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Tony Abbott shoots Australia’s carbon economy in the foot

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When the Australian delegation was sent to UN climate change negotiations in the Mexican holiday town of Cancun three years ago, they were given strict instructions: On no account were any of them to be photographed in the swimming pool of the luxurious Moon Palace resort sipping tequila. Or any other drink for that matter.

At those talks, in 2010, Australia was seen to be playing a constructive role. It sent two ministers, then climate change minister Greg Combet, notable for wearing a real business shirt and riding a bicycle between appointments in the scattered expanse of the huge resort, and Mark Dreyfus, who had his training wheels on as parliamentary secretary.

In Warsaw these past two weeks, the much-reduced Australian delegation was also given strict instructions. On no account were any of them to be seen agreeing with any proposition or text that had anything to do with commitments to climate finance or increased ambition. Or so it appeared.

No minister was sent, and Australia gained notoriety for having two of its negotiators wearing t-shirts at a late night meeting. Poor nations, and even some developed countries, claimed they took great offence. But the reality is that no one would have given two hoots what clothes these negotiators were wearing if Australia were seen to be playing a constructive role in the talks. It was the brackets they kept inserting into the draft agreements that really offended.

As we noted earlier this week – Australia’s reputation as a constructive force at these negotiations has been trashed. The diplomats themselves are probably not to blame – t-shirts or not – they have simply had to work within very narrow ideological parameters set by the office of Tony Abbott and Foreign Minister Julie Bishop. The country’s role has been so obtuse that one delegate quipped it could even disqualify itself from membership of Cartagena Dialogue, the group of moderate countries it helped to found in Copenhagen in 2009.

Indeed, in the past few weeks, in Indonesia, Sri Lanka and in Poland, the new Abbott government has been bestriding the international stage with all the finesse of a drunk in a bar, knocking over chairs, offending bystanders, and throwing up repetitive slogans that most countries find incomprehensible.

The Abbott government – and the inner coterie of advisors that sets policies and controls the messaging – probably regards this criticism as a badge of honour. But it is equally likely that it has completely misread the mood of the international community, just as it apparently did with Indonesia and at CHOGM.

When the Coalition was last in government, such reversals of position might have been explained by the thought that climate change was something that happened to other countries. But that  is no longer the case. The Prime Minister of the threatened island of Tuvalu, Enele Sosene Sopoaga, on in his address to the ministerial section, lamented the return in its Pacific neighbour of “climate change denial”.  It’s an accusation that hasn’t been leveled against any country at these talks for several years.

Delegates here – be they official members of the government party, business types, or from environmental NGOs – are simply nonplussed by Australia’s backflip on climate change policies. The carbon price, the renewable energy target and the associated institutions have been the envy of most countries.  “What the hell is going on down there?” is a question that has been repeated over and over again in Warsaw.

Such is Australia’s apparent ineptness on the international stage that there is real concern about the progress of policies under the G20 mechanism that Australia chairs, and hosts, in the coming year. It had been hoped that the G20 would make firm efforts to eliminate fossil fuel subsidies in 2014. The Abbott government had fantasized that it could help bring the US and China closer to a climate agreement. Not only are both countries dismissive of Australia’s new climate change policy infrastructure and ambition, neither energy nor climate feature on the program drafted for the G20 by Australia.

In its only public comment at these Warsaw talks – a 2 minute speech to the ministerial plenary – Australia simply repeated the domestic mantra of choosing Direct Action over a carbon price as the most effective means of emissions reduction. It insisted it respects the science, but would only contemplate emissions reductions that were “fiscally and economically” responsible. (See full text here) Most observers who have calculated the cost of insufficient action believe that statement of Australia’s misses the point entirely.

Indeed, most people here think the Abbott government’s trashing of the Labor/Green policy suite is self defeating. Just hours after Australia shoved the repeal of its carbon price through the lower house, China hosted an event in Warsaw highlighting the new carbon trading schemes it’s deploying in the capital Beijing and the principal commercial hub of Shanghai next week. Chinese officials said they are disappointed and surprised at Australia’s move. They are convinced that the cheapest way to emission reduction is in market mechanisms.

Australia’s opposition to climate finance also beggars belief. There is actually little difference between the Abbott government’s proposed emissions reduction fund that it wants to be the centerpiece of its Direct Action policy, and the mechanisms such as the UN-sponsored Green Climate Fund and the Clean Energy Finance Corp that it opposes so virulently.

The only difference is that the ERF will be a cumbersome, government-mandated grants program, rather than a mechanism that can leverage significant amounts of climate finance that have proved successful elsewhere in the world. Australia is simply denying itself the mechanisms that will pave the way for investments in low carbon technology, something that it is likely to reinforce by diluting the renewable energy target. The country risks leaving its economy hopelessly exposed, when it probably has better resources, expertise and mechanisms of any other economy in the world.

