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Unsustainable Australia

Before the current conservative government came to power in 2013, Australia was well-positioned to make the necessary transition to a low-carbon economy. But now, the country is heading in reverse, and has already fallen behind most developed countries, and even China, on reducing emissions and building resilience against climate change.

NEW YORK – Few countries have such a fundamental interest in addressing climate change as Australia. Yet Australia’s current conservative government refuses to take necessary actions in response to climate science: to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, and therefore play its part as a responsible member of the international community. Instead, we Australians are now free-riding on the rest of the world.

The Australian government is not listening to the international business community, despite the fact that investors responsible for $2.4 trillion in assets recently pledged to move to carbon-neutral portfolios by 2050. It is also out of step with Australia’s military leadership, which recognizes the threat to global security from climate change, as well as the increasing strain caused by constant disaster-relief missions in the region. And it is showing disrespect for the public, especially young people, many of whom are beginning to dread the world they will inherit.

According to Australia’s national scientific body, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization, our climate has already warmed by 1°C since 1910. Our mid-year rainfall has declined by 20% since the 1970s in some parts of the country. Our farmers face droughts that are 20% longer, prolonging and intensifying bushfire seasons. The economic cost of natural disasters is already enormous: $182 billion in the decade to 2016, according to Deloitte Access Economics. And sea levels are projected to rise by almost one meter (39.4 inches) by 2100, threatening 35,000 kilometers (22,000 miles) of coastal road and rail infrastructure. Natural disasters don’t only take lives, destroy homes, and ruin livelihoods. They also close ports, sap insurance pools, devastate food production, and blow up government budgets.

Conversely, the transition to a cleaner future, if managed well, could be an economic boon for Australia. Our vast natural-gas resources represent a cleaner option for making the transition from coal and oil. There is enormous potential for solar-power generation across our vast, sunshine-drenched land, and the costs of solar are coming down. The same goes for wind energy, owing to our long coastline and sprawling interior. And our scientists, researchers, and renewable-energy entrepreneurs are brimming with exportable expertise.

Rather than reduce emissions, Australia has expanded its national carbon footprint by an average of 1% per year since my government left office in 2013. Indeed, we are on track for an 8% increase (from 2005 levels) by 2030. By contrast, the World Resources Institute predicts that almost 60 countries accounting for more than 60% of global emissions, including China, will have already reached peak emissions by that time. This fact alone demolishes the claim routinely used by Australian conservatives that Australia should not act because China has not.

The national emissions target adopted by Australia’s conservative government back in 2015 calls for a 26-28% reduction by 2030; but it was based on deception. The government of then-Prime Minister Tony Abbott chose it because it mirrored US President Barack Obama’s projection of a 26-28% reduction in US emissions by 2025. Abbott falsely claimed his target was “the same as the United States,” when he knew full well that Obama’s target represented a much larger cut of 41% if pushed out to 2030. Abbott was aided by the complicit, climate-denialist Rupert Murdoch-owned media, which reinforced the lie.

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Despite this already debased target, Australia’s current conservative prime minister, Scott Morrison, is now relying on a dubious accounting trick to reach this goal, by using so-called “carryover credits” to bank Australia’s “overachievement” under the Kyoto Protocol, much of which occurred under my government.

So, what could more responsible Australian governments have brought to the table? Here are five concrete ideas. First, Australia could have pledged a proper review of its 2015 climate target, one that accorded with the spirit and substance of the Paris agreement. If the government’s much-vaunted new hydro-power scheme (Snowy Hydro 2.0) is really as promising as it says, raising our national ambitions should be no problem.

Second, Australia could have dumped the two-card monte with the unused Kyoto credits. This flimflam is loathed by our Pacific neighbors, and is now being used by other countries to attack Australia on the world stage.

Third, Australia could have laid out a timeline for a long-term decarbonization strategy, as the Paris agreement invites us to do. This work should already be well advanced, given that the government has promised it next year.

Fourth, as part of that strategy, Australia could have committed to achieving net-zero emissions by 2050, and then worked backwards from there. The United Kingdom and New Zealand have already done this, as have 60 other countries and three Australian states.

Finally, we could have followed the lead of the UK, France, and others in offering to replenish the Green Climate Fund, rather than repackaging old pledges, which puts the burden on needy countries by making them apply directly to us rather than to a single global source.

Sadly, Australia’s government did none of these things. Instead, it has been shutting its eyes while our farmers struggle, the Great Barrier Reef bleaches away, and more ferocious natural disasters claim our people’s lives.

Australia’s opposition, the Labor Party, is now formally reviewing its climate policies after its election loss last May. Despite the fulminations of the far right and the faux left, this introspection is entirely normal. The far right has no interest in climate action at all; and the Green Party of the faux left has always made the perfect the enemy of the good. And no one in Australia will ever forget that the Green Party joined ranks with the conservatives to defeat my government’s emissions-trading-scheme legislation in the Senate. Had they not done so, Australia would have already had a carbon price for a decade, and would be that much closer to a low-carbon future.

Australians deserve better than this. So does the next generation. And so, too, does the world.

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