Australia’s leader sets his sights low in opening conference gambit

Clive Hamilton

When newly minted Prime Minister Kevin Rudd rose to speak at COP13 in Bali in 2007 and announced that Australia would ratify the Kyoto Protocol, he received a standing ovation from the world community. After years of pariah status under John Howard’s government, Rudd was the beaming recipient of a wave of international love.

Today, Australia’s current leader Malcolm Turnbull arrived at COP21 in Paris in a similar situation, with Australia welcomed back into the fold after a two-year retreat to the dark ages. Yet when he rose to address the global multitude he had nothing to announce. Unlike Rudd, he did not become prime minister by promising to overturn a troglodytic climate policy; he became prime minister by promising to keep one.

Yet surrounded by global leaders in the mood for action, the external pressure on Turnbull to show his good faith is immense. And if he’s still the man who once said he would not lead a Liberal Party that was not committed to tackling climate change, then the internal pressure to be that man again will reach a peak this week.

So what could he tell the world? After the usual hype about the innovative and creative species, and with “faith in humanity’s genius for invention”, he repeated the claims that Australia would halve its per-capita emissions by 2030 and “meet and beat” its 2020 target (a 5% emissions reduction relative to 2000 levels), which in the scheme of things is hardly impressive.

What matters for the climate is how many tonnes we actually stop putting into the atmosphere, and these numbers are aimed at obscuring that truth.

Turnbull’s specific promises did not amount to much. He committed Australia to ratifying the Kyoto Protocol’s second commitment period – no surprise there.

He promised that Australia would join a commitment by rich countries to double clean energy investment around the world, without saying how much it would actually contribute.

And he committed Australia to spend A$1 billion over the next five years to help Pacific nations to defend against the effects of climate change. But it’s the old trick: the funds will come out of the existing aid budget, so will be taken away from other development projects. At this rate, Australia’s entire aid budget will soon be devoted to climate adaptation projects.

In short, Turnbull said nothing that might upset the deniers and sceptics on his backbench, they who held his arm while he signed the piece of paper saying he would not change Tony Abbott’s climate policy.

Those who want to see Australia take a firm stance on climate are waiting for Turnbull to prove himself. Most are willing to give him time to accumulate the political capital to overrule the sceptics.

But the signs are less than encouraging. When he dismissed as “heroic” Labor’s new target of a 45% reduction in emissions by 2030 – the minimum calculated by the Climate Change Authority if Australia is serious about limiting warming to 2℃ – it perhaps indicated that he plans to be nobody’s climate change hero.

The Conversation

Clive Hamilton, Professor of Public Ethics, Centre For Applied Philosophy & Public Ethics (CAPPE)

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Take no prisoners: the Paris climate talks need to move beyond ‘fairness’

Luke Kemp, Australian National University

For years now the climate talks have revolved around discussions who should bear the burden of cutting emissions, particularly between developed and developing nations. Much of Paris climate summit will be focused on this notion of equity and how to ensure that each country does its their fair share in the fight against climate change.

Developed countries (known as “Annex 1” in the United Nations’ lingo) now typically have falling emissions, but are responsible for the majority of historical emissions. Developing nations (known as “non-Annex”) often have increasing emissions, but are responsible for far fewer historical emissions.

Based on this, developing countries have argued strongly for differentiation. For them this involves developed countries taking the lead on reducing emissions and providing finance and assistance for developing countries undertaking a low-carbon transformation. Developed countries argue that equity means all countries taking action and adopting targets together.

Most of the national pledges that have been submitted for the summit make some mention of why the pledge is “fair” or equitable. Even Oxfam has been in on the action releasing a Fair Shares equity review of national climate pledges.

But this concept of a fair share is a large reason why Paris is at risk of failing to deliver a worthwhile deal. We will not solve climate change until we stop seeing emissions reductions as a burden to be equally shared.

The burden of climate action?

The way we talk about issues creates a frame in our minds. It bundles up different ideas to create a shared perspective.

For climate change, talk of equity has inevitably framed emissions reductions as a burden which needs to be “fairly distributed”, or as a penalty to atone for past sins.

