Glasgow Pact leaves us out in the cold

A dozen years ago, in that moment in history when then-prime minister Kevin Rudd and opposition leader Malcolm Turnbull were closing in on a carbon pricing agreement, I joined a team of climate action lobbyists in federal parliament.

In a few frantic hours we managed to meet independent, Labor and Greens MPs, but try as we might we couldn’t get an audience with a single MP in the Liberal-National opposition.

We knew that many on that side of politics disliked “green” groups, but their leader, like us, supported Rudd’s carbon pricing scheme. Then, a week or two later, the Liberals dumped Turnbull in favour of Tony Abbott, ending any prospect of bipartisan carbon policy.

The MPs we did see taught us another lesson. Leading up to the big Copenhagen summit, polls showed Australians supported the stronger targets we advocated, yet we were told that for every one of us visiting them in Canberra there were a dozen fossil fuel lobbyists arguing for weaker targets. Unlike us they were paid for their effort.

History records that Copenhagen collapsed into tears, chaos and vitriol, with the US and China blaming each other for the debacle.

Fast forward to 2021 and another historic moment. Like Canberra and Copenhagen, the Glasgow meeting crawled with fossil fuel lobbyists, keen to eke out a few more decades of business. In Australia’s large pavilion there, Santos had pride of place to show off its latest carbon capture and storage project at a South Australian gas hub.

Which says all that needs saying about our country’s position at Glasgow. Australia refused to sign up to a well-supported pledge to phase out coal-fired power. Then Energy Minister Angus Taylor, saying he doesn’t approve of targets for specific sectors, stopped Australia from joining over 100 other countries in signing the US-sponsored methane pledge.

Glasgow might have ended like Copenhagen, and many predicted it would, but instead it produced a smidgen of hope in a world desperate for good news. “Phasing down” coal isn’t the same as phasing it out, and current national pledges for 2030 will not get us close to the 1.5C warming threshold. But we’re moving in that direction. 

It was definitely not good news for the Morrison government. Making “phasing down” coal a global priority pulls the rug from under the Coalition’s persistent argument that coal is a big part of our future energy mix. And having to revisit our 2030 pledge next year will ensure the spotlight stays on Australia’s lack of commitment.

Back in 2002, when John Howard refused to ratify the Kyoto Protocol, climate change was widely seen as a second-order issue. An equally-recalcitrant George W. Bush, keen to have Howard’s support in the Middle East, ensured Australia would not be isolated or ridiculed. 

But 19 years later Europe and the UK are firmly against Scott Morrison’s stance, and Donald Trump’s defeat a year ago removed any possible US shield. In the global climate debate we’re exposed as never before, alongside countries with a big vested interest in fossil fuels, notably Russia and Saudi Arabia as exporters and India and China as consumers.

Australia has a clear moral obligation to play its part in the climate mitigation effort. Earlier in the UN’s history we would have done so without question, but no more. In refusing to update the target we set in 2015, we have acted against the spirit of the Paris Agreement.

Unlike a number of states including Tasmania, Australia has never legislated its emissions targets. With virtually unanimous global agreement that urgent action is essential, our country’s failure to lock its targets into law is a clear obstacle to an effective national response.

The government has access to top-notch economic planners but chose its own route to 2050 which Richard Denniss of the Australia Institute branded “economic science fiction”. The PM’s emissions reduction plan relies on speculative industries, unknown technologies and unmitigated coal and gas. And the efforts of others. He calls that “can-do capitalism”.

The government’s cavalier attitude to the 2050 target is negligence of the highest order. For many reasons, not least the damage done to our reputation as a good global citizen, we need sanctions to discourage such misbehaviour, just as we need stronger anti-corruption laws. 

Creating a framework for crimes against nature will be in the spotlight at Hobart’s RACT Hotel on Thursday at 5.30 pm, when former Greens leader Christine Milne launches a new book by a globally-recognised criminologist, Rob White. This is a debate whose time has come.

