The pressure is mounting on Abbott to deliver on climate

Matt McDonald, The University of Queensland

International and domestic forces appear to be conspiring to significantly ratchet up the pressure on Prime Minster Tony Abbott’s climate policy.

Growing concerns about a global decline in demand for coal and the spectre of stranded fossil fuel assets featured in this week’s ABC Four Corners program. This program, noting the growing influence of the divestment movement on Australian climate debate, painted Australia’s investment in fossil-fuel-driven exports as misguided, even financially irresponsible.

Predictably, the Minerals Council of Australia and Newscorp have lined up to pillory the national broadcaster over the program’s claims. But there is little doubt that the economic case for coal mining and its expansion is becoming less compelling.

Certainly, this case will take another large hit if this year’s Paris climate talks lead to agreement on global emissions reductions, and help for developing states to transition to low-carbon economies.

More concerning still for the prime minister is that public concern about climate change continues to grow. The Lowy Institute’s annual survey, released this week, suggests that a majority now views climate change as a “serious and pressing problem”, while also identifying support for renewable energy and strong Government action on climate change.

Australia’s climate commitments

Australia is currently committed to a 5% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2020, relative to 2000 levels – a comparatively small target for a developed state with among the highest per capita emissions in the world.

Yet there are significant doubts about whether Australia is capable of achieving even that modest goal, particularly through the economic incentives model of Direct Action. The recently announced reduction in Australia’s Renewable Energy Target, currently making its way through the Senate, will not make this easier.

Australia will soon announce its “intended nationally determined contribution” (INDC) to global greenhouse gas emissions reductions after 2020, in advance of crucial climate talks in Paris in December.

At the international level, and even before Australia’s INDC announcement, pressure on the Government is already growing.

The international dimension

As momentum towards talks in Paris builds, Australia was singled out as a climate free-rider by an international panel led by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan. Other countries also raised a series of difficult questions about Australia’s ambitions and the capacity to achieve these through existing policy.

Last week, the G7 announced its intention to phase out fossil fuels by the end of the century. This not only provided further momentum for climate action, it also involved railroading Canada: a traditional ally of Australia in UN climate talks.

With optimism slowly building that the Paris summit in December will avoid the same problems as Copenhagen in 2009, international pressure threatens to isolate the Australian government.

Even if governments are ambivalent about their international reputation, this can be dangerous at the domestic level. In the mid-2000s, the entry into force of the Kyoto Protocol and growing international climate concern was central to the pressure that began to build on John Howard to act on climate change. It was arguably also central to his electoral defeat in 2007.

Another climate victim?

Prime Minister Abbott came to lead the opposition promising to challenge the Labor government’s commitment to carbon pricing, and won the 2013 election largely through casting it as a referendum on the carbon tax.

A year after coming into force, public attitudes to the carbon tax had softened and the tax itself was serving to drive down emissions. Meanwhile, experts were lining up to question the effectiveness and costs of Direct Action.

The more recent growth in public concern and international momentum on climate action suggests climate policy risks shifting from being an area of strength for the coalition to an Achilles heel.

For a government already struggling in opinion polls, these winds of change significantly raise the stakes for Australia’s target announcement. A limited target in the face of growing domestic and international concern could see pressure mount on Australia from both beyond and within.

And these developments raise questions about whether climate change could claim yet another Australian political leader.

The Conversation

Matt McDonald is Associate Professor of International Relations at The University of Queensland.

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We can quibble over timescales, but real climate progress is afoot

John Quiggin, The University of Queensland

The recent commitments by the leaders of G7 nations to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide to 40-70% below current levels by 2050, and to eliminate the use of fossil fuels altogether by 2100, have raised several questions.

Are these objectives feasible? Are they consistent with national commitments? Are they sufficient to stabilise the global climate without dangerous rates of warming? And are they anything new?

The first question is the easiest. We already have the technology we need to phase out most of the significant uses of fossil fuels, without a substantial impact on living standards, or even on the rate at which living standards are improving. Coal-fired and gas-fired electricity generation can be replaced by a combination of renewables and storage technologies, with “baseload” options like nuclear and geothermal as a backup if needed.

Electric cars, and of course trains, are already available, and are well suited to the use of renewable energy sources for recharging. Some new technologies are needed in areas like new steel production and air transport, but these challenges should be solvable in the coming decades.

In broad terms, the commitments are consistent with an emissions trajectory in which greenhouse gas concentrations are stabilized at around 450 parts per million. That requires that global emissions should peak by the mid-2020s, and decline to around 50% of their current levels by 2050.

In the second half of the century, emissions need to be reduced to a level at which they are more than offset by reafforestation and other sinks – so-called “net negative” emissions.

New news?

This brings us to the final question – the issue of whether the pledges made by rich nations in the past week are new or not. The answer is that while the idea is certainly not new, what is novel is the fact that it is now receiving backing from those with real power and influence.

It’s worth remembering the reaction to Bob Brown’s suggestion, back in 2007, that Australia needed to long-term plan to phase out coal exports. Both John Howard and Kevin Rudd ridiculed the idea, arguing on the contrary that “coal is part of Australia’s long-term future”.

Even the famous Stern Review, which radically changed the terms of debate when it was released by UK climate economist Nicholas Stern in 2006, relied heavily on the existing assumption that carbon capture and storage (CCS) would allow the continued use of fossil fuels, particularly coal. By contrast, the G7 commitment doesn’t even mention CCS, although it is not explicitly ruled out either.

Of course, 2100 is further away than the phrase “long-term” might normally imply. But if fossil fuels are to be phased out, it is clear that the use of coal will end long before that of gas and oil. The export trade, supplying demand that can’t be met by domestic production in countries like China and India, will end long before that. A realistic trajectory, consistent with the G7’s commitments, implies that Australia’s exports will have to peak in the relatively near future, and then decline to zero within a few decades at the most.

Putting hard targets on the table

How does this relate to the crucial climate negotiations later this year in Paris, which will hopefully deliver an international emissions-reducion agreement covering the next 5-15 years? The G7 undoubtedly delivered a boost to the preliminary talks in Bonn, aimed at paving the way for a Paris deal.

As many observers have pointed out, the national commitments made so far add up to a lot less, in the way of emissions reductions, than the internationally agreed targets would require. However, to a large extent, this commentary misses the point.

The whole idea of globally agreed targets is to raise the bar for more specific national commitments. If the national commitments were already sufficient, there would be no need for global targets.

In this context, the recent announcements may be seen as logical implications of the previously agreed limit of 2C warming. This might seem to render them redundant. But in political and diplomatic contexts, it is one thing to announce a policy objective, and quite another to accept its logical implications.

By spelling out the fact that the target requires deep cuts in emissions by the middle of the century, and the complete phase-out of fossil fuels by the end of it, the G7 leaders have taken another, small step towards saving the planet.

The Conversation

John Quiggin is Professor, School of Economics at The University of Queensland.

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