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The Abbott ascendancy: Implications for international climate policy



10 September 2013 12:48

Fergus Green teaches Global Energy & Climate Policy at SOAS, University of London.

Prime Minister-elect Tony Abbott once famously described the science of climate change as 'absolute crap' and gave a 'pledge in blood' to repeal Australia's carbon pricing scheme if elected to government. On domestic climate policy, the stark difference between the Coalition and Labor was a central issue in the election campaign. But what does the election of the Abbott Government mean for international climate policy?

First, a major blow has been struck to the mainstream 'Treaties, Targets & Trading' paradigm of global climate policy. The grand vision at the heart of this paradigm is of (1) a global emissions trading scheme (ETS), enshrined within (2) an international treaty, predicated on (3) a regime of emissions reduction targets for each country that 'add up' to a global reduction in greenhouse gas concentrations sufficient to restrain global warming to within 'safe' levels.

As efforts towards a comprehensive global climate treaty have stalled in recent years, proponents of this paradigm, including the outgoing Labor Government, have sought to develop linkages among the patchwork of existing and proposed emissions trading schemes. The idea was that, by linking existing schemes, an international network of domestic schemes would emerge, approximating a global carbon market and proving the viability of global, market-based cooperation as a solution to climate change.

The Labor Government had commenced arrangements to link both the New Zealand ETS and the EU ETS to Australia's scheme upon commencement of Australia's floating price phase (set to occur on 1 July 2015 under the legislation as it stands).

The election of the Abbott Government is a major setback to this agenda. While the legislation underpinning the Australian scheme facilitates international linkages, the ability of Australian companies to surrender foreign units for compliance purposes depends on bilaterally coordinated administrative arrangements that are within the prerogative of the executive. Consequently, even if the Australian scheme is not repealed, the Abbott Government will be able to preclude international emissions trading with Europe and New Zealand by withdrawing from the processes to establish these administrative arrangements.

Moreover, the Coalition will inevitably refrain from developing linkages with the Californian ETS, the Korean ETS and the proposed Chinese ETS.

This discontinuity is likely to be damaging to Australia's relations with Europe and perhaps also with its putative Asia Pacific emissions trading partners. But more importantly, it will undermine the broader 'network linkage' strategy of mainstream climate policy proponents by removing a major node from their carbon market expansion plans. Moreover, in a field in which politicians lean heavily on examples of policy progress and regress in other countries, this Australian regression could buoy anti-climate mitigation forces in other countries and precipitate a wider retreat from emissions trading.

The Treaties, Targets and Trading paradigm is fundamentally flawed for reasons I have explained elsewhere. But the policies (principally, emissions trading) that embody it should be scrapped only if replaced with more effective ones. The Abbott Government's proposed alternative policy does not meet this crucial condition.

The election of the Abbott Government is also likely to have a small impact on the 'Treaties and Targets' components of the current paradigm. In principle, the Coalition has broadly endorsed the same multilateral climate commitments as its Labor predecessors, including a unilateral 2020 Australian emissions reduction target of 5% below 2000 levels, participation in a second Kyoto commitment period and support for a more comprehensive global climate mitigation deal. The Coalition also plans to use Australia's chairmanship of the G20 to advance negotiations among the US, EU, China and India towards a global deal.

But the Coalition's support for such international cooperation rings hollow. Its proposed 'direct action' policy — which entails paying polluters to reduce emissions voluntarily and paying landowners to store purportedly vast amounts of carbon in soils — has been universally condemned as ineffective and inefficient. Tony Abbott admitted last week that only the amounts the Coalition has promised to spend ($3 billion) would be committed to the scheme, whether or not the resulting emissions reductions achieve the 5% target.

If the Coalition ends up repealing the carbon pricing scheme and replacing it with 'Direct Action', no other country could plausibly perceive Australia's policy to be a serious emissions reduction measure. This lack of domestic climate policy credibility would severely undermine the new government's ability to lead international negotiations at a time when leadership is badly needed.

In sum, the election of the Abbott Government represents a significant step backwards for international climate cooperation.

But focusing on the contrast between Labor and the Coalition — between the mainstream international approach of the former and the regression of the latter — is somewhat distracting. Neither party is committed to ethically significant emissions reduction targets in Australia; neither is committed to a genuine economic and social transition away from a fossil-fuel-based economy to a renewable-energy-based one; and both favour the massive expansion of Australia's coal and gas exports, which are projected to increase Australia's already immense exported emissions by around 2.5 2.25 times by 2030.

What really matters internationally, then, is that X years of an Abbott Government means X years when Australia will not be providing the bold, visionary global leadership on climate mitigation of which we are eminently capable and that is urgently required if the world is to have a reasonable chance of avoiding catastrophic climate change. Plainly, the Coalition has no intention of providing this kind of leadership. But remember: neither did Labor.

Photo by Flickr user Monash University.

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