Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Political climate change in the United States

The Pew Center on Climate Change has a nice brief piece on what the recent US Congressional elections might mean for climate change policy in the US:

All told, given:

  • the US public's growing concern over climate change;
  • the climate measures of California and the northeastern states;
  • the growing sense in US industry that climate action is inevitable;
  • the past several years of momentum in Congress;
  • the recent election results; and
  • Sen. McCain's chances of being the Republican nominee for President in 2008

we are optimistic that enactment of mandatory US climate action is plausible by 2008 and likely by 2010.

The ‘wild card’ according to the Pew Center is potential Republican presidential nominee John McCain, who has been a strong climate action advocate and could galvanise support for climate change measures from moderates on both sides.

Howard embraces carbon trading?

Well, a week is a long time in politics and, as you’ve probably heard by now, the Australian Prime Minister, John Howard has announced that he’s setting up a government-business task force to investigate a carbon trading scheme.

The announcement came, rather appropriately, at a speech at the annual dinner of the Business Council of Australia, which represents big business:

I think it is important to keep the challenge of climate change in perspective. I share [the President of the Business Council’s] view that it is happening and although I have been accused and continue to be accused of being somewhat of sceptic on the issue, the truth is I’m not that sceptical, I think the weight of scientific evidence suggests that there are significant and damaging growths in the levels of greenhouse gas emissions and that unless we lay the foundation over the years immediately ahead of us to deal with the problem, future generations will face significant penalties and will have cause to criticise our failure to do something substantial in response…

I’ve indicated in the past that I do not intend to preside over policy changes in this area that are going to rob Australia of her competitive advantage in the industries that are so important to us and I repeat that commitment tonight. I do welcome the contribution that the Business Council has made and many other people in the business community have made to tackling this issue. Many of you will know that
over the past few weeks the Government has reiterated its broad approach and later this week I will meet some significant business figures, some of them are in the room tonight, who are involved in the resource sector to discuss aspects of the Government’s response to the climate change challenge.

I want to indicate to you tonight that the Government will establish a joint government business task group to examine in some detail the form that an emissions trading system, both here in Australia and globally, might take in the years ahead. I think it is important to involve the business community in an analysis of this issue because decisions taken by the Government in this area will have lasting ramifications for Australia’s business community. I think we all recognise that we have to examine in the time ahead how we might devise an emissions trading system which properly cares for and accommodates the legitimate interests, and therefore maintains, the competitive advantage that this country enjoys in the industries that are familiar to you…

Although couched in familiar pro-resource-industry language, this is something of a turnaround from the Australian Government and so people are understandably questioning whether it’s genuine. I think we should give the benefit of the doubt – that the Government is airing these issues must be a good thing. It is quite odd though, given that the Australian States set up a task force two years ago to examine this issue and invited the Federal Government to take part or, preferably, take the lead. (The Government refused to be involved). The States’ taskforce issued a detailed paper outlining a possible trading scheme in August and it would seem to make more sense for the Government to get involved in that existing process. But I guess the national mood is changing and Howard wants to be seen to be doing something himself – and perhaps he wants to have more control by having his own taskforce rather than joining the States.

It’s also important to note that Howard is talking about looking at carbon trading both domestically and internationally, and spoke repeatedly of "a new Kyoto". I’m sceptical about this. Australia has actively disengaged from global negotiations on climate change since 1998 and now lacks influence internationally to be talking about setting up a ‘new Kyoto’. The existing Kyoto Protocol has always been flexible enough to accommodate what the Australian Government wants (in particular, targets for developing countries, which were not part of the first commitment period from 2008-2012 but will be at least on the table after that) and its refusal to ratify was, in my view, based on politics, not on principle.

If this task force is to come up with something useful, it should concentrate on the area it can influence – that is, a domestic carbon trading system. If Howard genuinely wants a new Kyoto, I’d suggest it’s time to re-engage in global negotiations.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Costello on climate change: Back to the future?

The Sydney Morning Herald and ABC News today report a "softening" in the federal government’s opposition to carbon trading.

ABC News had this to say:

Federal Treasurer Peter Costello says Australia should be involved in a worldwide carbon trading system to tackle climate change... "I think, in Australia, we've got to keep a careful eye on this," he said. "I think the ground is changing. I think it is important that we bring new countries into this discussion. And I think, from Australia's point of view, if the world starts moving towards a carbon trading system, we can't be left out of that. We ought to be in there negotiating what this system would look like so that we protect our own interests obviously but also, we ensure that it's broad ranging, wide-encompassing and effective."

