OPINION

Australia a climate lagger not a world leader

CLIMATE CALL: Australia's youth will participate in another School Strike 4 Climate on September 20. Photo: MARK JESSER

CLIMATE CALL: Australia's youth will participate in another School Strike 4 Climate on September 20. Photo: MARK JESSER

It is most disturbing, and almost inexplicable, that Australia still doesn't have a Climate Action Plan for our inevitable transition to a low carbon society by 2050.

I feel it, particularly as I look back to what might have been. My Fightback package of the early 90s called for a 20 per cent cut in our emissions by 2000 off a 1990 base. If that policy had been pursued by pricing carbon and then repeated for each subsequent decade, we would have easily passed our Paris targets, and been well on the way to net-zero emissions by 2050, having created tens of thousands of new jobs, and billions of dollars of new investment across most key sectors.

Moreover, and most importantly, we would have done so with a much lower carbon price than what has (implicitly) prevailed to push our gas and electricity prices to such ridiculously high levels, we would be more advanced towards a world of electric vehicles, our soils would be much more resilient to drought through carbon farming, and so on.

Despite all the political claims to the contrary, our national emissions have increased consistently since 1990 apart from a couple of early years impacted by our last recession. We have also become the second-largest exporter of fossil fuels, coal and LNG, carrying with it some global responsibilities beyond our domestic emissions. We are identified as a "climate laggard" when we would, could, and should have been a global leader.

Inaction represents the greatest example of inter-generational theft, leaving the problem to our children and grandchildren.

Yet, all we have seen is now some 30 years of short-term political point-scoring, which has "killed off" any chance of what should have been a bi-partisan Climate Action Plan as an effective response to the climate challenge. It has been forgotten that in the run-up to our 2007 election, all major parties, state and federal, actually supported an emissions trading scheme, which was again never implemented because of shifts in short-term politics.

And this has been despite widespread and growing, electoral, business, and civil society support for decisive, government-led, action on climate. Most surveys/polls today put electoral support at 60-80 per cent, with major miners including BHP, Rio, Glencore and Woodside, with a wide cross-section of organisations across business and civil society, also in support.

Inaction represents the greatest example of inter-generational theft, leaving the problem to our children and grandchildren. But, perhaps, it will take a generational shift.

I was reading my eight-year-old's Horrible Science book "Wasted World" recently which summarised "Crazy Climate" in the following terms: "The story so far - the greedy Mighty Planet-Munching Machine (otherwise known as all the world's farming, transport and industry) is busy gobbling minerals and fuel and turning them into pollution and rubbish and toxic waste. And even though the world's fuel is running out there's plenty left to give our planet a bad case of the hots..."

Our youth "Get It"! In what will probably be another vain attempt to influence global governments and decision-makers, there will be a global student strike on September 20, as a forerunner to a UN initiated leaders' meeting as an attempt to toughen the Paris emission reduction targets, to further restrain projected global warming.

Of course, the climate sceptics will attack these students for "wagging school", rather than listen and learn. I was struck by the message from students of the Byron Bay Public School, who had been lent on by their Head not to participate in an earlier student strike, but did anyway, when they stood in formation to spell out "Our Future".

This week, I joined with all the crossbenchers in the House to launch a Parliamentary motion calling for the climate challenge to be recognised as an "emergency", as a framework against which the essential Action Plan could be formulated and delivered. The UK, France, and Canada have done so.

I think it is time our political masters are flushed out. I suggested a conscience vote by all members and senators. They need to be held to account into the future, by their constituents, their children, grandchildren, and all future generations. Climate is the greatest economic, social, political, and moral challenge of this century. Where were they when the planet needed them, for history to judge?

John Hewson is a professor at the Crawford School of Public Policy, ANU, and a former Liberal opposition leader.