Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Obama's climate Action plan and Australia

Last week President Barack Obama launched his Climate Action Plan for the United States at Georgetown University. It outlines the executive and regulatory actions to cut US greenhouse gas emissions to 17 per cent below their 2005 levels by 2020. The plan follows up in detail Obama's statements on tackling climate change in his inauguration speech and State of the Union Speech.

But the plan does not go far enough to meet the magnitude of the crisis, and really only meets the US voluntary commitments made by Obama at the 2009 Copenhagen UNFCCC climate conference. Such voluntary commitments still fall far short of limiting global warming to 2 degrees Celsius and are likely to result in 3 to 5 degrees C of arming by the end of the century.

"We're happy to see the president finally addressing climate change but the plain truth is that what he's proposing isn't big enough, and doesn't move fast enough, to match the terrifying magnitude of the climate crisis," said Bill Snape, a senior counsel with the Center for Biological Diversity.

In reality the US target to cut greenhouse gas emissions to 17 per cent below their 2005 levels by 2020 is equivalent to cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 4 percent below 1990 levels by 2020. The Center for Biological Diversity points out that such a reduction falls far short of what the U.S. pledged in the Kyoto Protocol and would not be enough to avert catastrophic temperature rises, according to climate scientists.

Climate Action Plan

The detailed Climate Action Plan revolves around three key pillars:

  • Cutting carbon pollution: mostly through EPA regulation of carbon emissions from coal fired power plants; encouraging investment in renewable energy; new fuel economy standards; investment in energy efficiency; curbing hydroflourocarbons, methane and other greenhouse gases; preserving forests as effective carbon sinks.
  • Climate Adaptation: Preparing the US for the impacts of climate change through climate resilient investment; enhancing community preparedness; boosting resilience of buildings and infrastructure; Helping to rebuild and learn from Hurricane Sandy; increase Health sector resilience; conserving land and water resources; maintaining agricultural sustainability; managing drought; reducing wildfire risk; managing future flood risk; establishing a data initiative and continuing support for climate science and risk assessment of climate change impacts in the US.
  • Lead International Efforts to Combat Global Climate Change and Prepare for its Impacts: through multilateral engagement with major economies; cooperation with major emerging economies; Combatting Short-Lived Climate Pollutants such as methane, black carbon, and HFCs; Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation; clean energy development financing; negotiating global free trade in environmental goods, including clean energy technologies such as solar, wind, hydro and geothermal; phasing out subsidies to fossil fuels.

Samantha Smith, Leader of WWF's Global Climate and Energy Initiative, was welcoming but critical of the plan. She said that it won't reduce US carbon pollution as much as scientists or equity say is needed. "Still, it sends a strong political signal, also globally. It should be a powerful spur to other developed countries that have used US inaction as an excuse for their own failure to act" she said in a media statement.

"The plan's limits on dirty coal-fired power and getting rid of subsidies for fossil fuel companies will do a lot to move the US away from burning fossil fuels, by far the biggest source of carbon pollution. These steps are needed in many countries, both developed and developing, if we are to reach a cleaner, renewable future." said Ms Smith.

Phil Radford, Executive Director, Greenpeace USA also commented in a blog post that Obama's Climate Action Plan was a positive start highlighting the toxic politics of the current Congress,

"The current Congress has made it clear that it will be on the wrong side of history, so it is absolutely vital for the president to use his authority to reduce power plant pollution, move forward with renewable energy projects on public lands, and increase energy efficiency. What the president will propose today is just a part of what it's possible to do without Congress, and to solve the climate crisis, the solutions will have to be equal to or greater than the problem."

From England Professor Nicholas Stern, chair of the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at London School of Economics and Political Science, made a statement welcoming the speech by President Obama:

"Recent experience shows that the United States can cut emissions and grow. The United States, with its technology and entrepreneurship, can lead this new low-carbon growth story. The President was right to place great emphasis on standards for cleaner power plants, accelerating renewables, energy efficiency standards in buildings, vehicles and appliances, and the importance of leadership by the public sector in implementing these standards." said Professor Stern.

Responses from Australia

Professor Stephen Williams, a climate change biologist at James Cook University called Obama's Climate Action Plan Fantastic news, "Australian politicians take note. Too many in Australia have been back pedalling on this issue in recent times. Climate change is the single largest challenge facing the world at this time. Well done Obama."

