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Global Climate Report Underscores Australian Inaction

By Ian Lowe

The upcoming Federal election has produced a spectrum of responses to curb climate change.

With a national election imminent, climate change is on the political agenda again. Shortly before the date for the poll was announced, the World Meteorological Organization released its annual Statement on the State of the Global Climate.

The new statement is truly alarming. It documents increasing average temperatures, more extreme weather-related events such as heatwaves, cyclones and wildfires, accelerating sea level rise, shrinking sea-ice and retreat of glaciers. As the United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres says, the data in the report “give cause for great concern”.

Just one example leaped out at me. Greenland has lost 3600 km3 of ice since 2002. That works out at about three-quarters of a cubic kilometre of ice melting every day, on average, contributing to the increasing rate of sea level rise. “There is no longer any time for delay,” Guterres added, calling for urgent international action to slow down the release of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide and methane.

The major political parties have produced a spectrum of responses. The Greens called for a speedy transition of electricity supply, phasing out coal-fired power by 2030 in favour of 100% renewables. The ALP’s climate change policy aims to reduce Australia’s total 2030 emissions by 45%. The Coalition’s target is 26–28%, but its only hope of reaching that less ambitious target involves creative accounting, using credits from the expiring Kyoto Protocol.

Australia was given a uniquely generous target at the 1997 Kyoto meeting, being allowed to increase emissions while almost all developed nations agreed to achieve reductions. Further, what is known around the world as “the Australia clause” allowed the inclusion of emissions from land clearing in the 1990 baseline. That inflated the starting position by about 30%. As a result, Australia achieved its Kyoto target, even though energy use and related emissions have increased substantially. The ALP has attacked the proposal to use Kyoto credits as “fake action on climate change”.

While the Coalition has a collective modest target, there are serious divisions within its ranks. Queensland Nationals are actually campaigning for public funds to be used to support the construction of a new coal-fired power station, which would increase emissions.

There are also significant differences in transport. Population growth and poor urban planning mean greenhouse gas emissions from transport are still increasing, making it more difficult to achieve overall reductions. The ALP proposes that 50% of new purchases for the government fleet will be electric vehicles by 2025, with a challenging target of electric cars being half of all new vehicle sales by 2030. Several European countries have similar or more ambitious targets.

The ALP package also proposes to introduce emissions standards for all new cars, claiming that motorists “pay as much as $500 each year more than they should” because there are currently no efficiency standards. The proposed changes do not go as far as the European Union regulations, but are in line with US standards.

By contrast, the Coalition announced a massive program of “congestion-busting” road improvement schemes. One cynical journalist pointed out that about 80% of the upgrades are in marginal electorates currently held by the Coalition.

Public health is at last getting some attention. Governments have huge health budgets, much of it devoted to coping with illness resulting from poor lifestyle choices. The Queensland government has set up a Healthy Futures Commission, with a budget of $20 million over 3 years to improve nutrition, increase physical activity and reduce the percentage of the population who are overweight. That is peanuts compared with the advertising expenditure of the junk food industry, but it is a start.

A 3-year project conducted by the Southgate Institute for Health, Society and Equity at Flinders University will culminate in a 1-day Research Translation Forum in Adelaide this June. It aims to disseminate the findings from its research project “to stimulate discussion about how policy in the energy, natural environment, urban planning and justice sectors can contribute to population well-being and sustainability”. The forum will bring together researchers and decision-makers in those four sectors, hoping to assist the shaping of policies to improve community health. That is a wonderful aim.

Ian Lowe is Emeritus Professor of science, technology and society at Griffith University.