Richard Lambert, ABC Drum, July 28 2011
The heat that’s now being generated by the climate change debate in Australia seems truly amazing to an outsider.
Here are five myths that I’ve heard being repeated during my stay.
1. Climate change policymaking is driven primarily by tree huggers and socialists.
In fact, Mrs Thatcher was one of the first world leaders to call for urgent action more than 20 years ago. The three largest countries that already have a fully-fledged carbon price system in operation – Germany, France and the UK – all have centre right governments in power. And Arnold Schwarzenegger was a consistent champion of carbon pricing during his time as Republican governor of California.
So there is no reason why this should be treated as an ideological issue. The real question is about where you want to place your bets: alongside the vast majority of the world’s climate scientists who say that man-made climate change is a significant threat, or with a handful of naysayers, often from Europe, who are as well qualified to talk about science as they are about Aussie rules football.
2. Since Australia only accounts for about 1.5 per cent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, nothing that it does will make any practical difference to the Earth’s atmosphere.
As the world’s biggest emitter of greenhouse gases per head of the population, Australia has a vital part to play in the international debate. It will be much harder to persuade the big emerging economies of China and India to modify their behaviour if this country is unwilling to do anything itself. As a massive exporter of coal, it has a strong interest in being seen to play a responsible part in the fight against man-made climate change.
And there is no doubt that it has a stake in this fight. If the threat is as significant as the scientists believe, Australia is likely to be the most vulnerable of all developed countries to the damaging consequences, in the shape of drought and coastal flooding.
3. Australia is proposing to go much further than other countries in its climate change policies.
The reality is that a plan to cut emissions by 5 per cent between 2000 and 2020 probably puts the country somewhere in the middle of the pack. According to The Economist magazine, the proposed carbon price scheme for Australia is “not particularly ambitious: quite a lot of the reductions it seeks, especially in the early years, will be bought from developing countries using the United Nation’s Clean Development Mechanism”.
4. Green policies can only do harm to the economy.
As Malcolm Turnbull argued last week, in anything but the very short term this is not a zero-sum game, in which a win for the environment means a loss for business. Taking carbon out of the atmosphere will require a whole bunch of new products and services to be developed, which will drive innovation and create new jobs and investment.
That’s why companies like GE, Siemens, Jaguar Land Rover, Unilever and Marks and Spencer are not pushing back against carbon pricing policies. On the contrary, they understand that in the future they will need to be green to grow.
5. A country that imposes a carbon price before its major trading partners will kill its export industries.
Germany is today arguably the world’s most successful exporting nation, selling massive amounts of capital goods to China and elsewhere. It’s also been retrofitting its housing stock, and investing heavily in renewable energy. And it already puts a price on its carbon.
Of course business is never going to write a blank cheque for government, and there are some very difficult questions to resolve – for instance, about how best to treat energy intensive manufacturers of tradeable commodities like steel or cement. It would make no sense to put the kind of burden on these businesses that would force them to close down here and import products from countries where there were no such constraints.
And of course this is a red hot political issue here in Australia: it’s not for a visitor to pontificate about the right course of action. But the arguments need to be based on realities, not myths. Other countries have gone down this road already – and the roof has not fallen in.
Richard Lambert stepped down as director-general of the Confederation of British Industry in January, and is a former editor of the Financial Times.