Watching the Federal Government duck and weave on climate change is like watching afternoon television - mind numbingly repetitive. So if you were wondering where the greenhouse debate is headed, the best guide lies in the events of the past.
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, it appeared inevitable that Australia would ratify the Kyoto Protocol and introduce an emissions trading scheme. In 1997, the Prime Minister described the Protocol as “a win for the environment and a win for Australian jobs” and the Environment Minister Robert Hill was lauded by his colleagues for his efforts in the Kyoto negotiations.
Soon after, the Government established the Australian Greenhouse Office (AGO), which released a series of detailed discussion papers on an emissions trading scheme. These were followed by a consultation paper on the so-called “greenhouse trigger” that would ensure that large greenhouse gas-emitting developments were subject to a federal approval process.
Newspapers carried reports on how the Government favoured “market-based measures”. Even renowned opponents of all things greenhouse-related, like the Deputy Prime Minister John Anderson, spoke of how they would support emissions trading.
But the influence of the fossil fuel lobby within Cabinet changed the domestic scene.
In mid-2000, the shifting tide led the Industry Minister Nick Minchin to seek Cabinet endorsement of five principles that have since guided the Government’s direction on climate policy. These included that domestic emissions trading be introduced only when there is an international system, an inquiry be held into emissions trading, and that nothing be done that could harm the competitiveness of the Australian economy.
These principles created policy paralysis. Emissions trading, carbon taxes and the greenhouse trigger were jettisoned. The AGO was folded back into the Department of the Environment and its emissions trading team was disbanded.
The Government then announced that it had no intention of ratifying the Kyoto Protocol. In its place came the farcical Australia/United States Climate Action Partnership, followed by the much derided Asia-Pacific Partnership on Clean Development and Climate.
For greenhouse policy, the Government offered the Australian public a collection of spending programs that have been used as the basis for the Government’s media line that it has spent $2 billion on greenhouse measures. The fact that the Government has only spent around $700 million of the promised funds often goes unnoticed, as does the ineffectiveness of these programs.
Also rarely mentioned are the greenhouse implications of changes in economic policy. The liberalisation of the electricity market has allowed coal (the cheapest source of electricity) to eat up the largest share of the growth in the electricity market. This, along with growing demand, has resulted in emissions from stationary energy increasing by 43 per cent since 1990 and 73 per cent of this increase has come from coal.
To cover up its policy failings the Government resorted to fringe science, claiming that the link between greenhouse emissions and climate change was unproven. And despite questioning the science and the worth of the Kyoto Protocol, the Government promised to ensure that Australia met its Kyoto target.
This untenable and contradictory position worked while the mainstream media ignored climate change. But with growing pressure to act, the Government has been forced to tweak its message.
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