As for the climate change talks in Warsaw, some form of agreeable text will likely be found, probably late in the night on Friday. These talks never fail, they just rarely pass the bulls*** test. There were never any great expectations for Warsaw, because of the venue and because they were designed simply to tie up loose ends and remove as many barriers as possible as the caravan moves on to Peru, and then hopefully to an agreement in Paris in 2015.

“In coming hours Australia will either help repair or further inflame both damaged diplomatic links and brittle climate talks that it has no doubt put in danger,” said John Connor, CEO of the Climate Institute. “We will be looking for constructive commitments on tabling of action pledges well in advance of the 2015 December climate talks and preferably in late 2014 as well as good faith and constructive positions on financing and Loss and Damage.”

Some environmental groups expressed their disgust at the lack of ambition at the “coal COP” by staging a walkout. They will be back in Lima, but the real test will come at Ban Ki-moon’s leader’s summit at UN headquarters in New York a few months earlier. That’s when the actions of China and the US could be decisive. There are still huge gulfs to bridge. It’s really up to them.

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  • alexander stollznow

    yes, it must be so annoying, dare i say shocking, for the reality-bubble attendees at these gab-fests, to have someone come along and represent the view on which basis they were elected into government. what’s the world coming to?

    • Johan Karlsson

      “Represent the view on which basis they were elected into Government”?! Only 13% of people who voted for LNP though the repeal of carbon pricing was the most important issue and 37% of Australians believe the carbon pricing should be repealed.

      The Coalition was elected partly because of a perfect media storm against (quite a successful Labor Govt in terms of policy execution) Labor, headed by News Corp and also because of their internal conflicts and inability to remain firm on their beliefs.

      • alexander stollznow

        whether or not it was the ‘most important’ issue is, as you would realise, completely irrelevant. the fact that some issue is ranked second in importance, or tenth does not mean that it isnt important to someone, does it?

        i am eternally amused by the way australian lefties insist that the the only reason voters could possibly dislike the Labor party is because News Corporation told them to. so how did the Labor Party become elected in the first place? are you really so up yourself that you believe voters like yourself are so because they are educated, logical and informed, but those who disagree just do so because a newspaper told them to? what about the blatant left biases of the ABC or Fairfax, or Green Left? am i to suppose that left bias doesnt have any effect, but right bias does?

        beyond that, quote all the opinion polls you like, but it was plain party policy, and they were elected. whether it suits your personal views or not, ANY party is fully justified in pushing ahead with what it said it would do, before it was elected. in fact, one will note that the world over, a common complaint about politicians is that they DONT do what they said they would do. now you are whining about a government doing exactly what it clearly and loudly said it would do. if, however, you think there should be an opinion poll conducted by incumbent governments before they do anything, i reckon you would find that a/ australia would never have had the carbon tax in the first place nor b/ a whole variety of things most parties do.

        for the benefit of non australia readers of this little corner of the internet, it is noteworthy that the carbon tax repeal is only possible because the party which instituted it, and pardon my emphasising it in this way, IS NOW VOTING IN FAVOUR OF REPEALING IT. quite funny, eh?

        • Johan Karlsson

          First of all, you said that the carbon price repeal was the basis by which they were elected to Government, so that’s what my figures oppose.

          Secondly, I’m not an Australian lefty but a Swede who aligns with the more right of the country in which I vote (although this is certainly not close to Australian right wing). Regarding right or left wing bias, I certainly think that what Murdoch did affected the outcome of the election by starting a momentum which drew most other media channels into the mix. Even the ABC, Fairfax and SBS reported daily on “govt failures”, much of which was because of how big those stories were made out in other parts of the media space.

          In terms of the specifics of the particular policy in question, it is quite clear that it is a bad thing for Australia to be repealing the price on carbon and to disassociate ourselves with global efforts to lower emissions. Electricity expenditure for households has been around 3.6% of disposable income for many years in Australia and this only changed up to around 4%. For business and households alike I say: Listen to the price signal.

          An ETS is the way to go. I even thought the fixed price for the first few years was a great idea, enabling reasonable funding to be allocated to renewable energy and clean energy finance. Labor changed its mind on the length of this fixed pricing period, and this alone, to go towards a market based mechanism instead. Fair enough, although I would prefer more funding to renewables and project funding.

          • alexander stollznow

            for a swede, you have more than a passing interest in australian politics, particulary trotting out this nauseating left wing mantra that they only lost because News Ltd affected the outcome. ALL media affect the outcome, and ALL voters are affected by what they read. all you know for sure is that the previous government pissed off quite a lot of australians, when then voted them out by a bigger margin than they previously voted them in. well, actually, they didnt vote them in previously anyway, right?

            if a party in opposition consistently says, over a couple of years, ‘if we are elected we will do X’, then when they are elected and they do X, it is quite apt to say ‘that was the basis on which they were elected’. if you choose to nuance those words in some special way, be my guest, but it was very well known and prominent proposed policy, and noone who voted Right could ever say they didnt support it.