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Big money’s role in screwing the climate – and fixing it

In times of crisis, everyone’s a pragmatist. With the climate emergency steadily engulfing the world, it doesn’t matter what belief systems you bring to the table. It only matters that the deadly flow of carbon from the ground to the air is stopped.

In the lead-up to the COP26 climate summit the world scientific community, noting the rampant consumerism behind the threat to life systems, demanded global economic transformation. An important Glasgow sub-theme is capitalism – specifically the gung-ho form that has shaped today’s economies and turbocharged environmental degradation.

With time ticking away, governments are not responding quickly enough. The summit has sought to kick-start a rapid response, including a call for help from big capital. Having got rich on the back of screwing nature, helping in its rescue is the least the billionaires can do.

For its part, big capital is having to reinvent itself on the fly as the world at large awakens to the threat posed by humanity’s excesses. Warned by regulators, bankers and insurers of a material risk from climate change, an action alliance called The Investor Agenda has now attracted 733 of the world’s mega-rich representing about $A70 trillion in assets.

This is clearly not a trivial sum, but Scott Morrison is not for turning. At Glasgow the prime minister thumbed his nose at demands to do more, refusing to countenance phasing out coal and gas and ignoring potential penalties for exporters who ignore other countries’ carbon constraints.

Besides colossal tariffs on coal, a “carbon border adjustment mechanism” in train in Europe will impose lesser tariffs on our iron, steel, aluminium, grains, and meat and dairy products. The US and Canada have announced they are seriously considering similar tariffs. It’s a carbon tax by another name, except it will be imposed by foreign jurisdictions.

Australia rejected two Glasgow pledges – to stop using coal within two decades (we lined up with other coal producing countries including the US and China) and to stop public subsidies for fossil fuel projects unless national carbon pricing is in place. 

China already has a carbon price scheme and the US is contemplating one. The Coalition could opt to expand and enforce its own “safeguard mechanism”, but its long history of opposing carbon pricing says it won’t. So we’re more isolated than ever.

Measures like this are informing private capital around the world. Some large corporations relying on a long-term future for coal, oil and gas will fight them every step of the way. The Guardian’s Adam Morton reported last week that this will likely include secret legal actions seeking trillions of dollars in compensation from governments phasing out fossil fuels.

But the court of public opinion is the one that really matters. The mega-capitalists involved in The Investor Agenda are betting that the global public will continue to back strong action, and this will determine future policy. For that, while starting the process of re-shaping our economy, we will need venture capitalism to be heavily involved.

Firmly in this camp are Australians Mike Cannon-Brookes, creator of the software developer Atlassian and a campaigner for many years for renewable energy, and Andrew Forrest (“Twiggy” to his friends), founder of the mining company Fortescue.

Forrest is an improbable entrant into this space. Years ago he led the successful attack on Kevin Rudd’s proposal to tax miners’ super-profits (including his own), and has received hundreds of millions of dollars in government fossil fuel subsidies. But he says he’s now seen the light, indicated by an ambitious green energy agenda centred on hydrogen.

History offers plenty of instances of such people ultimately choosing to preserve their own wealth ahead of supporting the public good. There’s reason to be sceptical as to their longer-term commitment to humanity’s needs where this might compromise profit.

But right now, we need them. Democratic government is a cumbersome beast, essential to the success of the cause but by its nature prone to indecision and half-measures. In the handful of years left to get the country mobilised and fully behind reducing emissions, we need rapid and decisive actions, and for that, private capital is essential.

Discord over key elements supports the view of Swedish activist Greta Thunberg that the Glasgow meeting is a failure. But the girl who said panicking leaders would be a sign of progress should be pleased at the frenzy of activity around this massive gathering. 

Pledges already in place will make a difference; preliminary studies have even suggested they might keep warming below 2C. In any case it’s not over yet, and may yet deliver surprises. Fingers crossed.

