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Putting policy into practice - reducing government emissions

By Kate Crowley - posted Monday, 17 March 2008

It is very clear, and it has been for some time, that Australians want real action on climate change. This is probably one of the key reasons why the Howard government was so keen to show that Australia was meeting its Kyoto target, indeed that it was one of the only countries in the world actually meeting its Kyoto target. Does this mean that Australia was reducing its emissions? Well, technically, yes, if you accept offsetting its target using land-clearing reductions from 1990 levels as bone fide action.

On the other hand, Australia has been doing anything but cutting its emissions if you are talking about the key energy sector where emissions have soared over the last decade. This blow out, plus Australia's failure to sign the Kyoto Protocol, is probably why, in 2006, 86 per cent of Australians thought the government was not doing enough about climate change (BBC World Service “19 Nation Poll”). By 2007, climate change had become the number one issue of public concern (News Limited release January 17, 2007).

This failed to convert Prime Minister John Howard away from his increasingly isolated position of “climate sceptic”, although he did move as far as “climate realist”, by which he still meant not jeopardising jobs or the economy by acting on climate change. It is now widely acknowledged that his failure cost him government last year, perhaps not the only reason why, but certainly one of the more critical. By 2007, 77 per cent of Australians did not trust his government on environmental issues (News Limited release January 17, 2007).


Australia's federal system of government has at least left the states free to innovate on climate change, where the federal government has been recalcitrant. Although national action on actually reducing emissions would have boosted state action significantly.

Enter Kevin Rudd as Opposition leader last year, who behaved in Prime Ministerial fashion by calling a summit in response to the Stern report, and commissioning the Garnaut review into the implications of the report for Australia's climate change future.

Now with the end of the recalcitrant Howard decade, we have moved on, with attention again turning to target setting at the international, national and state levels. Targets will need to be steep, yes, but they will also need to be robust and flexible so that they can be steepened further as necessary. Target setting is critical, but politicising target setting is a complete waste of time and diversion from action, and yet again is another delay to the really hard work of policy and process design to actually reduce emissions.

The Council of Australian Federations threw down the challenge to the federal government by agreeing last year to a 60 per cent cut on emissions by 2050, again using the usual baseline of 1990 levels. This decision signalled an about face from the farce of relying on land clearing changes and took on the challenge, albeit the long term challenge beyond current political cycles, of actually reducing emissions. Notwithstanding, however, that it has become very clear over recent years, over the last in particular, that 60 per cent may not be a steep enough cut.

If we leave the federal level for a moment, where the implications of the Garnaut interim report are now being digested before the final report, we can see that the states' 60 per cent target has already inspired new actions and the new governance arrangements that Garnaut is calling for on climate change.

In the last month, South Australia and Tasmania both announced that they would legislate to achieve this target. And Queensland, South Australia and Tasmania have all established Climate Change Councils of experts to recommend actions to meet it.


Legislative commitment by two states in one month is a huge about-face from the Howard government's do-nothing approach. The Howard government lost a decade of opportunities to embrace new Australian technologies and to innovate in response to climate change. It preferred to tout Australia as “world leading” for actually increasing emissions 8 per cent over 1990 levels by 2010 leaving the legitimacy of any bone fide state actions in serious question. Having energy emissions soar unchecked, offset by land clearance reduction over the last decade, was hardly the clever country in action.

If we turn to Tasmania, we see a real difference in its approach, with the Premier wading in and taking up the climate change challenge fearlessly in the face of a lot of “unknowns”. Climate change dominated the Tasmanian Premier's 2008 State of the State address with his announcements of the legislated target, the establishment of the Tasmanian Climate Action Council, and a range of immediate mitigation measures. These included: a carbon neutral government fleet by 2010; carbon neutral government air travel; and immediate plans for energy efficient, solar powered government buildings.

Measures like this are being announced in quick succession by the states and territories. They form part of the grab bag of government responses albeit aimed at signalling seriousness about action and an immediate need to change business as usual, which in turn sends a warning to the market to be ready to respond.

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About the Author

Kate Crowley is Associate Professor and Head of School, School of Government, University of Tasmania. She is author of many papers on Tasmanian minority government and Green politics, including the newly released 'Against Green minority government: themes and traditions in Tasmanian politics', Tasmanian Historical Studies, 14 pp. 137-153, (2009). She is author of “Climate Clever?: Kyoto and Australia's Decade of Recalcitrance” forthcoming in K. Harrison and L. Sundstrom The Comparative Politics of Climate Change MIT Press, and A Framework for Action for Reducing the Tasmanian Government’s Greenhouse Gas Emissions which has been adopted in full by the Tasmanian Government.

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