A foggy 2020 vision: The politics of climate change in Australia

That a Tory British daily could write seriously about Earth Overshoot Day shows how far the climate debate has moved in the last 20 years. Without a murmur of criticism, The Telegraph reported growing world population and increasing consumption was pushing the world ever deeper into ‘eco-debt’, quoting new statistics on global resources. From Earth Overshoot Day until the end of the year, we will meet our needs only by liquidating stocks and accumulating greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere. By mirthless coincidence, 2010’s Earth Overshoot Day is this Saturday: the same day Australia goes to the polls to choose from mostly uninspiring policies to deal with the problem.

The Day is a creation of New Economics Foundation, a radical thinktank which aims to “construct a new economy centred on people and the environment”. With their funding from anonymous sources and the support of governments, they combine research, advocacy training and practical action. They say ecological overshoot is at the root of the most pressing environmental problems we face today: climate change, declining biodiversity, shrinking forests, fisheries collapse, and underlying many factors in the global food crisis.The Earth Overshoot project compares all the food, fuel and other resources consumed by humans against the ability of the biosphere to cope with the loss. Like a Doomsday clock they calculate daily profit and loss to come up with the mathematical day of the year we will overspend our inheritance. Ten years ago NEF calculated we were already in trouble with our ecological freehold running out in November 2000. By 2008 Earth Overshoot Day was coming in on 23 August, a hundred days on the wrong side of the ledger. When the clock was reset for this year’s experiment, it calculated an extra two days debt making payment due on 21 August.
Earth Overshoot Day is gimmicky, like the election on the same day. Its subject matter reminds us of the elephant in the room of Australian politics: an economic and ecological catastrophe if the country does not move from a carbon economy. Only the Greens have anything approaching a comprehensive plan to achieve this massive task but they will likely attract only one vote in every ten. Their policies of 40 percent reduction on 1990 levels by 2020 and zero emissions by 2050 remain unpalatable to the vast majority of voters.
The two major parties have far less grandiose targets. They are unwilling to advocate the difficult choices that might affect large sections of the population  and are also hamstrung by state-based brands in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth too wedded to the wealth and jobs of fossil fuel industries. They must also deal with powerful lobby groups and a point-scoring media that promotes short-term consumer benefits over the country’s longer-term needs. Leading politicians fear raising a head above the parapet lest they be wedged by the combined weight of opposing parties, PR and the press.
In 2007 the Climate Institute measured Labor and Liberal election policies. The Institute’s modelling showed both parties have failed to propose a set of measurable policies to halt the rise in pollution, let alone enact the substantial reductions required by 2020. It was impossible to judge what might happen after 2020 as neither side had a substantive policy in that area.
Things have gotten worse in the last three years. In 2007 Rudd and Howard promised to bring in an ETS if elected. No such consensus exists in 2010. Labor’s policy on climate change is in Chapter 9 of their 2010 election platform. It acknowledges “climate change is the most dangerous long term threat to Australia’s prosperity”. It commits Australia to anything from 5 percent to 25 percent reduction on 2000 emission levels depending on a “global agreement”. It has a target of 20 percent renewable energy by 2020 (a target introduced by the Howard Government in 2001).
It does not commit to any firm policies beyond ten years. Labor said it is committed to reducing Australia’s carbon pollution by 60 per cent on year 2000 levels by 2050 but has no idea how to get there. It will create the Australian Centre for Renewable Energy, to support research development and demonstration of renewable technologies, and a Solar Flagships Program to create an additional 1000 mw of solar power generation capacity in Australia. Given Queensland has 9000mw of coal fired power capacity it does not seem enough to deal with the national problem.
“Labor recognises the science of climate change is continuing to evolve and a deeper National 2050 target may be necessary to act in concert with international effort to reduce carbon pollution,” their manifesto reads. This is another excuse for delay – the science is evolving but a clear and unambiguous pattern of gas warming is emerging. It still promotes a CPRS to provide an economic platform for climate change but refuses to say when it will be re-presented to parliament.
The last CPRS vote proved the downfall of Liberal Party leader Malcolm Turnbull and put the “human weather vane” Tony Abbott in charge of the party’s climate policies. Though it is far from a majority view in the party room, the Liberals have many high profile climate change doubters who think the science on global warming has been concocted by an international cabal with leftist leanings.
This view is countered by hardheads within the party who hate the green movement but acknowledge there is a problem. The Liberal policy on the environment and climate change awkwardly straddles both views in its meaningless title “Direct Action Plan”. These plans, they say will reduce CO2 emissions by 5 per cent by 2020 based on 1990 levels without a CPRS. They will establish an Emissions Reduction Fund to provide “incentives” for older power stations to reduce emission “in an orderly manner.” It may be orderly but is slower than Labor’s as they only commit to a 15 percent Renewable Energy Target by 2020.
The Liberals are slightly more honest than Labor in admitting the size of the problem. They note the conservative responses of the Australian states and other parts of the world including Europe, the Americas and Asia. They also have more practical measures than Labor. But there is one glaring omission. Nowhere does it say what must happen after 2020. There is no back-up plan for the likelihood emissions will continue to increase in the next ten years. Tony Abbott’s party does not appear unduly worried when Earth Overshoot Day will fall in 2020. Here’s hoping it doesn’t coincide with an early election date that year.
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