Is there an Australian political leader who can grasp the long-term thinking required by the climate change challenge?

From The Climate Spectator:  Tony Chappel, 2 August 2010.

Tony Chappel was a Chevening Scholar studying Environmental Technology at Imperial College, London, when this article was published and is now Chief of Staff to NSW Environment Minister, Robyn Parker, the subject of the cartoon (below).

Lessons from Westminster

The discomfiting debates Australian politicians are having among themselves about climate change, and how to respond to it, are eerily reminiscent of debates in the UK in the 1980s.

Today, there is no debate in Westminster about the reality of climate change. British climate policy post-1980s has been driven by evidence-based input – perhaps because the UK’s House of Commons contains far more scientists than our own House of Representatives. And question time and debates between all three of the UK’s major political parties are about the race to deal with climate change in a cost effective way.

At the heart of the new Conservative government’s climate policy is the realisation that climate change is a significant risk, not just to the local economy, but also to future border control.CC cartoon

A hotter, drier world would significantly impact agriculture and living conditions for many developing countries, leading to new food and water shortages and additional flooding.

If displacement of populations, human suffering and consequent large additional flows of asylum seekers are to be avoided, a co-ordinated approach to both adapting to the inevitable warming humans have caused, and mitigating further warming is required.

What’s more, in addressing these issues, significant economic opportunities for a rebirth of high-tech manufacturing and for new service industries to emerge.

The key metric driving UK policy is risk. Political leaders in the Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democratic Parties have all agreed that it’s rational to take action on climate change because 1 per cent of the community’s income now can avoid the 80-90 per cent certainty of a reduction in national income of 5- 20 per cent each year going forward.

So what lessons could Australia learn from the UK experience?

Lesson one: Establish an independent umpire. Just as an independent Reserve Bank is best placed to measure the need for interest rate changes, the Brits have established an independent Climate Change Committee, responsible for setting carbon emission reduction targets for the coming 15 years, as well as reporting on the efficacy of government climate change policies.

Lesson two: Gain new competitive advantage. Britain’s ambitious off-shore wind program is rapidly creating a world-leading industry of experts in off-shore wind installations. Setting ambitious policy goals and then allowing competitive markets to respond ensures new industries and highly-skilled jobs are captured by the local community.

While Australia has a larger pool of coal and gas resources than many – British coal output peaked in the 1920s, and North Sea oil and gas production peaked in 2004 – they are not infinite. Prudent policy would aim to ensure that Australian companies and workers benefit from the global boom in renewable technologies. After all, Australia has greater natural endowments of geothermal, solar, wind and wave energy than almost any other nation, yet our local renewable energy industry is tiny by global standards.

British off-shore wind projects – while delivering long-term renewable energy security – are a ready fit with the skills of the marine oil and gas industry. Likewise, Australia’s engineering expertise is a ready fit with geothermal, and solar energy production. The right policies can capitalise on our natural competitive advantages and help balance our mining-dependent economy.

Lesson three: Size is relative. Australian politicians often peddle the line that Australia, at 1.28 per cent of global carbon emissions, is not at the root of the global problem so shouldn’t take action or seek solutions. The UK is 1.84 per cent of the problem, but in seeking to transition to a sustainable future, UK policy makers are looking to the long-term prosperity of their citizens and, in so doing, have created a policy framework that serves as a role model for other wealthy nations.

UK political parties might disagree on how to achieve the goal of 80 per cent CO2 reduction by 2050, but they agree on the goal. Both the government and opposition contend that powering the economy by renewable energy will result in both cheaper energy in the long run, and new opportunities for British high-tech manufacturing and engineering.

Is there an Australian political leader who can grasp the long-term thinking required by the climate change challenge?




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