"They've taken us back to the 1950s!" the defeated Labor MP from my electorate said about the incoming government. Actually, we both said it, in unison, half laughing, half despairing.
No women in the Cabinet other than Julie Bishop. No Science Minister. No Climate Change or Energy Minister. No Resources Minister. Kevin Rudd got in first, of course, to get rid of the Population portfolio but Abbott didn't reinstate it. Do Sports and Arts really need a Cabinet Minister to oversee them when Science, Energy, Resources and Climate Change miss out? The Prime Minister in charge of Women? Surely not! Perhaps it was a parting shot at Julia Gillard who accused him of misogyny in her impromptu but celebrated speech from the floor of Parliament.
Any new government deserves a honeymoon period but, for me, this time it was pretty short. Tony Abbott had promised that his first actions were to repeal the carbon tax and, indeed, that was the very first legislation he prepared. Before we could blink he sacked the Climate Commission which had given independent advice on climate change. (Fortunately, crowd funding subsequently provided a million dollars to keep it going in the form of the Climate Council.) Abbott knew in the week before the election that his Direct Action Plan would not deliver the 5 per cent cuts on greenhouse gas emissions by 2020 on 2000 levels that the Coalition had promised. Yet in his speech at the National Press Club he categorically rejected any suggestion that extra money would be found to bring the Plan up to scratch. Abbott was big on Labor's 'broken promises' but this was one of his very own, and he wasn't even Prime Minister yet.
And of course, here we are two months later and a number of reports have shown this 5 per cent target was patently inadequate anyway. The Climate Change Authority (CCA), yet another independent body but this one giving advice on Australia's emissions reduction targets, recommended in its draft report either 15 per cent reduction, or preferably 25 per cent by 2020. (Whether they will ever get the final report out is a matter of conjecture – the CCA may go the way of the Climate Commission.) Environment Minister Greg Hunt said they weren't going to change their target.
Meanwhile, Ecofys report, commissioned by environmental group World Wildlife Fund, estimates Australia would need to cut emissions by between 27 and 34 per cent below 2000 levels by 2020, and between 82 and 100 per cent by 2030. Then Price Waterhouse Coopers(PwC) warned that the world risks blowing through its carbon budget in 21 years. To keep below 2 degrees warming, countries would need to decarbonise at 6 per cent a year.
Associate Professor Peter Christoff of Melbourne University also pointed out that the Climate Change Authority's recommended targets were not nearly enough if Australia was to do its fair share in keeping the world within the so-called 'safe' guardrail of 2 degrees warming. He recommends Australia adopts a target of around 38% below 2000 levels by 2020. "This is well within our economic and technological capabilities," he says.
Not long after the CCA reported, a report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) that was due for release next year, was leaked, warning: "Throughout the 21st century, climate change impacts will slow down economic growth and poverty reduction, further erode food security and trigger new poverty traps, the latter particularly in urban areas and emerging hotspots of hunger."
This leaked report came after the new government's decision to slash foreign aid spending by $4.5 billion over four years. It would be nice to think it would reconsider its decision in light of the IPCC report and perhaps direct the money saved to agricultural research to improve food security. When he announced the foreign aid cuts, however, Abbott had said the saving would go to roads. Roads! At a time when we drastically need to rein in greenhouse gas emissions and, if necessary, get people out of their cars and onto public transport, particularly rail (light and heavy), the last thing we need is giving money to roads.
It's not just climate change, of course. There's the issue of peak oil. Perhaps the government has been lulled into a false sense of security because unconventional sources have extended the peak – or plateau – by about a decade. Nevertheless, we passed the peak of conventional, cheap oil back in 2006 and are now dependent on oil from fracked shale, deep water, tar sands or the Arctic to make up for the decline in conventional oil. To maintain production, however, these unconventional sources demand oil prices of at least $100/barrel. The days of cheap oil are over - not good for governments trying to maintain economic growth to repay debt. It's not only the expense, of course, there's the problem of maintaining supply. Australia's oil peaked in 2000 and will be largely gone by 2020. Our refineries are being closed down; leaving us dependent on those in Singapore that gets its oil from the Middle East. There's still a lot of oil in the Mid-East but political turmoil in that region is a constant threat to supply. Any attack on Iran, for instance, would see them close the Strait of Hormuz, cutting off oil to Singapore and Australia.
Three-quarters of our economic activities are powered by imported crude oil and petroleum fuels. These fuel imports create a trade deficit of $18 billion, and our declining refining capacity and the long supply chains subject to geopolitical instability are making us ever more vulnerable. Yet there is now no Resources or Energy Minister to address this vulnerability and to work out a policy of self-sufficiency, or even to build up a stockpile of fuel reserves. Maybe Ian Macfarlane as Industry Minister can and will find the time, and indeed he should, since most industry in this country would grind to a halt if fuel supplies were cut. Not just industry, but motorists would be without petrol in three days. Most food and medicine would be gone from the shops in a week. Perhaps Labor was as negligent in not drawing up contingency plans or maintaining adequate fuel stockpiles, but at least it paid lip service to resources and energy by having portfolios for them.
Back in 2008, at the Sydney Writer's Festival, Tony Abbott was asked: "Are you familiar with the concept of peak oil?" He replied: "It's not a term I have heard. Perhaps Robert has heard about peak oil. He is expert on arcane concepts…" More than five years have passed and we may assume he has learnt something since then. Yet there is nothing to suggest in the formulation of his Cabinet nor in his early actions to dismantle the Gillard Government's Clean Energy legislation, that Tony Abbott has come to grips with two of the major challenges confronting Australia and the world: resource scarcity and climate change.
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