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Australia’s contribution matters: why we can’t ignore our climate responsibilities

Posted on 21 June 2011 by John Cook

Reposted from The Conversation. This is the eighth part in a two-week series Clearing up the Climate Debate.

CLEARING UP THE CLIMATE DEBATE: Professor Ross Garnaut explains why Australia’s action on climate change policy is important.

There is a line of argument about international action that is used by those who oppose Australian action on mitigation. This is the argument that Australia is an inconsequential country.

What Australia does and does not do, according to this argument, has no effect on the actions of others. Therefore Australia should do nothing and save its money, whether or not the rest of the world is taking action.

That way Australia will benefit from what others do if they are taking action, and save money if they are not.

The view that one country’s actions have no effect on other countries is present in all but the largest countries, but outside Australia is recognised more clearly for what it is: an excuse for not acting on climate change. The argument dissolves once it is recognised that there is no need to make a once-for-all decision on Australia’s share of an ambitious global mitigation effort.

What is important is that we make it clear that we are moving with other countries, and are prepared to contribute our fair share to ambitious action if others are playing their parts.

We can all build towards strong mitigation, each of us observing the actions of others and moving further in response to what we see.

What we are dealing with is a problem in which the solution requires collective action. It is not an unusual kind of problem in domestic or international affairs.

Indeed, the difference between civilisation and anarchy is above all the capacity of society to find a basis for efficient collective action when it is necessary to solve a problem of great consequence.

Australians who don’t want any action on climate change make the point that we account for only a very small proportion—just under 1.5% of total global emissions—so that what we do has little direct effect on the global total.

This is a true but trivial point. And, while the United Kingdom’s share of global emissions is not much larger than ours—about 1.7%, despite it having three times our population—it hasn’t occurred to a British prime minister from Margaret Thatcher onwards that Britain’s efforts are unimportant. And nor are they. The influence of British ideas has been considerable.

But the view that Australia doesn’t matter is common enough in Australia for us to have to answer the question: is ours truly a country that doesn’t count?

We could seek an answer by listening to what others say.

In Melbourne in March, the Chinese minister with responsibility for climate change policy and also energy policy, Vice Chairman of the National Development and Reform Commission Xie Zhenhua, told me that China’s emissions reduction commitments would not be affected by inaction in Australia.

But, he added, it was crucially important not only that Australia meet its unconditional target of reducing emissions by 5% by 2020, but make the target more ambitious in line with the efforts of other developed countries. This would, he said, encourage others whose commitments were explicitly or implicitly conditional.

Xie was not saying that Australia doesn’t matter.

The United States ambassador to Australia and officials in Washington reporting directly to the president have asked me not to underestimate how strongly the outcome of the current Australian policy process will feed back into the US discussion on climate change.

Australia is seen as sharing some of the same characteristics of the United States, including high per capita energy use and emissions and an exceptionally large role for emissions-intensive industries in the political process.

Our decision to follow the Bush administration into failing to ratify the Kyoto Protocol, after being a party to the agreement negotiations, made us the developed country whose example was cited most often in the US domestic political debate.

Acceptance of carbon pricing in Australia, said the ambassador and others, would help the chances of strong mitigation action in the United States.

Count this against the doctrine of Australia as an inconsequential country.

The recognition of Australian influence is clearer and stronger in other countries in our western Pacific neighbourhood.

In the course of my work over the past four years, I have discussed climate change policy with leading members of the Indonesian cabinet on half a dozen occasions. Indonesia is certainly not an inconsequential country: it is the fourth most populous country in the world; the third largest emitter of greenhouse gases; the largest country with a Moslem majority; the international policy leader of Southeast Asia; and the third biggest economic growth success story of the Platinum Age.

Indonesian leaders are closely interested in what Australia might or might not do. They would be amazed to hear that some Australians think that Australia doesn’t matter.

Then we can look at the historical record.

Direct experience has left me with no doubt that Australia has the standing, the analytic capacity and the diplomatic skills to significantly influence international policy on issues.

When there is compatibility between the interests of Australia and the countries we are seeking to influence, and on which we ourselves are acting consistently with the shared international interest, that influence can be decisive.

Climate change is such an issue.

There is wide recognition, in the United States and Southeast and Northeast Asia at least, that Australians are good at working out effective ways of organising international cooperation on particular issues, and at marshalling support for international cooperation around those ideas.

On the climate change issue, I would count the embodiment of “pledge and review’” in the Cancun Agreements—countries pledging their own commitments to emissions reduction and having them reviewed by other countries—as a consequence of Australian influence.

