Australia absents itself from climate leadership

The US withdrawal from climate and environmental leadership sets an appalling example, but Australia is doing nothing to counter it.

Delegates gather in the main hall at Bonn for this year’s UNFCCC climate summit. PHOTO Kiara Worth, IISD/ENB

Delegates gather in the main hall at Bonn for this year’s UNFCCC climate summit. PHOTO Kiara Worth, IISD/ENB

Another year, another global climate summit. But this year’s event in Bonn, Germany, marks the start of a wholly new phase in the battle to contain climate change.

The United States – at least in a formal sense – is now completely alone in the world after Donald Trump announced in June that he was pulling his country out of the landmark Paris Agreement. Every other nation has now signed up.

At the time of the announcement, a US Gallup Poll showed 84 per cent of citizens were concerned about climate change, 68 per cent believed it was caused by humans and 62 per cent thought it was already happening. That was before the country’s calamitous autumn hurricanes and wildfires.

Trump’s decision came in a year that, even without a warming El Nino event, is all but certain to join 2015 and 2016 as the hottest years on record. And data released yesterday show that after remaining flat for two years, global emissions this year are at an all-time high.

Pointing out that national commitments underpinning Paris fall far short of what is needed to avoid dangerous warming, the UN’s annual Emissions Gap Report to the Bonn meeting called for accelerated short-term action and greater longer-term national ambition.

The report stressed that “avoiding building new coal-fired power plants and phasing out existing ones is crucial to closing the emissions gap”. That is, being serious about climate change means no more coal.

Extractive industry has a special pull on many national governments, including our own. The global Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI) seeks full disclosure of government-miner financial transactions. Australia says it supports that idea, but has yet to implement it.

Last week Trump withdrew from EITI, claiming it was out of step with the US legal framework. But the truth is that he took the side of US mining interests including the American Petroleum Institute, which don’t want to see secret and corrupt practices exposed.

Step by step, while dismantling long-standing environmental protections at home, Trump is weakening international instruments and measures solely to protect the profits of private US corporations, notably coal, oil and gas interests.

The US will not formally leave the Paris agreement until 2020, but its official delegation in Bonn, thanks to Trump, is without influence and authority – more an observer than a participant.

The gap left by the US pull-out is being partly filled by an expanded Chinese presence, with an expectation that the country will take the opportunity to announce a 2018 start to its long-anticipated national carbon trading scheme.

Others are stepping up. In Montreal a month out from the Bonn summit, ministers from the European Union and Canada joined China to declare their commitment to the “full and swift implementation” of the Paris Agreement.

The “We Are Still In” coalition is an unofficial delegation of US governors, mayors and business leaders. Their stall at Bonn – the meeting’s largest – declared to the world that the American people remained firmly behind the Paris Agreement.

You don’t have to be a big player to be a leader. New Zealand’s climate change minister, James Shaw, is putting the case in Bonn for people displaced by climate change to be recognised globally as refugees, while domestically he’s looking at a new climate refugee visa category.

Shaw’s ideas will have support among island nations and their advocates in Bonn, but probably not from Australia, where the refugee issue has become conflated with border protection.

But the issue of climate refugees is becoming more pressing with each passing year. Pacific island populations are relatively small, but a recent Cornell University (US) study found that worldwide we could be looking at over a billion people displaced by rising seas by mid-century and double that number by 2100. If any climate issue calls for leadership and vision, this is it.

The Trump administration’s withdrawal from Paris and EITI and its dismantling of domestic environmental instruments and measures set an appalling example for the world. But our own example leaves a lot to be desired.

For four years now, Australia has been virtually absent from the global climate debate. Our government’s grossly inadequate 2030 target (a 26-28 per cent cut below 2005 levels) and its advocacy of more coal-fired electricity stands directly opposed to global aspirations in Bonn.

With the US out of the picture, other countries including Australia are being asked to step up and show some leadership. That would require us to strengthen our 2030 emissions target, set even stronger long-term targets, abandon plans to revive coal power, and fully implement EITI.

We have done none of these things, while advocating and pursuing domestic policies that undermine Paris goals. We are starting to look like Trump’s patsy. Is that really what we want?

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Bending the truth at Beersheba

The Beersheba ceremony looked spectacular, but it got the history seriously wrong.

The Israeli flag flies alongside those of Australia and New Zealand in the re-enacted advance on Beersheba on 31 October. PHOTO Abir Sultan, European Pressphoto Agency

The Israeli flag flies alongside those of Australia and New Zealand in the re-enacted advance on Beersheba on 31 October. PHOTO Abir Sultan, European Pressphoto Agency

Just quietly, I can’t wait for all the World War I centenaries to fade into the past.

