Are our leaders missing the turning climate worm?

Tony Abbott and Kevin Rudd both appear to have missed the fact that the worm has turned on climate change attitudes, with concern growing as the carbon tax scare campaign wears off.

Climate change and the economic implications of the ignorance or acceptance of the realities of international carbon action snuck into Sunday night's debate.

It is important that the opposition leader’s position on climate science and human’s contribution was clarified. While his recent commentary regarding carbon markets was extraordinary, his acceptance that humans are contributing to climate change and that you need “strong and effective policy to deal with it” is critical in assessing the credibility of the Coalition’s policies on offer.

It was also an important reminder to the Press Gallery and many others that this is not a debate about how either party can achieve 5 per cent reductions on Australia’s 2000 emissions levels by 2020. Both parties have endorsed a target range of up to 25 per cent reduction, dependent on global action. The primary climate policy credibility test lies in the ability of the policy to achieve 25 per cent reductions and to sustain deep reductions thereafter.

Both parties have also accepted, along with 190 other countries including the US and China, that avoiding two degrees global warming over pre-industrial levels is a crucial goal for international efforts and negotiations. As the developed country most exposed to climate change, helping to avoid two degrees warming is in Australia’s national interest. 

By acknowledging that “we will act accordingly,” Tony Abbott acknowledged that he may need to do more than 5 per cent. With his continued rejection of the international realities of carbon pricing and other policies, he signalled that will be a tough ask, but it doesn’t change the commitment to the full target range. 

This commitment has been made not only to Australians but also to the international community in the UN climate negotiations and inscribed in decisions regarding the Kyoto protocol and in post Copenhagen meetings in 2010, 2011 and 2012.

At a recent Grattan Institute seminar, Greg Hunt reaffirmed the Coalition’s commitment to that target range and the conditions it shares with the government.

Coalition attempts to dismiss the extent of international action and the fact that other countries are embracing carbon pricing and emissions trading schemes may be sustainable during the election campaign, but simply will not be sustainable thereafter.

The Climate Institute and other experts such as Professor Garnaut, The Grattan Institute, ANU and others continue to highlight there is action happening internationally and the 5 per cent target is insufficient. There are emissions trading schemes growing in places like China and South Korea, let alone California and elsewhere. 

Does the reluctance to acknowledge the extent of action reflect an uncertainty of the Coalition’s ability to achieve stronger reductions?

The Coalition, if elected, will have to face up to this reality in key international meetings starting just two months after the election with the next UNFCCC meeting in Warsaw.  Importantly Tony Abbott himself will need to confront this, through leaders meetings in 2014, such as the G20 meeting and a special climate emissions leaders meeting being called for September in New York by Ban Ki-Moon.

Australia will simply not be able to hide from the action others are taking and will be transparent in whether it will be helpful or harmful in its climate diplomacy and negotiations.

Kevin Rudd mostly remained in the cost of living cul-de-sac which has dominated his announcement of bringing forward the emissions trading scheme. His comments on more gas reducing energy costs added fantasy to this fragility. While his concern about climate risks to the Reef are laudable, he should also highlight risks to infrastructure, food prices and insurance premiums.

As our assessment with the World Resources Institute of the government’s policy highlights, the current carbon laws can help achieve the 25 per cent reductions but you need to do more if you are to take the Australian economy into a less emissions intensive – carbon productive phase. 

Kevin Rudd referred to this sleeping issue of economic competitiveness and productivity in June’s Question Time but also on Sunday night in reference to China’s carbon pricing initiatives.

As the Grattan Institute’s Tony Wood, Professor Garnaut and many others document, China is doing more than just implementing pilot emissions trading schemes. It has a host of other regulatory policies and clean energy investments outstripping those in the US.

This action is a risk for Australia’s high carbon economy but is also an opportunity if we adopt a new way beyond traditional resource use, embracing the technical and renewable resource opportunities so abundant here in Australia. 

Remarkably on Sunday night Channel Nine’s worm clearly disliked talk of axing the carbon tax and lifted when there was discussion of climate action. This reinforced the findings from our Climate of the Nation 2013 research which found that climate attitudes were emerging from the shadows of the carbon tax and looking to leadership and the economic opportunities of climate action.

Are both our leaders missing the fact that the worm has turned and are stuck in cost of living and tax debates of 12 months ago? Sunday night provided some important insights into this, but also some insight into the challenges ahead.

John Connor, CEO, The Climate Institute – see the Pollute-o-meter for assessments of party policies.