Sunday, November 15, 2009

Australia’s Climate Countdown to Copenhagen

With just over three weeks till key climate talks in Copenhagen, there is little optimism that a binding agreement will be reached.

In Australia, Kevin Rudd’s Labor government has positioned itself uncomfortably in the middle of the national debate. Many of its supporters feel let down by what they see as weak 5 – 25 percent carbon emission cut targets and an Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) that rewards big polluters. Yet Big Business, especially the energy sector, is arguing for more concessions.

Meanwhile a small but vocal and influential media minority continue to question global warming and the role of greenhouse gases. For some commentators, it’s all part of a conspiracy to advance global government.

Party Politics

The politics are messy to say the least. Negotiations are taking place with the Liberal Party opposition over amendments to the ETS legislation, which was originally defeated in the Senate in August. Their coalition partners, the National Party, are implacably opposed to the bill.

Opposition leader Malcolm Turnbull is struggling to unite his own Liberal parliamentarians, a difficult task considering the party claims a significant number of climate sceptics and deniers in their ranks. His proposed amendments to the ETS bill are supposed to be about “jobs, jobs, jobs,” but he really wants to see some kind of ETS for two main reasons.

Firstly he accepts the science and has a personal commitment to fighting global warming. Secondly he fears a rout at a climate change election. Some of his own leadership team such as Senator Nick Minchin are considering having a bet each way: support the amendments and vote against the amended bill. The Nationals intend doing both.

The unknown element in the government’s compromise strategy to pass the legislation is much how further they are prepared to water down their scheme. In doing so they risk completely alienating many of their voters.

The Greens have been excluded from real talks because of their unwavering commitment to 40 percent emissions cuts. Even if a deal could be hammered out with them it is unlikely to get the support of the two independents in the Senate.

PM Kevin Rudd is using the negotiations to keep several balls in the air:


A three-year electoral cycle means continuous campaigning. Cynics argue that his tactics are more concerned with short-term political advantage than long-term planning.

The Hostile Senate

The Kyoto Protocol finishes in 2012. Its replacement is supposed to hammered out at COP15. To have a real voice there, Rudd wants to establish some concrete climate change credentials through legislation but the hostile Senate stands in the way where the Greens and two independents hold the balance of power.

One solution is a double dissolution election if the ETS bill is rejected a second time. The bill could then be passed by a joint sitting of the House of Representatives and the Senate.

Current opinion polls suggest that Labor would win well however, the election might be closer than predicted. There is the potential for the climate spoilers to use the basest tactics such as appeals to fear, ignorance and the tried and true hip-pocket nerve. In addition early elections have misfired in recent history. An even more hostile Senate could well result, even if the government is re-elected.

The Planet

Kevin Rudd and the Labor Party are committed to climate action. To have any impact on the future of the planet the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme needs to have both popular support and some guts, such as targets of 25 – 40 percent or 350 ppm.

The Economy

Jobs and economic growth are key Rudd priorities. Moreover, his own party is committed to protecting the coal industry and its unionised workforce. Clean coal research has received generous support.

The Environmental Lobbies

Australian Environmental groups have been divided in their response to the government’s target range increase to 25 percent in the event of a global agreement. The Australian Conservation Foundation’s latest Progress Report, Climate Change – the road to Copenhagen, is generally positive over the move. However Greenpeace Australia has a very different view stating in its own report Rudd’s weak targets undermine progress at UN that: “Unless countries like Australia put stronger targets on the table, it is difficult to see how we are going to get anything other than empty rhetoric from Copenhagen.”

The International Political Climate

The international scene is even more troubled. Barack Obama’s attempt to get cap and trade legislation is just one of a list of challenges along with health reform, the economy, Afghanistan and Iraq. The recent Barcelona talks and G20 meeting were inconclusive and the vexed question of how to finance developing countries is still unresolved.

Kevin Rudd has been asked to be one of the friends of the chairman, Danish Prime Minister Lars Lokke Rasmussen at Copenhagen. Like many Australian PMs before him, he likes to think that he is punching above his weight on the world stage. He is expected to use the current APEC meeting in Singapore to lobby for an agreement in Copenhagen. A recent parliamentary report into the effects of climate change on coastal Australia and a government report Climate Change Risks to Australia’s Coast underline what is at stake.

* Climate Change is a soup of acronyms:

COP Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC)

CPRS Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme

ETS Emissions Trading Scheme

IPCC Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change

* For more background, these links may be useful:

Linkages: Introduction to the UNFCCC and Kyoto Protocol

Seven steps to becoming an UNFCCC expert

The Road to Copenhagen Simon Talley

tck tck tck Global Campaign for Climate Action

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Rich Bowden said...

Thanks for the article Kevin. An excellent summary of the "tangled web" that is the Australian reaction to COP15.


Kevin Rennie said...

Things move swiftly,with the latest announcement of the exclusion of agriculture from the proposed ETS.

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