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Australia, China and the new carbon climate

22 Nov 2014
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As the dust settles after the US–China climate announcement and Australia’s G20 climate debacle, a closer look at the Abbott government’s approach to international cooperation on climate change and economic prosperity

AUSTRALIA was once widely regarded as a nation that “punched above its weight” in international affairs. It’s a cliché, and not necessarily a helpful one, but it reflected a reputation gained over many years for constructive and influential diplomacy on many issues of global and regional significance. In one notable example, successive Australian governments — both Labor and Liberal–National — have played a leading role for more than thirty years in nuclear non-proliferation and arms control efforts. In the face of intransigence by the major powers (all of which had nuclear weapons), Australia applied its resources creatively and skilfully to achieve tangible benefits in the realm of peace and security.

Compare that with Australia’s approach to climate change — another issue of global importance for which major power intransigence has long been contrary to Australia’s, and the world’s, long-term interests. After a decade of near total inaction under the Howard Government, there were at least some improvements under Rudd-Gillard. With the expansion of the Renewable Energy Target and then, under Gillard, the creation of the Clean Energy Finance Corporation and a modest de facto carbon tax (which would have become a weak emissions trading scheme with a very low price as of 1 July 2015), Australia took some significant steps in a more proactive direction to moderate Australia’s domestically-produced emissions.

But Australia’s “sphere of influence” over global emissions is not limited to the ones that it produces on home soil, and the collective emissions saved from the Rudd–Gillard Government’s climate measures would have been more than wiped out by the massive expansion in coal and gas exports that it championed. This fossil fuel expansionism in the context of a rapidly dwindling “safe global budget” of “burnable carbon” ensured that Australia was still, all things considered, a global laggard. Moreover, Australia came nowhere near to fulfilling its potential in clean energy innovation, through which it could have played a global leadership role…

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2014
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