Where’s Greg? Combet nowhere on climate change
A notable absence from the climate change talks in Doha this week is Minister Greg Combet.
No personal offence to Mark Dreyfus, who as Parliamentary Secretary is standing in, but the absence of a Minister is a clear signal that despite the domestic rhetoric, the Government has low expectations of any outcome.
At a time when the Government is vehemently arguing that Australia is in line with the rest of the world with its carbon tax, the reality is quite different.
A quick survey of the major participants at Doha confirms this. The United States, following the presidential election, has re-confirmed on no less than three occasions that it will not introduce a carbon tax.
In perhaps an ironic contrast to the Australian election, where Julia Gillard ruled out a carbon tax a week before the election, the White House ruled it out a week after the election.
Indeed White House Press Secretary, Jay Carney, could not have been more categorical saying: “We would never propose a carbon tax, and have no intention of proposing one.”
As a consequence, the US administration has now made three things clear.
First, they will not be introducing a major new electricity tax.
The second point goes to the matter of trust. Having gone to an election with a clear “no carbon tax” position, the US government is determined not to break that commitment post-election.
Third, the White House believes climate change can be addressed, but through other mechanisms than a tax which hits middle class families.
This approach fits with the evidence from around the world, that as a mechanism for tackling climate change, the carbon tax is itself a failure.
This is because at its heart it is an electricity tax and therefore it aims to push up prices on a largely inelastic good. In short, lots of pain for very little gain.
When you look at Australia’s experience, people and businesses pay more but Australia’s emissions go up by 77 million tonnes between 2010 and 2020. As a policy to address climate change, the carbon tax therefore fails. It simply drives up electricity and gas prices.
Nor are other countries introducing schemes of the size and cost of Australia’s carbon tax.
In New Zealand, they are paying an equivalent of $1.11 per tonne of emissions, or one-twentieth of the Australian price. In South Korea, under their scheme, they are effectively paying nothing until 2018. In Europe, over the first five years of their carbon tax the average cost has been one dollar per person per year, while in Australia the total revenue raised is equivalent to $400 per person.
At present the scheme is in chaos, with radical plans to change it because many observers say that it is completely failing in its primary task of reducing emissions.
As for China, the truth is that it is going through the greatest growth in coal consumption in history. Any micro pilot carbon trading schemes, which in fact are yet to have even properly commenced, must be considered against the overwhelming increase in their coal consumption from 1.4 billion tonnes in 2002 to 7.5 billion tonnes in 2030.
This is not to say that climate change cannot or should not be addressed, but that other policies which are more effective are needed.
In the real world, there are three critical steps which Australia should promote through the Doha Conference.
First, we should establish the foundation for any future real global action through a process involving the big four players: the US and China, backed by the EU and India. Without that foundation agreement, everything else will be irrelevant. But with that foundation agreement almost anything is possible.
Second, we should encourage sector by sector action and agreements. This is a way of putting our steel and aluminium workers on a level playing field with their counterparts overseas. It is also a way of making sure that we do not simply export our jobs and emissions to China, to India or to Indonesia, in the process perversely sending up global emissions rather than pushing them down.
Third, we should be actively promoting a Global Rainforest Recovery Plan. Protecting the great rainforests of the world is not only the right thing to do for biodiversity, it is also the single biggest, fastest thing the world can do to reduce emissions right now.
Ultimately, the global experience is that the world is walking away rather than towards electricity taxes. At the same time, there is real movement towards practical action such as protecting the great rainforests of the world.
These are the things that can make a real difference and practical action should be the basis for Australia’s real agenda in Doha.
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