Australia takes the low road

Kevin Rudd’s promise of leadership on climate change is looking fraudulent in the wake of the pathetic emissions targets announced last week. [23 December 2008 | Peter Boyer]

In 2007 Kevin Rudd declared Australia would be a leader in the world’s battle to stop dangerous climate change. His government’s 2020 emissions targets announced last week are a capitulation to those who have always said that it’s all too hard.

What does leadership in the world community mean, if it doesn’t mean being out at the head of the pack, influencing others by example? It’s all very well to talk about being decisive and bold, but you don’t become these things by just uttering the words.

The Rudd government’s cautious interim emissions target condemns Australia to be a follower – never a leader – in the world’s battle to stop dangerous climate change. We’ll never be able to claim attention from others while we’re so patently avoiding any leading stance ourselves.

About the same time as Europe committed to cut emissions by 20 per cent by 2020, Australia has set a 2020 reduction target of between five and 15 per cent – more likely five than 15.

Applied world-wide, the science tells us that our government’s target would bring on dangerous climate change. If this is what Kevin Rudd calls leadership, we’re in trouble.

It would seem that when Mr Rudd talked about Australia’s ambitions last year he had little idea of the obstacles he would have to negotiate. Now that he’s more aware of some of these obstacles, it seems he’s unwilling to make the effort needed to get past them.

It’s true Australia has some big hurdles to negotiate. Since 1990, Australia’s carbon emissions have risen by at least 25 per cent, if you set aside some dodgy figures for land use change and forestry. Even with such figures included, we’ve managed to increase our emissions by about 10 per cent.

A big sticking point is the fact that by world standards, individual Australians are heavyweight carbon-emitters. On average, each Australian causes release to the atmosphere of around twice the amount of carbon of the average Briton, and nearly six times that of your average citizen of China.

Professor Ross Garnaut pointed out that from such a position, it’s a big turnaround to get emissions down at all – let alone to get them down by any meaningful amount. The Rudd government now knows that, but can’t find the courage to do what’s necessary for a full U-turn.

“We are not going to make promises that cannot be delivered,” declared Kevin Rudd when he launched his plan. Considering the near-certain outcome for us and our children if the world adopts Australia’s position, such words are pitifully inadequate.

Mr Rudd and Climate Change Minister Penny Wong should not take such criticism alone. Some in the corporate world – notably resource industries – have been campaigning incessantly for subsidies to allow them to continue what they’ve always done with no extra financial cost.

They’ve managed to convince the Australian government that several billion dollars of taxpayers’ money would be well-spent propping up industries that must with all possible speed change their ways or wind down their business, something they have surely known all along.

But we’re all culpable. It’s the responsibility of everyone to pick up their particular tab and start making the payments by reducing their impact on the planet and living more in tune with nature, rather than counter to it. This is no longer a green-fringe mantra, but a matter of survival.

Our responsibility doesn’t end there. Somehow we have to convince our political representatives that for Australia to lead, its own standards must be high and its actions decisive. Of course we must try to take others with us, but we must also be prepared to put our heads above the parapet.

The alterative is simply to wait for the end. Who wants that?

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