It’s probably just as well that Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott is visiting Canada this week. Given Barack Obama’s long awaited delivery of meaningful climate policy, it’s an appropriate time for a meeting of the minds between Abbott and his Canadian counterpart and policy doppelganger, Steve Harper.
Abbott has based nearly his entire anti-climate and anti-renewables strategy on what he and his conservative advisors have learned from Canada and Harper. Abbott borrowed the “axe the tax” slogan (used widely in the campaign against a carbon tax in British Colombia), the single-minded promotion of fossil fuels, the tearing down of renewable energy support, the sabotaging of international climate changes talks, the marginalisation of science as an input into government policy making, and the defunding of research.
For a few years – from within the narrow prism of neo-conservative/far right ideology – this seemed like a terrific idea, particularly if you convinced yourself that the climate science was an invention of the left, and that international efforts towards a global treaty could be easily derailed. Or that fossil fuels would remain supreme indefinitely.
This week, though, Abbott and Harper got another reality check in their single-minded goal of digging up all possible fossil fuel resources within their borders.
Obama is finally delivering on his long promised regulation of coal emissions, and is aiming for a 30 per cent cut in power emissions out to 2030 – through a combination of reduced coal output, more renewables and greater energy efficiency. That will not just help in delivering the US target of a 17 per cent cut in emissions by 2020, but also lay the groundwork for meaningful cuts post 2020. This is a crucial element of international negotiations.
Obama’s move comes hot on the heals of China’s move to curb coal consumption and impose regulations that may see it cease to become an importer of thermal coal within a few years. China has also signaled that it will parlay its state-based carbon trading pilot programs into a national scheme by 2018.
As China looks to double the amount of wind capacity, and treble the amount of solar over the next few years, even India’s new government has promised to deliver solar lighting to every house by 2020. They know that is not possible with coal-power, because of the costs and infrastructure involved.
This is the fundamental economic flaw in Abbott’s strategy. Last week he said there was nothing more damaging to Australia than leaving coal in the ground. Asked in parliament on Monday by the Green’s Adam Bandt about whether he was the “Chamberlain or the Churchill” of climate change, Abbott said:
“If we are going to have economic growth – not just in this country but right around the world – it will require energy. It will require energy, and by far the most efficient and effective source of base-load energy is coal.”
Apparently not. As much as moves towards international treaties are more readily derailed, action is more likely to happen on a national or regional basis, and the economics of coal is likely to be its death-knell, rather than its saviour.
Still, on the issue of international talks, this move is significant. As The Climate Institute’s John Connor says, we’re now seeing both the United States and China—the world’s largest economies and its biggest emitters of greenhouse gases – stepping up their efforts to cut carbon pollution.
Nick Mabey, from the TCI’s equivalent in the EU, E3G, agreed: “With this announcement Obama has clearly attached his political legacy to delivering domestic action on climate change. These regulations are the environmental equivalent of Obamacare and will stir up similar levels of opposition.”
Indeed, the next stop on Abbott’s tour is to the US, where he will instantly recognise the politics. The centre and the left pointing out the economic and environmental benefits of the policy, and the cost savings to consumers, and the conservative right and incumbent industries wailing about the threats to business models, added costs, and the insidious nature of government interference.
The irony is that just six years ago, the Republicans went to the presidential poll with an even more ambitious plan than Obama’s. Republican candidate Senator John McCain proposed a cap-and-trade plan that sought to reduce emissions by 66 per cent by 2050. Even running mate Sarah Palin signed on to the idea.
The Union for Concerned Scientists said Obama could actually go much farther than he has. The nine north eastern states participating in the (much maligned by the right wing) Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative carbon trading scheme have already cut emissions by about 40 per cent since 2005. They are projected to reach a 50 percent cut by 2020, while benefiting from the investment of millions of dollars in carbon revenues, and hundreds of thousands of new jobs. In Massachusetts alone, the state has created over 80,000 new jobs in clean energy in part because of its investments in energy efficiency and renewables.
Abbott, of course, will remember that the Howard government sought re-election in 2007 with its own cap-and-trade plan. Abbott, himself, endorsed the idea of a price on carbon, although he favoured a tax, rather than a market price. That remained bipartisan policy until Abbott was delivered by the Liberal’s Far Right faction as leader in 2009.
Since then, the conservatives in the US and Australia have been in lockstep on fighting initiatives to address climate, encourage renewables or phase out coal. Abbott would have been impressed with the rhetoric expressed in response to Obama’s initiative.
Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell described the new rules as “a dagger in the heart of the American middle class;” something called the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity said it would spark the next energy crisis. Senator Jim Inhofe, the US equivalent of Australia’s Senator Cory Bernardi (and a frightening number of other Australian Senators) said it was just another green plot, while another right wing group labeled the EPA as a “terrorist” organisation, while others described it as a war against coal.
A war it may be, but probably one that the coal industry has brought upon itself. The best way to reduce coal pollution is to burn less coal. There was, once, an apparent alternative – to develop carbon capture and storage. But the coal industry clearly saw that as little more than a marketing term and now admit it would never work.
That calls for new strategies to defend their patch, to resist the growing “divestment” push, and to trivialise concepts such as the “carbon bubble” and its estimated $30 trillion of at-risk revenues. This story highlights the range of fossil fuel interests and front groups that have been marshalled just to fight renewable energy initiatives in the US. No doubt, then, Abbott will return from north America with fresh instructions and ideas from his conservative brethren of what to do next. They are not about to lie down.