Nations also talk of “capacity”, or the ability to reduce emissions and adapt to climate change. This of course depends on the state’s economy and politics. But it implies that reducing emissions comes at a high cost and is only worth undertaking if the right capacity is in place.

If there is one way to ensure that countries don’t act it is to frame mitigation as a burden. Luckily this just simply isn’t true. Reducing emissions, and mitigating climate change, is not a burden; it is one of our greatest opportunities.

The benefits of climate action

The economics of climate change has been slowly moving away from emphasising the costs towards recognising the benefits. This is not surprising given the history of environmental regulation.

Decreasing ozone-depleting substances was originally forecast by industry to have catastrophic economic costs. It ended up being extremely cheap.

Industry initially complained of the potential costs of the Clean Air Act in the United States. But the US Environmental Protection Agency has estimated that the act saved the US economy US$2 trillion in avoided health and productivity losses by 2020. The estimated costs were just US$65 billion. The benefits were 30 times larger than the expected costs.

The same kinds of benefits are on offer when switching from fossil fuels to renewable energy. One US study calculated the health costs of coal-powered electricity to be 0.8-5.6 times greater than the value added to the US economy. Earlier this year the IMF estimated that when accounting for wider costs such as health, fossil fuels are subsidised globally by more than US$5 trillion per year. So even without accounting for climate change, in most cases fossil fuels cost more than they’re worth.

Renewable energy and climate mitigation has the edge over fossil fuels in most wider analyses.

The New Climate Economy Report provides an overview of compelling studies and examples showing why mitigating climate change would be good for economic growth and general human well-being.

Importantly mitigation is already cheap and getting cheaper every year. A report by Frank Jotzo and myself earlier this year showed how the different estimates of the cost of large emissions reductions in Australia range from 0.1-0.21% of annual GDP growth. Not exactly a big hit to the economy. And these are all still narrow analyses that don’t consider all of the co-benefits of mitigation.

Emissions reductions are not a burden to be handed out equally between countries. It is an opportunity that countries should be pursuing with or without an international deal. Talk of avoiding catastrophic climate change just strengthens an energy transformation which already makes economic and social sense.

Breaking out of the prisoner’s dilemma

Climate change has typically been seen as a prisoner’s dilemma: a game where two rationally behaving actors will avoid cooperation and produce an outcome which is not in their collective interests.

Climate change has been viewed as a prisoner’s dilemma because each country thinks that climate action benefits everyone, but costs the individual country. So countries push for everyone to participate in negotiations to share this cost. It is particularly clear in Paris where there have been repeated calls for an agreement that is “applicable to all” and excludes no-one.

But this is not true, and many countries are beginning to realise this.

Looking around the world, the greatest action being taken against climate change is not about altruism or in the name of equity. They are being done for economic gain and to create better lives for the public.

China is installing vast renewable energy capacity and moving towards limiting coal consumption due to concerns over air pollution, energy security benefits and to secure a head-start in the booming renewable energy market. Germany is undertaking its famed “Energiewende” in order to secure a market advantage in renewable energy and kick-start its economy.

Countries are taking action not for equity or morality, but for their own national interest.

Realising the benefits of mitigation changes the game of negotiations. No longer would we focus on getting everyone on board and distributing “fair-shares”. Instead the aim would be to find ways to maximise collective benefits and opportunities.

Of course least developed countries should receive financial and technological aid. But that is because assistance should be given for any kind of development, not because a low carbon transformation is prohibitively expensive. Fairness does become a bigger issue when talking about other issues such as adapting to climate change impacts, but it shouldn’t be the main focus for reducing emissions.

Climate change is not a prisoner’s dilemma. It is not about equitably sharing a burden. That is a myth. There really is no dilemma when climate action has so many benefits.

The Conversation

Luke Kemp, Lecturer and PhD Candidate in International Relations and Environmental Policy, Australian National University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Is this the moment that climate politics and public opinion finally match up?

Matt McDonald, The University of Queensland

More than 60% of Australians support strong action on climate change, according to a survey by the Lowy Institute ahead of the Paris climate summit.