“Pledge and review” was introduced into the Copenhagen conference when it was in crisis by the Australian team, and became centrally important to President Obama’s discussions with leaders of China and the other major developing countries.

And what if we applied the logic of Australia as an inconsequential country to strategic issues? Are our troops in Afghanistan, and were our soldiers on the Western Front in World War I, more influential than we could expect our contributions to shared efforts on climate change to be?

Was Australia’s commitment of the lives of so many of its young people in war and so much expenditure on defence over a hundred years really irrelevant to the shape of the world in which we make our lives?

Would everything be exactly the same if we had decided at the beginning that our presence in Afghanistan would not affect the outcome, so that we might as well use the people and money comfortably at home?

Clearly the argument that Australia has no influence on what others do is a path into quicksand.

If the rest of the world were taking strong action to avoid dangerous climate change, and if it were true that Australian decisions were entirely inconsequential to global outcomes, would we really be comfortable to take a free ride on the efforts of others?

That is not where we usually want to place our country in international affairs.

And would others be comfortable about our free riding on them, so that there was no retaliation for what others saw as inadequate contributions on climate change, and no effect on cooperation on other matters of importance to Australia?

No-one would expect the answer to be “Yes, Australian free riding would be fine”.

Since it is not possible for Australia to be a leader in reducing greenhouse gas emissions because others are already too far ahead, we should do our fair share in what the world needs to do. Let us look forward to a future in which Australia is doing its fair share in a global effort.

This article is excerpted from the Garnaut Review 2011 Final Report.

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Comments

Comments 1 to 9:

  1. Australia can still be a leader. The Zero Carbon Australia 2020 Stationary Energy Plan made a convincing case that Australia can transition to a 100% renewable energy economy within ten years, by rapidly scaling up concentrating solar power technology. A follow-up report covering Australia’s transport sector is due out this year. It is an ambitious vision to transform the nation. It would stimulate the economy and get more people into the workforce. And if we lead the world in developing solar thermal technology, we will be in a position to sell it to the world, instead of scrambling to buy it from Spain at the last minute.

    If any country should take a leadership position, surely it is Australia. Australia is a rich nation relatively unaffected by the Great Recession. We do not have China’s problem of a rapidly exploding economy. We have an abundance of sunlight to harness. We have very high per capita emissions so we need to start earlier. We are the world’s 16th highest domestic CO2 emitter, largest exporter of coal, and soon-to-be second largest exporter of LNG. We have the world’s fourth largest proven coal reserves, 9% of the global total.

    Paleoclimate evidence shows that in the long term, slow positive feedbacks greatly amplify climate sensitivity, meaning the world must aim to reduce CO2 to 350 ppm to be sure of preventing dangerous anthropogenic interference. Using the cumulative emissions budget approach (which the Garnaut Review had no good reason for rejecting), even for a short-term 2°C target our global budget runs out in 20 years. That means the entire world, rich and poor, needs to be carbon-neutral by 2050 (or earlier). The richest, highest per-capita emitters like Australia need to transition the fastest to give the poorest countries more time. Australia’s per-capita share of the global budget, if you start counting now, runs out in just a few years. So Australia’s true proportionate contribution is to get to zero emissions in a decade.
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  2. Whenever I hear the argument that our emissions in country X are too small compared those from country Y that there is no point doing anything about it, I always think of this demotivational poster



    Which does a nice job of pointing out what a dumb argument it is. If none of us do anything, nothing will get done, and why should country Y (which usually has low per-capita emissions and lower standard of living) do anything to reduce emissions if country X (which usually has high per-capita emissions and standard of living) does nothing?
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  3. Dikran, that's a good image to use. I'll keep that in mind, next time I hear this argument.
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  4. Quoting from the works of Ross Garnaut can be fraught with exaggeration and flawed logic:

    "Since it is not possible for Australia to be a leader in reducing greenhouse gas emissions because others are already too far ahead, we should do our fair share in what the world needs to do. Let us look forward to a future in which Australia is doing its fair share in a global effort"

    Who are the leaders in reducing Greenhouse gases in the world? France? with 80% nuclear power?

    Certainly not the major emitters - China, USA nor Europe!

    China is adding 10 times Australia's total coal fired electricity capacity over the next 10 years.

    In 2020 China will have 28 times Australa's total coal fired capacity - so a drop of 5% in Australia's emissions will be insignificant. The USA has no plan for a carbon tax or emissions trading scheme and none will be passed in the forseeable future.

    That accounts for the two countries with 40+% of the planet's carbon emissions.

    Now I know Australia is renowned for punching above its weight - but we are completely deluded if we export carbon emissions offshore in a vain attempt to have an effect on the rest of the planet.

