“What exactly do you propose Australia do about it?”
That query usually follows several reasonable arguments about why Australia should carry on with business as usual when it comes to climate and the environment.
Australia’s emissions are so small in the global scheme of things that any actual action would be utterly pointless, the argument goes.
With mega polluters like China and India failing to make much progress of their own, what’s the point of Australia going to the trouble?
And why should the country throw away its major source of income – the export of resources – for such a folly exercise?
To provide an answer, it’s worth considering why the issue is so important, Richie Merzian, Director of the Climate and Energy Program at The Australia Institute, said.
Mr Merzian spoke to news.com.au from Madrid in Spain, where he’s attending a United Nations climate conference alongside delegates, experts and political figures from around the world.
His remarks about the dismay of European experts over Australia’s ongoing resistance to meaningful action, while huge parts of the country burns, caused a stir among readers on Tuesday.
As many other climate change stories do, it prompted that one common question from sceptics. What action should be taken?
“The truth is that this is a global problem that will require a global solution,” Mr Merzian told news.com.au. “We can’t shy away from that. It requires co-operation.
“You get that co-operation by getting your own house in order and then going out to advocate. It’s in Australia’s interest to have a highly ambitious focus on climate change.”
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Contrary to alarmist claims, the answer to that common question from sceptics isn’t to immediately shut down the coal industry, shun electricity and return to the Stone Age.
The first step in getting its house in order should see Australia’s government immediately develop a climate and energy strategy, Mr Merzian said.
“Without a clear way to unite goals like reducing pollution providing cheap and reliable electricity, we will be stuck with a mishmash of policies that result in perverse outcomes,” he said.
That would outline goals and practical ways of meeting them – not just reducing emissions in the short and midterm, but also how Australia can power itself.
“The second step is to set a long-term emissions reduction strategy. It’s something Australia has promised. Without a single point of reference, things will continue in an ad hoc manner.”
The next thing that should be done is the federal government committing to its own net zero emissions target, he said.
“Every state and territory in Australia has a net zero emissions target. All that’s missing is the federal government.”
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After setting its own ambitious and meaningful targets, Australia would then be well-placed to lobby big emitters to commit to doing more.
While the debate remains polarised and political, with an emphasis on “narrow, vested self-interest”, the country is likely to continue to “sputter along and make poor decisions”.
The country is a long way from getting its house in order, Mr Merzian said.
Declarations that Australia is on track to not just meet but exceed its Paris agreement reduction targets are clever mistruths, he claimed.
A loophole currently allows for a fudging of the numbers, making it easy for Australia to hit its targets.
“Australia is so far off achieving anything meaningful,” he said. “Emissions continue to trend upwards.”
Another common argument is that Australia is a such a small part of the global emissions context that anything done here would have no impact.
Mr Merzian disputed that assertion.
“In terms of total emissions, we’re in the top 10 per cent globally,” Mr Merzian said.
“When it comes to global rankings, when you look at all of the countries in the world, Australia is the 14th largest emitter out of 196 parties to the Paris agreement.
“When the Prime Minister says Australia is only 1.3 per cent of global emissions … that’s fanciful. Australia is so high compared to the majority of other countries, per capita.
“But per capita aside, there are 40 countries with larger populations that have lower emissions than Australia does.”
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And another major criticism from opponents of climate action is that Australia’s efforts are pointless while China sits on its hands.
In reality, the world superpower is positioning itself to lead on climate change, says Kelly Sims Gallagher, Professor of Energy and Environmental Policy and Director of the Centre for International Environment and Resource Policy at The Fletcher School at Tufts University.
“We study many aspects of China’s energy and climate policy, including industrial energy efficiency and reforestation,” Ms Gallagher wrote in The Conversation.
“Our analysis indicates that if China fully executes existing policies and finishes reforming its electric power sector into a market-based system, its carbon dioxide emissions are likely to peak well before its 2030 target.
Although, it has kept building coal plants alongside its investment in renewables, showing there’s much work to be done.