Australia’s Special Pleading on Climate: Kyoto deja vu

When the Climate Change Authority – of which I’m a member – concluded that Australia should reduce its carbon emissions by 40-60% below 2000 levels in 2030, and by 30% in 2025, it did not pick the numbers out of the air.

Those target levels are the minimum necessary for Australia to contribute its fair share to the global commitment to limit warming to no more than 2°C above pre-industrial levels. They are based on the allowable global carbon budget and an equity principle (known as modified contraction and convergence) that has not been challenged.

The 2°C ‘guardrail’ has been accepted by all nations including Australia as the one that has a good chance of avoiding the worst effects of global warming (although many scientists believe it is set too high and we should be aiming for 1.5°C). If it is breached then the consequences for the world will range from severe to catastrophic. At present the world is tracking towards ‘catastrophic’.

So when the Abbott Government announces that its target for 2030 will be 19-22% below 2000 levels – which it rebased to 2005 to make the reduction appear bigger because emissions rose between 2000 and 2005 – it is saying one of three things:

  1. The rest of the world, including poor countries, must carry some of Australia’s burden;
  2. The next generation of Australians will have to endure drastic, and probably impossible, rates of emission reductions after 2030 with much higher economic cost and disruption; or
  3. The Government has covertly abandoned the 2°C guardrail and accepts the enormous suffering that will occur in a world 3°C or 4°C warmer.

The Government will not be candid and instead uses a number of tricks and dodgy arguments to attempt to conceal its lack of commitment to tackling climate change.

Firstly, in a sleight of hand it pivots away from its weak absolute emission reductions to trumpet expected per capita emission reductions, claiming Australia will reduce its emissions per person by more than other countries. The Earth, of course, does not care about nations patting themselves on the back for per capita reductions; what matters is how many tonnes of carbon emissions go into the atmosphere. We could all reduce our per capita emissions and still fry the planet.

A moral reversal

More to the point, the Government is attempting to turn a moral argument often used to condemn Australia – the fact that we have the highest per capita emissions in the industrialized world – into a moral plus, despite the fact that the Government’s new announcement will entrench Australians as the worst polluters per person. The truth is that the Abbott Government’s weak emissions goal will lock Australia into the number one ranking by the time 2030 rolls around.

The claimed decline in emissions per person will occur not because of our extra effort but because of our higher population growth. Wheeling out a discredited argument from the Kyoto years the Abbott Government is now asking the world to give Australia special dispensation to pollute at higher levels because our population is expected to grow more quickly than those of other rich nations.

But why should Australia be given special treatment because our population is expected to grow more quickly? High population growth is touted by the Government as a great boon for our prosperity; it makes us richer, but the Government argues as if it makes us poorer. Population growth is, moreover, largely a policy choice through the setting of historically high levels of migration. So Mr Abbott is asking the rest of the world to bear the costs of our population policy by taking on some of the emission reductions we should be making, while we sit back and enjoy the benefits.

It is as if Gina Rinehart were to argue that since her income is growing faster than everyone else’s her tax rate should be reduced, with everyone else making up the revenue shortfall, because somehow her fast growth makes it harder for her to cut her spending.

The Government claims that its 2030 target puts Australia in the middle of the pack. This is simply untrue even on its own figures, presented using the most advantageous base year. Only Japan among OECD countries promises to do less, and Japan has had to deal with Fukushima.

Low-hanging fruit

There are several other considerations the Government would prefer we forget. Firstly, other nations have been working at reducing their emissions for many years while Australia has done next to nothing. The claim that Australia has met its Kyoto target is true on the numbers. But it is a monstrous lie when it is used – as it has been repeatedly by Greg Hunt and now again in the Government’s latest statement – as if it gives Australia some kind of moral edge over other nations.

I have elsewhere explained why this is so but the bottom line is that at the 1997 Kyoto conference Australia, by threatening to wreck the agreement, extracted an extraordinarily generous deal that required us to do virtually nothing. The Europe Union, by contrast, accepted a tough target at Kyoto, took serious measures, and met its commitment.

So some other industrialized nations have been working hard while Australia – which refused even to ratify the Kyoto Protocol until 2007 – just sat back, until Labor introduced some belated policies that the present Government has unwound. To compare future commitments while ignoring past efforts is dishonest. A nation should receive no accolades for finally picking up the towrope, especially if it does so only tentatively.

Moreover, no nation in the world is in a better position to adopt strong targets than Australia. Our capacity to address climate change is unrivalled. We have very high levels of GDP per person, especially after dodging the GFC bullet, and compared with nations that have been making efforts over the last decade or two we have a great deal of low-hanging fruit just waiting to be picked.

In addition to great leaps in energy efficiency still available, closing down a handful of coal-fired clunkers (which almost happened under the last Labor Government) would sharply cut our emissions in short order and at low cost. And of course the Australian landmass has more renewable energy resources than any nation in the world, far more and at much cheaper cost than Germany and Denmark where great strides have been made towards building new renewable infrastructures.

Australians, the worst carbon polluters in the OECD, not only have a moral responsibility to do more than everyone else but also happen to be blessed with the capacity to lead the world. Instead, we continue to shun our responsibility and engage in special pleading.

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© Copyright Clive Hamilton