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Lack of political will

By Mike Pope - posted Monday, 11 May 2009

In August 2008, a submission was made to government critical of measures outlined in its Green Paper on the introduction of an ETS. The submission drew attention to over 20 defects, many of them serious. The latter included failure of the proposal to describe how its provisions were to be enforced, or how major emitters could be persuaded to remain in Australia and effectively reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.

The submission suggested that to ensure compliance by countries and companies which might otherwise continue to pollute the atmosphere without penalty, tariffs should be introduced. These would compliment an ETS and be based on a world market price for carbon. They would be levied on all traded products whether produced locally or in other countries. This tariff would be calculated on the basis of CO2-e emissions arising from production of goods and applied by all countries to all imports. Predictably, these proposals were not accepted.

More recently, President Obama has suggested application of a similar “Carbon Tariff” on all US imports as a means of encouraging countries of origin to implement effective measures to reduce their emissions. He argues that this measure would result in the cheapest imports, goods with easiest market access, being those which were produced with the lowest CO2 emissions. A tariff of this kind would establish a new basis for competition in international trade - ability and willingness to minimise emissions.


Like President Obama, our political leaders are well aware of the fact that the only way of curbing greenhouse gas emissions is to stop burning fossil fuels to produce our energy needs. Those needs can be provided by a number of existing and emerging technologies including wind, tidal, solar-thermal, photovoltaic cells, nuclear energy or, particularly in Australia, from geothermal heat.

Scientists have made it quite clear that to allow CO2 emissions to the point where atmospheric content exceeds 450 ppm (we are already at 387 ppm) will have disastrous outcomes. Global warming will become uncontrollable and result in loss of land based ice, increased ocean acidity, climate change, higher sea levels, and all of the catastrophic consequences arising from them.

Eminent economists have warned of the massive damage to national economies which would ensue, including disruption of national and international trade, loss of assets and productive capacity, and the huge cost of attempting to minimise the effect of those outcomes.

The Prime Minister and Opposition Leader have both been fully briefed on the views of the IPCC, the Chief Scientist for Australia and the conclusions reached by Ross Garnaut and Nicholas Stern. They either accept those conclusions, in which case their actions are grossly irresponsible, or they reject the advice they have received. If the latter is the case, then both owe the electorate a detailed and full explanation for that rejection.

In the face of increasing urgency to curb greenhouse gas emissions how does the Rudd government respond?

  • It defers implementation of meaningful action to reduce CO2 emissions by two years. This inertia and lack of political will comes despite the dire warnings and advice of scientists about the dangerous consequences.
  • It amends its 2020 target for CO2 reduction from 5 per cent below 1990 level of emissions to 25 per cent below 1990 levels but then make implementation conditional on other unspecified countries doing the same.
  • It proposes to significantly increase the level of free emissions permits and other subsidies provided to the worst emitters in Australia, reduces the price of carbon to protect their profitability and prolong the use of fossil fuels.
  • It ensures that Australia is in no position to make demands of others or provide leadership at the 2009 Copenhagen Conference on Global Warming by its refusal to adopt legislation which will effectively curb Australian CO2 emissions.

The Prime Minister has made it clear that a 25 per cent reduction is contingent on this level being adopted at Copenhagen. The chances of such an outcome being achieved are sufficiently negligible to ensure that he will not be held to achieving this reduction. Would he have proposed a larger reduction target otherwise?

The disingenuous excuse given by government for not adopting realistic policies and targets and taking the resolute action needed for their achievement is that it would result in job losses. During an economic recession, this must be avoided. In this respect, the Prime Minister appears to have largely accepted the position taken by the Opposition Leader, Malcolm Turnbull.

He has asserted that action taken to reduce greenhouse gas emissions must not harm the Australian economy, especially employment and what is perceived to be its competitive advantage as an exporter. This position, unsupported by many members of his own Party, allows Turnbull to justify having no clear, detailed or cogent policy on climate change, while opposing those that do.

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About the Author

Mike Pope trained as an economist (Cambridge and UPNG) worked as a business planner (1966-2006), prepared and maintained business plan for the Olympic Coordinating Authority 1997-2000. He is now semi-retired with an interest in ways of ameliorating and dealing with climate change.

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