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The climate canaries in Australia’s coal mine are dying

Image credit: 'No Fixed Adress' (Creative Commons: Flickr)

The recent response of the federal government to drought-affected farmers and the abandonment of the National Energy Guarantee (NEG) have more in common than first appears. They are both manifestations of the same climate change denial, environmental aggression and political self-interest that have prevented any meaningful action on environmental issues by successive Australian governments. If newly-appointed Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s first weeks in office are any indication, his government will be no exception to this underwhelming history.

The National Energy Guarantee

The NEG was lacking ambition and leadership even when it looked most promising. According to Oliver Yates, the former head of the Clean Energy Finance Corporation, the proposal was ‘of no benefit to the national transition away from emissions’. Under the 2016 Paris Agreement , Australia committed to an overall emissions reduction target of 26-28 per cent on 2005 levels by 2030. In the energy sector, this target is already expected to be achieved under a ‘business as usual’ scenario, on the basis of renewable projects now under construction, even with the NEG dead in the water.

The target is far less likely to be achieved in other industries, however. In light of this challenge, the Clean Energy Council has argued that the energy sector should be taking the lead on emission reductions in Australia.

But the former Turnbull government’s NEG would have done nothing to reduce emissions in the energy sector. And according to the Australia Institute’s chief economist Richard Denniss, neither was it likely to reduce electricity prices given the proposal of more expensive coal subsidies.

But rather than being revised on these policy grounds, the NEG’s demise was prompted by petty infighting and the unfounded concerns of conservative politicians that increased support for renewables would raise already high electricity prices when, in fact, the opposite, is true.

Resolve weakened further when, in response to this conservative jostling, it was announced that emission reduction targets would be set by regulation rather than legislation. Prime Minister Morrison has since reaffirmed this move before appointing renewable energy-sceptic Angus Taylor as Energy Minister.

A poor climate change record

Australia’s history of climate change mitigation is uniformly lacklustre. In the first round of emission reduction targets at Kyoto in 1997, the Howard government belligerently negotiated a carbon increase allowance of 8 per cent, and vastly exceeded it. Due to a clause known as ‘the Australia exception’, emissions from land clearing were included in the 1990 baseline, of which there had been a massive but already declining spike in Queensland at the time. As a result, Australian politicians still proudly proclaim that Australia is the only country to have technically met its first-round Kyoto targets, despite increasing emissions from fossil fuels by 28 per cent.

Globally, the current round of emission reduction targets under the Paris Agreement are not nearly sufficient to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius – the ultimate goal of the climate talks. Current commitments would more likely lead to 2-3 degrees of warming, which would be catastrophic both for Australians and its neighbours. Worse still, most countries are not on track to meet even these inadequate commitments, and current projections place the world in the range of 3-4 degrees of warming – a possibility so extreme that scientists have little capacity to predict or understand complex interactions and feedback loops under these conditions.

While Australia’s neighbours in Asia and the Pacific grow increasingly frustrated by its inaction on climate change, Australians have cause for alarm too. Australia is widely considered the most vulnerable developed nation to climate change, as warming exacerbates its already extreme and erratic climate.

Farmers are canaries in the Australian coal mine

The failure of successive Australian governments to deal with climate change is already hurting farmers (and by extension tax payers) but that situation is more complex than the mainstream media generally lets on. In the last month, the federal government has responded to calls for more support to drought-affected farmers in the eastern states. In his first act as PM, Scott Morrison visited Quilpie in South West Queensland and bluntly refused to answer questions about the role of climate change in the prolonged drought.

The reality is that since colonisation, many farms in marginal arid areas of eastern Australia have only ever been profitable for a few years in a decade on average. As climate scientist Joëlle Gergis has shown in her studies, prolonged droughts are common in Australia’s history, and when droughts break, rain is often concentrated in destructive flooding events. In the 19th century, low running costs meant that farms could afford to make a profit on this basis. But with today’s higher running costs and declining profits due to worsening droughts, many affected farms are no longer viable businesses and are kept running only through a personal attachment to land that has been in the family for generations, and a lack of skills and opportunities to seek other work.

The obstacles faced by farmers in the transition to new sources of income should not be underestimated, and it is clear that the government has a leading role to play in supporting this transition. But part of that role is to clearly acknowledge that tax payers cannot and should not be asked to indefinitely prop-up an inherently unsustainable industry which will only become further mired in debt.

In the face of overwhelming evidence that both climate change and land degradation will make farming in many marginal areas increasingly unprofitable in coming decades, the expansion of delayed-interest loans to struggling farms is both unethical and fiscally irresponsible. An industry where owners of up to $5 million in saleable business assets are dependent on welfare payments because they cannot put food on the table is not a viable industry. Loans will not enable farmers to remedy the effects of unchecked climate change and centuries of land degradation.

The Australian climate cannot be tamed

The recent outpouring of sympathy for drought-affected farmers demonstrates a sense of comradery in adversity that many Australians are rightly proud of. I grew up on a Queensland cattle farm that has been in drought for most of my life, and the stories of other families are heart-breaking. Viewed in the broader context of Australia’s harsh climate, however, the ongoing refusal by many to sell their farms also reflects a persistent colonial legacy of environmental aggression, where the environment is viewed as a hostile foe to be defeated through domination and brutalisation, come what may.

There is a disturbing undertone to this unbridled support for an industry that has made it the mission of successive generations to seek meagre returns out of extremely arid and marginal land. It has long been known that introduced European livestock seriously exacerbate the declining productivity of that land through soil degradation. Always a continent of long-term drought cycles, it has already been shown that recent droughts have been dramatically worsened by climate change, creating a deeply troubling ‘new normal’.

The petty degeneration of Australian politics has much to answer for the stagnation of any meaningful policy across the board in recent years. The longer our politicians prioritise lining their own pockets over working on genuine, science-based policy reform, the more future generations of Australians and our neighbours will suffer for their greed and egotism.

Tess Van Geelen is the Climate and Energy Security Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs

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