Energy Minister Martin Ferguson.

Energy Minister Martin Ferguson. Photo: Sasha Woolley

THERE are two Labor governments in power in Canberra, and neither is headed by Julia Gillard or Kevin Rudd. One is led by Greg Combet, the other by Martin Ferguson. They represent the two faces of Labor. One of them peers nervously at the future while the other looks longingly to the past.

Climate Minister Combet has established a carbon price as a very cautious first step towards national emissions trading, set up a fund for renewable technologies, and an independent authority to set future emissions targets. Without the provocation and support of the Greens, this would not have happened.

Think of how we view sellers of asbestos or heroin or tobacco. We no longer buy the argument that harm is a case of 'buyer beware'. Coal is another such substance. 

Energy Minister Ferguson by contrast has facilitated a massive growth in coal and gas production for export. His energy white paper — like its predecessor, published in 2004 under Howard — sees Australia as a fossil fuel superpower. It is a backward-looking plan based on a mix of old-fashioned Labor-style nation building and dirty industrialisation for ''jobs, jobs, jobs''. Ferguson's government has buried Combet's. The past prevails.

Federal industry and innovation minister Greg Combet announced a $35 million assistance package today to prop up the ailing car parts industry.

Federal industry and innovation minister Greg Combet announced a $35 million assistance package today to prop up the ailing car parts industry.

Some like to argue Australia's contribution to climate change is trivial. Australia's domestic emissions represent ''only'' 1.5 per cent of the global total. Yet this makes us the world's 16th largest national contributor to global warming. But our carbon footprint — the total amount of CO2 emissions Australia pushes out into the global economy — is much bigger.

Australia is the world's largest coal exporter. If emissions from Australia's exported coal are added to its domestic emissions, our carbon footprint trebles. Our coal exports contribute at least another 3.3 per cent of global emissions. In aggregate, considering coal exports, Australia is now the source of at least 4.8 per cent of global emissions. Our carbon footprint is the world's ninth largest. And that's without considering natural gas exports.

By 2020, our coal export boom — based on ''locked in'' projects alone — will make Australia's carbon footprint the world's sixth largest, after China, the US, Russia, India and Indonesia. Our mitigation efforts are swamped by our exports. We are a growing super-contributor to climate change: our responsibility is of global proportions.

Climate Minister Greg Combet.

Climate Minister Greg Combet. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

In part this reflects a failure of the emissions accounting system used by the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. The UNFCCC only requires nations to account for emissions produced within their borders. This leaves consumers of imported goods (whose emissions are released in the manufacturing country) and exporters of fossil fuels unaccountable for emissions released at a ''distance''.

It is widely acknowledged that about one-third of China's total national emissions results from production for export markets. These are emissions ''displaced'' to China from countries that once manufactured but now import these goods.

By contrast, little attention has been paid to trade in unprocessed (or unburnt) fossil fuels, which shifts responsibility for emissions from exporting nations to the states that use these fuels. How convenient for unaccountable beneficiaries such as Australia. Still, why should we reduce our coal exports in a global system geared to users' responsibility? Here are three reasons.

First, the principle of harm avoidance — enshrined in several international declarations to which Australia is a signatory — suggests that parties ''have the responsibility to ensure that activities within their jurisdiction or control do not cause damage to the environment of other states''.

Think of how we view sellers of asbestos or heroin or tobacco. We no longer buy the argument that harm is a case of ''buyer beware''. We ascribe responsibility to the knowing, predatory traders of harmful substances. Coal is another such substance.

Second, the more we depend on coal and gas export jobs and revenue, the more vulnerable we are economically and socially. Australia's energy exports boom is unregulated, unstable and unsustainable.

The retreat from fossil fuels has already begun in earnest, including in countries such as China, as renewable technologies come on line and the threat of global warming increases in urgency. Australia itself has adopted an emissions mitigation policy of -80 per cent by 2050. This is less than 38 years away.

This will lead to a rapid decline in our coal exports. If the end to the fossil energy boom is abrupt, the trauma to Australia's economy will be significant. Labor hopes market forces will lead to an orderly retreat and soft landing when the time comes. They won't.

Last, scientists warn that the world must decarbonise its economies rapidly if it is to avoid catastrophic warming. Yet as the meeting just concluded in Doha shows, international climate negotiations are moving too slowly to provide a collective solution for a world tracking to 4 degrees warming or more. It is therefore incumbent on every state to do the best it can to save itself … and the planet. Australia, which will be very hard hit by climate change, can do more than most.

So what next? Australia needs a responsible and coherent national energy strategy that also reverses its substantial contribution to global warming.

To begin with, Labor should immediately cap Australian coal exports and plan for the coal industry to be phased out within a decade.

It should simultaneously establish a climate adaptation fund by levying (diminishing) fossil fuel exports. This fund would help cover the costs of local structural adjustment, help pay for energy alternatives in developing nations now importing our fuels, and support global climate adaptation measures made necessary in part by our exports. A levy of merely $2 per tonne of exported coal would at present net almost $800 million a year.

Ultimately, change will be forced upon us whether or not we like it or are prepared. We can choose a rapid, planned scale-down in coal exports now. Or we can continue to boost our coal export sector and then allow market forces and climate change to combine in a perfect storm.

Associate Professor Peter Christoff teaches climate policy at the University of Melbourne.