Side-by-side, the comparison doesn't look good.
News from the United Kingdom this week shows what is possible when political leaders work together in the best interests of a nation rather than tearing each other apart. Conservative UK Prime Minister David Cameron, alongside his Liberal Democrats Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg and the Labour Opposition Leader Ed Miliband, issued a joint statement committing the UK to serious, far-reaching action on climate change.
“Climate change is one of the most serious threats facing the world today,” the statement read. “It is not just a threat to the environment, but also to our national and global security, to poverty eradication and economic prosperity.” The three major British political parties then agreed to chart a common course to seek a fair and strong global climate deal which limits temperature rises to below 2C, and to phase out all unabated coal-fired power stations.
Some context is needed here. Britain is facing a general election in May as world leaders negotiate a global agreement in Paris this December which would see every country sign up to the global effort to avoid dangerous climate change and commit to real pollution cuts. This remarkable display of British bipartisanship ensures that whatever happens in May, the UK Government will play a leading role in securing strong global agreement.
The British have elevated climate change above the imminent churn of an election campaign, placing climate change where it should be on the national agenda: right in the middle, and above short term politics. Right now, it’s hard to imagine Australian politics reaching this level of bipartisanship.
To put it bluntly, both climate change and energy policy in Australia have been pushed around like a political football and are now in a state of chaos. Let’s go through the list.
The Renewable Energy Target is an open wound that is currently damaging both the government and the economy. Tony Abbott took something which was working successfully, pulled the rug out from under the industry, and is slowly suffocating the renewable energy investment in Australia. Renewable investment fell 88 percent in 2014, meaning we are now behind Myanmar and other developing countries when it comes to renewable investment. This is a mess of the Government’s own making. With the Prime Minister’s new commitment to ‘good government’ he should drop his Government’s unpopular and rather bizarre opposition to renewable energy.
The Energy White Paper is already months behind schedule. Its forerunner, the Green Paper, amazingly mentioned climate change just twice, and had little to say about renewable energy. Instead with its focus on removing barriers to mining, it positioned Australia as little more than a quarry, desperately clinging onto the polluting energy sources of the past.
The working carbon price was scrapped and the Direct Action scheme is behind schedule and seriously underfunded. The first round of auctions to determine which polluters receive their subsidy were due the first quarter of 2015. Last week, the Government announced the first auctions would not be before April. Updated modelling from Reputex revealed Direct Action would get Australia nowhere near our 2020 target without billions of dollars in extra funding.
Looming over all this chaos is the end of year Paris conference. The world is closer than we’ve ever been to finalising an international agreement which commits all nations to cutting carbon pollution. To get there, the UN is asking countries to announce what they are prepared to do and how much pollution they are prepared to cut in the years beyond 2020?
At the UN’s Lima climate change meeting in December, nations agreed to announce targets by the end of March. Immediately, Australia undermined this international approach by deciding on its own timetable. So we won’t hear what our government will take to Paris until June at the earliest – at least three months’ late. The European Union is going to announce in a few weeks, with the US and other nations expected to follow. We’re already being shown up as the odd one out in global negotiations – the recalcitrant, pugilistic bully at the back of the classroom.
The lead up to Paris will see significant international pressure come to bear on Australia. In late 2014, we got a taste of this pressure, when the US President pointed out we could do more, and we were criticised at Lima. This will only grow through 2015, as nations start to call Australia out as the ‘colossal fossil’ we are fast becoming.
In Paris, the Abbott Government is left with two options: defy the world, or come up with a climate change policy where we do our fair share of cutting pollution. I hope they choose the latter for the sake of all Australians.
The late Nelson Mandela once said that it always seems impossible, until its done. In that spirit of achieving the seemingly impossible, I look forward to the day that Australian political parties look to their political allies in the UK and make climate change an issue that transcends political cycles and ideologies. Mr Abbott and Mr Shorten, please take that great leap forward in bipartisan climate leadership.
Kelly O’Shanassy is the CEO of the Australian Conservation Foundation, a non-partisan environment group.