After Copenhagen, where to now for Australian climate policy?

In the wake of Copenhagen’s failure to reach agreement on how to curb rising greenhouse emissions, Australian climate policy is on a knife-edge. [29 December 2009 | Peter Boyer]

Copenhagen has opened up a Pandora’s Box of possibilities for Australia’s political leaders. The summit’s disappointing conclusion may lead to some positive policy opportunities, but there are disturbing indicators pointing in the opposite direction.

For all people who wanted real action to reduce emissions, even the most hard-bitten pessimists, the failure to achieve support for any binding agreement was a tough blow. We should have known that a binding treaty was too much to expect, but that doesn’t lessen the pain.

As the Copenhagen meeting slid into disarray, the pain was real, and sincerely felt. Even Tony Abbott was moved to declare his disappointment at the outcome, “because a lot of hopes had been invested in Copenhagen”.

I say “even Tony Abbott” because the Opposition Leader not been a supporter of multilateral global action on climate, just as he has questioned whether we need to do anything at all. His policy, much like John Howard’s, has always been to wait and see what other countries do.

It hardly needs saying that this is a recipe for doing nothing, anywhere (which may be what he intended all along). If all countries adopt Mr Abbott’s position there will be no prospect of any agreement to curb carbon emissions. China will refuse to act ahead of the United States, which will refuse to act ahead of China. India and Brazil, two rising stars in emissions rankings, will do the same, and so on.

Utter stalemate, which is pretty much what we got in Copenhagen. Yet multilateral action, almost certainly involving the United Nations, is really all we have going for us if we’re ever to turn around the steeply rising global emissions trajectory.

In any case, the suggestion of critics that the Rudd government’s bill somehow put Australia right out on the leading edge of world climate action is ludicrous. Emissions trading is an old idea, starting in the United States in 1990, and over 30 countries around the world have already adopted it as a tool for dealing with climate change.

There’s no doubt that Kevin Rudd was hamstrung at Copenhagen because of the defeat of his emissions trading bill. This complex, heavily compromised legislation will in turn be less effective in the absence of a multilateral agreement, and any new legislation presented in February may have to change to accommodate this.

Australia’s weakened position may well have been one of the straws that broke the back of Copenhagen. True, China and the United States were much bigger players, but the resolve of many wavering smaller states may have been strengthened by an Australian delegation armed with an important addition to the global emissions reduction armoury.

There are two counter-arguments to this. The first is that while we need emissions trading to put a cost on carbon pollution, the Rudd government’s bill was rendered less effective as a result of negotiations with the Coalition. The second is that in the wake of Copenhagen emissions trading is a dead duck which Australia is better off for having rejected.

The Greens and Senator Nick Xenophon have a point when they say the bill financially benefits major polluters without rewarding individual effort, but that doesn’t mean it should be rejected outright. Its reintroduction may address some of these concerns — we’ll have to wait and see — but that could involve a cost to business, something the Rudd government will want to avoid.

As for reports of the demise of emissions trading, these are, as they say, greatly exaggerated. We need a price signal reflecting the environmental damage caused by carbon pollution. A carbon tax is an alternative, but the Opposition’s “great big tax” campaign has killed that option for Australia.

If we rule out either of these two measures, we’re left with pretty much what Tony Abbott must now consider. We could, for instance, regulate for more fuel-efficient cars or more energy-efficient houses and factories and offices or greater deployment of solar and wind generators or a shift to nuclear power or schemes to offset emissions by planting trees.

But the numerous alternatives to emissions trading may well add up to something even more complex. Many economists, including Federal Treasury modellers, have concluded that such options will involve greater regulation and eventually prove more expensive, adding an ironic twist to the “great big tax” argument.

There’s another possibility in the wake of Copenhagen, which is that the world’s political leaders will decide it’s all too hard. If the recent trend in the Liberal Party is any guide, this is not something we should dismiss lightly. Denial of man-made climate change is alive and kicking. Watch this space.

• Applications are now being accepted for the Tasmanian government’s “Earn Your Stars” micro-grants program, aiming to help communities implement local solutions to the challenges of climate change. Eligible community groups can apply for grants of up to $3000 each, for projects that give people the tools, skills or knowledge to reduce their carbon emissions and conserve energy. For more information, go to the Tasmanian Climate Change Office website.

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