Abbott pedals against the global climate awakening

Next week, President Obama will finally tackle emissions at US power plants, the centrepiece of his climate policy. But while the US and others move forward, Australia retreats.

Over recent months, organisations like NASA, CSIRO and the Bureau of Meteorology have all strengthened their calls for governments to take strong and sensible action on climate change.

NASA confirmed that the world’s 20 hottest years on record were all since 1990 and 13 of the 14 hottest were all since 2000. The 2014 State of the Climate report from the Bureau of Meteorology and CSIRO called for “large and sustained net global reductions in greenhouse gases”.

Climate change is a global challenge which requires a global response. Strong action in Australia will be useless if the rest of the world sits on its hands. But Australia has an obligation as the world’s largest polluter per person to do all we can to achieve that global response.

In recent years (most notably at Copenhagen in 2009), the prospect of a global response has seemed a distant one. That scene has dramatically changed, though, with China and the United States commencing strong action at home while also pushing for an ambitious agreement at next year’s Global Conference on Climate Change in Paris.

Next week, President Obama will release new carbon pollution limits for existing power plants. This follows the president’s release of strict pollution standards for motor vehicles and new power plants. The Obama Administration has taken this path after the US Congress refused to pass an emissions trading scheme in spite of it being co-sponsored by senior Republican, John McCain. This action will help ensure that the US achieves its target of reducing carbon pollution by 17 per cent by 2020 (its reduction already amounts to about 10 per cent).

China introduced a series of initiatives in 2013 designed to combat its dreadful air quality. These actions include emissions trading schemes in seven cities and provinces covering more than 200 million people, leading to a national carbon market in the next few years.

China and the US are now working closely to achieve a broader, global agreement. In February, they signed a statement recognising “the overwhelming scientific consensus on climate change”, “the urgent need for action” and “their commitment to contribute to successful 2015 global efforts to meet this challenge”. They, along with other countries, are pushing for this year’s G20 meetings to deal with climate change – a push being resisted by the G20 chair, Tony Abbott.

Australia is an important middle power in these global negotiations with a significant vulnerability to ongoing climate change. Last year, the rest of the world regarded Australia as a leader in strong and sensible action on climate change. Australians were engaged to help develop ETS schemes in China. The main global investment index for renewable energy placed Australia in the top four places to invest alongside the three powerhouses; China, Germany and the US. We should be working shoulder to shoulder with the US and China rather than trying to stymie a strong global outcome.

But, unfortunately, Tony Abbott is stuck in the past – still framing his approach to climate change against the disappointment of the Copenhagen Conference in 2009 and his own scepticism about the reality of climate change. The rest of the world is stunned that Tony Abbott is demolishing an emissions trading scheme while so many other nations are building theirs. Investors are fleeing the Australian renewable energy market as Tony Abbott destroys support for solar and wind power. The world is moving forward – with a strong resolve to achieve an ambitious agreement on climate change next year.

Tony Abbott’s resolve to take Australia backwards is a betrayal of our tradition as a constructive global player – and a decision that will cost Australia billions in new investment and thousands of clean energy jobs. 

Mark Butler is the federal opposition spokesman for climate change.