At last. With the announcement of Australian membership of the Asia-Pacific climate change pact, Canberra's policies on climate change now sit squarely on the foundation of our national interests. The global debate has been conducted in the language of environmental policy but it has been a debate about energy policy. Like most debates, it has been shaped by basic national interests.
Europe took the leadership on climate change policy and embedded an anti-coal strategy into the Kyoto Protocol. It forces an increase in the cost of power that produces the most carbon dioxide. That is coal.
Europe did not have to go down this path. It was feasible to boost research expenditure on new technologies to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide. Strategies could have focused on water vapour in the atmosphere - a more influential factor in the greenhouse effect than carbon dioxide - and other greenhouse gases such as methane.
Attacking coal suited Europe because it uses other sources of energy to produce power. Nuclear energy, gas, oil and even some wind power supply most power in Europe. The Kyoto targets were cheaper and easier for Europe to meet than for countries such as Australia, China, India, South Korea, the US and Thailand. All depend heavily on coal to generate electricity.
There is nothing new in this. Global politics frequently puts national self-interest ahead of the international good. Europe's refusal to liberalise world markets in agriculture is understood by most Australians as giving priority to pressure from European farmers over improving global markets for food. Its policies harm countries such as Australia, Argentina, Colombia, the Philippines, Thailand and Uruguay.
For decades Europe skewed global trade talks away from agriculture to protect the Common Agricultural Policy. It is still doing it in the Doha Round of international trade negotiations. This is Europe's agricultural equivalent of the Kyoto Protocol. The CAP is easier for Europe to implement and advances basic European interests, regardless of the effect on the rest of the world.
The new Asia-Pacific Partnership on Clean Development and Climate is the equivalent for Australia of the Cairns Group. It is collaboration among economies concerned to protect growth and to develop rational policies on climate change. On policy, there is a fundamental divide: Asia-Pacific and Europe. The Kyoto Protocol regulates production, just like the CAP and any traditional anti-free-market model would. The Asia-Pacific approach is not to interfere in energy markets but concentrate on researching new technologies to diminish emissions of carbon dioxide for the market to pick up.
Greenpeace and others have dismissed the Asia-Pacific pact as a convention for polluters. What they cannot show is how Kyoto will ease global warming. The contributions to cutting emissions of carbon dioxide envisaged were so small, the impact would have been negligible even if China and the US had joined it. It was a fundamental error in Kyoto that production of coal-based power was to be regulated before we knew that its impact was deleterious.
There is no reasonable certainty that increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide from human activity cause significant global warming. Many factors come into play. Some, such as cloud, can reduce global warming. Garth Paltridge, former chief research scientist in the CSIRO's atmospheric research division, says calculations used in climate models to demonstrate global warming do not adequately represent the situation and probably skew the outcome. More research is required. Prudent governments wait before taking actions that jeopardise national interests.
Australia is a global supplier of energy to the world. Our success and prosperity depends on efficient extraction and supply of that energy to a world that depends on it for its prosperity. Strategies on climate change need to be based on sound science and serve the national interests of all countries affected. The Howard Government is to be congratulated for forging a global policy on climate change that reflects the reality of our national interests, allies us with economies with similar interests and dissociates us from policies that cynically serve today's environmental politics in Europe.
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