Australia Deserves Better: new U.S climate policy leaves Aus far behind

SEI Co-director Professor David Schlosberg compares the U.S and Australian Climate Policies.

Image by Takver, Sourced: Flickr CC

Let’s get this out of the way: no single government policy is going to ‘stop’ climate change. Carbon-based energy use has already changed the climate systems of the planet, and Australians, among others, are seeing the impacts in their everyday lives. The question now is just how bad we let things get, and how well we plan to adapt to the damage we’ve already done. Carbon emissions policy is one part of the larger set of policies any responsible, forward-thinking government should be addressing right now.

Obama’s New Policy

The Obama administration’s newly announced rules, which finally allow the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to regulate carbon emissions under the existing US Clean Air Act, are a welcome, if incomplete, policy. The rules under this policy aim to cut carbon emissions by 30%, from 2005 levels, by 2030. Whilst 30% remains a firm figure, states have been provided with broad flexibility regarding how they will implement these significant emissions cuts.

Importantly, in addition to emission cuts, there are two additional side-benefits to the proposed regulations. First, a major part of Obama’s introduction, though underreported in the Australian coverage of the announcement, are the health improvements that come with cutting power-plant pollution – in particular a huge impact on childhood asthma and premature deaths. And second, increasing the regulation of dirty power creates further incentives for the development and deployment of cleaner energy.

Abbott’s Lack of Policy

Many are saying that this is the best climate policy any American president has ever proposed. That’s not a very high bar, but still, at least someone is finally jumping. Unfortunately, the current Australian government is marching blindly backwards. Just as the reality of climate change is starting to sink in, especially noticeable if you’ve been outside lately, we get a full retreat on the already limited climate change policies in place.

A policy in place for just two years, and which has proven to both cut carbon emissions and bring in revenue, is to be scrapped. While the government could save face (and get broad political support) for converting the evil ‘tax’ to a broad emissions trading scheme, instead we get what is clearly an inadequate ‘direct action’ policy of paying off some polluters to not pollute – with no enforcement mechanism in case they take the money and, um, burn it. Every reputable evaluation of the proposed policy states the obvious: it will not achieve its (minimal) goals, and it will cost vastly more than the current policy (which actually generates income while cutting pollution).

Sadly, Prime Minister Abbott has not confined his retreat to the domestic level, recently taking to the world stage with the last remaining member of the coalition of the unwilling on climate policy, Canadian Prime Minister Steven Harper. Abbott questioned the US’s new climate policy, and even insisted other countries were winding back their carbon pricing schemes – a statement that is demonstrably untrue.

International blunders aside, domestically the Environment Minister Greg Hunt is also straining the government’s non-existing credibility on climate policy by claiming that the reduction targets of the US and Australia are similar (well, fair enough: 5 and 30 are both ‘numbers’). The US strategy does not, in fact, show many of the hallmarks of the Australian plan. It is a set of legal regulations, not voluntary acts. No one gets paid to obey the law, and there are actual enforcement mechanisms. The policy design responds to the requests of industry, states, and, yes, environmental organisations – and will be even more so as the proposed rules go through a public comment period before they are implemented. It is certainly not as much as is needed, but it is a step forward rather than back, and sets an example of a government willing to govern the coal industry rather than let it dictate its own continued decimation of the environment, human health, and any semblance of a reasonable energy policy.

Emissions and Health

On health, the EPA estimates that the proposed rules will result in 3700 fewer cases of bronchitis in kids, 150,000 fewer asthma attacks, at least 3300 fewer heart attacks and 2700 fewer premature deaths. The fact is that the emissions from coal-fired power plants don’t just cause climate change – they undermine the health of all of us. Cutting emissions means improving health.

In Australia, a recent report from Environmental Justice Australia notes that there are at least 3000 unnecessary deaths a year from air pollution. The Asthma Foundation NSW cites a study showing 40% of kids in the Hunter and the New England region have asthma, compared to 10% nationally. The impacts come from each part of the coal power process, from mining to transport to burning. Another recent report demonstrates how air pollution, including coal emissions, are unequally distributed, impacting already vulnerable communities more than well-off ones. Not acting on emissions from the burning of coal means not acting on the purposeful endangerment of the health of Australians.

Climate and Growth

And then, of course, there is the question of new, cleaner, cheaper energy technologies. The US rules continue Obama’s emphasis on price signals and incentives for a move these new technologies. Australia gets an all-out attack on renewable energy, with the scrapping of the Renewable Energy Agency ARENA, and the reassessment of the renewable energy target (by a seemingly biased ‘expert’ panel). Economic assessment by such radical organisations as Bloomberg say this will cost the Australian economy billions of dollars; it will also threaten thousands of jobs in the rapidly growing and innovating industry, and eliminate the key avenue for cheaper energy bills for the broad public. Who needs health, a broad-based energy economy, and cheaper bills – while fighting climate change?

Left Behind

So what might the US policy mean for Australia? Simply put, it means the longstanding coalition of the unwilling – especially the US, Australia, and Canada – has lost its strongest supporter. Even China has dropped hints that it might declare a cap on carbon emissions in the near future. Australia stands as one of the very few countries left in the world that has declared the centuries-old innovation of digging coal out of the ground and burning it – causing damage to the environment, human health, and economy – to be its primary and favoured source of energy now and into the future.

Obviously, it’s impossible to predict what Obama will say to Abbott about Australian policy on his coming visit, but the pressure is clear. The US will no longer support such a damaging emphasis on coal in global negotiations. Obama is going to make a new global agreement a priority, and Australia’s very public and ideological retreat will not be looked upon favourably.

In a nutshell, America is getting a single policy with a range of benefits: cutting carbon emissions, improving health, and stimulating the development of cheaper renewable energy. We get a government intent on undermining all three.

Australians deserve, and desire, better.

David Schlosberg is Professor of Environmental Politics in the Department of Government and International Relations at the University of Sydney, and Co-Director of the Sydney Environment Institute. He is known internationally for his work in environmental politics, environmental movements, and political theory – in particular the intersection of the three with his work on environmental justice. He is the author, most recently, of Defining Environmental Justice (Oxford, 2007); co-author of Climate-Challenged Society (Oxford, 2013); and co-editor of both The Oxford Handbook of Climate Change and Society (Oxford 2011), and The Oxford Handbook of Environmental Political Theory (Oxford 2016).