The tar sands of Canada. What PM Abbott’s new bestie, Stephen Harper, does in his backyard

By Lynne Blundell

17 June 2014 – It’s good to have a bestie when times are tough. A bestie, aka best friend, will stand beside you when you feel like the least popular kid on the block, will reinforce those ideas of yours that everybody else thinks are ridiculous, and back you up when you have to stand up to the big kids in the gang.

Prime minister Tony Abbott must be very pleased to have a new bestie in Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper. Dropping in to see him and getting all those gun salutes and pats on the back before facing the big boys in the US would have given him a much-needed boost.

Canada, another fossil fuel rich nation, is the only country in the world – under Harper’s leadership ­– to have withdrawn from the Kyoto protocol. Like Abbott, Harper believes climate change is a bit of a nuisance.

Another key date en-route to Washington was dinner with Rupert Murdoch. No doubt Murdoch is very high on Abbott’s bestie wish list and the New York dinner was another important pat on the back before his visit to the White House to meet with the US president, Barack Obama.

He’s probably going to need a lot of these pats on the back in coming months.

Australia is hosting the G20 summit later this year and as the host Tony Abbott wants to remove climate change from the agenda. He has expressed the view it would “clutter” the agenda and take time from other more important matters.

As the deadline for the G20 approaches, it is becoming clear that Abbott is increasingly isolated in his views on climate change. Where other leaders are stressing the importance of tackling climate change for future global prosperity and, well… survival, our prime minister is saying the opposite.

On his recent visit to Canada  Abbott repeated his views that he did not support emissions trading or carbon pricing and that climate change should be tackled in a way that doesn’t “clobber” economic growth. His Canadian counterpart backed him all the way.

Climate change high on global agenda

President Obama, by contrast, has promised to slash emissions from existing coal-fired power stations in the US by 30 per cent and proposed using US leadership to secure co-ordinated global action on climate change. He also supports putting a price on carbon and letting polluters work out a way to minimise their costs.

Given his support for putting a cap on carbon emissions, President Obama is unlikely to be impressed by Abbott’s claim that the US plan is similar to the Coalition’s direction action policy, in which polluters would be paid from general revenue to reduce emissions. Abbott was widely quoted in the media on the subject during his visit to Canada:

“I am encouraged that President Obama is taking as what I regard as direct action measures to reduce emissions. It is very similar to the actions that my government proposes to take in Australia.’’

Shanghai solar panels

The day after Obama announced his proposed scheme He Jiankun, chairman of China’s Advisory Committee on Climate Change, announced China would introduce an absolute cap on carbon emissions by the end of the decade.

According to a Reuters report, Jiankun told a conference in Beijing: “The government will use two ways to control CO2 emissions in the next five-year plan, by intensity and an absolute cap.”

While Jiankun is a high-level government adviser rather than a government official, his statement is in line with recent policy changes in China, including its program to remove aging, high-polluting vehicles from its roads, starting from July 1, and its shift away from a reliance on coal.

A recent report points to China’s move away from coal to gas and renewable energy, with president Xi Jinping committed to diversifying the country’s energy sources. The move is seen as a solution to China’s dire environmental problems as well as a way of getting the lead on Western competitors in emerging energy sectors:

“China’s coal consumption only increased 1.85 per cent between 2012 and 2013, compared to an annualised growth rate of 8.3 per cent between 2002 and 2011. On the other hand, the country’s demand for natural gas increased 15.4 per cent in 2012 and 13.9 per cent last year,” the report stated.

“Meanwhile, the country has experienced explosive growth in renewable energy production, with wind and solar power increasing 35.3 per cent and 122 per cent respectively in 2013. At the moment, nearly two thirds of China’s energy consumption is powered by coal. Beijing wants to reduce that reliance to 52.4 per cent by 2023.”

China is already the world’s largest builder of wind turbines and the largest producer of solar photovoltaic cells.

Some commentators believe new commitments by both China and the US could see an historic coming together of the two countries to lead negotiations for a global climate change agreement. Many will be poised to see what happens at the next key meeting seeking such an agreement in Paris in December 2015.

Indian business leaders also reacted positively to the US announcement, with one leading Indian industrialist saying he hoped it will usher in an era of India-US cooperation on low-carbon growth strategies.

“The announcement by the Obama administration that the US will cut carbon emissions from its power sector affirms that the US is serious about climate action, which should have ripple effects in India and around the globe,” Jamshyd Godrej, chairman and managing director of high tech engineering company Godrej & Boyce, said in a statement issued by the World Resources Institute, of which Godrej is also a Board member.

