Climate Change and Environment

In recent years, both Australia and China have become increasingly engaged with the issue of climate change on the domestic, bilateral and international level. China accounts for over one quarter of global greenhouse emissions and is the world’s largest single emitter, while Australia is the highest per capita emitter in the developed world and the fifteenth largest absolute emitter. Shifting political environments in both countries have meant that this policy area has seen both close bilateral cooperation and bitter divisions.

Labor leader Kevin Rudd [topic link page] was elected prime minister in November 2007 with a major climate change policy agenda, including proposals for Australia–China climate change cooperation. Rudd had previously declared climate change to be ‘the greatest moral, economic and social challenge of our time’ and ratified the Kyoto Protocol as his first act of office. The inaugural Australia–China Ministerial Dialogue on Climate Change was convened in November 2008, and an annual 1.5-track Australia–China Climate Change Forum was established in April 2009.

Rudd’s signature domestic policy was the planned introduction of a national emissions trading scheme (ETS) — the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme (CPRS) — which he proclaimed to be one of the ‘most important structural reforms to our economy in a generation’. Rudd faced stiff resistance from industry and the Opposition to the ETS, which he countered with predictions that the rest of the world would follow suit at the December 2009 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen. But Copenhagen did not deliver the binding emissions reduction commitments that Rudd had trumpeted, producing only a ‘political accord’ with voluntary targets. The Accord was widely reported as a ‘failure’. Western analysts blamed China (in cahoots with India and the G77 group of small nations) for blocking negotiations and ‘sabotaging’ the conference in order to protect its economic development strategy from external scrutiny and legal challenge. This gave substantial political momentum to Rudd’s ETS opponents and by April 2010 Rudd had ‘retreated’ and delayed further ETS considerations until the 2013 election. It was later revealed that Rudd had called Chinese negotiators ‘fuckers … trying to ratfuck us’.

After Copenhagen, new prime minister Julia Gillard [topic page link] passed the Clean Energy Act in November 2011 that introduced a staggered ETS known as the Carbon Pricing Mechanism (CPM) and promised to reduce Australia’s emissions by five percent of 2000 levels by 2020.

Concerns over energy security and environmental destruction also compelled China to achieve a remarkable improvement in its reputation on climate change. In its twelfth Five Year Plan, covering the years 2011 to 2015, China committed itself to environmentally responsible and low-carbon economic development, prioritised market solutions to climate change, and aimed to reduce emissions intensity to 40–45 percent of 2005 levels by 2020 (a pre-Copenhagen promise) as well as increase the energy share of renewables and nuclear power to fifteen percent by 2020. China’s State Council announced that environmental protection is a ‘pillar industry’ for national development, backed by the state and eligible for generous subsidies and tax breaks to fuel domestic growth.

Since these policy reforms, there has been significant bilateral climate change collaboration. Chinese policy-makers keenly observed the Australian ETS process and Australian experts and bureaucrats worked closely with China in designing its own ETS. China is currently operating seven regional ETS trials ahead of the expected announcement of a national ETS framework in its next five-year plan (2016-2020). Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) has developed new underground carbon storage methods in China and established China’s first post-combustion capture-equipped energy plant. The AusChina Energy Development joint venture plans to develop A$6 billion of wind and solar power plants in Australia before 2020.

Not all developments were positive. Some observers pointed out that coal used for ‘dirty’, or high emission, power generation was Australia’s second most valuable export to China. Coal exports totaled A$9.3 billion in 2013–2014. Critics also argued that international hype over Chinese environmental policies ignored their insignificance when compared with total Chinese energy consumption and massive new coal power investments. Others point out that the structural change in the Chinese economy away from coal-fired power to renewable energy could be damaging for the Australian coal industry, though beneficial to LNG, uranium and clean-tech exporters.

Tony Abbott [topic page link] came to power in September 2013 promising that scrapping the carbon pricing mechanism (CPM) was his ‘top legislative priority’. Chinese officials reacted with disappointment, saying that abolishing the CPM was ‘not good news’ and hoping that the ‘right decision’ would be made to keep the mechanism. When the Abbott government successfully repealed the CPM in July 2014, it annulled the Australia-China carbon trading agreement signed in April 2013, which would have connected the CPM with the Chinese ETS. Many Australian commentators and activists now compare Australian climate change policy and science unfavourably with that of China, especially as in November 2014 China signed a landmark climate change agreement with the US and committed to cap emissions growth and source twenty percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2030. This agreement came days before the Brisbane G20 Summit, where the Abbott government was widely criticised for refusing to put climate change on the official agenda.

The Abbott government is still committed under the Cancun Agreement to reducing Australia’s greenhouse emissions by five percent by 2020 compared to 2000 levels, but it prefers a ‘direct action’ policy approach focused on an Emissions Reduction Fund (ERF) and a Renewable Energy Target. However, China is part of a chorus of major emitters challenging Australian climate policy in the lead up to a major international climate change summit in Paris in December 2015. In December 2014, Chinese climate negotiator Su Wei 苏伟 said ‘it is not good news’ that Australia is refusing to donate to the World Bank’s Green Climate Fund to assist developing countries combat global warming (the Abbott government had dismissed the Fund as ‘socialism masquerading as environmentalism’). In April 2015, China also used the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change to question the ability of the ERF to replace the CPM in meeting Australia’s emissions reduction commitments, and criticised Australia for holding itself to a lower standard than other developed countries.

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  • Australian Department of Industry, Innovation, Climate Change, Science, Research and Tertiary Education, ‘China: Acting on Climate Change’, 9 February 2013.

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