Climate-change-denying Prime Minister Tony Abbott plants a tree at the Australian embassy in Washington with ambassador Kim Beazley and his wife Susie Anus. Photo: Andrew Meares
Let's get this out of the way: no single government policy is going to "stop" climate change. Carbon-based energy use has already changed the climate systems of the planet, and Australians, among others, are seeing the impacts in their everyday lives. The question now is just how bad we let things get, and how well we plan to adapt to the damage we've already done.
The Obama administration's newly announced rules, which finally allow the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to regulate carbon emissions under the existing US Clean Air Act, are a welcome, if incomplete, policy. The rules aim to cut carbon emissions by 30 per cent from 2005 levels and states have broad flexibility regarding how they will implement the cuts.
Importantly, in addition to emission cuts, there are two additional side benefits to the proposed regulations: the health improvements that come with cutting power-plant pollution, and further incentives for the development and deployment of cleaner energy. Many are saying that this is the best climate policy any US president has ever proposed. That's not a very high bar, but still, at least someone is finally jumping.
Unfortunately, the current Australian government is marching blindly backwards. And Prime Minister Tony Abbott has not confined his retreat to the domestic level, recently taking to the world stage with the last remaining member of the coalition of the unwilling on climate policy, Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper. Abbott questioned the US's new climate policy and even insisted other countries were winding back their carbon-pricing schemes – a statement that is demonstrably untrue.
International blunders aside, domestically the Environment Minister, Greg Hunt, is also straining the government's non-existing credibility on climate policy by claiming that the reduction targets of the US and Australia are similar. The US strategy does not, in fact, show many of the hallmarks of the Australian plan. It is a set of legal regulations, not voluntary acts. No one gets paid to obey the law, and there are actual enforcement mechanisms. The policy design responds to the requests of industry, states and, yes, environmental organisations. It is certainly not as much as is needed, but is a step forward rather than back, and sets an example of a government willing to govern the coal industry rather than let it dictate its own continued decimation of the environment, human health and any semblance of a reasonable energy policy.
On health, the EPA estimates that the proposed rules will result in 3700 fewer cases of bronchitis in kids, 150,000 fewer asthma attacks, at least 3300 fewer heart attacks and 2700 fewer premature deaths. The fact is that the emissions from coal-fired power plants do not just cause climate change, they undermine the health of all of us. Cutting emissions means improving health.
In Australia, a recent report from Environmental Justice Australia notes that there are at least 3000 unnecessary deaths a year from air pollution. The Asthma Foundation NSW cites a study showing 40 per cent of kids in the Hunter and the New England region have asthma, compared with 10 per cent nationally. The impacts come from each part of the coal-power process, from mining to transport to burning. Another recent report demonstrates how air pollution, including coal emissions, are unequally distributed, affecting already vulnerable communities more than well-off ones. Not acting on emissions from the burning of coal means not acting on the purposeful endangerment of the health of Australians.
And then, of course, there is the question of new, cleaner, cheaper energy technologies. The US rules continue Barack Obama's emphasis on price signals and incentives. Australia gets an all-out attack on renewable energy, with the scrapping of the renewable energy agency ARENA and the reassessment of the renewable-energy target (by a seemingly biased "expert" panel). Economic assessment by such radical organisations as Bloomberg say this will cost the Australian economy billions of dollars; it will also threaten thousands of jobs in the rapidly growing and innovating industry, and eliminate the key avenue for cheaper energy bills for the broad public. Who needs health, a broad-based energy economy and cheaper bills while fighting climate change?
So what might the US policy mean for Australia? Simply put, it means the longstanding coalition of the unwilling – especially the US, Australia and Canada – has lost its strongest supporter. Even China has dropped hints that it might declare a cap on carbon emissions in the near future.
Obviously, it's impossible to predict what Obama will say to Abbott about Australian policy on his coming visit, but the pressure is clear. The US will no longer support such a damaging emphasis on coal in global negotiations. Obama is going to make a new global agreement a priority, and Australia's very public and ideological retreat will not be looked upon favourably.
In a nutshell, the US is getting a single policy with a range of benefits: cutting carbon emissions improving health, and stimulating the development of cheaper renewable energy. We get a government intent on undermining all three.
Professor David Schlosberg is co-director of the Sydney Environment Institute at the University of Sydney.