No Free Lunch On Climate Action, Now Choose What You're Eating: Former EU Climate Chief

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The woman who spent four years as Europe’s top climate diplomat delivered a powerful speech in Sydney last night, arguing that while Australia must face up to the fact climate action will impose a cost on ordinary citizens “what we really need to grasp is it’s also not for free to continue business as usual”.

Connie Hedegaard retired from her post as European Commissioner for Climate Action last year and in an address delivered as part of the City of Sydney ‘CityTalks’, she dished out a tacit recrimination of Australia’s “stop-go politics” on climate change.

Hedegaard avoided commenting directly on Australia’s action, or lack thereof, but urged bipartisanship and a deeper respect for the science, which she said demands “everybody do their maximum”.

“Science tells us by 2050 we have to be down to two tonnes of emissions per capita, globally speaking,” Hadegaard said.“I can tell you that does not mean to continue business as usual.”

“In Australia you have an average of 24 tonnes emitted per capita; in the US it’s 18; in the EU, a little less than 8; soon to be surpassed by China, already above 7.

“I’m not a specialist in the Australian case,” Hedegaard said, “so I don’t know why your emissions are three times that of an average European, but I do know the reasons why Europe is steadily declining it’s total absolute emissions.

“We have this, some might say strange, tradition of pricing things we do not like; price pollution, tax energy, scarce resources, in order to create incentives for energy efficiency.

“And yes, we also price carbon.”

She noted that to achieve its target of a 40 per cent cut to emissions by 2030, based on 1990 level pollution, the European Union has “set binding targets for emissions, for efficiency, and for renewables, for all 28 member states covering 500 million people in Europe”.

Hedegaard said it is crucial that policy levers such as this be put in place and not scrapped by incoming governments, adding that if this is done, action on climate change, while “not for free”, is also “not expensive”.

“How much is it worth to try and save the planet and do the right thing?” she said.

“Can it cost a little bit, something, or is the answer nothing?”

“I mean if a country’s GDP grows more than 20 per cent in a decade, can it not cost a tiny bit of that, or maybe a little more than that?

“It must cost something — we cannot tell people that it does not cost anything to change.

“Some would say ‘yeah that’s all very well, but energy must not become more expensive, because then the bill ends up with citizens'.

“Yeah… Who else would be there to pay?

“I mean either we pay as consumers, when we buy products, or we pay as taxpayers.

“How we split the bill and the burden and who should do what, that of course is a very interesting political discussion, but I just think you cannot say it must not cost anything.”

The comments follow efforts from the Abbott Government over recent weeks to differentiate itself from the Opposition by claiming its method of reducing carbon emissions, through paying selected polluters to mitigate their emissions, is substantially cheaper.

But the Labor Party has not yet unveiled even its preferred climate target, and like the government, it has released no costings.

Shadow Environment Minister Mark Butler told the CityTalk Labor would clarify its position at least before the next election, although not necessarily before the Paris climate talks, but he cautioned that the Abbott Government’s target is a “shimmerer” which it has no real intention of achieving. 

Earlier this month Tony Abbott announced his government will take a 2030 emissions reduction target of between 26 and 28 per cent, based on 2005 level emissions, to the crucial climate negotiations in Paris in late November and early December of this year.

These targets place Australia’s ambition well behind that of most comparable nation’s, and former Liberal Party leader John Hewson slammed the government saying that “the target they’ve set is about half, or less than half, of what it should be by 2030”.

Hewson also echoed Hedegaard’s sentiment that “what we really need to grasp is it’s also not for free to continue business as usual,” arguing that Australia has “lost at least 30 years to actually deal with the problem”.

“Thirty years to actually have taken advantage of the business opportunities, the technological revolution, we could have had in this country; and the Prime Minister presents this as ‘I don’t want to clobber the economy to deal with the environment’.

“That’s a false choice; you can have growth and deal with the climate at the same time, the technology will allow you to do that,” Hewson said.

In contrast to Australia, which has seen investment in renewables plummet by nearly 90 per cent over the last year, Hedegaard noted that bipartisan support for climate action in her native Denmark, and Europe more generally, has allowed the jobs and investment renewable energy can bring to flourish.

“Once you study where the jobs come from… it turns out that the green sector, clean sector, renewable sector, efficiency sector, was, even during the [Global Financial] Crisis years, the big driver for new jobs,” Hedegaard said.

“We have now one million jobs in the renewable sector in Europe and we have 4.2 million jobs in what we call the eco industry….

“Since year 2000 — 15 years — the green energy export in Denmark has seen a 7 per cent gross average year after year after year. Last year it was 15 per cent, the year before it was 17 per cent. It makes good business and the interesting thing is which markets in particular are growing.

“I think that we have proven that if you do it correctly, if you do it intelligently, if you do it smartly, green policies, strong policies, can be a driver for innovation and thus for export,” said Hedegaard.

She also agreed with Greens Environment Spokesperson Larissa Waters that subsidies for fossil fuels need to be phased out, stating that on top of Paris’ goal of devising a global plan to limit temperature increases to less than 2 degrees “we must have a package where we are also phasing out fossil fuels”.

“Every time we subsidise renewables with $1, we subsidise fossil fuels with $5,” Hedegaard said.

“Everyone can see that doesn’t make sense in the 21st century.”

Over the past few days the Abbott Government has pointedly signalled its willingness to subsidise a vital rail line for what would be the nation’s largest ever coal mine, and Hedegaard took what appeared to be a thinly veiled swipe at the government’s love affair with coal.

“Yes [in Denmark]we have wind, we have a lot of wind,” she said.

“We are proud of that: I know that some say that wind turbines are not exactly beautiful but I tend to think that that also goes for power plants.”

Thom Mitchell

Thom Mitchell is New Matilda's Environment Reporter.

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