Monday, August 16, 2010

A foggy 2020 vision: The politics of climate change in Australia


That a Tory British daily could write seriously about something called Earth Overshoot Day is a measure of how far the climate debate has moved in the last 20 years in Europe. Without a murmur of criticism, The Telegraph has reported growing world population and increasing consumption was pushing the world ever deeper into ‘eco-debt’, quoting new statistics on global resources. From Earth Overshoot Day until the end of the year, we will meet our needs only by liquidating stocks and accumulating greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere. By mirthless coincidence, 2010's Earth Overshoot Day is this Saturday: the same day Australia goes to the polls to choose from mostly uninspiring policies to deal with the problem.

The Day is a creation of New Economics Foundation, a radical thinktank which aims to “construct a new economy centred on people and the environment”. With their funding from anonymous sources but the support of governments, they combine research, advocacy training and practical action. They say ecological overshoot is at the root of many of the most pressing environmental problems we face today: climate change, declining biodiversity, shrinking forests, fisheries collapse, and underlying many factors in the global food crisis.

Over the course of any given year, the Earth Overshoot project compares all the food, fuel and other resources consumed by humans against the ability of the biosphere to cope with the loss. Rather like a Doomsday clock they calculate the daily profit and loss to come up with the mathematical day of the year we will overspend our inheritance. Ten years ago NEF calculated we were already in trouble with our ecological freehold running out in November 2000. By 2008 Earth Overshoot Day was coming in on 23 August leaving roughly a hundred days on the wrong side of the ledger. When the clock was reset for this year’s experiment, it calculated an extra two days debt making payment due on 21 August.

Earth Overshoot Day is a bit gimmicky, not unlike the election it shares the day with. But its serious subject matter reminds us yet again of the large elephant in the room of Australian politics: the economic if not ecological catastrophe that will occur if the country does not soon move away from a carbon economy. Of the major parties only the Greens have anything approaching a comprehensive plan to achieve this massive task but they will likely attract only one vote in every ten cast at the ballot box across the country. Their policies of 40 percent reduction on 1990 levels by 2020 and zero emissions by 2050 remain unpalatable to the vast majority of voters.

The two major parties have far less grandiose targets. They are unwilling to advocate the difficult choices that might affect large sections of the population They are also hamstrung by State-based brands in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth who are too wedded to the wealth and jobs provided by existing massive fossil fuel industries. They also have to deal with powerful lobby groups from existing industries and a point-scoring media that promotes short-term consumer benefits over the country’s longer-term needs. Leading politicians fear raising a head above the parapet lest they be wedged by the combined weight of opposing parties, PR and the press.

The result is a collusion that promotes the status quo. In 2007 the Climate Institute measured Labor and Liberal policies in that year’s election. The Institute’s modelling showed that both parties have failed to propose a set of measurable policies that will halt the rise in pollution, let alone enact the substantial reductions required by 2020. It was impossible to judge what might happen after 2020 as neither side had a substantive policy in that area.

As depressing as this was, it is arguable things have gotten worse in the last three years. In 2007 both Rudd and Howard promised to bring in an ETS if elected. No such consensus exists in 2010. Labor’s policy on climate change is captured in Chapter 9 of their 2010 election platform. It acknowledges “climate change is the most dangerous long term threat to Australia's prosperity”. It commits Australia to anything from 5 percent to 25 percent reduction on 2000 emission levels depending on a “global agreement”. It has a target of 20 percent renewable energy by 2020 (a target introduced by the Howard Government in 2001).

But it still does not commit to any firm policies beyond ten years. Labor said it is committed to reducing Australia's carbon pollution by 60 per cent on year 2000 levels by 2050 but at this stage it has no idea how to get there.
It will create the Australian Centre for Renewable Energy, to support research development and demonstration of renewable technologies, and a Solar Flagships Program to create an additional 1000 mw of solar power generation capacity in Australia. But given Queensland alone has 9000mw of coal fired power capacity it does not seem anywhere near enough to deal with the size of the national problem.

“Labor recognises the science of climate change is continuing to evolve and a deeper National 2050 target may be necessary to act in concert with international effort to reduce carbon pollution,” their manifesto reads. This is another excuse for delay - the science is evolving but a clear and unambiguous pattern of gas warming is emerging. It still hangs on for a CPRS to provide an economic platform for climate change but it refuses to put a time when this legislation will be re-presented to parliament.

It was the last CPRS vote that proved the downfall of Liberal Party leader Malcolm Turnbull and put the “human weather vane” Tony Abbott in charge of the party’s climate policies. It was no accident that Turnbull was unseated on this matter. Though it is far from a majority view in the party room, Liberal has many high profile climate change doubters who think the whole science on global warming has been concocted by an international cabal with leftist leanings. These are people who see the direct challenge posed by climate change: Behaviour is needed if we are to address this and for those who do not want to change their behaviour than climate change has to be seen as a fraud.

This view is countered by realpolitik hardheads within the party who may hate the green movement but acknowledge there is a problem either real or perceived that needs to be addressed. The Liberal policy on the environment and climate change awkwardly straddles both of these views in its meaningless title “Direct Action Plan”. These plans, they say with reduce CO2 emissions by 5 per cent by 2020 based on 1990 levels without the need for the CPRS. They will establish an Emissions Reduction Fund to provide “incentives” for older power stations to reduce emission “in an orderly manner.” It may be orderly but it is slower than Labor’s as they only commit to a 15 percent Renewable Energy Target by 2020.

The Liberals are slightly more honest than Labor in admitting the size of the problem. They take great care to note the conservative responses of the Australian States and other parts of the world including Europe, the Americas and Asia. They also have a better list of practical measures than Labor. But there is one absolutely glaring omission. Nowhere does it say what needs to happen after 2020. It does not say if 5 percent reduction on 1990 is all that is needed nor does it have a back-up plan for the obvious likelihood that emissions will continue to increase in the next ten years. Tony Abbott’s party does not appear unduly worried when Earth Overshoot Day will fall in 2020. Here's hoping it doesn't coincide with an unusually early election date that year.

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