As Malcolm Turnbull heads to Paris to represent Australia in what is shaping up to be the most important global climate summit since Copenhagen, two items of news today should give him something to think about on the plane.
The first is the news that Opposition Leader Bill Shorten is committing the Labor Party to an emissions reduction target of 45 per cent by 2030 – a target almost twice that set by the Coalition, and in line with the advice of the Climate Change Authority; advice the Coalition summarily dismissed.
Shorten has chosen his timing – and his words – carefully, farewelling the PM with the observation that he is “flying to Paris carrying Tony Abbott’s climate-sceptic baggage.”
“The Prime Minister will walk onto the aerobridge with a pathetic target in one hand and an expensive joke of a climate policy in the other,” Shorten will say in a speech delivered to the Lowy Institute today.
He refers, of course, to the Coalition’s Direct Action policy – a policy Turnbull himself has variously described as a “fig leaf” over emissions reduction and “a recipe for fiscal recklessness on a grand scale” – and its low-ball emissions target of by 26-28 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030.
“No one has delivered a more incisive critique of Direct Action than the current prime minister,” Shorten will say in the speech.
“He had the courage to tell the truth when he was a backbencher, with nothing to lose. Yet now, when power is in his grasp and the evidence is in front of his eyes, he cannot admit what he knows in his heart and head to be true.
“To my mind, this is actually far worse than scepticism. This is selling out the future of the people of Australia, to placate the right wing of the Liberal party.”
In his speech Shorten will commit to setting a new 2025 target within the first year of a Labor government, and to reintroducing an emissions trading scheme to meet its targets, but with little further detail on how this would be achieved.
Obviously, the party’s nominal 50 per cent renewable energy target by 2030 – also criticised by business groups and the Coalition for its potential economic cost – would play an important role in carbon reduction.
Whatever the detail, Labor’s emissions commitment, based on a 2005 base year, goes beyond promises from Japan (25 per cent) and exceeds the US (41 per cent) and Europe (34 per cent).
Shorten will also announce the longer-term goal of zero net emissions by 2050 – a goal that federal environment minister Greg Hunt has said would be possible “over the course of the century”.
As The Australian was quick to point out, Labor’s target “would come at a bigger cost to the economy, by trimming future growth when compared with a business-as-usual scenario.” The paper has also suggested the target risks a backlash from business groups.
Modelling done for the government by leading economist Warwick McKibbin compared a 26 per cent, 35 per cent and 45 per cent reduction target with the costs of doing nothing beyond 2020.
It showed the 26 per cent target would shave between 0.2 and 0.4 per cent from Australia’s gross domestic product in 2030; a 35 per cent target would cut 0.3 to 0.5 per cent, and a 45 per cent target would cut between 0.5 and 0.7 per cent.
The second development that should give both Turnbull and Shorten pause for thought is the resurfacing on Friday of the open letter, penned by the President of Kiribati, calling for a global moratorium on all new coal mines.
The letter – which first appeared in August, when Tony Abbott was still in charge in Canberra – will be re-published in this Saturday’s Guardian UK and in this month’s global edition of New Scientist magazine.
In it, Anote Tong argues that “the construction of each new coal mine undermines the spirit and intent of any (climate) agreement we may reach, particularly in the upcoming COP 21 in Paris.”
And in a supporting statement today, The Australia Institute’s chief economist, Ricard Denniss, puts it a little more bluntly.
“The world will not succeed in keeping temperature rise under 2 degrees if it continues to construct new coal mines,” Denniss said.
“The massive expansion of Australian coal mining and exports simply contradicts any claim that the country is interested in combatting climate change.
“If Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull insists on heading to Paris with the view that Australia can build massive new coal mines and maintain credibility on climate action, he should not be surprised if he finds a hostile audience,” he said.
It’s a strong argument, and one that the leaders of Australia’s two major parties – both of whom have openly supported major new coal mine development in this country – need to factor into their climate thinking.
It’s also an argument that’s gaining momentum. On Thursday, nine prominent Swedes, including world leading scientists, economists, a Mayor and an Archbishop, signed an open letter published in Dagens Nyheter backing No New Coal Mines.
But as Denniss notes, “You don’t have to be a Nobel Prize winning economist or scientist to understand that digging up and burning more coal means more emissions and more climate change.
Although, as he also notes, high profile public support of the idea has helped put it on the agenda before Paris. How leaders like Turnbull – and Shorten – respond to the pressure remains to be seen.