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Leadership starts with listening

Parliamentary politics can be brutal. The moment non-government MPs seeking debate on their pet subject stand up to speak, it’s common practice for government MPs to walk out, returning only when called on to vote the motion down and end the debate. 

That’s what happened in the House of Representatives last Wednesday when NSW independent Zali Steggall sought approval to debate her climate change bills. Four short speeches later, with virtually no debate, her motion was rejected.

It’s clear the federal government doesn’t take climate change seriously, but hearing delegates to the UN climate summit in Glasgow describing his attitude as “appallingly irresponsible” and “rank cowardice”, prime minister Scott Morrison must now know the world is moving against him.

That includes the Business Council of Australia, which having noted investor pressure from abroad wants at least a 45 per cent emissions cut by 2030. The just-released UN Emissions Gap Report, showing current commitments putting the world on track to a horrendous 2.7C of warming, calls for bigger cuts still, twice the size of Australia’s target of 26 to 28 per cent below 2005 levels.

Steggall’s speech contrasted Canberra’s sketchy 129-page “Australian Way” plan, involving unproven – even unknown – technology, with that of the UK: 1,868 pages reviewed and approved by the UK treasury, describing new energy, transport, industrial and heating technologies, and pathways for every sector to 2037. The Coalition wasn’t listening.

At intervals you hear similar calls for action in parliaments around the country, including our own. Two months ago, when Greens leader Cassy O’Connor asked the Tasmanian parliament to declare a climate emergency, the Gutwein government absented itself from the debate and then voted it down, for no obvious reason.

But things are moving. The headline news out of the Tasmanian government last month was premier Peter Gutwein’s “bold plan to legislate a target of net zero emissions from 2030”. “From” is a departure from the conventional “by” applied to such pledges, for the simple reason that we’re already at net-zero, and we must now maintain that position.

Such a target puts our state ahead of the Australian pack, but there’s more to this than meets the eye. Tasmania hasn’t actually cut its emissions. They’re at net-zero only because growing forests have been taking carbon out of the air at a higher rate than normal.

Be that as it may, the legislation the premier refers to will be the real test. To achieve leadership we need to drive down emissions in all sectors, aside from land-use and forestry. That will not be achieved without guidance from a strong, purposeful climate act.

To get emissions down in transport, industry and agriculture and to phase out fossil fuel use we’ll need nearer-term targets for each sector and the ability to differentiate between each form of fossil fuel (oil, gas, coal), plus the resources to gather data and report on progress.

Getting good advice and being transparent are essential. We will need a new independent body that can advise government, parliament and the community, and mechanisms to ensure public participation and parliamentary oversight as climate policy is rolled out.

Starting 6 pm tomorrow at the Menzies Institute, 17 Liverpool Street, Hobart and via Zoom, Climate Tasmania and the Tasmanian Independent Science Council will host a public forum on Tasmanian climate policy and legislation.

Besides leading Tasmanian climate specialists, the forum panel will feature the director of the Australian National University’s Climate Institute and a vice-chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), Professor Mark Howden, appearing via video link. 

Most significantly, it will include Tasmania’s minister for climate change, Roger Jaensch. I’ve attended more of these forums than I can count, and since the Hodgman government came to power in 2014 I don’t remember seeing any relevant minister at any of them.

In Glasgow, Scott Morrison will be hearing from a host of world luminaries, leaders and experts, about why his “Australian way” doesn’t cut it. In Hobart Roger Jaensch will come away from his forum knowing that Tasmania’s future will be nothing like the smooth ride to net-zero the premier’s earlier statements have suggested.

Both men and their governments can choose to stick with old ways, but that would be a grave mistake. Normality and business-as-usual are for yesterday. We are in for a very different future, exciting in its own way and not without its rewards, but much tougher and more complicated than any government likes to imagine.

Partisan politics will never disappear, but it too must be consigned to a lesser role. The best thing governments can do is acknowledge that climate change is a job for everyone and that its deliberations must take everyone on board – all parties and MPs, all sectors, all communities.

And we are all learning, from the top down.

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