With opposition leader Bill Shorten having added his voice to those calling for deeper cuts than Australia’s current target, the government could pledge stronger action in Paris without significant political damage at home.

The poll underlines the continuing upward trend in public concern about climate change, which has been evident since 2012. That year marked a low point in public concern, corresponding with the entry into force of Australia’s “carbon tax”.

A contrary bunch

But over the past decade, another trend has been evident in public attitudes towards climate change in Australia: namely, that public support for strong climate action has typically been inversely related to the position of the federal government of the day.

In other words, Australians seem less likely to support climate action when governments outline a commitment to strong action, and more likely to support it when when Governments appear reluctant to take the issue seriously.

The Lowy Institute’s annual survey of Australian attitudes to the world broadly illustrates this trend. Since 2006, it has presented Australians with a choice of phrases to sum up their attitudes to climate action. Here are the phrases, followed by a graph of the responses:

Global warming is a serious and pressing problem. We should begin taking steps now even if this involves significant costs

The problem of global warming should be addressed, but its effects are gradual, so we can deal with the problem gradually by taking steps that are low in cost

Until we are sure that global warming is really a problem, we should not take any steps that would have economic costs

When it was first put to Australians in 2006, a large majority (68%) agreed with the sentiment that global warming is a serious and pressing problem. At the time, the then prime minister John Howard was maintaining the position that Australia would not ratify the Kyoto Protocol, which had come into force the previous year. He was promoting coal exports as a driver of Australian economic growth, and had reduced government funding for renewable energy and climate science.

By 2008, after what some described as the world’s first climate election, support for strong action on climate change was beginning to fall away. As the new prime minister Kevin Rudd outlined his intent to act on the “great moral challenge” of climate change, Australian support for action waned. By the following year it had dipped to less than 50%, and Rudd’s commitment to an emissions trading scheme became a political liability.

This trend continued under Julia Gillard’s minority government, with support for climate action reaching a low point of 36% in 2012. It was then that the carbon tax – Australia’s most significant climate legislation – entered into force, amid large-scale protests.

The carbon tax backlash was a key factor in delivering the next prime minister, Tony Abbott, into office. But no sooner did he get there than the worm again began to turn. Support for action grew amid concerns among Australians that Abbott had not put his days of embracing climate denial behind him.

Making sense of this trend

The story is, of course, more complex than Australians simply being contrary and tiring quickly of their political leaders. Australia’s high point of public support for strong climate action in 2006-07 coincided with a global high watermark of concern. This was linked to the entry into force of the Kyoto Protocol in 2005, followed in 2006 by the Stern Review and the release of Al Gore’s documentary An Inconvenient Truth, and in 2007 by a landmark IPCC report on climate science.

Similarly, the erosion of Australian public support for climate action in 2008-09 coincided with international trends, driven in particular by the global financial crisis. This created concerns that climate action might worsen the economic hit for countries like Australia – a key element of Abbott’s campaign against carbon pricing.

Momentum building again?

But significantly, in the lead-up to the Paris summit, the role of international cooperation is also potentially important. Australia’s exclusion from the Kyoto Protocol from 2005 helped build support for climate action, while the collapse of talks in Copenhagen undermined Rudd’s attempts to build support for his emissions trading policy.

This suggests that Paris has a role to play in influencing Australian climate policy, and potentially in building a case for a more fundamental and long-term policy response than the current government’s Direct Action plan. If agreement is forthcoming, momentum may well build for strong climate action once again.

Few issues in Australia have been as politicised as climate change, and research tells us that the position of political leaders influences the attitudes of their supporters. Certainly, the significant political mobilisation in favour of climate action by Rudd in 2006-07, and against it by Abbott in 2009-13, affected public opinion across the country.

But if Paris is a success, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull will have an opportunity to make a case for strong action on climate change, and potentially to draw on public support to build the sort of bipartisan response to climate change that he sought when he was opposition leader in 2008-09. The greatest obstacle to such an outcome in this case, however, may not be the opposition – it may be members of his own government.

The Conversation

Matt McDonald, Associate Professor of International Relations, The University of Queensland

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.