Australia plays catch-up on climate policy

Source: Climate Vulture

In their song Time, Pink Floyd sing: “Then one day you find that 10 years have got behind you / no one told you when to run / you missed the starting gun.” It might be said that the starting gun was fired by Ross Garnaut, who 10 years ago today delivered the Garnaut Climate Change Review for the Rudd government.

“The weight of scientific evidence tells us that Australians are facing risks of damaging climate change,” warned Professor Garnaut, the federal government’s climate change adviser. “The risk can be substantially reduced by strong, effective and early action by all major economies. Australia will need to play its full proportionate part in global action.”

So where are we now? Well, 16 of the 17 warmest years the planet has had have occurred in this century. And in Australia, a sorry political saga has played out. Energy policy has chewed up our prime ministers and spat them out. They at various times talked a grand game while acting meek; showed fatal indecision; played hardball politics. All were overwhelmed and all met the same fate.

While the past 10 years have seen much time and energy wasted by politicians, citizens have got on board, whether it be with “small” issues such as banning plastic straws and single-use bags, or installing solar panels. Professor Garnaut’s review was cautious on the price of solar panels, modelling a 3 per cent annual reduction in their cost. Instead, solar panels are 85 per cent cheaper than a decade ago.

But change cannot be driven solely from the bottom up. Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions have been trending higher for about four years. While Prime Minister Scott Morrison has boasted of Australia meeting its 2020 emissions reduction target “in a canter” (with the 2030 target looking good too), on Friday the Environment Department reported that Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions reached their highest levels on a quarterly basis since 2010, led by a surge in gas production.

Mr Morrison continues to ride Australia’s luck in getting a relatively lenient deal from the world community on emissions. He doesn’t need to bow to conservative commentators who want Australia to follow Donald Trump’s US and abandon the Paris climate change targets of reducing emissions by 26 per cent to 28 per cent on 2005 levels by 2030. But the Coalition government has anything but a coherent policy. The most significant recent period of reduction in Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions ended in 2014 with the carbon-price repeal. The government’s last big idea, the National Energy Guarantee (NEG), collapsed last month, taking Malcolm Turnbull’s prime ministership with it. Its failure to contain escalating power prices have inflicted pain on ordinary Australians.

Australians are understandably reluctant to talk about issues such as land-use when compatriots are suffering the drought. It is never a good look for the city to chip the bush. One consumes the food the other supplies. But there can be no end to tough conversations: not only about land use and the Murray-Darling, but about our preference for road over rail, and freeways over public transport. City dwellers need to look harder at their own (NIMBY) backyards: big cities are energy-efficient, and Sydney and Melbourne are by no means as densely populated as world cities their size. We need to talk about wind farms, and “sin taxes” on water wastage. And as the 2019 federal election looms, we must demand coherent policies from our aspiring leaders.

The election looms as a battle over which party offers the least internal dysfunction, a dismal repeat of the 2013’s passing of judgment on the Rudd-Gillard merry-go-round. It has to be more than that. A coherent power policy that reins in runaway bills while helping to save the planet should be the only game in town. As Professor Garnaut warned in 2008, there is no time to waste. Only less time. The starting gun has gone off.

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