Time for a reality check on climate change collaboration

In suggesting that world is not acting on climate change, and the United States’ new pollution-cutting regulations are akin to his own ‘direct action’ strategy, Prime Minister Tony Abbott is having a lend of the Australian people.


When he met with President Obama last week, it was not exactly a meeting of the minds. One country, in the face of gridlocked parliament, is pressing ahead with vital regulations that can cut pollution in a very real way. The other has already implemented a market-based pollution cutting tool that this working a treat, but is now trying to kill it.

While the Prime Minister continues to say he takes global warming seriously, at the same time he is attempting to build a coalition of the unwilling with Canada to scuttle global action to cut pollution.

The idea that Australia is somehow acting ahead of the rest of the world is laughable.

A reality check is needed.

President Obama’s proposal is to use America’s ‘Clean Air Act’ to empower the US Environmental Protection Agency to force coal-powered energy generators to cut their pollution levels by 30 per cent by 2030.

“That’s like canceling out annual carbon pollution from two thirds of all cars and trucks in America,” the EPA’s Gina McCarthy said when launching the initiative.

In contrast, Prime Minister Abbott’s local alternative, ‘direct action’, is effectively a handout program that invites companies to volunteer to cut pollution levels by a mere five per cent by 2020 from where they were in 2000, which it likely can’t achieve anyway.

This Australian plan merely hands taxpayer money over to polluters who volunteer to cut their emissions. The other (the US model) places actual limits on how much pollution coal-fired power plants may emit. It’s difficult to imagine many of our dirtiest industries simply acquiescing to cut their pollution for the lowest price when the government asks them politely to do so.

So it is somewhat disingenuous for Mr Abbott to suggest the US scheme is somehow similar to ‘direct action’.

What the US is proposing is nothing like what he is proposing to Australia. If the Prime Minister does think President Obama is on the right track, that directly regulating the pollution levels of our dirtiest industries is the way to go, that is something we could get behind.

If they’re determined to scrap the carbon price, then let’s regulate! Let’s place limits on the pollution dirty coal plants are allowed to pump out. Let’s change building codes to ensure proper energy efficiency. Let’s enforce stronger standards on car exhaust.

But if we are not going to do that, then let’s keep a price on pollution – the market mechanism that a pro-market party like the Liberals ought to be embracing. That is a question that our new senate will have to address in under a month.

In the meantime, we’re moving backwards on global warming. In the recent Climate Change Performance Index, Australia came 57th out of 61 developed nations, in taking steps to prevent global warming, behind the likes of Russia, Turkey, Algeria and Ukraine. The countries we finished ahead of? Iran, Saudi Arabia, Kazakhstan and … Canada.

The idea that Australia is somehow acting ahead of the rest of the world is laughable.

We need to ask ourselves serious questions about what our role is going to be in tackling global warming. When the world still had the opportunity to tackle climate change, what was Australia doing?  Do we wish to be remembered as a nation that dug things up and sold them to be burned, while blocking global action on global warming? Or do we want to be a nation that can look back with pride on the steps we took?

Why is the Prime Minister jeopardising our health and safety like this? Has he already forgotten the bushfires in Sydney last year (autumn last year, moreover)? Or the heatwave we all sweltered through? Why is he ignoring that there are more jobs in clean energy than coal?

Just as the rest of the world is getting into gear, Australia and its attempted coalition of the unwilling is standing as a barrier to genuine cooperation. This won’t be good for us when the real decisions are made at the next round of global climate talks in Paris next year.  

It’s as the old saying goes; if you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu. Well, Australia’s at ‘a’ table, only it’s the wrong one.

Victoria McKenzie-McHarg is program manager of the Australian Conservation Foundation’s climate change campaign.