Canada-Australia 'Axis of Carbon' an Obstacle to Climate Pact

Their prime ministers mince no words in their disdain for putting a price on greenhouse gas emissions to protect their fossil fuel exports.

Tony Abbott, Primer Minister of Australia, at the World Economic Forum in 2014. Credit: Nicola Pitaro, Flickr.

The flags of all its member states flutter outside the United Nations as world leaders gather for a summit meeting on September 23 to help shape a global treaty confronting the climate crisis. But not all of those nations have caught the same wind.

Neither the prime ministers of Canada nor Australia will speak at the summit, and the subordinates they have sent will not be offering the kind of "bold" new steps that UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is seeking on the way to a treaty in Paris late next year.

Instead, these two governments, with their energy-rich domains sprawling across opposite ends of the earth, will present strikingly similar defenses against what much of the rest of the world is offering. And their stance is earning them opprobrium among advocates of strong and immediate action.

While a consensus is forming around setting a price on carbon and urgently converting to a carbon-free economy, Canada and Australia have turned themselves into an axis of carbon. If they attract others, this axis could become a potent force standing in the way of progress toward a universally binding pact.

It's not terribly surprising that these two countries have staked out political positions as far from the mainstream as their continental edges are from the equator. 

As recently as June, when their prime ministers stood shoulder to shoulder after a bilateral meeting, they minced no words in their disdain for putting a price on greenhouse gas emissions.

"We should do what we reasonably can to limit emissions and avoid climate change, man-made climate change, but we shouldn't clobber the economy," Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott declared at that news conference. "That's why I've always been against a carbon tax."

"No country is going to take actions that are going to deliberately destroy jobs and growth in their country," Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper chimed in. "We are just a little more frank about that."

Outside the Mainstream

These words put the two leaders squarely outside the approach being pressed by the other movers and shakers at the climate summit. One of the key messages being pushed by environmental groups, global financial institutions and their business partners is that if carbon's costs are recognized, investing in clean energy creates opportunities and benefits, not pure pain, for the world's economies.

That's the message, for example, that President Barack Obama is expected to bring to the meeting. In the past few days, his administration has been highlighting several prime examples from his broad climate action plan, which includes a crackdown on carbon emissions from the electric power sector, and incentives for green energy.

Despite the obstacles, especially in Congress, the U.S. remains within reach of meeting its existing goal of cutting carbon emissions 17 percent by the year 2020, and the Obama administration said this week it wants a treaty that raises ambitions significantly by the year 2025.

"We should design the system to capture as much increasing ambition as possible," the U.S. plan states.

The New York Times reported in August that the administration also wants the Paris pact not to be a formal treaty requiring the consent of the Senate; instead, it wants to let each nation set its own verifiable pace. Then the world would "name and shame" nations that fall short.

In that case, Canada and Australia might well be ostracized as among the worst shirks.

Two European environmental organizations, the Climate Action Network Europe and Germanwatch, ranked Australia next to last and Canada last among developed nations in their 2014 Climate Change Performance Index.

The ranking takes into account both the actual emissions of greenhouse gases and the governments' policies. After an election that brought Abbott to power on a promise to abolish a new tax on carbon, Australia scored worse than usual on the policy side

Canada, for its part, "still shows no intention of moving forward with climate policy and therefore remains the worst performer of all industrialised countries," the report said.

Both countries are major sources of fossil fuels for the rest of the world. Canada is the world's biggest exporter of oil to the United States and is pushing hard to win new export markets. Australia is the 10th biggest producer and second biggest exporter of coal in the world.

Absent from the Summit

Neither Abbott nor Harper plans to take the podium Tuesday in New York, when representatives including many heads of state from some 120 countries are to attend Ban Ki-moon's climate summit. Neither of their stand-ins is likely to propose or endorse the kind of "bold" actions the secretary-general solicited when he called the big climate meeting together. But both will claim to be working as hard as they can on global warming.

In an interview with the Sydney Morning Herald, Foreign Minister Julia Bishop said Australia would reaffirm its existing commitments but go no further when she presents its case. Instead, she said, she would focus on areas such as forestry and faster-acting pollutants instead of on energy and carbon dioxide.

When challenged in parliamentary debate on Ottawa's failure to produce long-promised carbon regulations for the oil and gas sector, Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq observed that she was "looking forward to taking part in the UN climate summit in New York next week to speak to Canada's record in taking action on climate change."

Official data shows that neither Canada nor Australia can claim to be on track toward meeting their existing greenhouse gas emissions goals, modest as they are.

Canada's government projected earlier this year that it is not on course. The main reason it is lagging behind, it reported, is because of growing production of tar sands oil in Alberta—an enterprise that the provincial and federal governments have sworn to pursue relentlessly.

"Canada will enter these negotiations as a climate laggard, with little prospect of honoring its 2020 commitments, and on a trajectory of increasing emissions through at least 2030," wrote Anthony Swift of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) on his blog. The advocacy group, along with Canadian counterpart Environmental Defence, has just issued a new report on the nation's performance.

Australia's current climate target, which is even less ambitious than Canada's, is likewise in jeopardy, with the government projecting that emissions will grow 2 percent a year between now and 2020.

