On climate change, Australia can't lead from behind

By Dr Jacqueline Peel

The Rudd government is currently feeling the heat over its climate change policy. And rightly so. If Australia truly aspires to be a global leader in climate change law and policy, then the proposals put forward in the government's 2008 White Paper are no way to go about achieving this goal.

Much of the criticism and debate following the release of the government's White Paper has focused on the target of a 5 per cent reduction in Australia's greenhouse gas production from 2000 levels by 2020. On the science, the Greens and many others are right to condemn this target. A 5 per cent cut in greenhouse emissions won't save the Reef or many other iconic ecosystems in Australia and around the globe. If we are to avert dangerous levels of global warming, much deeper cuts – of between 25 and 40 per cent – are needed by 2020.

Moreover, the dominant thinking of the government in designing the scheme seems to have been that of pragmatism and politics, rather than principle. In addition to the modest 5 per cent cut, the scheme incorporates extensive payouts to large polluters, such as existing coal-fired power stations.

In Europe, where a similar approach was tried in the first phase of its emissions trading system from 2005 to 2008, such payouts were successful only in generating large windfall gains for these big polluters. Even the government's own climate change adviser, Professor Ross Garnaut, has been scathing in his assessment of the 'over the top' approach taken by the government to compensating polluting industry for the introduction of a carbon price. The result is that the government's carbon pollution reduction scheme is less implementation of the environmental law principle of 'polluter pays' and more an example of 'pay the polluters'.

In the broader context of the global challenge to tackle climate change, however, Australia's 5 per cent target and domestic scheme may be largely irrelevant.

Whatever scheme Australia adopts, it won't be able to solve the problem of global climate change by acting alone. As Professor Garnuat has stressed, a global solution is imperative. Consequently, Australia's efforts should be directed towards fostering a global solution, starting with the critical international negotiations on a 'post-Kyoto' climate change treaty, taking place in Copenhagen in December 2009.

If the goal is effective international action on climate change, then the real game is not so much our domestic 5 per cent target, but rather the target the Australian Government says it will adopt if a comprehensive global agreement is reached. In this respect, the White Paper pledges a mere 15 per cent cut below 2000 levels on the proviso that "all major economies commit to substantially restrain emissions and all developed countries take on comparable reductions to that of Australia".

This means that an Australian target of 15 per cent is conditional upon the world reaching an agreement that incorporates emissions targets for countries currently outside the Kyoto Protocol, such as the US. It also requires a firm commitment to reducing emissions from large developing country emitters, such as China.

The federal government appears to have little faith in the possibility of such an agreement emerging, describing the prospect as 'challenging'. Certainly, international negotiations on a new climate change treaty will not be easy. However, by putting down all its chips on a maximum 2020 target of 15 per cent, the federal government appears to have forfeited the game before the match has even started.

A commitment of at least a 25 per cent reduction in emissions by 2020 is needed if Australia is to be a real player on the stage of international climate change negotiations in the coming Copenhagen round.

Staking its claim as a true international citizen interested in an effective global solution to the problem of climate change is the only way in which Australia can hope to influence the negotiating positions of those countries, such as the US and China, that truly hold the fate of the world's climate system in their hands. On this issue, Australia cannot – and cannot afford to – lead from the back of the pack.

Dr Jacqueline Peel is an Associate Professor. She is an expert in the field of international environmental law and climate change law and was awarded a grant by the United States Studies Centre and undertook a research project in 2009: "Californian Climate Change Law – Lessons for Australia". For both number of ARC-funded projects commencing in 2009 and overall funding, Melbourne Law School was placed first out of all law schools in Australia.

This article originally appeared in MLS News, Issue 1, March 2009.