Rhein on Energy and Climate

Australia is one of the worst green house gas polluters on earth. With its population of 22 million people, a third of France, it emits annually 400 million tons of C02, more than France. Its per capita emissions are close to 20 tons, higher than any other country with the exception of Canada, USA and the UEA.

Thanks to cheap coal, oil and gas the country never had to worry about energy efficiency or security. Influential business interests in extractive industries did their part to prevent the government from putting a lid on the colossal energy waste the country has been indulging in for the past decades. It is therefore not surprising that its C02 emissions kept rising by more than 50 percent between 1990 and 2007, contrary to the Kyoto Protocol which provides for a cut of 5 percent between 1990 and 2010 for all developed countries.

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With the election of Kevin Rudd at the top a Labour government in November 2007, this situation was to come to end. The new Labour government undertook a volte-face of Australian energy and climate policy by signing and ratifying the Kyoto Protocol. After intensive internal preparation it introduced a climate bill in early 2009, providing for modest emission caps and an emission trading scheme.

The bill did not pass the Senate, where the Conservative Liberal Party holds the majority. The government reintroduced a mollified draft to win over conservative business interests after cutting a deal with the opposition leader in the Senate. This led to a leadership fight in the Liberal party which a politician opposed won. It was therefore normal that the Senate also voted against the amended draft.

This ends the government’s dream of presenting itself at Copenhagen with a legislative package, however inadequate. But Prime Minister Rudd has already pledged to reintroduce a bill in February 2010.

The Australian political quarrels about effective action against climate change mirrors the situation in the USA. In both countries Conservatives in the Senate are pitted against a House that shows more understanding for national and global interests.

There is little doubt that Australia will have to pass effective climate legislation in the coming months, provided the USA will adopt their climate and energy security act. It cannot afford to defy the world community on the single most pressing issue of the 21st century. Otherwise it will come under increasing pressure from peer countries in the OECD and emerging countries in Asia and from domestic business groups, which fear that Australia will miss the business opportunities that new energy technologies offer in the course of the century.

Indeed, Australia is able to supply essentially all its energy from solar and wind power, the generating costs for which will fall dramatically in the next few years thanks to further technological progress and economies of scale.

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It might therefore not be such a bad idea for PM Rudd to call anticipated election if the third try to pass climate legislation in February 2010 were to fail again. That would be the first major election campaign on earth fought on climate issues. And Rudd is pretty certain to win it considering the high reputation he enjoys with the electorate.

Brussels 02.12.09 Eberhard Rhein

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