Australia turns up the heat on climate change?

“Australians should be proud of what we are achieving at home to meet the climate change challenge” Alexander Downer in the Age this morning. Is he right? UPDATE: CSIRO and BoM report on the future for Australia

Well, let’s start by looking at Alex’s undoubtedly powerful evidence …

“Last month, Prime Minister John Howard announced that every school would be eligible for help to install solar hot water systems and rainwater tanks. Australia was the first in the world to announce plans to ban inefficient light bulbs.”

You have to hand it to the man, starting with the really big stuff like this … Must be worth at least a centi-wedge if every country followed our lead.

“We have already co-funded with business some $3 billion worth of clean technology projects. These include the world’s largest solar power station and the world’s largest carbon sequestration project.”

Neither of which will be in operation for some years, but hey, a step in the right direction …

“We are the first country in the Asia-Pacific region to commit to an emissions trading system” 

But not to actually start one or to set any emissions targets for it so that it could start … 

And, er, that would appear to be it for our proud actions at home. Now for the global stage …

“We have led calls for a new global agreement that sees all big emitters act …”

That would be particularly, of course, the few countries that haven’t already signed up to a global agreement: which ones were they, again?

“The second pillar of our international approach has been to make climate change the key focus for the APEC leaders summit in Sydney.”

And here we hit another of the speedbumps in the drag-racing fest that is Australia’s leadership on climate change. Because, as it happens, we know what the big proposals are from us as the host nation for APEC, because they were leaked to Greenpeace last week.

And the big proposed actions are …

  1. “safe and secure use of nuclear power”  (oxymoron)
  2. “bottom-up” national actions
  3. “development and diffusion of low-emission technology”
  4. “importance of forests as carbon sinks”
  5. “focus on adapting to impacts of climate change”
  6. “need to avoid creating obstacles to trade”
  7. “convene a research conference in 2008”
  8. “liberalise trade in environmental goods”

You can see how this frenzy of urgent and drastic action will be hard for the APEC leaders to take on board. Likewise the proposed target for reduction of emissions by 25% from a 2005 base by 2030 – which for some of the big emitters in APEC would not even be achieving their Kyoto 2012 target.

Forestry gets much of the limelight, focusing on the “aspirational goal of expanding forest cover in the APEC region by at least 20 million hectares by 2020” – this does, in fact, amount to a full wedge in the unlikely event that the aspirations are met. Clearly Australia’s ability to contribute to this is negligible if the drought persists.

Limelight part 2 goes to the Asia Pacific Network for Energy Technology, which is going to concentrate on “those [technologies] which are not yet available for large scale demonstration or commercial development” – another headlong rush into action, then.

And then there’s energy efficiencies, claimed in the pre-APEC papers to have the potential to get 80% of the necessary savings – a claim sourced from the IEA, rather than any of the bodies studying the problem. I’ve already quoted the pitiful suggested target above – but it turns out once we get to the detail that the proposal isn’t actually as stringent (hah!) as it looks in the headlines – no, the proposed target is not, after all, a reduction in emissions at all – it is a reduction in energy intensity – ie the emissions per unit of GDP (or dollar, that being the unit we quote GDP in). Since GDP will probably grow by about 3%pa over the period of the target (and probably much more than that in the economies of the big emitters in APEC), that brings a doubling in the size of GDP by 2030, and a 25% reduction in energy intensity is the rip-roaring target of a 50% increase in actual emissions. Compare this with Mark Lynas’ view that we need a 60% cut in emissions by 2030, and you can see how the proposed APEC declaration will bring Australia into world leadership on the issue. And compare it with the fact that the proposed target for energy intensity would mean less progress on that measure in the future than we’ve actually achieved in the past.

Perhaps we can give the last word to Mr Downer:

“Climate change is a serious challenge. It will not be solved by adherence to failed strategies or the the kind of empty political posturing we have seen from the Labor Party on this subject. Only the Howard Government has the experience and the international credibility to deliver a meaningful climate change solution for Australia.”

Well, no, after all we can’t let him get away with such obvious bollocks. There is a meaning to the Howard government’s proposed solution, and that meaning is to essentially do nothing except aspire to grow some trees. Time for a change?

Or maybe we should indeed start on that “focus on adapting to impacts of climate change” – time to start building that 7-meter-high wall around the coastline, because if Howard and Downer are still in charge, we’re going to need it.

UPDATE from Greenhouse 2007: two significant reports released by CSIRO at Greenhouse 2007 dispute the ministerial lines on climate change and drought:

  1. the CSIRO / Board of Meteorology report on the prospects for Australia under climate change, and
  2. a CSIRO report on the impact of climate change on rainfall and drought.