Monday, 6 June 2011

Climate for change

Adelaide Advertiser
25 May 2011, Page: 23

While Australian politicians variously run hot or cold on global warming, our UK motherland is putting its foot down. Carbon emissions there will be halved by 2025, British Prime Minister David Cameron promised last week. This puts our proposed 5% cut in the shade and our bickering very much in the spotlight. Prime Minister Julia Gillard is struggling to get her Parliament to agree global warming is real, never mind what to do about it.

She wants a tax on carbon; Opposition Leader Tony Abbott says that's "toxic" and he wants to plant more trees. Climate Change Minister Greg Combet was gushing after the UK announcement and probably more than a little envious. "The Australian Government welcomes efforts by the UK to increase the level of action it is taking to combat climate change", he said.

University of Adelaide climate change Professor Barry Brook says it would be a good idea to examine the UK energy policy and see how they hope to achieve such steep cuts in emissions. "Britain has come out with an extremely ambitious plan", he says. "They are going to have to have some strong policy underpinning that. "They're going to be picking technologies to drive forward. "One is to build a whole bunch of new nuclear power stations, as well as a large deployment of offshore wind (turbines)".

Australia, on the other hand, has set weak short term targets and stronger longterm targets, in the hope energy policy will be sorted out in the meantime. "There's the climate science imperative and then there's the reality of what Australia can do right now", Professor Brook says. "The White Paper on energy still hasn't materialised and until the carbon tax comes in, an energy plan isn't worth a lot really. "Australia seems to be waiting for all these things to happen before it does anything".

The British Government's 50% target is one giant step in its legally mandated commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 60% by 2030, and 80% by 2050. Most of the world's major economies have given undertakings on what they hope to achieve by 2020. For Australia, it's a 5% reduction on its 2000 emissions. The European Union promises between 20 and 30% on its 1990 levels, Japan and Russia are going for 25% over the same timeframe and the US is aiming for a 17% reduction on 2005 emissions. Britain's energy intensive industries, such as steel manufacturers, are warning the country risks making itself uncompetitive unless other European countries follow its lead.

They have pressured the Government to put in an escape clause that allows for the target to be dumped as early as 2014 if Britain's European partners fail to implement their own CO₂, cuts. Mr Cameron agrees. "It doesn't actually help climate change if you simply drive an energy intensive industry to locate in Poland rather than Britain", he said last week. "We believe that Europe should follow our lead and go for a 30% reduction".

Because Europe yet has to make the same commitment, Mr Cameron has sanctioned a review in 2014 "to make sure that if they are not on that pathway, then we shouldn't put ourselves on it too". The European Union's Climate Action Commissioner, Connie Hedegaard, says Britain's pledge is "an outstanding example of strong willingness to act despite difficult economic times". On Monday, Australia's Climate Commission declared evidence of global warming "beyond doubt". The commission's report advocates a different "pathway" to emission reductions which would support initially small targets, such as Australia's 5%.

"The budget approach sees far more flexibility so that your emissions might be far larger now, but with a payoff in the future and that's allowed for", says Professor Will Steffen, a climate science expert and the executive director of the Australian National University's Climate Change Institute, said. "You could be a big emitter but it's because you are building new infrastructure which in 10 years will see a big reduction in emissions. "It allows more flexible strategies".