US-China climate deal leaves Australia wrong footed

This week’s agreement between the United States and China is a great leap forward.

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While it doesn’t go far enough to ensure we avoid catastrophic climate change, it shows the world’s two largest emitters can cooperate to make real progress on climate change.

It’s a positive start and undermines much of the conventional wisdom about the impossibility of an international agreement that has pervaded since Copenhagen.

It gives the world a fighting chance of reaching a binding agreement at next year’s Paris conference.

It also reveals the fantasy of our government’s climate change position.

While the United States and China account for more than 40 per cent of the world’s emissions, the next 40 per cent is largely made up of around twenty countries that individually account for between 1 per cent and 5 per cent of global emissions.  Australia is in this group.

Does anyone really think, when the crunch comes in Paris, we will get away with not doing our fair share?

We are a rich country, with one of the highest per capita emissions rates in the developed world.  When push comes to shove, Australia will either have to accept a greater level of ambition, or face being an international pariah. 

Assuming Australia isn’t content to become a pariah, the question is whether we have the right policies to drive our emissions down.  Sadly, we don’t. The government’s so-called Direct Action was a short term fix to get the Coalition over its internal battle on emissions trading.  Yet it is woefully inadequate.

If we are to seriously tackle climate change and avoid a two degree warming, we need to restructure our economy. So-called Direct Action puts Australia on a path to neither tackle the problem or modernise our economy. Australia’s five per cent emissions reduction target is woefully inadequate.

To put it into perspective, if Australia were to make a similar announcement to what President Obama has just made, we would need to aim to cut emissions by around 30 per cent by 2025.

What’s more, Direct Action is not the policy to get us there.  Scientists and economists agree it is unlikely to even get us to five per cent.  If it’s not going to make five per cent, there’s no way it’ll reach a higher target. As another handout to polluters, it won’t drive the economy-wide changes we need to make.

In other words, the government is wasting our time.  When we should be putting effort into the shift away from dirty fossil fuels, we are doing little.  So when the transition comes, and it will, Australia will need to act very quickly.

The transition away from dirty fossil fuels to clean renewable fuels requires substantial economic adjustment.  It won’t be magic, but it is necessary. This will inevitably create significant challenges for communities and workers directly impacted. It is the government’s job to ensure a fair and equitable transition takes place. And that policies to cut pollution and support clean energy ensure an orderly and efficient transition that protects families and communities in the process.

Putting a price on pollution is not only one of the most economically responsible and environmentally effective way to cut our pollution.  It is also, with the right accompanying policies, one of the most equitable. The US-China agreement points towards a world where Australia will have deep and binding emissions cuts forced upon it.

Unless Australia puts in place the policies to drive these changes early, the necessary transition won’t be just.  It will be hard and ugly; a jolt to the economic system. Australia must prepare and we must start now. 

Guy Ragen is a climate Campaigner for the Australian Conservation Foundation.