While the government continues to delay action on climate change, more extreme weather conditions continue and Australia risks falling behind. But how much does policy matter?
Climate change waits for no man, and it certainly won’t wait for Tony Abbott. While the Australian Liberal party is deliberating on policy, the climate is warming, seas are rising, and the weather is getting more extreme.
It’s no secret that the prime minister views human-caused climate change with a large degree of skepticism. He would rather spend $4m on a think tank headed by climate contrarian Bjørn Lomborg, who has no scientific credibility, than the $0.5m it would have cost to keep the more scientifically respected Climate Commission going.
Among Abbott's associates, the chairman of his business advisory council, Maurice Newman, claims climate change is a UN conspiracy; and Dick Warburton, the renewable energy advisor and head of the Clean Energy Council, is a climate change skeptic. Unsurprisingly, the Clean Energy Council recommended cutting renewable energy targets, and large-scale Australian investment in renewable energy dropped by 88% in 2014.
As a result of our current political climate, Australia is falling behind the rest of the world in dealing with climate change. The only decisive action the Coalition seems to have taken since coming to power in 2013 is to abolish the carbon tax, making Australia one of the worst performing industrial countries on climate change policy.
Yet, it is not the government, but households and businesses, that are the main driver of greenhouse gas emissions. Generating electricity is the cause of the majority of emissions in Australia, and most of this electricity is used to power manufacturing and households. So why does it matter that the government is failing on climate change policy?
Encouraging greener people
Thankfully, the public’s opinion on climate change has not been influenced by the government’s, and our concern has remained steady in recent years, according to studies by CSIRO. However, like the government, people in Australia are not as worried about the threat of climate change as some citizens in other countries, such as the Netherlands where the public successfully sued their government, ordering leaders to take immediate action on climate change. In fact, a recent study found Australia to be one of the most skeptical countries on climate change, with nearly one in five people disbelieving the issue. According to CSIRO, Australians are more preoccupied with matters that directly affect themselves, like the cost of living and education, than with climate change.
Reducing the cost of living is one reason why Australians’ electricity use has fallen since 2011, as households respond to higher electricity prices. This shows that Australians can take action to cut emissions, indirectly, when it hurts their pockets. This is also true for businesses, where profits and financial security may outweigh the initial cost of investing in renewable energy or energy efficiency. The government has the power to create incentives so that households and businesses are more inclined to become greener, and creating firm policies to this effect could have a large impact nationwide.
In the UK, businesses took steps to reduce their carbon footprint in response to their government. From 2005 to 2007, the UK government introduced policies directed towards reducing emissions, and the European Union brought in their Emission Trading System. Researchers from the ESRC Centre for Climate Change Economics and Policy found that strong government policy and the inevitability of higher energy prices prompted UK companies into reducing their emissions. Dr Rory Sullivan and Dr Andy Gouldson of the ESRC wrote in The Guardian:
It is clear from our research that government attitudes on climate change directly and indirectly affect the manner in which companies respond to climate change. Higher energy prices and strong political signals make it more likely that companies will take a proactive approach on climate change.
The attitude of governments to climate change, and their ability to create and implement strong policies, is an important part of getting households and businesses to reduce emissions. The attitude of the Australian government towards climate change, therefore, matters a great deal in encouraging the Australian public to reduce their reliance on fossil fuels, and reduce overall emissions.
Australia’s contribution of about 1% to global carbon emissions appears trivial when compared to China's 26% and the US's 16%, and any small reduction in emissions seems insignificant on a global scale. However, this is no excuse for Australia to wait in the sidelines while the rest of the world take action. Our 1% still places Australia as the 17th largest polluter in the world, and if all 13 countries that only emit 1-2% of global emissions thought this way, then 20% of global emissions would not change.
Australia also stands out as having one of the highest carbon footprints per capita, and this figure is getting worse. In a recent report, Australia ranked as having the highest consumption of coal per capita, while also being one of the largest producers of coal. In fact, if Australia were to burn through all of its coal resources to fuel our high energy use, we would be two-thirds of the way towards the 2C global temperature rise limit set by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and much closer to the 1.5C rise limit recently advised by scientists to significantly reduce the risks of sea level rise and food security as a result of climate change. Decisive action by the Australian government to reduce reliance on coal power in the long-term will therefore matter in a global context.
As the rest of the United Nations pledge bold emission reduction targets in the lead up to the Climate Change Conference in Paris at the end of this year, Australia is yet to set such targets. If it does not match the commitment of other countries, Australia’s 1% contribution to global emissions is likely to increase in the future. Emission reduction is only going to become a bigger problem for the nation in the future, so why not be proactive now?
Australia will be affected by climate change whether it commits to emission reductions or not. One sector that will suffer most is tourism.
Tourism contributes an estimated $113bn (5.8% GDP) to the Australian economy each year, providing upwards of 9 million jobs. Australia’s biggest strength in attracting visitors is its world-class nature and wildlife: the country boasts 19 Unesco World Heritage Sites, including iconic tourist destinations such as the Great Barrier Reef, Uluru, the Greater Blue Mountains and the Daintree rainforest. Tourism Australia’s "There’s nothing like Australia" campaign is certainly well founded.
However, climate change presents a threat to Australia’s natural beauty. Changing conditions such as warming temperatures, reduced rainfall and increasingly frequent extreme weather events threaten our native wildlife and unique landscapes. Inaction by the Australian government on climate change is putting future economic gain from tourism at risk, and placing it in the hands of the rest of the world.
The Great Barrier Reef is home to the largest collection of coral in the world and is teeming with marine life, from tropical fish and sponges to sea birds and reptiles. It is no surprise that this wonder of the world is a popular holiday destination, contributing about $5.7bn to the Australian economy each year, and generating around 69,000 full-time jobs.
Yet, coral reef ecosystems are under serious threat from climate change. As the ocean warms and acidifies, marine life moves south, and ocean habitat suitable for supporting corals shrinks. In fact, the Great Barrier Reef could disappear within the next 30-40 years, taking its economic value along with it.
The Great Barrier Reef is just one example of what Australia will lose in natural beauty. The Ningaloo Reef in Western Australia is another popular tourist destination that may disappear for the same reasons, and in Queensland, the Wet Tropics area is already losing species from its rainforests as the climate changes. The prognosis for Australian wildlife is not a promising one, and without natural beauty to attract visitors, the tourism sector may suffer.
Climate change is happening whether the Abbott government acts or not, and is only getting worse as time passes. No single person or government can reduce global warming to ‘safe’ levels by themselves. It will take a lot of effort from a lot people all over the world to make a difference, and this includes Australia. Australia has the power to get to zero carbon emissions by 2050 without compromising economic growth. Here’s hoping that international pressure from the upcoming Paris summit will motivate the government to see past their own beliefs to do what’s best for this country, and the rest of the world.