Climate change in Australia boils down to coal versus catastrophes

A coal mine in Australia (Source: BHP Biliton)

Coal accounts for 15% of Australia's exports (Source: BHP Biliton)

By John Parnell

The Australian position on climate change has ebbed and flowed in recent years.

Former Prime Minister John Howard ruled it out as a major priority saying the country would take its time in setting its own targets and “would not sub-contract its climate policy to the EU”.

One election later and liberal Kevin Rudd was the man in charge and he brought with him plans for a carbon emissions trading scheme in Australia. Just two and a half years later he was ousted from within his own party. The power of the country’s mining lobby was telling and fears for the nation’s climate change ambition were evident.

In came Julia Gillard. After a period of uncertainty for Mr Rudd’s carbon emissions scheme, Ms Gillard finally pushed the legislation through this month to much acclaim. A carbon price of A$23 has been set and the country’s top 500 polluters will all take part. During a recent visit, President Obama praised the system calling it “a bold move”.

This is a great boost Australia’s climate change credentials ahead of COP17.

“The carbon price certainly gives the Australian Government more credibility in the COP talks,” says Kellie Caught, national manager for climate change at WWF Australia. “There is now a mechanism to achieve the pollution cuts Australia has put on the table and potentially in the medium term, a revenue source for international finance.”

The country has in the past struggled with its conscience on climate change. Severe drought risk, a run-in with an Ozone hole and extreme weather events mean it is no stranger to environmental risk. In 2006 the country experienced its worst drought in 1000 years. The end of these dry events has increasingly been marked with major floods. Despite this, it has been slow to embrace the UNFCCC process.

Australia is the world’s largest exporter of coal. Mineral exports account for 35% of the country’s exports with 15% of that coming from coal. Unsurprisingly, that means the industry is a powerful political player. Not least of these is mining heiress Gina Rhinehart, the world’s richest woman and predicted by some to be the world’s richest person in the near future.

“The mining lobby has significant influence in Australia,” says Caught. “While it was unsuccessful in preventing the carbon price and other elements of the Clean Energy Bill from passing parliament, they did creating fear and confusion among the Australian public through a misleading A$10 million advertising campaign. This resulted in compromises in the carbon price scheme and it will have some influence on Australia’s approach at the COP.”

In addition to the Clean Energy Bill’s carbon trading scheme, the legislation has also introduced an emission target of 80% by 2050, compared to 2000 levels.

“This sends a strong signal to business and government departments that they need the policies, plans and investments to achieve this target, and sends a strong signal to the international community,” according to Caught. “We can have some degree of confidence now that Australia can achieve its pollution reduction targets, and it will drive innovation, investment and job growth in the economy along the way.”

The Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (ACCI) is not so confident. It conducted a survey of Australians that claims that most people were against a carbon price (or tax as they called it in their questions) and that most people thought it would jeopardise not create jobs.

Meanwhile, PM Gillard is working hard behind the scenes to open up new markets for the Australian Uranium mining industry that is currently working way under capacity.

While it is understandable that a government would not destroy a hugely successful industry, coal is not a commodity with time on its side. Nuclear energy on the other hand, looks set to grow. Although some nations have announced the closure of nuclear plants, there are plenty more lining up to expand generation.

Perhaps Gillard’s efforts in opening up the Uranium market can achieve the goal of cutting carbon, cleaning up a dirty economy and keeping the mining lobbyists in hand.

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