    Our main natural advantages are cheap energy from coal, efficient agriculture via energy intensive cultivation, export of natural gas etc, and digging up red dirt.

    Kill off these industries with a unilateral carbon tax and face a popular revolt over the sharp drop in living standards from loss of our main exports.
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  5. "The view that one country’s actions have no effect on other countries is present in all but the largest countries, "

    Ridiculously, even here in the USA, it's "it won't matter because of India and China"...
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  6. Personally I think Australia is too small to take a dramatic leadership position in climate change. We should be matching what other's are doing, and going a step or two further to encourage others to lift their game as well. And many other countries are doing plenty to combat climate change, with some high rates of renewable energy uptake already achieved in some European countries, and high rates planned in the near future in China for instance.

    I am personally amazed at how much is actually getting done on climate change globally despite the lack of a strong agreement to force such action. I can think of two possible explanations for this:

    a) despite the fact that politicians know that causing real pain for their electorate by raising energy taxes will cause voter backlash and reduce their chances of re-election they are committed to doing the right thing despite the significant personal cost. Contrary to what nearly all of us believe about politicians they are really in it for what they believe is the good of the country, and not for the pay perks or the glory and power of it all.

    b) The actions taken to date are cheap and will not have any noticeable impact on electricity costs or jobs or anything else that could cause a voter backlash. If we were willing to pay any real cost on climate change we would be able to do significantly more.

    c) Politicians have a secret plan to siphon of the extra carbon taxes to fund the creation of a one-world government.
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  7. Of course Australia can influence regional emitters like Indonesia to do better but it seems to me that when our neighbors look at our policies and action we are taking they might be expected to first ask for an explanation of:

    • How are Ministerial assurances that coal use will grow as an energy source consistent with reduction of Australian CO2 emissions?

    • How is provision of financial assistance for coal production and use is consistent with placing a price on carbon or reduction of CO2 emissions?

    • How will development of CCS technology reduce CO2 emissions, knowing its application is so expensive it makes production of electricity from renewable sources cheaper than using coal?

    • How does excluding agriculture from a carbon tax help reduce CO2 emissions when that sector contributes over 20% of Australian emissions?

    • How is assisting the motor industry to produce more fossil fuelled vehicles consistent with the government aim of reducing CO2 emissions?

    • How is CO2 reduction achieved by increasing Federal and State government dependence on revenue derived from expanding coal production and use, rather than aiming to reduce that its use and dependence on its production?

    • Why have we adopted a target of reducing our emissions by 5% by 2020 when climate science advises reducing by 95% by 2050 and when other have adopted targets of 20-25% by 2020?
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  8. Pretty Good Questions Agnostic:

    Here are your answers:

    • How are Ministerial assurances that coal use will grow as an energy source consistent with reduction of Australian CO2 emissions?

    Answer: Its not - just an example of the hyprocrisy of our political leaders. Open a new coal mine one day - and tout an ETRS the next.

    • How is provision of financial assistance for coal production and use is consistent with placing a price on carbon or reduction of CO2 emissions?

    Answer: Ditto.

    • How will development of CCS technology reduce CO2 emissions, knowing its application is so expensive it makes production of electricity from renewable sources cheaper than using coal?

    Answer: CCS is BS and always was. Do the numbers.

    • How does excluding agriculture from a carbon tax help reduce CO2 emissions when that sector contributes over 20% of Australian emissions?

    Answer: Electric Trucks and Tractors and non-farting cows.

    • How is assisting the motor industry to produce more fossil fuelled vehicles consistent with the government aim of reducing CO2 emissions?

    Answer: What about the hybrid Camry?

    • How is CO2 reduction achieved by increasing Federal and State government dependence on revenue derived from expanding coal production and use, rather than aiming to reduce that its use and dependence on its production?

    Answer: Our federal and state budgets depend on the revenue from coal exports.

    • Why have we adopted a target of reducing our emissions by 5% by 2020 when climate science advises reducing by 95% by 2050 and when other have adopted targets of 20-25% by 2020?

    Answer: A bit of pathetic tokenism by our politicians who think there might be votes in it from the kiddies who feel impelled to do something about global warming without sacrificing hot showers and warm lattes.
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  9. Just for the record,the "Carbon Tax" bill was passed today through Australia's federal House of Representatives. With no chance of the legislation being blocked in the senate, we'll have a carbon trading scheme in place on July 1 2012.

    Despite claims by the leader of the opposition to repeal the legislation should he win government at the next election in 2013, he will not have the numbers in the senate to make good such a promise.

    The long and the short of it is, Australia has at least 4 years to get accustomed to, and to refine, a carbon trading scheme.
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