Australian climate policy fails even basic market ideals

David Schlosberg on the short-comings of Australian climate change policy ahead of COP21.

Australia’s current climate policy is one of the weakest and most ineffective in the developed world. At the moment, Australia aims to cut its emissions by 5% below 2000 levels by 2020, using the ‘Direct Action’ policy that the vast majority of analysts see as inadequate to the task. Last week, the US, China, and Brazil questioned Australia’s dedication to address climate change, and asked the Abbott government to clarify exactly how the current policy will meet the minimum stated goal; the results of the first auction under the programme do not bode well for meeting that goal with the current budget. And what about after 2020? In the lead up to the next global climate policy meeting, the COP 21 in Paris, Australia has not yet offered a goal or approach for broader emissions cuts. Instead, we’ve seen the dismissal of climate advisors and scientists, an attack on the renewable energy target, a lack of attention to climate change in an intergenerational report, the parroting of the industry narrative of coal as “good for humanity,” and the hiring of Bjorn Lomborg – who consistently refuses to prioritise climate change as a worthwhile issue – to run an academic centre at the University of Western Australia.

So what climate policy or goals might the current government offer for the Paris meeting? There are plenty of options, and the analysis by actual experts rather than ideological ones shows that they are do-able and affordable. The Climate Change Authority has called for Australia to cut emissions by 30% by 2025 just to catch up to others and do our duty. Beyond that, they argue for cuts of 40% or 60% by 2030. The current Minister for the Environment has called such goals ‘onerous’, and there are clear indications that even if Australia proposes a post-2020 pledge, it will be minimal. The Climate Council and the Climate Institute, among others, argue for further cuts in carbon emissions if we are to meet international obligations and assist in the goal of at least trying to keep global climate change to a two degree increase in temperature.

But let’s try to be fair, and judge the current policy not on the more obvious and common critiques, but using what the government would seem to use as its own standard. The World Bank, certainly one of the major international institutions representative of the neoliberalism favoured by the Coalition, has offered a range of market-focused approaches to reducing drivers of climate change. Awkwardly, the Bank advocates for ‘robust’ carbon pricing, exactly like that recently dismantled in Australia. In addition, and sticking to the thoroughly market-focused approach, the Bank suggests the countries remove fossil fuel subsidies, accelerate energy efficiency and renewable energy use, build low carbon resilient cities, and implement ‘climate-smart agriculture’ and nurture forest landscapes.

What is truly amazing about the state of climate policy in Australia is that this self-described conservative government is not only eschewing the suggestions of experts and the opposition, but is also acting against every one of these basic market-friendly policies.

Obviously, we’ve seen a removal of the price on carbon. Instead, we will have millions given to companies who promise to cut emissions, but with no guarantee or consequences if they don’t. This is a radically untested policy designed to have little impact – the first auctions went mainly to land-based sequestration projects already in practice, rather than real industrial emissions reductions. On fossil fuel subsidies, the current focus on expanding coal and coal seam gas mining actually expands such subsidies, including support for new ports and rail lines – even when that infrastructure decimates both communities and local environments.

What about the Bank’s call to increase renewables and accelerate energy efficiency? The current federal policy is to actively sabotage the renewable industry. The attack on the RET, and the current uncertainty, means that jobs and investment in 21st century technologies have been undermined and forced out of the country. And efficiency? Australia has the highest per-person emissions rate in the developed world, and we are one of the least efficient economies. In addition to increasing carbon pollution, that’s just waste, which costs both individuals and industries serious money. Efficiency is the proverbial low-hanging fruit of emissions policy. Yes, the pink batt policy was incompetently designed and implemented, but the lessons of that should inform new, better policies around energy efficiency.

Build low-carbon resilient cities? The federal government’s main urban policy is more large-scale road projects, continuing a high-carbon pathway that citizens and commuters – especially younger ones – do not want. And, finally, on nurturing forest landscapes, one of the first actions of the national government was to propose an undermining of the heritage listing for Tasmanian forests.

So even by the standards of one of the main institutions of the neo-liberal globalization project biggest funder, the World Bank, current Australian climate policy fails on every point. While there are many more thorough and reasonable programmes for a post-carbon transition out there, this critique of the current policy situation is not a radical one – rather, it is one based on comparison to what we would assume to be the ideological allies of the Abbott government. It is clear that the government has no market-based or conservative rationale to justify its current policies.

What is clear about the government’s resistance to climate action is that it is purely political, and based in singular support for an industry that, while certain to be wound down one way or another in the coming century, currently supplies tax income and jobs (though both are decreasing), and important political patronage. The government seems singularly dedicated to their political allies and supporters in the emissions industry, even if this goes against their own supposed ideology – as well as the basic interests of the Australian public and the environment on which we all rely.

Senator Christine Milne delivered a landmark speech at The University of Sydney, on the challenges to Australian climate change policy, and SEI researchers Christopher Wright and Rosemary Lyster responded. Professor David Schlosberg, Co-Director of the Sydney Environment Institute chaired the event. 

Watch the video from our event with Christine Milne, or listen to the podcast below. 

Image: Greens MPs on Flickr Commons