By Matteo Gagliardi
Artwork by Josh Evans
The election is over and Tony Abbott is now Prime Minister, though this came as no surprise to anyone following the tides of public opinion in the election lead-up. This couldn’t help the multitudes of disconsolate Labor supporters who took to social media to express their utter disappointment in the Australian population and dread of the direction the country would take under an Abbott-led government.
For one particular example, Labor fans cried that the election of Abbott would usher in the apocalypse through decimation of climate change policy. Of course, there is some reason—at least on a superficial level—to be distrustful of the Liberals’ climate change agenda. Their whole economic and political philosophy favours the removal of all “unnecessary” regulations, public spending, and any barriers—in particular environmental ones—to the success of big-time contributors to the economy and workforce (such as mining companies).
On top of this, numerous members of the Liberal Party are known climate sceptics and there have been concerns in the past that Tony Abbott himself doesn’t believe in climate change. Not to mention that Abbott ran most of his election campaign on the promise to scrap the carbon tax, a policy that found support in much of the public even as they blamed it for financial stress. The Coalition has even recently gone through with plans to axe the Climate Commission, saying its role could just as easily be fulfilled by the Department of Environment.
But the Liberals promised to cut back on national greenhouse emissions by five per cent by 2020, so it still—at least in rhetoric—is committed to climate action.
So what does an Abbott election mean for Australia’s climate change policy? Is there reason to lament the Liberals’ supposedly regressive climate aspirations? And is it fair to say that Liberals don’t care about climate change and wish to pander to the interests of big mining and oil companies, like some people claim?
To start off with, one must first understand that multiple approaches have been formulated to deal with the problem of climate change. They can essentially be classified into two classes of action: top-down approaches, which seek to reorganise whole system-wide structures and prescribe rules and regulations dictating how people should act; and bottom-up approaches, which look to facilitate groundwork laid to deal with the issue and enable grassroots projects.
While the carbon tax is an example of a top-down approach (it is a prescribed pricing scheme on carbon usage that is applied to everyone), the Liberals’ Direction Action Plan represents more of a bottom-up approach. It involves spending $2.5 billion (down from the $3 billion that they promised in 2010) mostly on investing in specific projects designed to reduce emissions.
Both methods have their merits and weaknesses. Top-down approaches ensure compliance by forcing people to act. But as we saw with the carbon tax, people don’t always like being told what to do—or in this case, what to pay for. Bottom-up approaches are more specific actions and can generate verifiable results, but won’t necessarily result in systemic change, which is what’s needed in the context of climate change mitigation.
One specific example of a bottom-up approach is the proposed plan to set up a Green Army. The Coalition will apparently allocate $300 million to build an “environmental workforce” of 15,000 young people to undertake practical, grassroots action to deal with environmental issues such as climate change. Though the project sounds useful, it won’t do much to tackle the overall problem.
This is because the most important way to deal with climate change is to actually reduce greenhouse emissions. A major part of the Liberals’ plan is to plant more trees to soak up carbon dioxide and invest in soil farming projects to capture and store carbon in the ground. While a seemingly logical solution to the problem of carbon emissions, the science doesn’t fully support the idea that you can get away with emitting as much as you want as long as you can plant more trees and farm more soil to capture all of our emissions.
We are not on track to achieving our goal of a five per cent reduction in emissions by 2020, although the carbon tax was achieving some success. An independent review conducted by energy firm RepuTex, commissioned by World Wildlife Fund Australia earlier this year, found that the Coalition could meet the five per cent target with its Direct Action Plan, but only if it spent an extra $5.9 billion per year between 2015 and 2020.
There is a common concern that the Liberals are not really concerned with this target and are only using a greenwashing campaign (making it seem as if they are concerned about the climate, but only pursuing mediocre strategies and justifying them as proper action) in order to buy more time to reap the benefits of a burgeoning coal industry.
The abolition of the Climate Commission and the planned winding-down of the $10 billion Clean Energy Finance Corporation, which was set up to fund renewable energy projects, have been cited as further proof of this claim. But others maintain that this is just an attempt to cut down the amount of bureaucracy and public spending, which is superfluous to what’s necessary in the context of climate action. In other words, the Liberals may indeed think it’s perfectly possible to tackle climate change without spending billions of dollars of taxpayer money to do it.
Ultimately, it’s still too early to determine the intentions of this Abbott-led coalition government; whether it truly thinks its bottom-up approaches will mitigate our role in causing climate change in the most cost-effective way possible or if it’s trying to greenwash us into accepting this rhetoric while it allows the resource and minerals industry to carve out short-term profits at everyone’s expense in the future.
As the results of the latest review of climate science from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change come out, it’s important to remind ourselves of the gravity of the problem, though. We are staring down the barrel of a loaded gun aimed at us by a climate system that’s sick of all the greenhouse gases we’re discharging into it. By global standards, our five per cent national target is pathetically low (the EU is already on track to reduce its emissions by 20 per cent region-wide); the least we could do is keep our politicians accountable to it.
‘A clean solution …’ was also published in the On Campus section of the Virgin Voters website as part of their pre-election youth-engagement campaign.