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Dec 9, 2011

Is Australia a developing nation when it comes to climate change?

The hierarchy implicit in the decision to provide climate aid to developing countries is not one that is reflected in Australia's role in the global harm to the environment. Perhaps we

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The hierarchy implicit in the decision to provide climate aid to developing countries is not one that is reflected in Australia’s role in the global harm to the environment. Perhaps we should be more humble about our own environmental credentials.

At the Durban climate change discussions Minister for Climate Change and Energy Efficiency, Greg Combet announced $25 million towards helping African nations climate proof agriculture, manage resources and boost food security. While announcing the aid funding Combet did not pass up the opportunity to trumpet Australia’s emission abatement and reduction credentials:

Our new laws will cut pollution, drive energy efficiency and ignite renewable energy opportunities… This means Australia will do as we say, we will meet the emission reduction targets we have pledged, and continue to reduce emissions over the long term.

This is not an insubstantial amount of money and shows that Australia is keen to address questions of climate justice, livability and quality of life in developing countries. This should not be seen a cynical gesture as further measures on domestic climate change abatement are probably not politically salable so soon after the passing of the carbon tax.

Still the question has to be asked if we are going to address global dimensions of climate change: ‘where’s the harm?’ The answer is much closer to home.

If we are to take seriously a global perspective on climate change it’s pretty clear Australia itself is a major problem. Australia’s per capita emissions are terrible; highest in the OECD and amongst the highest in the world. It’s not like it is a close run thing either, Australia is a statistical outlier, its per capita emissions are double the OECD average and four times that of the world. Don’t mention coal.

If we take seriously the global context of our contribution to climate change the story is even worse. The world-leading bad outcomes are despite the fact that we import more manufactured goods than export and the associated emissions are not counted to our total emissions but to the country that produces them. Thus at an ethical level, if not at the strict level of accounting, Australia free-rides on overseas manufacturing emissions that are fueled by our demand to consume. One thing that Australia does export plentifully, half of our total exports, is natural resources. Including especially carbon intensive energy sources that, amongst other things are, used in these manufacture processes. Australia has thus effectively out-sourced responsibility by off-shoring the means toward unjust ends. Don’t mention coal.

The elephant in the room is coal. Common to both the emissions that occur under our name and those that occur overseas is disproportionate harm done to global climate due a reliance on coal. Coal constitutes nearly half of our national energy supply, more than double the proportion of other OECD countries. Australia also supports the global use of coal as an energy source by being the leading global exporter of coal and it constitutes our largest export earner. Australia is thus not only systemically reliant upon coal as an energy source but perpetuates a global energy regime based around coal.

Australia needs to take responsibility for its disproportionate contribution to climate change. If we can’t do that by way of effective carbon reductions we should be a lot more humble on the world stage. We rightly tout our accomplishment of putting a price on carbon but this achievement is undermined by a massive $1.2 billion subsidy to the coal industry off-set the impact of the carbon tax. If by impact we mean explicit goal.

There is an implicit hierarchy involved in the provision of aid. The decision to give $25 million for Africa to combat climate change and not ask for financial assistance or technical advice ourselves says something about how we perceive ourselves and others on the diplomatic stage.   The assumption is that Australia is a developed country that has effective processes in place for addressing climate change and it has something it can offer financially and in terms of innovative design and industry. This is despite massive economic and infrastructural impasses to address our dense national cluster of emissions.

Most of the serious arguments against taking more serious action on climate change are economic arguments. Moving away from coal-based energy sources and reducing our exports of carbon intensive resources are deemed unfeasible due to the economic impact on the economy. This economic inability to address climate change is both systemic and habitual. Does this not suggest that Australia is a developing nation when it comes to climate change?

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