Yes, the world is paying attention to Australia’s climate inaction

That’s the title of my latest piece in Inside Story Opening paras

Like their counterparts in many other countries, members of Australia’s political class are frequently accused of living inside a self-regarding bubble. That’s certainly true when it comes to climate policy. But bubbles can be punctured by shocks from the outside, and one arrived earlier this month in the shape of a demand from the European Union, led by France, that Australia must make stronger climate commitments if it wants a trade agreement with Europe.

Before looking at the EU position, it’s worth considering how far removed from reality our political class has become. As bushfires raged through October and November, a bipartisan consensus emerged: any discussion of the relationship between the fire catastrophe and climate change, let alone any suggestion of a policy response, would be divisive and unnecessary. Many media outlets were happy to go along with it.

The same willingness to ignore the deeper issues extends to climate-related policy more broadly. As energy minister, Angus Taylor has repeatedly and egregiously misled the public about key aspects of his portfolio. He has denounced renewable energy, made spurious claims about the benefits of coal-fired power, and promoted the government’s claim to be observing our emissions-reduction commitments while vetoing any policy action that might promote that goal.

For all of this, he has had a free pass from Labor and most of the media. Their attention has been focused on a series of trivial scandals, culminating in the publication of a forged document used to accuse the Sydney City Council of hypocrisy. These transgressions may or may not cost Taylor his job, but their pursuit will do nothing to tackle the climate emergency.

More over the fold

This mindset helps explain why the sudden discovery that the world, including the European Union, is paying attention to our lack of action on climate — and may actually do something about — has come as such a nasty surprise. France has taken the lead in these demands, but there is no sign that they won’t be supported by any major EU member.

To recap: in line with its refusal to sign trade agreements with countries that have failed to ratify and implement the Paris agreements, the European Union is demanding a stronger commitment to reducing emissions as a precondition for any new trade agreements. In Australia’s case, it has also made more specific demands, including an end to our use of high-sulphur petrol, which is more polluting than would be allowed in India or China and is part of the reason why the government has rejected tighter fuel efficiency standards.

Australia’s trade minister, Simon Birmingham, has described France’s push to force Australia to adopt climate-change targets as “unprecedented.” It’s a claim that suggests he hasn’t been paying enough attention to his job. Far from being a novel demand, this is a standard part of the EU negotiating position, and Australia is unlikely to secure an exemption — particularly now we’ve been specifically identified as being unfit to speak at this week’s UN Climate Summit.

The European Union, again led by France, has made exactly the same demand of Britain in relation to any post-Brexit trade deal, and of the United States as a precondition for any trade agreement. Canada, which signed a trade deal with Europe in 2017, has recently agreed to add a joint commitment to the Paris agreement. The EU deal with Japan, also signed in 2017, includes similar terms.

With the American political system largely paralysed, the European Union has emerged as a source of global standards. We’ve seen one effect of this in our email inboxes, with organisations of all kinds rushing to comply with the EU General Data Protection Regulation by seeking explicit consent for their use of our data.

There is every reason to suppose that the same pattern will emerge in relation to climate clauses in trade agreements. One of the knottier features of these agreements is “rules of origin,” designed to prevent one of the signatories from exploiting an agreement by importing goods from a third country, repackaging them and then exporting them to their partner country. As one of the most notorious laggards on climate, Australia is likely to fall foul of these rules in relation to any country that signs or updates an agreement with the EU.

Of course, as long as the Trump administration remains in office, the effects will remain limited, particularly if China persists in its shift back towards coal. But if Trump is defeated, an incoming Democratic administration is unlikely to look kindly on his global allies, including the Morrison government. Moreover, with scepticism about free trade dominant in the Democratic Party, the United States will probably match Europe in refusing deals with countries that are cheating on their Paris commitments.

For Australia’s current leaders, the worst case would arise if Washington offered to rejoin the Trans-Pacific Partnership but demanded commitments on climate be built in to a revised deal. It’s unlikely, but by no means impossible.

The EU demand is a warning to our leaders that a climate policy based on appeasing culture warriors and narrow interest groups amounts to an attempt to cheat the rest of the world by free riding on their efforts. It won’t go unpunished for long.

9 thoughts on “Yes, the world is paying attention to Australia’s climate inaction

  1. This was bound to happen eventually. Our Government can obfuscate and “fool some of the people all of the time”, but the EU and other countries will comprehend and assess our actions accurately.

  2. The Paris agreement, as all previous agreements, have not let to the necessary cooperation among countries in reducing ghg emissions. In a sense, they are ‘cheap talk’ agreements. So, from a game theoretic perspective, the problem is to get from a non-cooperative game to a cooperative game. Cooperative games are characterised by ‘binding agreements’. The EU stance of introducing ghg emission reduction conditions into trade agreements is a step toward getting binding agreements. Another example is tariffs that are conditional on ghg emission components.

