Whither Mr. 5%?

It has been a desperately interesting week for the environmental movement and indeed the fortunes of the Rudd Labor Government. On Monday, the Prime Minister delivered a speech at the National Press Club, releasing his government’s Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme (CPRS) white paper into the spotlight. The result was not pretty. The unconditional 5% by 2020 carbon emission reduction target promised by the government was immediately attacked as being a paltry figure, particularly given what the science currently tells us about climate change. Even the government’s proposed 15% carbon emission reduction target for 2020, which is conditional on a global agreement being reached, did not nearly meet the expectations of many observers and environmental activists.

We now have a situation developing where the broader “green” movement in the non-party-political sense of the term may choose to part company with Federal Labor. After its ratification of the Kyoto Protocol, the Rudd Government was given the benefit of the doubt on environmental issues by many supporters of the Greens and members of the Labor Left. There is little doubt that some Liberal voters have been attracted to the new broom the Rudd Government ushered in on environmental issues immediately after its election; voters who may after this week decide to reconsider where their loyalties lie. Let’s also not forget that there are a number of inner-city marginal seats that Labor may struggle to retain at the next poll if the local Green campaigns are fought primarily on the climate change issue, which is looking increasingly likely.

My own view is that the climate change issue is one that is going to need to be addressed, discussed, and revisited almost perpetually over the course of the coming decades, and that in the immediate term, there is nothing particularly wrong about the initial targets that the government has set. Firstly, it is worth re-iterating that the government’s 5% target refers to a reduction in overall national emissions, without considering population growth. The white paper seems to suggest that this 5% target equates to a per capita reduction of some 27-34% below 2000 levels, and 34-41% below 1990 levels. This seems to compare quite reasonably with the commitments offered by both the United Kingdom and the European Union at the present time. While we might observe say that the per capita reduction numbers are somewhat besides the point with respect to the requirements implied by the climate change science, population growth is something that can not simply be ignored in a policy sense. In essence, significant per capita cuts are going to be required in order to meet the national 5% target. It is not the gimme it appears. It is all very well for folks sitting on the sidelines to demand that the Prime Minister puts Australia out on an economic limb by going bold on climate change and hoping that others will follow; they of course will not be held responsible for the repercussions that follow in an economic sense, and of course an electoral sense when an even more enviro-pragmatic Turnbull Opposition is returned to office in 2010 should the economy be wrecked by the Rudd Government’s actions.

Secondly, the economic outlook is extremely uncertain at the present time. It is little wonder that not a great deal has been achieved in the way of commitments to emissions reduction at the Poznan conference, coming as it does in the midst of a quite severe global economic downturn. What sane government is going to make a commitment to cut carbon emissions massively during a time when the world is on the brink of global recession, and the world’s major polluters are not really even close to coming on board and signing up for a new multilateral deal? What average punter who has just lost their job (an there are an increasing number of them by the month) is going to invite any potential for more imposed self-harm through aggressive government action on the climate change issue?

Don’t get me wrong, I do agree that the 5% target is fundamentally speaking, less than that which the climate change science demands of the Rudd Government (and the rest of the world) at the current time. Unfortunately, there is no realistic sense in which Australia announcing a more aggressive target this week at Poznan was going to “save the world”. This is a problem that does not have any quick and easy solutions. No sweeping hand of any single government has the authority or power to resolve the issues that activists seem to want resolved, and resolved now. We are as a nation and a society are going to go two-steps forward and one-step back on this until momentum gathers further, the imperative to act is even greater, and the stars align in such a fashion that a global deal on carbon emissions is not as intractable as it might appear at first blush.