Thursday, November 02, 2006

Is Australia's position on climate change changing?

While John Howard has continued to say alarming things which suggest that global warming may not be serious, his Government has started to move in response to public opinion. We have had a slew of recent announcements, although some of them are merely the announcement of projects under pre-existing programs.

Howard is the ultimate pragmatist, and will take further action to reduce carbon emissions, promote alternative energy etc in the run-up to the election he faces by the end of 2007. This will happen because climate change has ignited as a political issue here, according to a range of recent polls.

One thing the Australian Government has relied upon to defend its refusal to ratify the Kyoto Protocol to UNFCCC is that Australia was, in any event, going to meet the extremely generous (108% of 1990 levels) emissions target for the 2008-2012 First Commitment Period. While there is now apparently some danger that we will exceed this target, I gather Australia will come far closer to meeting Kyoto obligations than many EU countries and the US.

The Australian Government has a reasonable point that Kyoto is not the answer. We need far deeper cuts to carbon emissions than Kyoto implies, and we need a system that is binding on China, India, Brazil and the other economies who are exponentially increasing fossil fuel use. Howard is right that imposing restrictions on our economy while major economic competitors have no restrictions will hurt our economy. Unfortunately, he (and the electorate until now) has been blind to the far bigger cost of inaction, possibly because it is well beyond his political lifetime.

I agree that ratifying the Kyoto Protocol is symbolically important as a demonstration of acceptance that there is a problem and that we are prepared to take domestic action. But we need to focus on a post-Kyoto regime that will make deep cuts to global emissions. An Australian official is co-chair of the UN process that is trying to secure agreement on the possible architecture.