in Australia

Australia’s climate deal: better than nothing or worse than useless?

Australia's climate deal: better than nothing or worse than useless?

In a recent article in The Monthly, Guy Pearse questions why so many environmental organisations are cheering the Australian government’s draft Clean Energy Future (CEF) carbon-pricing package. This is an important article, which should encourage some serious debate.

Two years ago, the Australian government’s proposed Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme (CPRS) split environmental groups in Australia. The Australian Conservation Foundation, the Climate Institute and WWF announced their support of the plan. Back then, Guy Pearse wrote that they were “sucker punched,” by the government which had no intention of making serious cuts to greenhouse gas emissions and built in loopholes to the CPRS would have allowed any emissions reductions (including REDD) to take place outside Australia. Other NGOs, such as Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace, opposed the scheme.

This time around environmental groups are almost unanimous in supporting the government’s climate plans. Pearse writes that:

The Greens, as co-authors, declare “the old, polluting ways will have to change and a new, exciting era is set to begin”; the ACF calls the plan an “important step to start Australia’s transition to a low carbon economy”; the Climate Institute calls it a “vital step towards lower pollution and clean energy in Australia”; the WWF says it “will finally create a financial incentive to change old habits and old technologies”. Even Greenpeace calls it “the fundamental first step in our journey towards a clean energy future”.

Pearse points out that the CEF features some improvements over the CPRS. The emissions reduction target for 2050 is increased from 60% to 80%. While the CPRS allowed unlimited imported carbon credits, the CEF allows carbon credits only after 2015 to meet no more than 50% of emission liabilities. There’s a Clean Energy Finance Corporation with A$10 billion to spend.

But as Pearse explains, most of the problems from the CPRS are also present in the CEF:

Big polluters are again excused from paying for 66–94.5% of their emissions, notwithstanding [Prime Minister Julia] Gillard’s claim that “big polluters will pay for every tonne of carbon pollution they put into our atmosphere”. There’s the same inadequate 5% unconditional emissions reduction target for 2020; same hypothetical 25% target; still no carbon price at the bowser; billions of dollars going to emission-intensive power generators; $1.3 billion to coal producers whose exports are Australia’s largest contribution to climate change; and handouts to householders still mean most Australians won’t notice a carbon price.

The 5% emissions reduction target that Pearse mentions is compared to 2000, not 1990. The people in the environmental movement who Pearse asked why they are supporting a deal that is clearly not good for the climate, declined to speak on the record. A campaigner with “Say Yes” told Pearse that “rather than getting a better scheme from [Labor] or the other side, it’s all about helping Gillard sell the scheme”.

Pearse explains another reason for environmental groups support the CEF:

the increasing tendency of environmental groups to focus on incremental wins. Rather than asking ‘What needs to be done?’, they’re asking ‘What’s possible soon, given the lie of the land?’ Rapid transitions to renewables and away from fossil-fuel exports are considered unthinkable, given the grip that coal companies and unions have on both major parties. Settling for much less ambitious goals and overstating their significance is easier.

This, I think, is a key problem for the environmental movement, and not just in Australia. Pearse also points out that “Most ‘suit-wearing’ greenies also sport a neo-liberal faith in markets, with many building careers promoting the idea that emissions trading is the solution to climate change.”

Then there’s also the Big Tent problem – the idea of getting large coalitions of environmental groups to agree on specific issues. While environmental coalitions may sometimes be useful, the trouble is, the more groups are involved, the lower the lowest common denominator becomes. One campaigner explained to Pearse that,

“If you’ve got ACF, WWF and the Climate Institute in the tent, you can’t talk about export coal; can’t talk down ‘clean coal’ or importing carbon credits or carbon farming.”

Another reason that Pearse suggests for the failure to criticise the CEF is money. Two funders, the Poola Foundation and the Purves Environmental Fund support a large part of the environmental movement in Australia. Two rich farmers are behind these funders. Neither are just funders. Both are also actively involved in environmental organisations. Robert Purves is a former president and current board member of WWF (Australia) and a former board member of WWF (International), for example, while Mark Wootton is chair of the Climate Institute board and, until recently, sat on the boards of both the ACF and the Australia Institute.

In a commentary on the Australian website Crikey about Guy Pearse’s essay, Leigh Ewbank points out that Pearse’s is not the only recent criticism of Australian environmental groups. David Spratt (co-author of Climate Code Red) and John Rice criticised the “Say Yes” campaign. And in February 2011, Clive Hamilton gave a presentation at a public debate with the title “Is Environmentalism Failing?” (pdf file 44 KB). Hamilton gave three reasons for the failure of some environmental groups to deal with climate change:

  1. The failure to understand what climate scientists are saying: “They do not believe, in their hearts, that things could be as bad as the science indicates.”
  2. The spread of incrementalism: “The tension between radicalism and gradualism has defined progressive politics for two centuries, but the victory of free-market ideology in the 1980s saw political radicalism pushed to the very fringes. As the main parties converged on neoliberalism, many NGOs abandoned their interest in a different type of society and came to believe that incremental change to the existing system was the only path.”
  3. The professionalisation of environmental activism: “Within the main political parties professionalisation has seen a sharp decline in party membership and the rise of a ‘political class’ of career politicians, staffers, spin doctors and apparatchiks. Mass parties have gone and patronage has replaced ideological difference.”

Unfortunately, since Hamilton’s presentation, some of the groups that he praised for opposing the CPRS are now cheering the CEF.

John Conner, the CEO of the Climate Institute has commented in response to Ewbank’s article. But instead of responding to the serious issues that Ewbank raises Connor goes on the defensive:

What is most disappointing about Pearse’s article is not just the errors and tapestry of rumours and innuendos from unnamed sources. It is not just the fact that none of the claims have been checked with the targets. Nor is it the ludicrous conspiracy claim of two funders driving the policies of all the organisations – the organisations mentioned took every possible position on the CPRS! It is the chilling effect this could have on other philanthropists who may be put off supporting climate advocacy by the prospect of personalised unsubstantiated attacks.

Conner is, at least, honest enough to admit that ensuring continued funding is of primary importance in any discussion about effective policies to address runaway climate change.

REDD-Monitor hopes that more considered responses come from the other NGOs who support the CEF and that a genuine debate on the issues raised by Pearse, Hamilton, Spratt, Rice and Ewbank can take place.


PHOTO credit: Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

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  1. Australia’s plan seems to be a big climate lie. What they are planning is to continue exporting huge emissions to Annex 2 countries (think of the coal shipments to China), while importing offsets, most likely also form annex 2 countries, much of which will doubtless be REDD credits.

    I’d be interested to know if Australia will be accounting for its emissions from domestic forestry. Under the last commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol, Australia elected not to account for domestic forestry emissions. Yet it is funding such emissions cuts programs and projects in countries like Indonesia.

    Will Australia, therefore, be importing offsets from an emissions sector (forestry) in developing countries that it does not even recognise in its own country?

  2. I respect to the Australia effort to reduce emission but they are not brave to stop the mining exploitation that they support too. So as Papua said that they create big climate lie. They have a lot of forest carbon and cdm initiative in several developing country such as Indonesia, but they don’t brave to stop big mining company that have a real record in big emission to air. Same as Norway…