How Australia bungled climate policy to create a decade of disappointment

in the lead-up to the 2015 general election in the United Kingdom, the leaders of the three major parties sat down together and signed a statement on climate change policy that would seem unimaginable to Australians. They agreed that “climate change is one of the most serious threats facing the world today” and undertook to “to work together across party lines to agree carbon budgets in accordance with the Climate Change Act”. They pledged “to accelerate the transition to a competitive, energy efficient, low-carbon economy and to end the use of unabated coal for power generation”, meaning that the last coal-fired power station will be closed in the United Kingdom in 2025 at the latest.

The 2015 UK election – true to the pledge signed by party leaders – saw no real debate over climate change or energy policy, other than a minor skirmish over the balance between on-shore and off-shore wind power. In the context of the deep cuts in pollution and the profound transition in the energy sector agreed by the parties, the absence of bare-knuckled fighting over these policies was amazing for Australian observers. Within 12 months, UK politics was then thrown into turmoil by the referendum decision to terminate the nation’s membership of the European Union – Brexit. But in the wake of that momentous vote, the Committee on Climate Change still recommended an ambitious carbon reduction target for the five-year period 2028-32 that is equivalent to Australia committing to a 61% cut against the 2005 baseline used by the Australian government. The budget was quietly endorsed by both parties shortly after.

The politics of climate change could hardly be more different in Australia than they appear to be in the UK. Climate change – or “global warming” – only emerged as a political issue across the world less than 30 years ago. In that time, Australia has been unable to reach an enduring consensus about even the core elements of a policy response to an issue that scientists agree will present enormous challenges to our vulnerable continent. And, on the rare occasions a consensus has appeared to be forming, it has been struck down by a combination of industry, media and political opposition.

In the earliest days of climate change politics, the parties were much closer. The global Toronto conference of 1988 had called upon the world’s developed nations to stabilise emissions at 1988 levels by 2000, and to reduce them by 20% by 2005. Just before the 1990 election, Labor’s Graham Richardson convinced cabinet to adopt the Toronto position as an “interim” target. Liberal leader Andrew Peacock took an even more ambitious position to the 1990 election: which lasted through John Hewson’s leadership and the 1993 election.

But those plans – and the political consensus that underpinned them – started to unravel in the wake of the 1991 recession. A number of state Labor governments fell to new Liberal administrations that were heavily influenced by hardline neoliberal thinking. And, across the world, industry groups and rightwing thinktanks started to push back against the momentum that had been building around global action on climate change since Toronto. This pushback was built on two pillars; to emphasise the economic downside of taking action on climate change, and to introduce doubt into the public discussion about the science.

John Howard embraced the rightwing handbook. While every additional scientific report added to the consensus about human activity’s role in changing the climate, Howard and most of his ministers framed the matter as a continuing “debate” that was not yet settled.

Howard’s ability to express his true views about this policy area expanded with the election of George W Bush in 2000. Under Bush and Howard, Australia and the United States became the only two developed nations not to ratify the Kyoto protocol (until Kevin Rudd did so in 2007). But things were not all going Howard’s way. Labor state governments moved to fill the vacuum in climate and renewable energy policy Howard had left at a national level. States enacted a range of programs to support greater energy efficiency and the spread of renewable energy. They also established the National Emissions Trading Taskforce in 2004 to build pressure for a market mechanism to bring down carbon pollution.

A range of other factors started to swing the momentum back in favour of action on climate change. The devastating millennium drought in Australia almost certainly increased public consciousness of a changing climate, as well as support for action.

And globally, Al Gore’s 2006 film, An Inconvenient Truth, popularised the cause of climate action. Howard started to look out of touch, finally yielded to that pressure and announced that his government would introduce an emissions trading scheme (ETS) to commence in 2011.

It’s tempting to view Howard’s capitulation to pressure on the ETS as evidence of a broader acceptance of the science of climate change and the need to take strong action. But in 2013, Howard himself admitted that his 2007 policy was simply a political device – nothing more than a pragmatic recognition that he was facing, to use his words, a “perfect storm” politically against a Labor opposition that had more “fashionable views” on such matters.

Rudd became prime minister in 2007 with huge public support for his plan to take strong action on climate change. Rudd decided to act on the basis that the major parties had reached a consensus on the establishment of an ETS.