Carbon emissions growth a disappointing result for a potential climate leader
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Carbon emissions growth a disappointing result for a potential climate leader

A poll last October showed a massive but hidden obstacle governments have to leap if they want to reduce carbon emissions and prevent catastrophic global temperature rises: people favour short-term over long-term gain.

When asked if they would favour abandoning the international Paris climate accord if doing so lowered their power bills, half of those responding said they would prefer to cut and run from the agreement to stem the worst climate change scenarios.

The response showed that efforts to reduce emissions need the mandate of voters and have to work for household budgets. But it didn't reveal that action to cap warming temperatures is doomed by costs. Since the days when Tony Abbott promised that ending the Gillard government's carbon price would reduce power bills, the energy debate has changed. Lower emissions don't equate so neatly with more expensive power, a point the Coalition says is at the core of its post-Abbott plan for energy, the National Energy Guarantee.

That doesn't mean other possible hindrances to action against climate change can't be read in the Newspoll. For a start, the real, expensive, but deferred consequences for growing carbon emissions have apparently faded in popular thinking since they were the centre of attention in the early 2000s. The result is a lack of urgency in Australia's climate debate.

Its slowness to act is showing in bad ways. The rise in Australia's carbon emissions in 2017 is a disappointing result that should inject urgency back into the nation's climate debate. Despite a sharp drop during 2012 and 2013, when the carbon price was alive, yearly rises in emissions since have been testament both to Australia's deadlocked energy debate, the fraught nature of its climate politics, and a mixture of fatigue and blithe disregard among many people.

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At this rate of emissions growth, Australia won't meet its Paris climate accord obligations – which are modest compared to those of other Western nations. For anyone doubting whether this matters in the global picture, consider this: one of the world's wealthiest, most politically stable nations will have failed to do its part, let alone countries that are dragging themselves out of poverty or struggling under less functional governments. We can do better, and the world needs us to.

This should sharpen the thinking of state and federal governments arguing over the NEG. It's a policy that is flawed, but it appears the most politically realistic energy plan on the table while the Coalition remains in power. States, and voters, should not settle on it for this reason. As South Australia has argued, a better outcome may emerge after modelling several different options and comparing them for cost and effect.

There are more than enough reasons to get real about climate change again, both environmental and economic: Great Barrier Reef bleaching that swats tourism, and the prospect of more frequent natural disasters, are just two of many. As one of the world's highest per capita greenhouse gas emitters, the pressure is on for Australia to arrive at an energy plan that will reverse its rising emissions. It just hasn't realised it, yet.

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