As a kid I remember the Last Post as a plaintive lament heard on one or two days of the year. Along with solemn speeches about blood and sacrifice, we now seem to be hearing the sound of the bugle every second day. It no longer seems so plaintive.

It’s no bad thing to remember people who fought and sometimes died in war, but too much repetition lessens the impact, and too often the truths of history get lost in the bombast.

Take last week’s event at Beersheba in southern Israel, attended by Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and our own Malcolm Turnbull.

In his official speech, after a dark warning to Palestinian infiltrators – “do not test the will of the state of Israel or the army of Israel” – Netanyahu made some interesting historical connections.

After Jewish fighters helped Anzac forces at Galipoli, he said, there was “the Jewish Legion that helped liberate Palestine here, in this campaign that we mark today… a partnership that has historic significance today.”

He went on to praise the “brave Anzac soldiers [who] liberated Beersheba for the sons and daughters of Abraham and opened the gateway for the Jewish people to re-enter the stage of history.”

Turnbull told a similar story. The Anzac mounted charge, he said, “did not create the state of Israel, but enabled its creation. Had the Ottoman rule in Palestine and Syria not been overthrown by the Australians and the New Zealanders, the Balfour Declaration would have been empty words.”

They’re saying that Beersheba’s 1917 capture “liberated” the city from Turkish rule and gave weight to the statement a few days later by British foreign secretary Arthur Balfour that there should be “a national home for the Jewish people”, and this led in turn to the state of Israel.

It’s a neat idea, but it doesn’t stack up. Netanyahu’s claim about the Jewish Legion, a group of battalions within the British army, was simply not true. It had no part in the battle for Beersheba; it was still being formed in the UK at the time and did not enter active service until 1918.

Then there’s the inconvenient matter of the Arab Revolt. From early 1917 until the war’s end in November 1918 an English army captain named T.E. Lawrence worked with Arab regulars and insurgents, both behind Turkish lines and in frontal assaults against the Turks.

The Arab uprising began nearly a year before Beersheba with the support of Allied Middle East commander Edmund Allenby, and would have been well-known to the Anzac troops. Given that, it was a shame an Arab Palestinian representative didn’t take part in the re-enactment.

In 1917 Beersheba was not and never had been a Jewish town. In an arid region with a reliable supply of underground water, it was a Bedouin watering hole until the Ottomans, seeing its strategic value, built a town there in the late 1890s.

For nearly 50 years, mostly under British rule, it remained essentially a Bedouin Arab town with a handful of Jewish residents. Its Arab character was recognised in 1947 by the United Nations, which included the city within the proposed Arab state of Palestine.

Less than a year later, Beersheba was captured by the army of a newly-declared state of Israel, which expelled its Arab residents and over succeeding years replaced them with Jewish immigrants, largely from Russia.

Beersheba today is a fast-growing high-tech hub about the size of Hobart, and almost fully Jewish. That could explain the presence of the Star of David flag in the re-enacted horseback advance on the city. It is to be hoped the Australian War Memorial raised objections to that unhistorical idea.

Today Israel is an established, sovereign nation with an indisputable right to exist. But its foundation, like Australia’s and any other country’s, is a legitimate historical question.

In 1917 the idea of an Israeli homeland was not common currency, limited mostly to diplomacy – a British strategic tool to counter French influence – and Zionist Jews wanting a state of their own.

Israel was born out of decades of self-interested meddling in the Middle East by various foreign powers, notably Britain and France, topped off by feelings of guilt over the Nazi Holocaust.

The Anzac troops attacking Beersheba may have seen both Arabs and Jews as allies against the Ottomans – they knew about the Arab Revolt and possibly about the raising of the Jewish Legion – but essentially they fought the Turks in the name of the British Empire.

It’s not plausible that the Anzacs would have seen themselves as aiding a Jewish cause, let alone preparing the ground for the Balfour Declaration. In implying otherwise, both Netanyahu and Turnbull overstepped the mark.

Netanyahu is a very focused man working in the righteous cause of the Jewish nation – a country which he believes to be above reproach. His view of Beersheba’s history is vividly coloured by the struggles of Jews to build and maintain their own state.

As a guest of Israel, Malcolm Turnbull was never going to query his friend Bibi’s version of history. But he should not himself have echoed those same historically flawed sentiments.

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Turnbull’s energy plan: lifeline or deadweight?

