During the Howard years, it was usual for Australia to be awarded ‘Fossil of the Day’ by climate advocacy groups whenever it attended a climate negotiation conference. The award signifies the country that had done the most to hinder climate change negotiations, and Australia has won a pile of them.
Then Rudd and Gillard came along, and Australia was applauded for finally taking action. Yes, people actually clapped when Rudd announced Australia would sign the Kyoto Protocol – something nearly everyone else had done years before – but Australia was seen as such a problem that even signing Kyoto engendered a sense of relief.
It looks like the Australian delegates to climate conferences will have to get used to public shaming by environmental groups again, as the Abbott government promises to repeal the carbon tax, ditch the Clean Energy Finance Corporation, has already de-funded the Climate Commission, and has appointed climate denier Dick Warburton to review Australia’s renewable energy target. It’s already begun, in fact – we were awarded Fossil of the Day at last year’s Warsaw climate conference.
The excuse Australia used to employ in the mid 2000s to avoid action was that if we acted too quickly on carbon emissions, all those other countries without restrictions would have an advantage over us. This line is being trotted out less and less, however, as it sits increasingly at odds with the facts.
A recent study on climate legislation around the world by the Globe Legislators Organisation singled Australia out for condemnation. Of the 66 countries included in the study (which accounted for 88 per cent of global carbon emissions), 62 had passed some kind of legislation to combat climate change. Australia appears to be the only country threatening to repeal its climate legislation and replace it with something widely seen as less effective (and probably more expensive).
By contrast, China is moving forward on climate action, albeit from a lower base. Now the world’s largest carbon emitter, several of China’s most economically productive provinces are already running emissions trading schemes, including Shenzhen, Beijing, Tianjin, Shanghai, Guangdong, Hubei and Chongqing. The Chinese government is considering the form of a national system expected to be in place by 2015, and is undertaking consultation based on climate laws in Europe, South Korea and Australia.
The United States is dragging its feet, but is slowly getting around to doing something. The President has announced a Climate Action Plan, though the influence of climate denialists in the often-ineffectual Congress and Senate has limited the action that can be taken nationally. California has a cap-and-trade system in place, however, and nine North-Eastern states have formed the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative to reduce emissions.
The European Union continues to define the landscape with its long-standing European Climate Change Program (ECCP). Many smaller countries have also brought in innovative ways of tackling climate change, such as Bolivia’s Framework Law on Mother Earth Law and Integral Development to Live Well, which ties together climate change, environmental and socio-economic progress.
While Australia’s current system is still inadequate from a scientific point of view, it is clearly much better than what many other states have in place. The key difference is that while everyone else seems to be progressing, even if sometimes frustratingly slowly, Australia’s government is promising to go backwards.
To do so would be to shirk our responsibility to the rest of the world: although we may not emit as much as China or the United States, Australia is the 17th-largest emitter in the world, and Australians are among the very highest emitters per capita. China is reportedly reconsidering implementing a carbon tax in response to the Abbott government’s repeal plans.
Tackling huge, international problems like climate change, in which there are incentives to not play by the rules but still enjoy the gains made by others, means that reducing carbon global emissions requires significant trust between countries. For Australia – a hot, dry continent that will only get hotter and drier with climate change – to show such contempt for global climate efforts will only make it easier for other countries to avoid their responsibilities, too.
The age of carbon entitlement is over, Australia. If only our government could see that.
David Donaldson is a Master of International Relations graduate who lives in Melbourne. He tweets @davidadonaldson.