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Is Global warming a priority for the 3rd Howard government?

By Paul Norton - posted Saturday, 15 December 2001

Margaret Thatcher, Helmut Kohl, Dr. John Hewson and Dr. David Kemp are all intelligent right-of-centre politicians, and all have an interest of some kind in global warming due to the enhanced greenhouse effect. Mrs. Thatcher was proud to call on her scientific training to convince her British Tory government colleagues to take global warming seriously in 1988. Also in the 1980s, Mr. Kohl’s Christian Democrat government in Germany was a world leader in promoting strong action to cut greenhouse gas emissions. More recently Dr. Hewson, writing in the Australian Financial Review, has called on the Federal government to ratify the Kyoto protocol and redress Australia’s tardy response to the greenhouse problem. And Dr. Kemp? He’s just been named Federal Environment Minister, and developing Australia’s greenhouse response will be among his key duties.

Global warming has officially been a matter of policy concern in Australia since the late 1980s. Following the 1988 Toronto Conference which marked the first official international recognition of the greenhouse problem, Australian State and Federal governments began work on developing greenhouse response policies, with greenhouse being a major focus of the Ecologically Sustainable Development process. This culminated in the adoption of Australia’s National Greenhouse Response Strategy in 1993. In a parallel process, the main achievement of the 1992 UN Conference on Environment and Development was the Framework Convention on Climate Change, a treaty to reduce greenhouse gas emissions under which industrialised countries agreed to take voluntary steps to cut emissions to 1990 levels. Only the UK and Germany were able to meet the voluntary targets agreed to in the FCCC, and the failure of the voluntary process led in 1997 to the negotiation of a global climate treaty – the Kyoto Protocol – involving legally binding emission reduction targets.

However, the wealth of national and global policy development on global warming has not been matched by effective action. Partly this is due to active resistance: some business and political interests, supported by a minority of scientists and right-wing think-tanks, have persistently denied the reality or the seriousness of global warming. Others, whilst acknowledging the problem, maintain that significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions could only be achieved at prohibitive economic and social cost. Agreement on action has often been frustrated by the efforts of different stakeholders to apportion blame for the problem, and responsibility for solutions, to one another; global climate negotiations are plagued by duckshoving between developing and developed nations, and between the European Community and other developed countries. A further obstacle is the inertial weight of established interests in resource-dependent economies such as Australia’s, and established patterns of public policy such as our State governments’ predilections for car-focussed transport policies and coal-fired power. The NGRS was heavily water down by the time it was adopted by governments, and even so it has been honoured more in the breach than in the observance.


Conservation groups argue that Australia’s greenhouse policy performance has gone from bad to worse under the Coalition government. The combined peak environmental organisations’ 2001 election "report card" on the major political parties condemned the Howard government for failing to ratify the Kyoto protocol, inaction on emissions trading and carbon taxes, pursuing other tax and spending policies which encourage unsustainable energy use, the inadequacy of the Greenhouse Challenge program, renewable energy legislation and the Environmental Protection & Biodiversity Conservation Act, and support for burning native forests as an energy source. Australia remains amongst the most energy-inefficient economies in the developed world. At the time the Kyoto Protocol was negotiated, Australia argued for and received very lenient treatment, being set a target of an 8% increase in greenhouse gas emissions over 1990 levels by 2008-2012, and further being allowed to credit reductions in land clearing towards the target. Yet Australia has refused to sign the protocol, thereby helping the US to jeopardise the entire global climate policy framework And the macro-level policy inaction and backsliding has been matched by micro-level trends; as of 2001, AFL football matches which once were played in natural light are played under megawatts of lights at the roofed Docklands Stadium – even on fine Saturday afternoons!

The results have been predictable. According to the Australian Greenhouse Office, Australia’s emissions of all greenhouse gases have risen from somewhat below 400 million tonnes per year (carbon dioxide equivalent) in 1990 to almost 500 million tonnes in 1999. This represents about 26 tonnes per person, the highest emissions per person of any industrialised country. Whereas most other developed countries have been able to at least reduce their greenhouse gas emissions per unit of GDP, Australia’s have tended to increase.

