he’d managed to pull it off — or if he’d even managed to fulfil the more modest ambition of laying building blocks for future progress — Hunt’s achievement would have been transformative and deeply important.
Sadly, climate change won’t be making the G20 agenda. Minister Hunt’s ambitions will go unfulfilled. What a difference a few months make.
Here is Prime Minister Tony Abbott on the subject late last week:
"We do not want to clutter up the G20 agenda with every worthy and important cause, because if we do, we will squander the opportunity to make a difference in the vital area of economic growth."
In political parlance, that’s known as a slap-down. Back in your box, Greg Hunt.
It is alarming that the norms of Australia’s political debate are so degraded that our Prime Minister can describe the greatest environmental crisis that will face our generation as ‘clutter.’ Abbott is talking about a phenomenon that defence analysts recognise as a driver of international instability, that studies show will devastate our agricultural communities, create heatwaves and bushfires and coastal inundation, and harm the natural places that we love.
As a global problem that requires global solutions, climate change is precisely the kind of thing that should figure on G20 agendas — as it did in 2012 in Mexico and 2013 in Russia.
Abbott’s move fits a pattern: since election, the Coalition has taken a scorched earth approach to environmental policy broadly, and climate policy in particular — going far further than they ever suggested they would prior to election day.
In recent months, we have seen the government move to dismantle world heritage nominations in Tasmania that were put in place only recently, and that have extremely high levels of public support.
We have seen moves to push forwards with the industrialisation of the Great Barrier Reef.
We have seen moves by the Federal government to relinquish environment controls to state government — governments that we know are both under-resources and hugely conflicted, with potential flows of resource sector royalties to state governments undermining the integrity of processes.
The government has pulled funding to the Environmental Defender’s Offices around the country.
In the realm of climate change policy, Minister Hunt has been developing an approach to climate change policy called the “Direct Action Plan.” The central instrument of this approach is a subsidy program for heavy polluters (the ‘Emissions Reduction Fund’). It is notable for imposing no penalties whatsoever on heavy polluters, and also for the fact that not a single independent economist believes that it will fulfil the government’s extremely modest pollution reduction ambition — not even the Minister’s most prominent advisor, Danny Price.
Now, with the appointment of climate sceptic Dick Warburton to a stacked ‘review’ panel, the government is positioning itself for an attack on renewable energy.
The progress that Australia has made in recent years is largely due to the good work of the previous government moving towards a future powered by clean sources of electricity, largely because of the Renewable Energy Target, which incentivises renewable energy generation. It is the Renewable Energy Target that has supported the 2 million Australian households that have installed solar energy on their rooftops. The scheme costs Australians just $15 a year each — a small price to pay for a better, cleaner, low pollution future.
Perhaps now is the point at which the government will realise that they have hit the point of over-reach.
Prior to the last election, the Coalition were attempting to position themselves as a party that takes climate change seriously. A party that takes climate change seriously will deliver on Minister Hunt’s pre-election talk, and put climate change on the agenda at the G20. If gas-addicted Russia could do it last year — with productive outcomes — surely Australia can do it too?
UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon, World Bank President Jim Yong Kim, OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurria, and IMF Managing Director Christine Legarde have all identified action on climate change as a key international policy priority for the global economy.
It’s time for the Australian government to join the party.
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