        • johnnewton

          Mr Stollzznow, your reduction of this argument to the old left right binary would be amusing if it weren’t so dangerous.

          The planet doesn’t give a stuff about left and right, and, more to the point, it doesn’t really give a stuff about humanity. We could be flicked off at a millennium’s notice.

          Or we can take action to ensure our continuation on a beautiful planet. This is something that Mr Abbott and his inept cronies do not seem to understand.

          And left/right – last century’s battle over who owns the planet, bosses or workers – is totally irrelevant.

          Because nobody owns it. The real political battles should be over who will be the best stewards of our inheritance.

          And it sure as shit is the COALition

          • alexander stollznow

            john, we have a parliament with a Government and an Oppostion, and a Two Party Preferred electoral system. ‘left’ and ‘right’ are a reailty.

          • johnnewton

            Mr Stollznow you might recall the origins of the term ‘left’
            and ‘right’ wings: in the. In 1789, in the National Assembly of France,
            supporters of the king sat on the right of the president, and supporters of the
            revolution to the right.

            So from its beginnings, it was about privilege Vs equality.
            This has been rendered irrelevant in the modern world. Please tell me who is to
            the left and who is to the right in the following conflicts;

            China supports a free market solution to emissions trading: Australia
            supports a government (taxpayer) funded solution.

            Was Saddam Hussein left or right? The Taleban? The North
            Korean regime?

            I’d also be interested in how ‘left’ and right’ are, as you say, ‘enshrined
            in our governmental system.’

            As for your other points, I feel sorry for you if you can
            look at this planet and not see beauty: and the fact that Mr Abbott as you
            concur doesn’t care what might happen in 1000 years is only a statement of his
            pygmy stature. In actual fact, he cares about nothing but being leader. Now
            that he has attained that goal, he seems unsure as to the next step

          • Colin

            An excellent reply.

          • johnnewton

            Thank you Colin –let us try to keep the dialogue civil

          • Colin

            Again, well said.

            The only point where I differ with your analysis is in the fact that Tony Abbott doesn’t care about the future of the planet. I think that he genuinely believes that man-made global warming is, at best, greatly exaggerated and, at worst, a con. I think he doesn’t accept the science. Just as a local bus driver I know here is convinced that we never went to the moon. Yes, he really believes that. I guess that makes Tony Abbott arrogant rather than callous.

          • johnnewton

            Complex. Hard to believe a tertiary educated man with access to the information that he has to simply denies the reality. Probably a lot more complex than that. Check this piece by Anne Manne

            http://bit.ly/1j3lVwW

            A quote from it:

            “We are vaguely aware of choosing not to look at the facts, but not quite conscious of what it is we are evading.” – Stanley Cohen, State of Denial

        • suthnsun

          Alexander Stollznow, repeal of the carbon tax is one issue but if we leave that to one side the coalition did affirm its intention to maintain the emissions reductions targets package which was instituted with bipartisan support. The new government has moved the goalposts and effectively removed not only the possibility of increasing the target but also any hope of achieving the (ludicrously small) 5% target. So this is in fact a broken promise to the Australian electorate.

          • alexander stollznow

            very funny! i dont think we want to talk about ‘broken promsises’, do we? the PM before last categorically said “there will be no carbon tax on my watch” and then promptly agreed to the complete opposite of that statement to form a minority government. personally, i dont give a stuff about that: politics is simply about getting done what you can get done, and if you get the numbers, good luck to you. but THAT was a blatantly broken promise, for those who care.

          • suthnsun

            Tony Abbott cares and relentlessly pursued Labour on that issue (broken promise and lies). I am not discussing repeal of the carbon tax, I am referring to the commitment to maintain the bipartisan targets which were continually re-commited to in the election campaign. Now they are in government (and with a clear majority so no deals were needed) and yet they have moved the goalposts so that it rules out the increase to targets and (in my estimation and many others) makes it virtually impossible even to meet the 5% target. So that is a broken promise fair and square and in light of his continual assertions that he will break no promises and say what he means to do and do what he has said he will do, it is the great big lie as well.
            That is simply how I see it and I imagine anyone concerned about maintaining momentum for emissions reductions but inclined to vote LNP and comforted by their assertion of maintaining the same target would be entitled to feel aggrieved. I did not vote LNP in this instance, so for me this is just confirmation of my judgement.

