Australia’s climate policy: The widening reality gap

Image: Australia’s Federal Treasurer, Dr Jim Chalmers

The global warming problem seems increasingly insoluble. The past record shows growing gaps between ambition and achievement, decreasing time in which to act, and governments, including Australia’s, stubbornly sticking to policies that have failed to stop emissions growth. Clues to the reasons behind this can be found in the Treasurer’s address to the Melbourne Institute’s 2023 Economic and Social Outlook Conference (Melbourne, 2 November 2023).

The substance of the Treasurer’s address concerned the “energy and net zero transformation in [Australia’s] economy”, described as “a major policy focus” of Cabinet. Bringing emissions down to net zero is a vital aspect of the climate emergency response. However, the Treasurer had other reasons to prioritise net-zero; including, encouraging capital to flow to those parts of Australia’s economy which deliver strong returns for investors; broadening and deepening Australia’s industrial base; and boosting productivity and making Australia’s economy more dynamic and more competitive.

In the near term the Treasurer is focussed on the domestic energy transition, but in the medium and longer-term, he says, net zero will help Australia “become a renewable energy superpower”. Achieving net zero “is all about [Australia’s] broader industrial, export and innovation potential, [its] comparative advantages in energy, and [its] ability to make our supply chains more resilient”. Oddly, net-zero policies are expected also to improve “Australia’s national security and economic resilience” and to support “the strategic objectives of [its] global partners”.

He rightly points to the enormous potential for renewables in Australia and to a notable number of initiatives already in play to increase generation, distribution, and storage. The government has six sector decarbonisation plans for Australia’s economy in energy, industry, agriculture, transport, resources and the built environment. All good.

The Treasurer envisions “the private sector will do most of the heavy lifting – but existing market structures won’t always cut it – especially when we’re trying to create new markets and transform old ones”. Here lies the nub of the problem. This positive and ambitious agenda is designed to “realise the economic potential presented by the net zero transition” and to “secure the productive and prosperous transformation of [Australia’s] economy”. However, the overwhelming reason for achieving net-zero as quickly as possible is the need to reduce dramatically the greenhouse gases (GHGs) entering the atmosphere and reducing the harm from global warming to future generations.

“Investing in the drivers of growth and productivity, so we create more opportunities and lay the foundations for future prosperity” is futile if emissions are not mitigated as fast as possible, and not just in Australia but through global cooperation, and technology and financial transfers. There is no sense in the Treasurer’s address that net zero is a global objective towards which Australia’s contribution is necessary but nowhere near sufficient to avoid the climate crisis currently enveloping the world.

The omission of any mention of adaptation by the Treasurer and talk about “[Australia’s] medium and longer-term ambition to become a renewable energy superpower” gives no indication that the urgency is appreciated. While the Treasurer was delivering his speech millions of tons of GHGs were entering the atmosphere and storms, droughts, fires, floods, and famines were plaguing the world. The surrounding seas won’t protect Australia or Australians.

The prioritising of economic growth has been a constant framework within which nations have shaped their climate policies for the past two decades and will undoubtedly be so again at COP28 in December. The failure of this approach that favours financial incentives, leveraging private capital, and faith in technological innovations to achieve emissions reduction is starkly evident in the Emissions Gap Reports (EGRs) published by the UN Environmental Programme (UNEP) in support of the climate conferences.

Summarising a decade of EGRs a 2019 paper observed that “Despite a decade of increasing political and societal focus on climate change and the milestone Paris Agreement, global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions have not been curbed, and the emissions gap is larger than ever”. Unless nations significantly increase mitigation actions, the summary warned, “exceeding the 1.5°C goal can no longer be avoided, and achieving the well-below 2°C temperature goal becomes increasingly challenging”.

EGR2019 claimed “the major transformation of our societies and economies…can still happen”. But it also cautioned that there is a “stark choice”: either “set in motion the radical transformations we need now, or face the consequences of a planet radically altered by climate change”. By 2020 the UNEP was urging “that stronger action must include facilitating, encouraging and mandating changes in consumption behaviour by individuals and the private sector”.

By 2021 the UNEP was complaining that “Climate action so far has been characterised by weak promises, not yet delivered”. It stated that the world “cannot keep doing the same things and expect a better result”. The world faces imminent existential peril to humans “as a species”. Last year’s EGR declared “We are in a climate emergency”. Even the full implementation of all global mitigation commitments, and this scenario “is currently not credible”, point to a 1.8°C rise.

UNEP reports are only the tip of the epistemological iceberg with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, NASA, the World Meteorological Organisation, numerous dedicated academic journals, and a library of monographs further highlighting the urgency of the task.

Reaching net-zero is not driven by economic imperatives but by what the hard science is saying about the consequences of continuing to release greenhouse gases. The timetable for getting to net zero should not be a function of how economic growth can be protected, but determined by the amount of harm that the current and future generations can avoid. It cannot be left to the hope that private capital and markets will prove to be up to saving millions of lives.

Of course the ability of citizens to house and feed themselves and provide a future for their children is important. But the Treasurer’s address ignores the reality that costs avoided now will be magnified when visited on future generations. Where is the radical action that is called for?

Copyright Mike Scrafton. This article may be reproduced under a Creative Commons CC-BY-NC-ND 4.0 licence for non-commercial purposes, and providing that work is not altered, only redistributed, and the original author is credited. Please see the Cross-post and re-use policy for more information.

Also published in John Menadue’s Pearls and Irritations.