30 September 2013 — The anti-climate stance of the Abbott Government could turn out to be not much more than pre-election rhetoric if global climate action pressures continue to build.

Analysis by The Climate Institute published in The Fifth Estate last week and in Fairfax Media on Monday – including a secret letter by Prime Minister Tony Abbott obtained by the institute under the Freedom of Information Act – shows the government is well aware it could be forced to ramp up its commitment to climate action.

Deputy director of The Climate Institute Erwin Jackson told The Fifth Estate that international pressures and the reality of climate change predicted by the IPCC will force the federal government to set higher greenhouse emissions reductions targets and that the government in fact supported stronger targets.

“Environment Minister Greg Hunt remains committed to emissions reductions “even moving up to a 20-25 per cent target, depending on what happens in other countries”, Mr Jackson said.

The government is also bound by legislation to commit to targets that will soon be recommended by the Climate Change Authority, or face strong targets that will kick in by default, Mr Jackson said. Environment Minister Greg Hunt has already acknowledged the Authority can’t be so easily dismissed, as the government flagged; its axing needs to be legislated and there are legal requirements related to its work that must be respected in the meantime.

For the property industry the government’s existing direct action package, based on funding the lowest cost emissions, could promise a windfall for energy retrofits of buildings. That’s if the McKinsey & Co cost curve proves correct – that emissions reductions through the built environment are cheap and quick. Another fillip for the built environment is a $9 million for climate adaptation and resilience.

Global pressures

On Monday Mr Jackson told Fairfax Media that, “the United States has committed to a 17 per cent cut on 2005 levels, which is equivalent to [about] a 20 per cent cut on 2000 levels.

“The average of what developed countries have committed to is somewhere between a 10 and a 12 per cent cut.

”Unless we are prepared to act in bad faith, we will be required to lift our target to a cut of at least 10, maybe 15 per cent.”

Professor Frank Jotzo of the ANU Centre for Climate Economics and Policy said in the report he agreed with this assessment, but that the repeal of the carbon price will create doubt about Australia’s position.

“Mr Jackson stressed that Australia’s commitment to doing more was not binding but was essentially a political commitment,” the report said.

See highlights of our report in News From The Front Desk No 161

The institute says on its website that in the last days of the election campaign the Coalition gave support to the caretaker ALP government signing on to the Majuro declaration at the Pacific Island Forum.

“This explicitly included the addition to its schedule Australian commitments to action, which included both this target range and the 20 per cent Renewable Energy Target.”

It also obtained a personal letter from Tony Abbott under Freedom of Information laws to the Prime Minister in 2010 outlining his direct support for Australia’s emission targets.

Jackson says that to meet the target it’s possible that the Coalition Government could regulate. Maybe in domestic appliances and cars.

“The Environment Minister would consider vehicle standards on cars; they’ve got a range of levers available.”

Much depends, of course, on how serious the government is about sticking to its policy, despite analysis that says it’s not capable of reaching even the five per cent target.

“They need to be showing their policy can actually deliver.”

The global pressure will be intense

Jackson says a big test for the Government will come in early November in Warsaw when Environment Minister Greg Hunt has to face his international colleagues for the United Nations Climate Change Conference.

“Will Australia be the first country in the world to dismantle a carbon trading system?” asks Jackson, with the Chinese moving ahead on their systems, many parts of the US doing likewise, and the Americans last week all but banning new coal fired power plants.

The International Panel on Climate Change report due on Friday will reveal almost complete certainty the Earth is in serious trouble.

There is a “range of movements” playing out everywhere you look these days.

Following is the full report from The Climate Institute, posted on its website on 5 September:

Despite speculation to the contrary and though re-commitments were muted, both major parties maintain their bipartisan support for 2020 emissions reduction targets of 5 to 25 per cent below 2000 levels. This is why the relevant test of the credibility of policies is the ability to achieve 25 per cent reductions.

Speculation has focused on the Coalition’s commitment particularly when Tony Abbott said that the Coalition would not spend more than already allocated on its Emission Reduction Fund (ERF). He and Opposition spokesperson, however, have continued to state their belief that the ERF will achieve the 5 per cent target. The Coalition’s 2010 “Direct Action Plan” stated that ERF:

“arrangements can be changed to meet the obligations of any global agreements to which Australia may become a signatory, or amended to reflect the approaches taken by our major trading partners and big global emitters.  The Coalition remains committed to its previously announced target range.” (p15)

This “target range” is the same as the Government’s, a position that dates back to 2009 and continues to this day. This was reaffirmed in the last days of the election campaign by the Coalition giving support to the caretaker ALP government signing on to the Majuro declaration at the Pacific Island Forum. This explicitly included the addition to its schedule Australian commitments to action which included both this target range and the 20 per cent Renewable Energy Target.

Below is a catalogue of some statements from Coalition leader Tony Abbott and climate change spokesperson Mr Hunt on their support for emission targets of between 5-25 per cent reductions on 2000 levels by 2020. Mr Hunt to his credit keeps talking about targets in the plural even in the last few days of the election campaign.

The Climate Institute obtained under Freedom of Information laws a personal letter from Tony Abbott to the Prime Minister in 2010 outlining his direct support for Australia’s emission targets. The key paragraph is:

While the approach is different, the targets remain and since Copenhagen have been entrenched in what has been progress in international negotiations. As such, these targets of up to 25 per cent reductions are promises made not only to Australians but also, with Coalition support, to other countries by inclusion in international agreements:

  • The Kyoto Protocol: In December 2012, Australia signed amendments to the Kyoto Protocol to take on a new binding emission reduction commitment from 2013-2020. This includes reference to the full target range and an undertaking to review the current minimum commitment to increase ambition in 2014. Taking on a second Kyoto commitment had in principle support from the Coalition.
  • United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change: In 2011, Australia submitted its full target range in line with all other major economies under the UNFCCC’s Cancun Agreements.
  • Copenhagen Accord: In 2010, Australia submitted its full target range in line with all other major economies under the UNFCCC Cancun Agreements.

 Fairfax Media that China had made commitments consistent with a 25 per cent cut:

“Now the United States has committed to a 17 per cent cut on 2005 levels, which is equivalent to [about] a 20 per cent cut on 2000 levels.

“The average of what developed countries have committed to is somewhere between a 10 and a 12 per cent cut.

”Unless we are prepared to act in bad faith, we will be required to lift our target to a cut of at least 10, maybe 15 per cent during next year’s round of international meetings.”

Professor Frank Jotzo of the ANU Centre for Climate Economics and Policy, agreed.

”By most yardsticks China and the United States now have significantly stronger targets than Australia’s,” he said. Committing to more, as Australia has said it is prepared to do, would send ”a positive signal about Australia’s commitment – that commitment is under a cloud of doubt following the announcement that the carbon price will be repealed.”

Mr Jackson stressed that Australia’s commitment to doing more was not binding but was essentially a political commitment.