Climate Change Politics Floods Australian Parliament

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Australian farmWhen Kevin Rudd challenged then-Prime Minister John Howard for Australia's highest office in 2007, climate change was high on the national agenda. The country was suffering through a drought that some scientists said the continent had not experienced in 1,000 years.

Farmers were banned from irrigating their crops. The country's rice and cotton fields failed; livestock died of thirst. Prime Minister Howard, a hardened climate change skeptic, asked the country to pray for rain.

For many Australians, their prayers were indeed answered, although not as Howard requested. With nearly 53 percent of the popular vote, Rudd won the general election.

Less than two weeks later, Rudd signed the Kyoto Protocol as his first official act as prime minister. The move committed Australia to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions.

"My government will do everything in its power to help Australia meet its Kyoto Protocol obligations," Rudd promised in December 2007.

Twenty months later, Rudd and his supporters are struggling to overcome opposition from fossil fuel lobbyists and Green Party allies to pass national climate change legislation.

Many Australian politicians are bracing themselves for a parliament-wide re-election, which Rudd may initiate if legislators do not agree upon a response to climate change this fall.

An Australian Cap-and-Trade Plan

The proposed Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme (CPRS) would cut emissions 5 percent below 2000 levels by 2020  -an amount some 10 percent greater than 1990 levels. If the global community agrees to a successor agreement to the Kyoto Protocol during negotiations in Copenhagen this December, Rudd said his government would pursue a 25-percent emissions reduction target.

The cap-and-trade system would obligate about 1,000 of Australia's most polluting companies - those who emit more than 25,000 tons of carbon dioxide each year - to buy pollution permits for every ton they release. The government has proposed free credits for 25- 30 percent of polluters; the rest would pay during a government auction. Each ton of carbon dioxide would initially cost AU$10.

The policy would also cut fuel taxes to help offset increases in fuel prices that may result from the new carbon price.

Despite an intense campaign from the Rudd administration - a federal study released less than two weeks before a crucial Senate vote found that three of the country's most prominent icons, the Sydney Opera House, the Great Barrier Reef, and Kakadu National Park, could all be irreparably damaged unless greenhouse gases are contained - the Senate rejected the legislation.

Conservatives and industry associations said the proposed legislation would excessively damage the economy, while environmentalists denounced it as insufficient to curb emissions. In the end, 42 of the 76 Senators defeated the bill. The Parliament is scheduled to debate the law again in November.

"This bill may be going down today, but this is not the end," Climate Change Minister Penny Wong told the Senate before the August 13 vote. "We will bring this bill back before the end of the year because, if we don't, this nation goes to Copenhagen with no means to deliver our targets."

Australia, home to about 21 million people, is relatively small compared to the world's major greenhouse gas emitters. But the country relies heavily on coal for its electricity, a major reason why emissions are projected to reach 120-percent of 1990 levels by 2020 [PDF], according to business-as-usual scenarios. Energy-related emissions rose some 35 percent as the market for Australia's raw materials skyrocketed between 1990 and 2004. Australia is the world's largest coal exporter and fifth largest exporter of liquefied natural gas. China and other Asian countries are the main destinations of energy-intensive Australian exports. 

Meanwhile, Australia - already the driest inhabited continent on earth - will likely experience reduced rainfall, higher sea and land surface temperatures, more severe storm events, and rising sea levels as results of climate change, according to the Australian Department of Climate Change.

Renewable Energy Policies Spread

Before Rudd's election, the Australian government expected the country to achieve net emission reductions mainly through land use changes, such as deforestation, to offset the burgeoning combustion of fossil fuels. Ever since, the national government and regional administrations have passed policies to accelerate low-carbon energy use.

Australian Capital Territory and the states of South Australia and Queensland passed feed-in policies - payments that guarantee renewable energy providers receive a set price for electricity generation over an extended period of time. Queensland, the nation's major coal-producing state, last week banned all new coal-fired power stations that were not "ready" to capture and store carbon dioxide emissions (a still unproven technology, scientists say). 

In addition, the Parliament approved Thursday a renewable energy law that requires that renewable sources supply 20 percent of the country's electricity by 2020.

Previously, the Mandatory Renewable Energy Target (MRET) set a target of generating 9.5 billion kilowatt hours of electricity, which the government expected to achieve by 2010. The new standard provides AU$22 billion (US$18.5 billion) of investment support for the renewable energy industry to produce 45 billion kilowatt hours of renewable energy by 2020.

"We anticipate that around 800 megawatts of additional renewable energy capacity could be built each year, which is sufficient to provide the energy needs of over 450,000 typical Australian homes," said Miles George, energy managing director of Infigen Energy, a wind energy generator, in a statement [PDF].

The renewable energy policy was originally included in legislation that proposed a national emissions cap-and-trade system. In recognition of widespread support for renewable energy, and intense controversy surrounding the cap-and-trade proposals, the Rudd administration struck an agreement with the main opposition party to split the energy provisions from the bill.

A "Double Dissolution" Threat

More than 60 percent of Australians support Rudd's emission trading plans, according to a Sydney Morning Herald poll. Yet conservatives lambasted its estimated AU$12 billion (US$10 billion) cost. Energy-intensive industries warned that the policy would lead to large-scale unemployment unless they received handsome transitional support. Environmentalists said such assistance, in addition to the low price the government has set on carbon, serves as disincentives for the industry to reduce emissions.

"The CPRS, as the federal government's main policy response to climate change, ignores the science, perversely rewards big polluters, and will result in Australia's greenhouse gas emissions continuing to rise," a coalition of environmentalists wrote in a June report.

When Parliament returns its attention to climate change in November, the Rudd administration has urged legislators to reach an agreement. If not, the Senate may face a new election.

According to the Australian Constitution, if the House of Representatives twice passes a bill and the Senate twice rejects it, the prime minister may advise the governor-general, the Australian representative of Queen Elizabeth II, to dissolve both houses. The move would force all parliament members, Rudd included, to face an early election next year. A "double dissolution" has not occurred since 1987.

Supporters of swift climate action are hoping the government can avoid such a measure.

"It is time for both sides of politics to put political point-scoring aside in the interests of the future of our planet," said Rev. Eleni Poulos, spokeswoman of the social justice arm of the Uniting Church in Australia.

Ben Block is a staff writer with the Worldwatch Institute. He can be reached at

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