    I have noticed the local press talks about France. But trade agreements with the EU are agreements with the EU and not with individual countries within the EU. I have also noticed some commentators focus on France having a relatively large share of nuclear energy production, without saying that France has embarked on reducing nuclear energy and replacing it with renewables (wind, solar, and hydro). Germany had set itself an extraordinarily high reduction target, which she is unlikely to meet because of bringing forward the decommissioning of nuclear power stations.

    To the best of my knowledge, China is still not classified as a highly industrialised ‘rich’ country and therefore still gets some slack in the area of ghg emission reduction.

    I would not be surprised if tarrifs conditional on ghg emission reduction is the next step in getting cooperation.

    New problems require new answers; it is in the history of problem solving where the notion of precedence could be helpfully applied.

  3. As with the USA, Australian energy trends on the ground are less bad than the appalling policies of their central governments would suggest. As Andrew Blakers points out, Australia is a leader in installing renewables – it still ranks high in emissions in absolute terms because there is no legacy nuclear, negligible hydro, and a large and energy- intensive raw materials sector.

    From a distance, it looks as if electric generation will largely decarbonise itself from simple economics: the crucial policy gap here is transmission (Blakers again). The other policy gap is transport, where there seems to be no serious support for EVs. Has any Australian city committed to electric buses, which are already at cost parity?

  4. Ernestine you say; “”New problems require new answers; it is in the history of problem solving where the notion of precedence could be helpfully applied.”

    And the (age old imo) problem you state is “… to get from a non-cooperative game to a cooperative game”. To which I assume you see precedents.

    If new problems require new answers, can you please expand on what precedence – historical acts, methods, policies – can solve new problems with new answers.

  5. “From a distance, it looks as if electric generation will largely decarbonise itself from simple economics”

    We would need a revolution in storage to pull that off. Thats next generation. Second wave. If ever.

  6. KT2, yes the problem of getting from a non-cooperative game to a cooperative game is not new (as is the realisation that abstract theories often provide insights but not specific solutions and nothing works like a well tested recipe for an apple pie).

    My comment re ‘precedence’ was motivated by Minister Birmingham’s usage of the term, which I understood to mean he is saying past trade agreements did not include conditions of ghg emission reductions. I don’t disagree. I am saying the the argument is now irrelevant because conditions prevailing some time in the past are no longer empirically relevant.

    You want examples of historical precedence of changed conditions requiring a different answer. There was no need for road traffic rules before road traffic became heavy enough such that individually optimal road usage was no longer satisfactory. I new mechanism was required. It came in the form of traffic rules. While not perfect, these traffic rules, including traffic lights, suspended individual decision making and achieved a coordinated usage of roads by many individuals. In a sense it is forced cooperation via the mechanism of traffic rules, enforceable – imperfectly true – by fines.

    There are many other examples on national levels (compulsory schooling, taxation, ….). Climate change induced by ghg emissions does not respect national boundaries. New mechanisms have to be found to achieve at least a somewhat satisfactory degree of cooperation among nations and I say the EU is working on developing such mechanisms.

  7. Thanks Ernestine. Basically apply common sense! (-:

    We will have to await COP25 (where is Greta?) to finish. EU has plan to 2020 and enviro dg’s site says a new plan coming next year.
    As you say “conditions prevailing some time in the past are no longer empirically relevant.” so as agw rises up the exponential it would seem the EU may be slow and looking for a “new” nana’s apple pie recipie. Like democracy, it is the best (only?) coordination body we have.

    “EU environmental policy framework
    “DG Environment deals mainly with policy development and implementation where its work is guided by multiannual Environment Action Programmes. The General Union Environment Action Programme to 2020 (7th EAP) ‘Living well, within the limits of our planet’ guides European environment policy until 2020.”

    “Carbon markets
    Going into the conference, the most high-profile issue up for discussion was Article 6, the only aspect of the Paris “rulebook” that remained incomplete at the end of COP24. This focuses on rules for voluntary international trading of “mitigation outcomes” such as emissions reductions.

    “This section is seen as a critical part of the agreement as if it is handled badly, experts areconcerned poor accounting could result in large amounts of extra emissions being produced, with ambition weakened as a result.”

    And if asked to bet on which article was most contentious, my child could pick it… “was Article 6, the only aspect of the Paris “rulebook” that remained incomplete at the end of COP24. This focuses on rules for voluntary international trading of “mitigation outcomes” such as emissions reductions.”

  8. “Yes, the world is paying attention to Australia’s climate inaction”…
    AND mockery!

    Canavan needs a culture change advisor as the EU, France etc and even maybe the US as JQ notes, will see through Canavan”s thick face and black heart. He doesn’t try to hide his derisive comments when in “his virtuous” bubble megaphone. Dumb.

    “Ha!,” said Canavan. “Well Alan, it would not exactly be how I would like to spend my Christmas let’s just say that, but good luck to all those beautiful people who aggregate there.”

    “Obviously we need to have international meetings to discuss these things, but then there are all these hangers-on who seem to use this as a PR exercise to preen their moral vanity.”
    Graham Readfearn

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