Pricing carbon: domestic policy and international responsibility

Campaigns and Advocacy, News, Opinion article written on the 06 Oct 2011

As Australians gathered at barbecues, sporting grounds, or in front of television screens across the country for Grand Final weekend, half way across the globe, the latest round of UN climate negotiations got underway without fanfare in Panama.

Against the backdrop of these talks and the important UN Climate Conference in Durban, South Africa, later this year, Australia’s responsibility to pass the carbon price legislation is greater than ever. Pricing carbon will help us play catch-up on international efforts to deal with climate change.

Australia is one of the world’s biggest per-capita polluters. If this was ‘footy’ and pollution was the name of the game, we‘d be on top of the ladder.

Helping us get there are facts like this: Australia’s emissions per person/per year are around 20 tonnes. In India, it’s less than 1.4 tonnes per person/per year. That means the average Australian is contributing around 14 times more carbon pollution to the atmosphere than the average Indian.

At last year’s UN Climate Conference in Cancun, the world agreed to limit warming to below two degrees. To achieve this, big polluters must reduce their emissions. This includes Australia.

There is bi-partisan support in Australia for a modest five per cent reduction in emissions by 2020 on 2000 levels. In comparison, Britain – a country which hasn’t weathered the Global Financial Crisis as well as Australia – is aiming to reduce emissions by 50% by 2025.

While some say Australia’s commitment to reduce emissions by five per cent is a big enough reduction, recent research by the Stockholm Environment Institute, and commissioned by Oxfam, shows that the emission reductions of the emerging economies of China, India, South Africa and Brazil are likely to be slightly greater than the combined efforts of the US, Europe, Australia, Japan, Canada, New Zealand and Russia. Indeed the report showed that 60 per cent of emission reductions by 2020 are likely to be made by developing countries.

Although world leaders have agreed to limit global warming to below two degrees Celsius, the current emission reductions that have been pledged are woefully inadequate to get us to this point. So rich countries like Australia really do have a responsibility to further reduce carbon pollution. Putting a price on carbon is one way to do this.

Pricing carbon in Australia will influence global efforts to get a deal on climate change. Professor Ross Garnaut’s updated Climate Change review states: “If Australia were to introduce a carbon price…it would cease to be a drag on international mitigation. Australian success in introducing a carbon price is likely to assist the United States and Canada to maintain momentum in policies to reduce emissions.”

Across the world, countries are taking action. Emissions trading schemes are up and running in New Zealand, Britain, France and Germany. India and Japan are taxing the use of coal. China is set to trial emissions trading in six provinces and cities. The scheme will cover more than 250 million people and is supported by huge investments in clean energy. Trading schemes are also set to start in South Korea, California and in parts of Canada.

In addition to many governments, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund are proposing a surcharge on shipping and aviation emissions to reduce global emissions and help poor people in developing countries adapt to climate change.

From the current food crisis affecting Kenya, Somalia and Ethiopia, to the recent tidal surges in Tuvalu and Kiribati, natural disasters and changing weather patterns are having a devastating impact on people’s livelihoods, food and water supplies.

While it is impossible to attribute any one weather event to climate change, one thing is clear: if nothing is done now, climate change will in future make a bad situation worse.

Urgent action is required at global and local levels if today’s food crisis in East Africa is not to be a grim foretaste of future hunger and suffering. Australia can, and needs to, support poor people in developing countries who are feeling the impacts of climate change first and worst. One way to help poor people living in developing countries would be to direct to them a small portion of the funds raised from a price on carbon.

Australia, the OECD’s biggest per-person polluter has a responsibility internationally. This responsibility involves passing the carbon price legislation and assisting developing countries adapt to climate change. This is one game we cannot afford to lose.

Clancy Moore

Clancy Moore is reporting from the UN climate negotiations in Panama (October 1 – 7) as part of Oxfam Australia’s UN Climate Tracker project (link:

This opinion editorial was first published on ABC’s The Drum on 4 October.