Timid targets: reflections on the Rudd government’s emissions trading white paper

The Australian Rudd Government has realeased its White Paper on greenhouse gas reduction targets up to 2020. Lenore Taylor in The Australian describes it as a ‘safe course’ in the context of present economic circumstances.

‘In a move that outraged conservationists and only partially appeased industry, Kevin Rudd made an unconditional promise to reduce Australian emissions to 5 per cent below 2000 levels by 2020.

But if other major emitters – including developing countries such as India and China – signed on to substantial emissions reductions in a UN agreement due to be finalised in Copenhagen late next year, Australia could cut its greenhouse pollution by up to 15per cent by 2020.’

As Greenpeace Australia Pacific states, a 5% cut would be meaningless. Is this a failure of Australian political leadership – or common sense in the context of an uncertain economic environment, with the major players as yet uncommitted to a global climate deal?

I think the Rudd government’s decision to start slow on cutting national emissions is a political and economic miscalculation. Rudd is securing the short term stability of the Australian economy at the cost of dangerously imperiling its future after 2020.

Ben Cubby in the Sydney Morning Herald points out that lack of resolve on the issue of emissions reduction targets means that the Australian government continues to send the wrong signals to green investors.

‘[A] soft start to emissions trading, together with the modest ambitions for carbon cuts, is unlikely to create a jobs boom’, Cubby writes. Quoting Matthew Warren, the chief executive of the Clean Energy Council, Cubby argues that ‘”[a] soft start [to emissions trading] only works if it is backed with aggressive investment signals in energy efficiency and clean technology. … These [signals would] deliver the biggest emissions cuts in the first years and prepare the Australian economy for the changes to follow”.’

Cubby is right. What Rudd’s modest target regime fails to account for is how Australia is to prepare itself for the major cuts it needs to make after 2020. Rudd seems to be proceeding on the expectation that the world will not be attempting to cut CO2 emissions by 80% or more after 2020.

What if this is a historical mistake?

Rudd is forgetting that the road to 2020 is just a run-up to a far greater leap. Top scientists claim that if society as we know it is to survive this century, we need a deep cut in global nett carbon emissions of 80% or more from 1990 levels. How is Australia to make this change smoothly and efficiently if it hasn’t trained and prepared itself for a massive infrastructural leap into a sustainable future? A slow start to emissions cuts means that industry and consumers do not get ready for the shift in gear. We need government policy that works to inspire and create the investment decision and business infrastructure that will shift Australia into a green economy post-2020.


  1. Your “historical leap” is a great way to put the situation and the opportunity it holds.
    The Rudd government could take action to create a transition economy today.

    If Rudd talks up the Green New Deal like Senator Christine Milne, Al Gore and now President-elect Obama, that would redefine the “politics of the possible”.

    What I don’t get is – how does such ‘broken’ thinking ‘hold together’? How can delusion be so immune to reality? What planet is Rudd on?

  2. A transition economy is exactly what we need. I suspect Rudd is aware of this – he’s just holding out, waiting for Obama to make the first move.

    Everything – I mean everything – hinges on the outcome of the Copenhagen talks in 2009. If Obama can show the kind of leadership that he’s been promising on this issue, perhaps the US can strike a deal with China and India, after which change will happen fast. If the deal falls through – this doesn’t bear thinking about…

    We should be happy, at least, that we have these genuine opportunities ahead of us. A year ago, I thought ‘broken thinking’ was all we were ever going to get out of politics.

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