Professor Will Steffen, Australian Climate Commissioner and Director of the ANU Climate Change Institute, issued a statement supportive of Obama's Plan:

"President Obama's Climate Action Plan is further evidence that the United States is taking the climate change challenge seriously and moving quickly to reduce their emissions of greenhouse gases. This Plan gives further momentum to their effort to reduce emissions by 17% by 2020, a target that they are on track to meeting."

"One of the most important pieces of the Plan is to increase energy efficiency throughout the economy, especially in built infrastructure. This is truly a win-win approach. Increasing energy efficiency can be done relatively quickly, can have a large effect on greenhouse gas emissions, and can save money for businesses and families."

"President Obama's Plan, coupled with the increasing efforts in China to reduce emissions, is good news for the world. When the two largest emitters of greenhouse gases take meaningful actions to reduce emissions, there is hope that we can get global emissions trending downwards this decade."

In response to Obama's Climate Plan Australia's former Climate Change Minister Greg Combet said in a statement last week "This important action will help the US transition to clean forms of energy, promote US business innovation and create jobs. As President Obama has said, climate change is too important for political leaders to indulge in scare campaigns and Flat Earth Society meetings. That's as true in Australia as it is in the United States."

One of the hallmarks of the Gillard Government in a minority position in parliament over the last 3 years was the successful negotiation of a carbon price scheme - with the first 3 years a fixed carbon price (a carbon tax) then morphing into an emissions trading scheme. The scheme has been constantly opposed by Tony Abbott pledging 'NO Carbon Tax' as a 'blood oath'.

Tony Abbott's pledge to unwind Labor's carbon price scheme is at odds with international action. Earlier in June China launched it's first emissions trading scheme for the city of Shenzen. Other regional schemes will closely follow.

"These developments give the lie to Tony Abbott's claims that Australia is acting alone and no other countries are taking action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions," Mr Combet said. "At a time where more and more countries, both developed and developing, are implementing serious policies to tackle climate change, it would be extremely reckless to repeal Australia's clean energy future package."

Ben Cubby, Environment reporter for Fairfax newspapers pointed out in his article on the Climate Action Plan that "If the US pledge were implemented here in Australia, it would be the equivalent of a 21 per cent cut in Australia's emissions over the next seven years, instead of the 5 per cent cut that currently has bipartisan support."

Climate Change in Australia's 2013 election

If Tony Abbott wins the election before the end of this year and abolishes the carbon tax, it is difficult to see how Australia could meet a basic commitment of 5 per cent emissions reduction on 2000 levels by the current Coalition 'Direct Action Plan'. With the United States ramping up action on climate change, and carbon trading schemes being implemented in many countries, including major trading partners China and Korea, Australia must be prepared to increase emissions cuts, not to abolish the carbon price.

Tony Abbott's campaigning has been intense negative sloganeering such as "The carbon tax will be abolished lock stock and barrel" with no credible policy for reducing emissions in a cost effective manner.

New Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has now challenged Tony Abbott to publicly televised debates at the National Press Club on carbon pricing, the economy and the refugee issue. But Tony Abbott has so far refused arguing the election date should be announced first.

Calls for Australia's emission reduction targets to be increased

After one year of operation, there is wide speculation the new Rudd Government will tweak Carbon pricing. Perhaps we'll see the emissions trading brought forward. But we are still a long way from policies implementing a 25 to 40 per cent cut in emissions by 2020 which scientists have been saying is necessary for industrialised countries like the USA and Australia.

On the first anniversary of Australia's carbon price and a new Climate Change Minister - Mark Butler - Climate Institute CEO John Connor said in a media release: “We are looking to Prime Minister Rudd to re-affirm Australia will continue to strengthen its global climate leadership, build on renewable energy laws and pick up pace in areas such as energy productivity and resilience to growing climate impacts.”

“Policy and public debate in this area has been a rollercoaster, and is likely to be for many years to come, but it is emerging from a fog of fear mongering and fiction we can avoid in the future.” said Mr Connor.

Australian Conservation Foundation climate campaigner Tony Mohr also highlighted Australia's carbon fixed price had been effective in contributing to less electricity demand, 13% less brown coal use and 28% more renewables in the last year. He called for bipartisan lifting of national emission reduction targets.

“The ALP and Coalition policy of cutting emissions by 5–25 per cent by 2020 was agreed in 2009 and is now out-dated as international progress is made." said Mohr, “China has started rolling out a carbon price and in the US President Obama has moved to directly regulate polluting power stations and efficiency standards. It’s time for Australia to move to a 25 per cent target." he said.


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