        • RobS

          The elected coalition members have every right to vote for their policies in parliament as they were given a mandate to do that, what is ridiculous and partisan is this talk of mandates as though they want their policies rubber stamped. Well 47% of Australians voted for and gave a mandate to politicians who support a price on carbon to vote against a repeal. Tony Abbott now infamously said after the 2007 Labor landslide;

          “Brendan Nelson is right to resist the intellectual bullying inherent in talk of “mandates”. The elected Opposition is no less entitled than the elected Government to exercise its political judgment and to try to keep its election commitments.”

          To argue differently now in Government is rank hypocrisy.

          • alexander stollznow

            i, too, think the word ‘mandates’ is abused and annoying, and i dont use it myself, but i do note that if you get 47% of the vote, that is NOT a mandate by any definition. it is a “minority”.

          • RobS

            I would agree if we voted for a federal party, but we don’t, we vote for local representatives, and like it or not 55 Labor members were elected into the House of Representatives on a pro carbon price policy, they have a mandate to vote the way they promised their electors they would. That is what Tony Abbott meant when he said in 2007 that “Oppositions have a mandate too”. Every elected representative has been given a mandate, to roll over and vote for the other guys policies is a gross breach of that mandate, otherwise their is absolutely no point having an opposition and the election’s winner should just be installed as unopposed dictators.

          • Colin

            Good points and (in case it hasn’t been mentioned) the LNP didn’t get both Houses; which they would have it the Oz public wanted them to repeal the Carbon Tax. We all vote on more than one issue.

        • Samyasin

          The responsible opposition is prepared to acknowledge the unpopularity of the current fixed carbon price, despite the fact that it has worked very well with little impact on the cost of living. They will support a repeal as long as there is a credible alternative. So far no case has been made for the ‘direct action’ plan in terms of its ability to meet out international obligations, the bipartisan target, and, by all the analysis will be hugely expensive.

          • alexander stollznow

            let’s be blunt about it: they voted it in, now they are voting to repeal it.

    • MrMauricio

      What the world is coming to is succumbing to its own stupidity-based on reckless destruction of the natural resources and cycles that support our current way of life.The science is clear but fossil fools such as you seem to have a death wish to celebrate our inevitable decline.

      • alexander stollznow

        interesting comment, given that i confined myself to a statement about the reality of politics, and precisely nothing about the science of the matter. but as you bring it up, you may well like to feel superior to climate deniers, but they are no worse than the the other side, which is utterly in denial of the plain reality that nothing can or will be done anyway. the ONLY reason, for example, that european coal use has declined is a/ the recession they have heaped on themselves, and b/ substitution of gas. meanwhile carbon emissions are still increasing and there is nothing more than wishful thinking to see that change. in addition, the whole ‘end of civilization, end of the planet, end of life as we know it’ thinking is no less absurd, and emotive than people thinking climate science is a conspiracy.

        as far as i am concerned, both sides of the argument are delusional.

  • Miles Harding

    It really is an unbelievable situation!

    It is difficult to argue that the coal-ition’s position represents anything but opportunistic domestic politics and where the policies were framed by a universal opposition to the labor government. It is a very poor way to define a doctrine. This story is illustrating just how damaging this ‘pure opposition politics’ approach can be.

    The coal-ition policies were propelled by Tony Abbott’s belief that climate change is “all crap” and, consequently, any policies to seek deal with it are a left wing conspiracy. He has surrounded himself with coal industry hacks and dodgy advisers, who are famous for deliberately misinterpreting data, but who provide information that agrees with his ‘all crap’ dogma.

    Speaking of shooting the carbon economy in the foot, that carbon foot is in the country’s economic mouth. The regressive Abbott policies are all about restoring the country to prosperity of the mid-20th century. The fact this those days are now long done doesn’t enter into coal-ition thinking. The current time, while the new industries are being established, is absolutely critical and Abbott is perfectly positioning Australia to be bypassed by the 21st century’s green revolution.

    • Chris Fraser

      Yes, but he can’t help himself, the problem for Abbott is he is a train on a track. Back in 2012 the then government niggled him by saying his threats to take down the ETS were empty. It would be just typical of a swaggering fighter to forsake meagre understandings of consequences, and carry out the threats until the schoolyard taunts all stop. That’s part of bullying. When you’re king of the schoolyard heap, you can have other benefits like staring down the other kids, treating them with contempt, refusing to answer (ie be accountable) and form cliques of privileged people. A number of factors are required to be present in order to sustain this level of control. Take a couple of those factors away and you have the beginnings of despotism.

      • Miles Harding

        Yes, good points.
        And, like a speeding train on the track, it’s not going to stop just because the bridge ahead is out!

        • mike flanagan

          He also must pay the ‘piper'; the people who have financed his past three year campaign

          • Miles Harding

            Which reduces the coal-ition front line to sock puppets!