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Soft targets, no caps, hot world? Abbott clarifies his position on climate policy

Mr Abbott yesterday made clear he’s not committed to a 5% reduction in emissions, and raised doubts about his acceptance of climate science. AAP Image/Alan Porritt

Saturday’s election will largely determine Australia’s domestic climate policy settings through to 2020. It will define Australia’s stance in international climate negotiations on targets and mitigation effort in the lead up to critical UN decisions in Paris in 2015. Yet the problem of global warming (as distinct from the carbon tax) has been all but invisible throughout this campaign so far.

Tony Abbott’s comments on The Conversation yesterday in discussion with Michelle Grattan, and at the National Press Club – on the day we found out Australia has had its hottest 12 months on record – may have changed that.

Abbott indicated he would stick to his proposed climate budget even if it appeared insufficient to enable Australia to meet its 2020 emissions reduction target. Was it lack of discipline, was it cockiness, or was it an act of brazen honesty?

His blunt adherence to fiscal austerity ahead of Australia’s international climate treaty obligations may just yet bring the issue of climate change to life in the dying days of this election. It deepens the gulf between the Coalition, and Labor and the Greens, by promising a return to the climate renegadism and climate scepticism of the Howard era.

Under the Howard government, Australia ignored its multilateral climate treaty obligations and, for the most part, aggressively opposed them. Australia signed the Kyoto Protocol in 1997 but then refused its ratification and vigorously supported attempts to wreck it during the term of the George W Bush administration. Australia’s emissions grew unabated.

Climate policy was a persistent point of political differentiation between the Coalition under Howard, and Labor and the Greens. Indeed the incoming Rudd Government’s first act of office in 2007 was to ratify the Protocol, binding Australia to its first commitment period target limiting national emissions to 108% of its 1990 levels by end of 2012; we met this target.

At the UN climate conference in Bali later that year, Australia was warmly welcomed back as a full participant in the multilateral UN climate negotiating process. Bali initiated discussions towards targets for the Protocol’s second commitment period, to be agreed in 2009.

Those negotiations infamously failed to conclude a legally binding agreement at Copenhagen. However Australia joined the majority of developed countries, and a significant group of major developing nations, in accepting the face-saving Copenhagen Accord and voluntarily pledging a national emissions mitigation target for the period from 2013 to 2020. These pledges were then confirmed and adopted under the UN climate treaty at Cancun in 2010.

Up until now, the Coalition and Labor maintained bipartisan support for this internationally adopted pledge - if not for the means for getting us there. This superficial bipartisanship has now gone.

There are parallels for Abbott’s softening up of the public yesterday. When first elected in 2006, Canada’s conservative Prime Minister Harper immediately displayed indifference to Canada’s Kyoto target. He then oversaw a steady increase in Canada’s emissions. In 2010, Canada – which, like Australia, is one of the world’s few major fossil fuel exporting developed nations - announced it wouldn’t accept new commitments under a subsequent treaty. In 2011 it walked away from its Kyoto Protocol obligations, further undermining negotiations towards a subsequent international agreement.

Yesterday’s comments suggest that, under an Abbott government, Australia will again constrain negotiations of a future international climate agreement and may again reject their outcomes.

Despite its very significant contribution to global emissions, Australia remains a laggard in terms of international mitigation targets and effort. Its current greenhouse mitigation target of 5% below 2000 levels by 2020 is exceptionally weak when compared with that of leading developed countries such as Germany, Denmark and the United Kingdom (-40% below 1990 levels for the first two), and certain to come under pressure in future negotiations.

Abbott’s championing of fiscal rectitude over modest emissions reductions flags that a Coalition government will refuse to accept tougher national targets, such as would be required to meet the internationally agreed aim of keeping emissions below 2C of average global warming. It condemns Australia to remaining at the back of the pack on climate action.

This brings us to the second element of Abbott’s position. At best, Abbott’s casual disregard for the 5% target underscores his lack of understanding of current climate science.

It also revives anxiety about his possible climate skepticism. In discussion with Michelle Grattan yesterday, he gave a hint of his attitude to climate science when he said:

I think they’re [Australians] more conscious of the fact that the argument among the experts is not quite the one-way street that it might have seemed four or five years ago.

Numerous recent scientific reports – including the United Nations Emissions Gap 2012 report, and the World Bank’s report Turn Down the Heat – have commented on the “ambition gap” between the emissions reductions projected by the collective voluntary mitigations pledges and what climate science indicates is necessary to keep global average warming below 2C.

Last year, parties to the UN Climate Convention – including Australia – agreed to a statement that recognised the existence of this ambition gap, and acknowledged the need for further emissions reductions before 2020 if we are to hold to the “guardrail” of 2C warming (a guardrail that would still deliver serious damage from climate change). None of this figures in Abbott’s approach.

Despite his professed confidence about meeting domestic targets with the money ear-marked, Abbott’s remarks suggest a lack of concern about the underlying aims and viability of his climate policy. Instead of a capped carbon trading scheme, the Coalition’s Direct Action Plan is based on a series of expensive, tax payer funded payments for voluntary industry action - the formula that failed under Howard. It also relies on bio-sequestration, specifically through replenishment of soil carbon, for up to 65% of its total emissions reductions. (Even the most optimistic scientific studies cautiously suggest that such sequestration is costly and highly uncertain in its longevity.) All for A$3.2 billion over four years - a quarter the amount proposed by Labor for its climate programs.

To contribute fairly to the task of avoiding 2C of global warming, Australia’s emissions target needs to be at least 40% below 2000 levels by 2020, and near zero a decade later. The Greens’ emissions reduction target of -40% by 2020, and their aim to have 90% of stationary energy derived from renewable sources by 2020, come closer to what is required. Such stronger outcomes are well out of reach of the Coalition’s (and Labor’s) mitigation policies and commitments.

The measures currently proposed by Labor would enable Australia to achieve its weak 5% reduction target. The Coalition’s will likely not even do that - but for some that seems not to be a problem.

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