The NEG is a dog of an idea, but it’s all we’ve got.

Assembling a wind turbine. PHOTO Ararat Wind Farm, Victoria

Assembling a wind turbine. PHOTO Ararat Wind Farm, Victoria

Politics is winning hands down over policy in the endless battle for good government in Canberra.

Already damaged by the chronic Turnbull-Abbott divide, last week the government was reeling from the furore over police raids on unions. Then came the High Court citizenship decision.

The Nationals are devastated. Having lost both leader Barnaby Joyce and deputy leader Fiona Nash, they now face having Nash replaced in the Senate by a Liberal – the candidate immediately below her on the Coalition’s 2016 NSW Senate ticket.

To top it off, the present acting PM is foreign minister Julie Bishop, breaking with the internal understanding that the stand-in will always be the Nationals leader. The punishment is complete.

But shed no tears for the Nationals. They have been instrumental in wrecking Australia’s response to the climate crisis and ensuring that Malcolm Turnbull’s “solution”, his National Electricity Guarantee (NEG), is a dog of an idea.

This is said with a heavy heart. Since the abolition of a carbon price in 2014 we have endured a virtual absence of energy and climate policy of any sort in Canberra.

Fading hopes that the dumping of Tony Abbott would see progress were revived when Turnbull combined climate and energy under Josh Frydenberg’s ministry – something both Liberal and Labor administrations had failed to do. But since then, nothing.

In the past year the Coalition has rejected two schemes to put a price on carbon emissions, the latest resulting from their own commissioned inquiry by chief scientist Alan Finkel. The NEG and its “powering forward” promise is its last-gasp attempt to retrieve something of value from the mess.

As it stands, the NEG is barely a band-aid over the festering wound of Coalition climate politics. To even begin to “power forward” it needs agreement from the Council of Australian Governments, which will be a challenge with key states already expressing disapproval.

The Australian Energy Market Commission has been charged with making NEG work, but it represents big generators and is ill-equipped to have the running on our central climate measure. We won’t know how successful it has until well after the next election, whenever that may be.

Investors need targets locked in at least 25 years ahead, but the government still has no long-term emissions target. That severely constrains the roll-out of electricity infrastructure of any kind – including Turnbull’s favoured “clean” option, pumped Snowy Mountains hydro.

Snowy Hydro chief executive Paul Broad told a Senate inquiry last week that building a pumped hydro scheme would involve removing 10 million cubic metres of rock from “challenging” rock formations, and Fairfax media reported that the scheme’s $2 billion price-tag did not include new transmission lines, costing about the same again, required to deliver the extra electricity into Sydney and Melbourne.

Since the government announced NEG a fortnight ago – it seems an eternity – it has failed to explain how different sectors of the energy market might fare under the scheme. Without modelling it’s not possible to define, let alone promise, affordability and reliability.

Questions abound. Why is coal power, which takes hours to switch on, listed as “dispatchable” – able to be made available quickly to meet demands? And how will that conveniently loose definition affect investment in wind and solar?

If past statements are any guide, the AEMC will continue to favour what it knows: current synchronous (coal, gas) technology. A key question is, what will be its attitude to asynchronous sources such as solar and wind using batteries and smart-grid technology?

Contrary to what Coalition politicians have been saying about “reliable baseload” energy and “unreliable, intermittent” wind and solar, proven asynchronous technology makes wind and solar as reliable as synchronous generation while responding much more rapidly to changing demands.

Don’t expect to hear that from the government. To the contrary, Senator Matt Canavan, fresh from High Court vindication over his citizenship and back in his old job as resources minister, is pushing hard for a new coal-fired power station in North Queensland.

After being sworn in he said he saw “no reason” why such a development could not be funded by the government’s Northern Australia Infrastructure Fund, adding for good measure that NAIF could also fund a railway line for Adani’s proposed Carmichael coal mine.

That would be the only way for either of these ideas to see the light of day. “There is no current investment appetite to develop new coal-fired power in Australia,” Matthew Warren, chief executive of the Australian Energy Council, said in February, and that remains the AEC’s position.

Only flat-earthers and rusted-on coal devotees could believe that mining and burning more coal for energy is a good idea. It would demand unrealistic levels of abatement in other sectors, notably transport and land management, if we were to meet even our weak Paris target.

As it stands the NEG is no solution to anything, but it’s all that’s on offer. We’re running out of time, and there seems a reasonable prospect that it can be tweaked and augmented to have an impact on emissions. On that basis, and only on that basis, it should go ahead.

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