Cool US Reception Could Be Abbott's Best Effort Yet On Climate Change


Tony Abbott is off on a foreign trip this fortnight. No doubt relishing the opportunity to escape some chilly Canberra weather, and some even chillier opinion polls, the Prime Minister is off on a world tour.

Currently in Indonesia for talks with outgoing President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, he then jets off to France for the 70th anniversary of D-Day, followed by a visit to Canada and the United States.

After a difficult meeting in Jakarta, where even the government admits there is some relationship-mending in which to engage, Abbott will likely find a friendly reception in France, where he can feast on an orgy of flag waving, not to mention Canada, where the Conservative government of Stephen Harper will extend a warm ideological embrace.

In contrast, Abbott’s trip to Washington promises to be rather less cosy. In one of those ironies of political fortune, the meeting between the Australian Prime Minister and the American President will team two men with diametrically opposite views on an issue described by Abbott’s predecessor as ‘the greatest moral challenge of our time’.

Barack Obama has made the environment one of the signature issues of the latter part of his administration. He’s acted to curb carbon emissions from coal, this week announcing historic new environmental regulations that aim to reduce carbon emissions from existing coal-fired power plants by 30 per cent by 2020.

New coal plants are already heavily regulated in the US, making them very difficult to build. Obama’s plan also aims to double renewable energy by 2020 and raises federal clean tech investment by 30 per cent across all US federal agencies.

The US is also raising its fuel efficiency targets for cars, making them far less polluting on average than Australia’s.

The changes, which Obama first mooted after the failure of the US Congress to pass the Waxman-Markey cap-and-trade bill, are regulatory and administrative in nature. This means they can be imposed from above by the White House, without recourse to hostile lawmakers.

Of course, the permanent trench warfare of US politics means that Republicans and business interests will fight the new regulations in the courts, and in Democrat-hostile state legislatures.

Even so, Obama’s new pollution regulations are undoubtedly some of the most important curbs on global carbon emissions in a decade. Indeed, it is the first time the US has ever acted to regulate carbon emissions from existing sources.

President Barack Obama, with Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy, center, talks with EPA staff members who worked on the power-plant emissions standards, in the Rose Garden of the White House, June 2, 2014. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

Informed observers, such as Michael Obeiter and Kevin Kennedy at the World Resources Institute, argue that the new rule puts the United States’ current emissions reduction target of 17 per cent on 2005 levels by 2020 well within reach.

“The rule provides a major boost forward for the United States to achieve its 2020 emissions-reduction target,” they write. “Given current cost trends for renewables and the potential for increased energy efficiency, even deeper reductions are possible by 2030.”

Obama’s long-overdue progress on carbon regulation may prove rather uncomfortable for Tony Abbott. The contrast couldn’t be more stark: on the one hand you have a US administration committed to stringent new regulations and massive ongoing investment in clean technologies, and on the other an Abbott Government at war with the environment.

It hardly needs to be repeated – the Coalition won office with a promise to abolish the carbon tax. Although it hasn’t done this yet, it has taken an axe to just about every environmental program in the federal budget, slashing and chopping at green agencies, renewable energy research, environmental regulations… even the Clean Energy Finance Corporation, an agency that is making money for the federal Treasury.

While Obama is betting big on renewable energy as an important new source of jobs and economic growth, Abbott has abolished the Australian Renewable Energy Agency and looks set to abandon the cheap and effective Renewable Energy Target.

And then there’s Direct Action, the Abbott government’s increasingly fictitious attempt at a climate policy.

Direct Action has never been taken seriously by energy analysts or environmentalists, and the slow drip of revelations about just how weak and underfunded it is have done nothing to change that.

The final straw was the news, released in the federal budget, that Greg Hunt’s farcical Emissions Reduction Fund will have even less money to purchase abatement than promised in the 2013 election.

Cynics may point out that the US measures are still well below what’s required to halt or even slow runaway global warming. That’s true: far bigger emissions reductions are needed, as well as international cooperation from the likes of China, India and the emerging economies of the global south. If a Republican becomes the next US president, much of Obama’s environmental legacy would likely be at risk.

But that’s the nature of politics, which rarely moves in a smooth and inexorable fashion. The environment is well and truly back on the political agenda in the US, driven by extreme weather and a crippling drought in the country’s west.

Whoever holds the White House, green policies will continue in many US state houses, such as California, where governor Jerry Brown is making tackling climate change a central plank of his administration.

After years in which pro-growth, anti-environment politics has dominated the US, the tide may indeed have turned.

Does this mean anything for Australia? Ross Garnaut, for one, thinks it does. The architect of Labor’s carbon policy argued this week that Obama’s initiative makes Australia’s five per cent target by 2020 manifestly inadequate.

Australia, Garnaut says, is now “out of step with international action”. While the US may even exceed its 17 per cent target, Australia has no chance of meeting our five per cent target while the Coalition remains in office.

Of course, there’s little chance that the Abbott government can be shamed into stronger efforts on climate. A few stern words from Barack Obama are unlikely to concern Tony Abbott when it comes to the environment. The Coalition is firmly wedded to a pro-mining, anti-green ideology, as his speech last week to a dinner organised by the mining industry graphically showed.

“It’s particularly important that we do not demonise the coal industry,” he told the wealthy executives at Parliament House on May 28, claiming that “I can think of few things more damaging to our future” than not mining coal.

“If there was one fundamental problem, above all else, with the carbon tax it was that it said to our people, it said to the wider world, that a commodity which in many years is our biggest single export, somehow should be left in the ground and not sold.

“Well really and truly, I can think of few things more damaging to our future.”

It was an amazing speech from a sitting prime minister in the context of a vastly unpopular budget, and given all his other responsibilities.

Few messages could be louder or clearer than this government’s support for coal. And few policies could be further from the bold direction now embarked on by our closest ally.

Abbott's greatest contribution to tackling climate change so far will likely begin with a frosty reception in Washington.

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