January 4, 2011
In 2010, Australia has been haunted by two unprecedented natural catastrophes, a severe drought in February and a flood of biblical dimensions in December. The latter has flooded an area of the size of France and Germany combined, fortunately very sparsely populated, but still causing damage to agriculture in the order of $ 1 billion and temporarily blocking the export of coal.
These disasters have to be seen in the almost non-ending series of natural catastrophes, mostly droughts related to climate changes that have hit Australia in recent years.
It is therefore not surprising that Australian society has been more engaged in debating on climate change and how to react to it than most other countries. The political parties remain deeply split. On the one hand, the Greens call for a zero emission society by the middle of the century; at the other extreme the Liberal party, dominated by business interests, is more or less opposed to anything but symbolic action, leaving the Labour party in between, quite apart from its present green coalition partner.
With 21 tons/per capita C02 emissions Australia is one of the 20 biggest climate polluters on earth, due to energy-intensive industries, agriculture, long distances and low population density. Its main export products – coal, iron and other ores, wheat, corn and meat are energy-intensive. Its business community is therefore quiet naturally opposed to anything which would make these commodities more expensive by green taxation or emission caps.
But on the other hand, few countries on earth are so well endowed with solar and wind power as Australia and so easily capable of completely covering its energy needs from renewable sources, provided the government convinced the population to pay a substantially higher price for fossil energy sources.
So far all governments have preferred to close their eyes at the long-term consequences of the Australian consumption and production habits, taking pretext in the bad examples given by huge emitter countries like USA and china.
That is why Australia has for a long time refused joining the Kyoto Protocol and curbing its green house gas emissions. It also explains why a Labour prime minister had to quit office in the middle of 2010 after failing to get a draft legislation on emission caps and trading passed in parliament.
The Australian position on green house gas emissions remains extremely non-committal. Under the informal Copenhagen Accord of January 2010 the Labour government has pledged to reduce its emissions by at least five percent, and up to 15 percent (2020/2000) if major other emitter countries undertook similar commitments. This is next to outrageous, and only understandable in the national and international context.
One should therefore not expect Australia to become a band-leader in the fight against climate change. It will need many more natural catastrophes of biblical dimensions before the Australian business community and civil society will rise to the challenge. By that time, it may be too late for them to prevent durable damage to their precarious agriculture.
There is pretty little the EU may do to help Australians coming to terms with their dilemma, except possibly two actions:
• The EU Delegation in Canberra should organise an intensive information campaign about European climate policy, on which many miss-perceptions prevail among Australian society.
• The EU Commission should urgently invite the main emitter countries – China, USA, Korea, Japan, Russia, Brazil and Canada- for an informal brain-storming meeting to prepare the ground for the next climate conference in Durban.
Brussels 04.01. 11 Eberhard RheinAuthor : Eberhard Rhein