Tony Abbott's ongoing failure to repeal Australia's carbon tax contains a serious message on the general direction of global climate policy
There is much wry amusement in environmental circles today, after Tony Abbott, Australia's climate-reckless Prime Minister, saw his plans to repeal the country's carbon tax blocked by the Senate. Any sense of schadenfreude (I know it's an unappealing trait, but sometimes it's very hard to resist) was only amplified when it emerged that the Australian edition of The Spectator had already gone to press with a cover splash celebrating Abbott's "victory" and a borderline onanistic editorial congratulating itself over its role in bringing an end to "global warming alarmism".
Writing as a journalist who has often experienced the surging fear that a story written in preparation of an announcement may have been mistakenly published it is hard not to have a modicum of sympathy for the team at The Spectator – leaving aside, of course, the fact that this is a publication that routinely treats the biggest environmental crisis the world faces with all the maturity and sophistication of the sixth form common room that so many of its columnists seem to wish they had never left. Most journalists will read The Spectator's premature plea to "allow us a little gloating" and think there but for the grace of God go I.
But if the embarrassing timing of The Spectator's publication – not to mention the amusingly hyperbolic self-revelation of its core mission as being to stand "athwart history, yelling stop" – is ultimately of little consequence, the remarkably misguided analysis that has attached itself to Abbott's laughably cack-handed attempts to repeal Australia's carbon tax does matter.
Unfortunately, the likelihood remains that Abbott will eventually find a way to appease the Palmer United Party after it blocked the repeal legislation at the 11th hour. Commentators are predicting Abbott will secure his delayed victory in the coming weeks. But the latest developments contain two important lessons for both policy makers and business leaders around the world.
The first is that if it is difficult to pass environmental legislation, it is even harder to repeal it. It has taken Abbott no end of horse-trading and a huge amount of political capital to get even this far and all he is trying to do is to repeal a relatively modest tax that will deal a major blow to Australia's green economy, but will have a negligible impact on wider energy costs and competitiveness. And this is in a country with a hugely powerful right wing political and media elite and arguably the most well-established climate-sceptic network in the world.
In other countries repealing environmental legislation is even harder. Outside of the Anglosphere polls have shown that climate scepticism has next to no sway, either with the public or in the corridors of power. Meanwhile, in the US, President Obama's climate strategy is based on a Supreme Court ruling that requires the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to regulate greenhouse gas emissions. Even if the GOP retake the White House, which is a big if given recent polling and demographic trends, the chances of overturning the Supreme Court ruling and rolling back climate legislation is slim.
In the UK, The Spectator and its allies in the right wing press may be doing everything in their power to serve as the media wing of the Conservative right in an attempt to deliver a government that would be more hostile to green policies. But if there is little doubt environmental policies will change following next year's election, it remains almost impossible to see how a majority can be secured in Parliament for the repealing of the Climate Change Act. And even if some green policies are watered down, the fact remains that if the UK stays in the EU and if it wants to play a proactive role in UN climate negotiations then the general direction of travel in favour of decarbonisation will continue.
Secondly, even if Abbott manages to repeal the carbon tax, the Australian government's opposition to ambitious climate policy remains an almost lone international anomaly. The Spectator's assertion that "Mr Abbott reflects the growing consensus on the futility of carbon pricing" is as mistaken as its early declaration of victory is embarrassing.
The are some powerful politicians around the world who oppose bolder action on climate change, but it is notable that when Abbott recently teamed up with Canadian premier Stephen Harper to call for right wing governments to unite in pursuit of a "climate realist" approach they were met with a stony silence. In the meantime, Obama got on with unveiling the latest phase of his climate strategy, US Secretary of State John Kerry continued with his now frequent meetings with his Chinese counterparts to discuss bolder climate change policies, India's newly elected Narendra Modi underlined his commitment to clean energy, the Chinese government continued with its carbon pricing trials, and the EU stepped up efforts to deliver a post-2020 climate strategy. If there is a "growing consensus on the futility of carbon pricing" it has grown from virtually non-existent to tiny, and it does not include the world's three biggest emitters: the US, China, and the EU.
As the GLOBE network of legislators chaired by the UK's Lord Deben – bizarrely dismissed by The Spectator as "thermomaniac climate-change Cassandra from England" – 64 of the world's 66 largest economies are making progress on climate and clean energy legislation. In recent years almost 500 climate laws have been passed around the world; that is the true context in which the still as yet unrepealed Australian carbon tax sits.
Moreover, confidence is mounting that a new international agreement to tackle emissions can be delivered next year by both the UN and the World Trade Organisation. The Spectator declares that "prospects for a binding and enforceable global post-Kyoto deal in Paris next year are about as likely as England winning the soccer World Cup in 2018". Well, England may deserve to be long shots for the World Cup (albeit they represent just as good a bet as Australia), but there are plenty of serious observers who think the odds on a more ambitious climate agreement are shortening. Any deal is unlikely to go far enough, but a dispassionate assessment tells you that the chances of encouraging progress are looking better than they have done in years.
Abbott's war on climate policies is undoubtedly a blow to Australia's green economy and international efforts to tackle climate change. But its impact should not be overstated. Business leaders and investors need to be aware that the general direction of both global climate legislation and technology development remains broadly in favour of decarbonisation. There is no value for businesses in using a single setback to justify ignoring the wide-ranging green policy and clean technology progress that has been achieved over the past few years. Jumping the gun will only lead to poor decisions and embarrassing mistakes. Just ask The Spectator.
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