The heat is on our climate committees

A study showing how far Australia has fallen behind in emissions abatement, and some telling shots from Ross Garnaut, make for an interesting year for our climate committees. [26 October 2010 | Peter Boyer]

Julia Gillard and her multi-party climate committee are under pressure — and it’s not from Tony Abbott and his anti-great big tax supporters, who’ve chosen to pitch camp outside the committee tent.

Information from entirely different quarters is promising to make life very interesting indeed for the committee and its two major supporting groups announced last week — the business and non-government organisation “roundtables”.

Three weeks after the top-level political group and its advisers met for the first time, a comparison of climate policies among our major trading partners has raised the bar several notches for the effort to contain and reduce Australia’s still-rising greenhouse emissions.

The Sydney-based Climate Institute released the results of a global survey of climate policies undertaken on its behalf by a UK economic analyst, Vivid Economics. It’s not nice reading if you’re Australian.

The study assessed current incentives in Australia, China, Japan, South Korea, the United Kingdom and the United States to deploy clean technologies for electricity generation, measuring the effort made in each country as an equivalent price in dollars per tonne of carbon emitted. A similar report is part of the multi-party committee’s terms of reference.

The Climate Institute analysis found that while South Korea was at the bottom of the heap with an implied carbon price of $0.70 a tonne, Australia wasn’t far above it at $1.70. Japan’s current clean-energy incentives are almost double ours ($3.10), while in the United States they’re three times the Australian figure ($5.10).

Many Australians will be surprised to learn that China’s incentives to deploy clean energy add up to $14.20 a tonne, more than eight times what we offer here, while United Kingdom incentives are more than double again — about 17 times our offering at $29.30 a tonne.

The study shows that with industries opposing carbon pollution penalties continuing to prevail, Australia is now in an uncompetitive position to deal with any future global trend to cleaner economies. It suggests that we’ve been squandering the bonus we got from our “economic miracle”.

Another warning signal came from Melbourne’s Carbon Expo, a trade fair focusing on a low-carbon economy. In the conference’s closing plenary address, Professor Ross Garnaut advised that the international scene had changed markedly since the Australian government adopted his 5 per cent minimum 2020 carbon reduction target “in the absence of international agreement”.

“We haven’t got an international framework, but we don’t have an absence of agreement,” he said. He was shocked by Australians’ ignorance of progress in China and India to lower emissions: “It is as if a lead veil had been inserted around the brains of most Australians and made them impervious to information… about what is going on other countries.”

As economic adviser to Gillard’s top-level climate committee, Garnaut plans to update his 2008 economic review. Combined with the expressed concerns of the committee’s scientific adviser, Professor Will Steffen, and the Australian Greens’ prominence on the committee, this will put the Government under great pressure to raise its sights to a 10 per cent or even a 15 per cent target.

There are now many more players in the climate policy drama that will be played out in Canberra over the next year or so. Last week the Gillard government announced two new committees, or “roundtables”, to consult, examine and advise on how Australia should put a price on carbon.

Reporting on the formation of the business and non-government organisation roundtables was muted, but most or all of the 39 people named on these two groups will be fully aware of their unique opportunity to influence what promises to be the biggest economic restructure since World War II.

Each of the members (see list below) represents what the government sees as Australia’s most important non-government interests. It’s to be expected that the two major centres, Sydney and Melbourne, and to a lesser extent Canberra, will have the biggest representation.

That said, it’s surprising that so few members come from outside these three cities. Taking the two groups together, nearly half (19) are based in Melbourne, and another 15 in Sydney (or nearby Wollongong), while two are from Canberra. That leaves only three members from elsewhere: one each from Queensland, Western Australia and the Northern Territory.

Tasmania and South Australia missed out. We in Tasmania shouldn’t be too quick to protest; after all we have two Green Senators, Bob Brown and Christine Milne, in the top-level political group, and the interests represented are supposed to cover the nation. But the lack of geographic spread in the roundtable groups will be a limiting factor in their deliberations.

The involvement of the likes of scientist Tim Flannery and World Vision CEO Tim Costello will enliven the NGO group, but the business group has attracted most attention because it’s seen as the best indicator of success for a pricing scheme. Significantly, energy minister Martin Ferguson will have a seat at that table.

We’re in for an interesting year.

The Climate Change Roundtables

Business (co-chaired by Wayne Swan, Deputy Prime Minister and Treasurer, and Greg Combet, Minister for Climate Change and Energy Efficiency, with Martin Ferguson, Minister for Resources and Energy, as a member): Peter Anderson (Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, based in Melbourne); Maria Atkinson (Lend Lease, Sydney); Cameron Clyne (National Australia Bank, Melbourne); Hubie van Dalsen (BHP Billiton, Melbourne); Nathan Fabian (Investor Group, Sydney); Ben Fargher (National Farmers’ Federation, Canberra); Michael Fraser (AGL Energy, Sydney); Alan Joyce (Qantas, Sydney); Grant King (Origin Sydney); Michael Luscombe (Woolworths, Sydney); Paul O’Malley (BlueScope Steel, Wollongong); Brad Page (Energy Supply Association of Australia, Melbourne); David Peever (Rio Tinto, Melbourne); Ann Pickard (Shell, Melbourne); Heather Ridout (Australian Industry Group, Sydney); Maria Tarrant (Business Council of Australia, Melbourne); Don Voelte (Woodside, Perth); Matthew Warren (Clean Energy Council, Melbourne); Masahide (Max) Yasuda (Toyota, Melbourne).

Non-government organisations (co-chaired by Greg Combet, Minister for Climate Change and Energy Efficiency, and Tony Burke, Minister for Sustainability, with Joe Ludwig, Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, as a member): Snow Barlow (Australian Landcare Council, Melbourne); John Connor (The Climate Institute, Sydney); Tim Costello (World Vision, Melbourne); Tim Flannery (Coast and Climate Change Council, Sydney); Cassandra Goldie (Australian Council of Social Service, Sydney); Ann Harding (National Centre for Social and Economic Modelling, Canberra); Don Henry (Australian Conservation Foundation, Melbourne); Paul Howes (Australian Workers’ Union, Sydney); Ged Kearney (Australian Council of Trade Unions, Melbourne); Geoff Lake (Australian Local Government Association, Melbourne); Amanda McKenzie (Australian Youth Climate Coalition, Melbourne); Tony Maher (Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union, Sydney); Joe Morrison (North Australian Indigenous Land and Sea Management Alliance, Darwin); Tony Nicholson (Brotherhood of St Laurence, Melbourne); Dermot O’Gorman (World Wide Fund for Nature, Sydney); Dave Oliver (Australian Manufacturing Workers’ Union, Sydney); Linda Selvey (Greenpeace, Brisbane); Anna Skarbek (ClimateWorks Australia, Melbourne); John Thwaites (Monash Sustainability Institute, Melbourne); Peter Tighe (Electrical Trades Union, Melbourne).

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