Rhein on Energy and Climate

The landslide victory of the Australian Conservatives in September 6th parliamentary elections risks having negative ramifications for Australian and global climate policy.

One of the priorities of the new government will be the repeal of the unpopular carbon tax, which has been introduced in July 2012 by the outgoing Labour government and is credited with generating higher energy efficiency and substantial reductions of CO2 emissions.

Climate policy has traditionally been a divisive issue in Australia, which is badly hit by climate change, especially through rising temperatures, droughts, wild fires and floods.

It is one of the worst polluters, with an annual 18 tons CO2 per capita emissions – twice the EU level!

But the country is also ideally fitted to provide essentially all its energy needs from wind and solar sources, provided the government adopts a courageous long-term strategy for the development of such sources. So far, powerful coal interests have prevented this.

The previous Labour government had done the country a great service by targeting a substantial reduction of CO2 emissions until 2020 through carbon pricing and taxation.

It may be more difficult than it seems for the new government to repeal the carbon tax:

It will need the consent from the senate, and the Greens are ready to fight against it. Before 1 July 2014, the government must decide on a legally binding cap on CO2 emissions by 2020. This decision must be based on a recommendation by the ‘Climate Change Authority’ and take into account the need for Australia to contribute its fair share to the international effort towards containing climate change and keep global warming below two centigrade.

The new government will therefore have to propose effective alternatives to the carbon tax. Voluntary reductions of emissions will hardly do the trick, even if the government seems prepared to subsidise them with limited budgetary means.

Last not least, Australia has taken a commitment to join the last phase of the Kyoto Protocol, which also obliges it to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions.

Prime minister-elect Tony Abbot will therefore have a tough time explaining to his citizens and the international community how he will reduce the exorbitant level of CO2 emissions without ambitious 2020 caps and effective implementation.

It is here that the EU has a role to play. In its 26 June meeting EU foreign ministers have agreed to make use of their diplomatic network to promote joint efforts in combating climate change and help frame national debates, especially with strategic partners, through public diplomacy and other tools.

There is no time to be wasted. The EU Delegation in Canberra should prepare a comprehensive assessment of the climate policy perspectives after the elections. On that basis the EU should rapidly engage in bilateral talks.

The two sides share the long-term need to replace fossil energy by renewable ones. Australia had planned to join the EU emission trading system by 2014, which would allow the government to get rid of the carbon tax with substantially lower charges for the coal and power industry. Australia can also benefit from the support schemes for wind and solar power put in place by several EU member states.

The next few months will be a test case for the effectiveness of a strengthened EU climate diplomacy. The next international climate conference taking place in Warsaw in early December, offers ideal opportunities for intensive talks with China, USA, Japan, Australia, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Brazil, Indonesia and other main polluters.

Eberhard Rhein, Brussels, 13/09/2013

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