Australia's emissions performance was put in instant jeopardy when the Abbott government repealed the carbon tax this year, making it the first industrial nation to reverse course in this way, just as world institutions were calling for movement in the opposite direction.

A program the government has offered to replace the carbon tax, known as the "direct action plan," is regarded as a fig leaf by the opposition. It would spend more than $2.5 billion over four years to pay off companies that reduce their emissions.

Abbott's government has kicked off another big political fight by proposing to undo longstanding goals supporting the broader use of renewable fuels. Electricity demand has actually been falling in Australia, and the increasing competitiveness of wind and solar power there has undermined the finances of old coal-powered generating plants, whose owners and fuel suppliers make up a powerful lobby.

Whole World Is Watching

These track records have not escaped the attention of the rest of the world, including the mother ship of the British Commonwealth.

Edward Davey, the United Kingdom's minister for energy and environment, set out his government's agenda recently for the talks leading to Paris. His report declared that just like Europe, Japan and the United States, "Canada and Australia should take on the most ambitious commitments and we are pressing them to do so in our bilateral contacts. We want to see them commit to ambitious targets to reduce their absolute emissions across their whole economy, to reflect their high level of past emissions, their likely future contribution to climate change, and their capability to deliver such cuts."

John Gummer, chairman of the UK Committee on Climate Change, was even more direct as he bashed Canada, and especially Australia, in an interview this summer with Australian television.

"Only Australia and to some extent Canada, but particularly Australia, is actually going backwards," he said. "Australia now has miserable targets... way out of line of any other advanced country and that's a very sad thing.

"And the reason that I think it's right for me to say these things is that Britain is changing Australia's climate, just as Australia is changing our climate," he added. "I'm an English speaker, I'm a conservative and I hate to see that wonderful nation fall behind and leave it to other people."

In one sense, Australia is making progress. For various reasons, including a downturn in aluminum smelting that sharply cut the use of electricity, it has been whittling away at its 2020 carbon target, which on paper has become steadily easier to meet.

But its critics say that only makes it more appropriate for Canberra to raise its game.

"An eminently achievable target may ease community, business and political concerns about setting a tougher emissions abatement target post 2020," said a new report by Frontier Economics, a consulting firm. "This is important as it is very likely that Australia will be subject over the next year or two to strong international pressure to cut emissions further."

Australia has also been lambasted for attempting to keep climate change off the agenda when the G20 nations meet in Brisbane in November. It's a tactic that Harper pioneered a few years ago when the G20 met in Toronto, to the considerable irritation of diplomats including Ban Ki-moon.

"Australia has been widely criticised for dropping climate change from the agenda on the basis that it is not an economic issue," the Centre for Economic Development Australia said in an August report. "Climate change is a G20 litmus test as well as a test of Australia's role. It is a problem with a global consequence requiring collective action."

Internal Pressures to Act

The two countries also have experienced extraordinary traumas at the hands of climate change—heat waves and spectacular fires in Australia, record flooding and devastating forest blight in Canada, for example.

And in both countries there are signs that climate activism, among ordinary citizens or in local and regional political strongholds, might sway the future national course.

In Canada, for example, British Columbia has led the way on a carbon tax, and environmental advocates and tribal councils are fighting pipelines linked to the tar sands enterprise.

At a recent meeting of Canada's provincial premiers, their communiqué noted the importance the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development attaches to putting a price on carbon. "Given the ever-changing international context," they said they would take stock of this kind of issue at future meetings.

But the federal government continues to drag its feet on a regulation, long overdue, that would tighten controls on the oil and gas sector, including the tar sands operators.

Meanwhile, according to an essay in the latest edition of Policy Magazine, emissions from oil sands production in the next several years are seen as "swamping" the rest of the economy's emissions, cancelling out any expected gains from cleaner electricity production. (It was written by David McLaughlin, former president of the National Roundtable on the Environment and the Economy, which the Harper government disbanded.)

The NRDC, in a joint report with the Canadian group Environmental Defence, said the issues are much broader.

"In addition to its failure to regulate emissions from tar sands production, the Canadian government has aggressively promoted unchecked tar sands expansion. Canada has dramatically reduced its support for climate research, ceased all major federal programs to support renewable energy development, gutted decades' worth of environmental legislation at the behest of the oil industry, muzzled government scientists from speaking on climate change, and continued significant subsidies to the oil and gas sector," the report said.

"Over 80 per cent of Canada's investment in clean energy came from programs that are now closed, shrinking the Canadian government's future investments in clean energy significantly. Without the grants, subsidies, and R&D funding, both the private sector and individuals have fewer incentives to invest in cleaning up our energy system. By failing to invest in clean technology, Canada is failing to invest in the solutions we need to create economic opportunities in clean energy."

Olivia Kember, policy and research manager of the Climate Institute, an Australian think tank, said that if Australia follows Canada's example, it may eventually find itself "boxed into position with local policies that it has to negotiate its way out of" on the world stage.

But for the moment, she said, "I think Australia would look at Canada and say there's a model, which faced no punishment. From the outside, it looks like Canada has not faced that much."

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