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Australia's Greenhouse policy at the crossroads

By Shane Rattenbury - posted Sunday, 15 April 2001

Policy debate on greenhouse issues is rapidly approaching a significant crossroads, both domestically and internationally, and the direction Australia chooses will be felt for years to come.

Australia has taken the opportunity of surfing on a wave of opposition to the Kyoto Protocol, led by the US President George W Bush. The new President again voiced his opposition to the international treaty to address climate change, and even raised doubts about the scientific validity of global warming.

Despite his oil industry background, Bush's letter came as a surprise. During the US election campaign, he had promised to cut carbon dioxide emissions from power plants, an initiative welcomed by environmentalists. At the recent G8 meeting, Bush's new head of the US EPA, Christine Todd Whitman, reiterated the promise and stated that Bush recognised the challenges posed by climate change.


The recent report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has confirmed further that climate change is a real threat over the coming century, that human emissions are the primary cause, and that swift action is required to cut back greenhouse gases.

Bush has chosen to ignore this evidence, caving in to the demands of the fossil fuel industry, which made significant contributions to his election campaign fund.

With the stalled COP6 climate negotiations due to resume soon, the stakes are high. As the world's biggest emitter, the US has a clear moral obligation to negotiate in good faith, but it appears it may now simply derail the talks. It is possible to ratify the Kyoto Protocol without the US. If Bush succeeds with his wrecking strategy, the European Union, Japan, Russia and other nations (including New Zealand) are likely to press ahead and ratify, bringing the Kyoto Protocol into force.

Australia stands at a crossroads in the climate debate. This week, two senior Federal Ministers supported the Bush stance.

Australia has been a key ally for the US in the climate negotiations, playing an obstructionist role and watering down the environmental integrity of the Kyoto Protocol and efforts to curb greenhouse emissions.

By welcoming the Bush stance and attacking the ALP's greenhouse policy, Senator Nick Minchin has put greenhouse on the election agenda. This will put the spotlight on both the Government, whose track record on greenhouse has been far from impressive, and also on the ALP, whose policy detail is yet to be announced.


The ALP has provided some early positive signs, distinguishing itself from the government. The ALP has supported a greenhouse 'trigger' in the Federal environment laws. It has also given a commitment in its 2000 Platform to introduce a domestic emissions trading scheme before an international system, a policy that formed the basis for Minchin's attack.

Far from costing jobs, as Minchin claims, such a policy presents a number of potential benefits for Australia's economy. Early introduction of an emissions trading scheme would allow our industries to experience a smooth and incremental transition to an international trading scheme, rather than a large and forced 'step-change' later on. It would also increase growth in the domestic renewable energy industry, creating more sustainable jobs in Australia and export opportunities in the Asia Pacific region.

Meanwhile, the Government is spending a lot of money having Don Burke tell us how much it is doing, while Australia's annual emissions continue to grow rapidly. The challenge for the ALP will be whether it succumbs to the cheap politics of the government, or whether it is prepared to set policies that will reduce Australia's greenhouse emissions and position our industries to capitalise on 21st century trends.

There is also an important foreign policy question about whether Australia is to remain linked with the anti-environmental stance of the US, or whether it will move with more progressive countries.

Both domestically and internationally the rest of this year will be critical in determining how well the human race responds to the threat of climate change.

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About the Author

Shane Rattenbury is a Political Liaison Officer for Greenpeace Australia Pacific.

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