Thursday, May 12, 2016

In Australia Climate Policy is a Political Football

Climate change has been a political football that has been a factor in Australian politics for some years now. In 2010, Labor party leader Julia Gillard was elected on a platform that included climate action. She subsequently lost the leadership of her party in 2013.

Thanks in part to factual misrepresentations about in the popular media,  Gillard's climate leadership was succeeded by the climate-denying-coal-loving leadership of Tony Abbott.

One of the first things that Abbot vowed to do was kill the nation's green dream. Under Abbott Australia put forward one of the weakest carbon reduction plans in the world. Abbott's Direct Action climate plan even gave big business a number of ways they could increase their emissions without incurring a penalty. The government provided $4.5 billion in subsidies to the coal industry.

The Australian government's policy position on climate change and fossil fuels has confounded many observers. One of those observers is former Vice President and climate leader Al Gore who said:
"There are many people around the world that think of Australia as a leader in the community of nations, it almost always has been, and some have been frankly scratching their heads of late, wondering what has been going on." 
Concern about Australia were evident at the COP21 climate talks in Paris last December when the Assie delegation was subjected to a barrage of questions. 

As Abbott's policy shifts dismantled national climate action plans massive bush fires burned that were attributed to climate change.  In 2014 more fires and more data corroborated the relationship between Australian bush fires and climate change and refuted the logic of the Australian government's policy stance.
To drive the point home there was also a massive coal fire in 2014

Support for fossil fuels and climate inaction are central tenants of modern day conservativism. Tony Abbott had a great deal in common with former Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper. The Australian and Canadian conservative governments will be regarded by history as climate failures at a time when the world most needed leadership.  These two leaders and their governments not only failed to reign in climate change causing emissions, they undermined progress at UN sponsored climate talks. Worst of all they worked to increase their nation's fossil fuel extraction.

Even though Canada now has progressive climate leadership, a decade of Harper's fossil fuel obsessed governance has compromised Canada's international reputation and the nation's economic well-being. Australia is in a similar position, and the nation has lost a lot of time moving in the wrong direction.

At the end of 2015 Malcolm Turnbull replaced Abbott as Prime Minister. Turnbull once called Abbott's position on climate change "bullshit". Turnbull has also been a vocal supporter of climate action including cap-and-trade. However, since becoming Prime Minister his position on climate action has softened.

Australia is a major contributor to climate change and the nation has one of the highest per capita emissions of CO2 in the world. Australia's inability to adhere to a sound climate policy is almost entirely due to those who seek to capitalize on the nation's vast coal reserves.

China is the primary market for this coal, however, Chinese demand may be drying up. China's growing climate commitments and widespread closures of coal powered plants is a further sign of the economic insanity of Australian government's commitment to coal. Despite the environmental impacts and the economic risks the country is moving ahead with massive coal development projects.

When it comes to the risk associated with stranded assets, Australia is the fourth most vulnerable nation in the world. The nation has over $100 billion of coal reserves at risk of being stranded.

Recent events, including the COP21 agreement and the death of the Great Barrier Reef have made climate action an issue for Australians. 

We know that it is possible for Australia to dump coal and embrace renewable energy, however, this will not happen in the absence of political leadership. Turnbull has promised to use his position to persuade Australians. However, it may take some time before the new Prime Minister can turn the ship around, if he is able to do so at all.   

He will have to convince Australians that this is about more than just having a place among responsible nations or even being good climate stewards. This is about making energy choices that will impact the economic and social well being of Australians for generations to come.

Related
Why Greens are Seeing Red in the 2013 Australian Elections
New Report on Extreme Weather in Australia
Sustainable Australia Report 2013
Australia's National Solar Schools
Clean Energy Week in Sydney Australia
Video: Putting a Price on Carbon in Australia

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