The pressure is mounting on Abbott to deliver on climate

Pressure is mounting inside and outside Australia for greater action on climate. AAP Image/Dan Peled

International and domestic forces appear to be conspiring to significantly ratchet up the pressure on Prime Minster Tony Abbott’s climate policy.

Growing concerns about a global decline in demand for coal and the spectre of stranded fossil fuel assets featured in this week’s ABC Four Corners program. This program, noting the growing influence of the divestment movement on Australian climate debate, painted Australia’s investment in fossil-fuel-driven exports as misguided, even financially irresponsible.

Predictably, the Minerals Council of Australia and Newscorp have lined up to pillory the national broadcaster over the program’s claims. But there is little doubt that the economic case for coal mining and its expansion is becoming less compelling.

Certainly, this case will take another large hit if this year’s Paris climate talks lead to agreement on global emissions reductions, and help for developing states to transition to low-carbon economies.

More concerning still for the prime minister is that public concern about climate change continues to grow. The Lowy Institute’s annual survey, released this week, suggests that a majority now views climate change as a “serious and pressing problem”, while also identifying support for renewable energy and strong Government action on climate change.

Australia’s climate commitments

Australia is currently committed to a 5% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2020, relative to 2000 levels – a comparatively small target for a developed state with among the highest per capita emissions in the world.

Yet there are significant doubts about whether Australia is capable of achieving even that modest goal, particularly through the economic incentives model of Direct Action. The recently announced reduction in Australia’s Renewable Energy Target, currently making its way through the Senate, will not make this easier.

Australia will soon announce its “intended nationally determined contribution” (INDC) to global greenhouse gas emissions reductions after 2020, in advance of crucial climate talks in Paris in December.

At the international level, and even before Australia’s INDC announcement, pressure on the Government is already growing.

The international dimension

As momentum towards talks in Paris builds, Australia was singled out as a climate free-rider by an international panel led by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan. Other countries also raised a series of difficult questions about Australia’s ambitions and the capacity to achieve these through existing policy.

Last week, the G7 announced its intention to phase out fossil fuels by the end of the century. This not only provided further momentum for climate action, it also involved railroading Canada: a traditional ally of Australia in UN climate talks.

With optimism slowly building that the Paris summit in December will avoid the same problems as Copenhagen in 2009, international pressure threatens to isolate the Australian government.

Even if governments are ambivalent about their international reputation, this can be dangerous at the domestic level. In the mid-2000s, the entry into force of the Kyoto Protocol and growing international climate concern was central to the pressure that began to build on John Howard to act on climate change. It was arguably also central to his electoral defeat in 2007.

Another climate victim?

Prime Minister Abbott came to lead the opposition promising to challenge the Labor government’s commitment to carbon pricing, and won the 2013 election largely through casting it as a referendum on the carbon tax.

A year after coming into force, public attitudes to the carbon tax had softened and the tax itself was serving to drive down emissions. Meanwhile, experts were lining up to question the effectiveness and costs of Direct Action.

The more recent growth in public concern and international momentum on climate action suggests climate policy risks shifting from being an area of strength for the coalition to an Achilles heel.

For a government already struggling in opinion polls, these winds of change significantly raise the stakes for Australia’s target announcement. A limited target in the face of growing domestic and international concern could see pressure mount on Australia from both beyond and within.

And these developments raise questions about whether climate change could claim yet another Australian political leader.