US action and the ripple effect

According to a report in the Economic Times, the White House Administration also believes the US’s firm action to reduce carbon emissions is likely to have a flow-on effect to countries such as India.

US Deputy National Security Advisor, Ben Rhodes told reporters the US Climate Action Plan put the US in a strong position, together with G7 countries, to “work with nations like China and India and others who have to similarly take bold action and articulate how they are going to reach their emissions reduction target as well”.

Abbott has placed much emphasis on the need for other countries such as China to do more to cut emissions before Australia commits to higher cuts. But data from the World Bank shows that per capita there is a huge discrepancy between energy use in countries such as the US and Australia and developing parts of the world.

In 2011 the average US citizen consumed the equivalent of 7032 kilograms of oil a year, compared to 2029 per person in China.

Renewable energy in Finland

In Scandinavia they’re really serious

Meanwhile, in Scandinavia programs to cut carbon emissions are par for the course. Finland recently announced a new Climate Change Act that will put into law a long-term mitigation target of 80 per cent emissions reduction by 2050.

In a statement released on June 5 Finland’s Environment Minister Ville Niinistö said the new law would place Finland on a path towards “a position as a pioneer of low-carbon society”.

“Through the Climate Change Act, Finland strives to be at the forefront of building a successful low-carbon society. The act merges ambitious climate policies with economic success and the improvement of well-being,” Niinistö said.

“Climate change and the efforts to mitigate it will change the world and human activities substantially in the coming decades. The Climate Change Act will improve the operations of the public sector in terms of smart societal planning, so that Finland will still remain competitive while we work to reduce climate emissions.”

In addition to the emissions reduction targets, the core elements of Finland’s Climate Change Act include a planning and monitoring system, and measures to clarify the climate policy planning of state authorities. It will cover the mitigation of climate change and adaptation to it.

Australia lagging behind

All this makes Australia’s five per cent emissions reduction target by 2020 look pretty paltry. It also puts Abbott on the spot for his statements that Australia should not act on climate change until the rest of the world does so.

Not only is the Abbott government not following the lead of other nations, it is doing its utmost to unwind all progress made by the previous government in addressing carbon emissions. The list is substantial and includes:

  • Abolishing or planning to abolish the Climate Change Authority and Clean Energy Finance Corporation and Australian Renewable Energy Agency and carbon pricing mechanism
  •  repealing substantial legislation relating to carbon pricing for the aviation industry and synthetic greenhouse gas
  • appointing a known climate change denier, Dick Warburton, to head the review of the Renewable Energy Target scheme

A report released this month paints a bleak picture of Australia’s record on addressing climate change. The report, Review of international emissions trends and policy developments, undertaken by Vivid Economics for WWF, looks at Australia’s performance relative to six of its key trading partners: the US, China, Indonesia, the EU, Singapore and South Korea. It reveals Australia lags behind:

  • four out of six countries for reductions in the energy intensity of the economy between 2005 and 2011
  • all countries for which data is available on vehicle energy efficiency
  • three countries in terms of reductions in the carbon intensity of its energy consumption
  • four out of five countries on renewable energy capacity growth

 The report found Australia increased its renewable energy capacity by 32 per cent between 2005 and 2011, adding 3000 megawatts.

In percentage terms, this was the second lowest of all countries in the sample with China achieving a 153 per cent increase and the EU a 73 per cent increase. In Australia, a one per cent increase in GDP over the period was associated with just a 1.5 per cent increase in renewables capacity, the fifth lowest out of the six countries. In the EU and US, a one per cent increase in GDP was associated with a 3.2-3.9 per cent increase in renewables capacity.

WWF-Australia’s Climate Change national manager Kellie Caught said it was clear Australia’s trading partners are shifting to low carbon economies while Australia is lagging behind.

“If we don’t take stronger action we could risk our international reputation and economic competitiveness,” Ms Caught said.

The Australian public appears to agree.

The annual Lowy Institute poll, released in early June, showed 63 per cent of Australians think Australia should be taking ”a leadership role on reducing emissions”. Only 28 per cent said the government should wait for international consensus before acting and only seven per cent said it ”should do nothing”.

So whether climate change is on the G20 agenda or not, Tony Abbott can’t avoid the issue indefinitely. No matter how many accolades he receives from those who want to maintain the fossil fuel status quo, the rest of the world is moving forward and Australia is rapidly being left behind.

Lynne Blundell is a freelance writer and journalist. She is a co-founding editor of The Fifth Estate and specialises in writing about sustainability in the built environment, and also writes about design, technology, health and finance.

lblundell@thefifthestate.com.au