The past decade has also seen evidence of the greenhouse threat accumulate. Records for annual average global temperatures have being broken every three or four years (most recently in 1998), and the incidence of extreme weather events has increased. In March 2001 the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) revised its estimates of global average temperature increases upwards, to a range of 1.4 to 5.8 degrees Celsius in the period from 1990 to 2100. The IPCC report, based on the most up-to-date climate science, contained more bad news in the details. It predicted sea level rises by 0.09 to 0.88 metres by 2100, putting numerous small island states at risk and threatening heavily-populated coastal areas. Incidence of severe weather is expected to rise sharply, climate change is expected to hit agricultural production near the equator as water supplies come under increased strain, and the rate of extinction of animal species is expected to increase. A report by the US National Academy of Sciences, commissioned by the US government in the hope of debunking the IPCC forecasts, concluded that the greenhouse threat was indeed real and warranted action. One-time greenhouse sceptics such as UK Professor John Maddox likewise insist that the problem is real and must be addressed.

According to the CSIRO, Australia stands to lose in economic and human terms, as well as environmentally, if global warming goes unchecked. CSIRO predictions of adverse effects of climate change in Australia include:

  • enhanced La Niña and El Niño effects producing longer droughts and more severe flooding;
  • higher temperatures (average temperatures up to 6ºC higher by 2070);
  • greater moisture stress and worse bushfires due to less average rainfall and higher evaporation levels;
  • species extinction from loss of habitat, sea level rises, decreased river flows;
  • loss of agricultural yield due to temperature rises and lower rainfall (lower wheat protein and dairy production);
  • southward movement of pests such as cattle tick, fruit fly and light-brown apple moth (costing an additional $3.5million p.a. for fruit fly management);
  • up to two-thirds decline in snow cover by 2030;
  • loss to tourism industry from coral bleaching that is likely to become common by 2020;
  • injury and death from heat waves, tropical cyclones and floods;
  • "indirect effects" including infectious diseases such as dengue-fever, food poisoning by fish contaminated by toxic algal blooms, water borne diseases such as giardia, mosquito borne diseases, and increased incidence of skin cancer and eye cataracts from ozone depletion;
  • water shortages, particularly in southern and western Australia;
  • vehicle and housing damage from gales, hail, waves and storm surges in coastal communities (cyclone and flood areas in north Queensland could double by 2050).

Averting these risks would seem to justify strong greenhouse emission reductions even if the economic costs were high. Yet there is now a growing international literature, on the theme of "ecological modernisation", which argues that the challenge of environmental problems such as global warming will drive gains in employment, living standards and business opportunities through pressures for innovation in processes and products ("eco-design and "industrial ecology"), and greater efficiency in use of energy and materials. Business groups and corporations such as BHP have collaborated with the Australian Conservation Foundation in "ecological modernisation" initiatives such as ACF’s "Natural Advantage" blueprint for a sustainable economy. BHP has also called for Australia to ratify the Kyoto Protocol on economic as well as environmental grounds. As Dr. Hewson has argued, Australian industry has a lot of catching-up to do in energy efficiency and overall environmental performance, which means that considerable environmental gains can be had for minimal economic cost even in the short term.


The ACF’s "Natural Advantage" blueprint proposes an integrated strategy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions whilst creating jobs and generating economic growth, to be implemented over the next 3 to 10 years. Details can be found at the ACF’s site at the following url: The main points include:

  • Ratification of the Kyoto Protocol with enabling legislation to give force to the Protocol.
  • A challenging but achievable renewable energy target (noting that countries such as Denmark and Germany aim to source 35-50% of their energy from renewables by 2030 to 2050).
  • National electricity market reform.
  • A program of measures to drive national energy efficiency.
  • A vehicle fuel efficiency improvement program.
  • An end to broad-scale land clearing.
  • GST exemptions for renewable energy equipment, best-practice energy efficiency technologies, public transport charges and renewable energy.
  • A more challenging national greenhouse gas reduction target.
  • A comprehensive national greenhouse gas emissions trading scheme and/or a carbon tax as part of the process of environmental tax reform.
  • Regional assessment of mitigation opportunities.

It is to be hoped that Dr. Kemp can apply his considerable intellect to understanding the science and the economics of global warming, see the wisdom of challenging, but achievable and necessary reform programs such as this, and convince his colleagues to lift Australia’s game on global warming. Quite apart from anything else, the Howard government’s "Pacific Solution" to the refugee crisis will cease to be an option if Nauru and other island nations are submerged by rising sea levels!

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About the Author

Dr Paul Norton teaches and researches in the Department of Politics & Public Policy and the Australian School of Environmental Studies at Griffith University.

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