But Mr Costello says any new international system is still years away. "You're probably talking about the next decade," he said. "And, bear in mind, greenhouse is something that's believed to increase temperatures, say, two degrees over 50 years. I mean, the thing about greenhouse emissions is - all of the evidence is that they're emerging but it's not something that's going to emerge tomorrow. It's something we have to work out over 10, 20, 30, 40, 50 years."

According to the SMH:

Labor's environment spokesman, Anthony Albanese, said yesterday that it was bizarre that Mr Costello could not see the need for urgency in light of the Stern report and the rapid growth in the international carbon market, already worth $US30 billion ($39 billion). "They are so far behind the game. I think the Government is stubbornly refusing to acknowledge that they have wasted a decade," Mr Albanese said.
He has a fair point. The government is only now beginning to talk about considering international emissions trading. But this is what Alexander Downer, the Minister for Foreign Affairs, had to say in a speech in May 1998 – more than 8 years ago – just after the present government made the decision to sign the Kyoto Protocol that it now derides:

I am pleased to be here with you today to share with you my assessment of the opportunities and far-reaching role that international emissions trading will play in the successful implementation of the Kyoto Protocol. International emissions trading provides the means of harnessing the power of the market to provide cost effective solutions to emission abatement.

The Framework Convention on Climate Change agreed at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992 committed action by industrialised countries, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. However, by the first Conference of Parties to the Convention in Berlin in 1995, it was apparent that a different more specific and longer term approach was necessary. The Berlin Mandate negotiations were born and we were on the road to Kyoto.

Some argued then, as some still persist in arguing now, that as the science of climate change is still evolving, that we should simply just wait and see before taking action, either collectively or individually, to reduce the level of atmos-pheric concentrations of greenhouse gases… I and my colleagues in government were not prepared to do that…

In agreeing to play Australia's part in the global effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, our government accepted [the] precautionary principle. In the face of the current scientific evidence supporting global warming, to do otherwise would have been foolhardy…

The responsible approach, which the Australian government took, was instead to advocate an approach of equitable burden sharing or, differentiation, along with flexible implementation to make the climate change framework workable and sustainable over the long term...

And the Kyoto outcome, agreement to negotiated differentiated targets that reflect national circumstances, vindicated Australia's stand. We now have a framework that forms a sound basis for further elaboration. Securing agreement to an equitable distribution of the effort of addressing climate change through differentiated country targets, was a major step forward for the global community.

The Kyoto protocol is a major step forward. It is an agreement which provides the framework for environmentally effective, equitable and durable action to address climate change.

Kyoto though is but one step along the long term path. Critical steps still remain for the future. We need to fill in the details and make operational the far reaching market mechanisms we agreed in the protocol.

The provision in the protocol for emissions trading has altered production fundamentals... In providing for flexibility mechanisms, in particular emissions trading among industrialised countries, the Kyoto Protocol determined what would be the key driving force behind global emission abatement action...

While the Kyoto Protocol does not provide for developing country commitments, it does include provision for a clean development mechanism. The design of the clean development mechanism provides industrialised countries with the potential for low cost emission reductions, as well as providing significant economic incentives for developing country participation…

A final issue, which I'm sure will be the subject of much domestic debate, will be how any international regime might link with any domestic trading regime…

The challenge the government faced in the leadup to Kyoto was twofold: to contribute constructively to an outcome that deals with the problem of global warming and simultaneously to protect Australia's national interests. The Kyoto outcome has, I believe, the potential to deliver on both fronts.

So what happened? When did the federal government go off the rails and why is it only now beginning to consider ideas that it actively argued for during the Kyoto negotiations? And how will it justify its lack of action over the past decade?

Friday, November 03, 2006

Walk Against Warming

Tomorrow is the international day of action against climate change and I'd encourage you to attend the activities planned for your neck of the woods.

In Australian cities and many towns, there will be a Walk Against Warming, kicking off at 11 am.

I believe we should be getting the message to our national leaders, in particular the current federal government, that we need better responses to the threat of climate change than this:

Federal Tourism Minister Fran Bailey says using "shade cloth" over parts of the Great Barrier Reef off Queensland could protect it from the harmful effects of global warming.

Earlier this week, Britain's Stern report said climate change could cause a global economic downturn and bleach the reef.

Ms Bailey says the shade cloth idea came from a scientist who found that coral in natural shade was healthier than that in direct sunlight…

One of the suggestions is to attach the shade cloth to pontoons, which is an idea Ms Bailey says is worth considering if it will help protect the reef.

"We're very concerned because this is a $5.8 billion tourist industry on the reef, employing 33,000 people," she said.

For some context, the Great Barrier Reef stretches over 2,300 km along Australia's north-east coast. Covering 344,000 square km, it's almost one and a half times the size of New Zealand. That's a lot of shade cloth.