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Kevin Rudd has failed his own test on climate change (Online Opinion)

When our prime minister likes a turn of phrase, he gives it a real hammering.

Over the last few years some of the most often heard lines from Kevin Rudd have been his appeal to the world to address the “great moral challenge” of climate change, his belief in “evidence-based policy” and his call for the carbon pollution reduction scheme to be passed in order to “to deliver certainty for business”.

His decision this week to delay until 2013 any attempt to start an emissions trading scheme makes a mockery of all three statements.

When most people think of addressing a great challenge, the picture of a government sitting on its hands for three years isn’t one that springs to mind.

In explaining its decision the Government has blamed Tony Abbott for changing the Coalition’s position, the Greens for opposing the scheme and slower than expected international action.

But tricky politics isn’t an excuse for abandoning a great moral challenge. Like all political situations, this one is temporary. Sean Macken from political consultants Hawker Britton recently told a public forum in Sydney that he finds it difficult to imagine a situation where the Greens don’t hold the balance of power following this year’s election.

While international efforts have been disappointing, more than 120 countries have now backed the Copenhagen Accord, showing a determination to build an international agreement to keep warming below two degrees.

International commitments already made are in line with the Rudd Government’s expectations for moving to a target to reduce emissions by 15 per cent by 2020. There is no international case for putting off action.

What’s needed to build momentum is leadership and good examples.

So much for the great moral challenge. What about evidence-based policy?

The evidence is overwhelming that nations like Australia must urgently reduce carbon pollution to avoid increasingly dangerous changes to the climate.

The evidence that carbon pricing is the most efficient and effective means of reducing emissions is nearly as difficult to ignore.

Opinion leaders as diverse as John Howard, Ross Garnaut and the Business Council of Australia all agree a price on carbon is the most effective way to cut emissions.

Arguments can be made about whether emissions trading or a carbon tax is the best mechanism, however what is crucial is having a strong price signal.

The evidence points to sooner, rather later, being the best time to get a price on carbon started. Treasury’s massive modelling exercise in 2008 concluded “delaying action increases the risks and costs on achieving any given environmental goal”.

The Australian Business Roundtable on Climate Change, which included BP, Origin and Westpac, found “the longer we delay acting, the more expensive it becomes for business and for the wider Australian economy”.

Kevin Rudd has diminished business certainty with his hastily made announcement to delay the ETS.

Investments in clean energy will be shelved. Even investments in polluting industries will face the uncertainty of a radically different and hopefully stronger carbon price being enacted over the next few years.

Oil and gas producer Santos has confirmed it will not proceed with a proposed $800 million gas-fired power plant in Victoria while there is uncertainty about a carbon price. The Australian newspaper has called it an “investment strike” in power generation.

Of course while our economy and environment would be better off if we got started now with a serious price on carbon, some industries see a delay to the ETS as a big win.

The corks will be popping in the top floor offices of high carbon polluting businesses that have done little to diversify because, for them, delay is victory.

Last May’s announcement of a one-year delay to the start of the CPRS and a fixed price of $10 a tonne meant the six most polluting industries avoided paying $1.1 billion for the pollution they pump into the atmosphere, according to analysis by RiskMetrics for the Australian Conservation Foundation.

This further two year delay will mean companies like Rio Tinto and BHP Billiton will avoid paying millions for their pollution, which damages the atmosphere for all of us.

Meanwhile our economy suffers the costs and increased risks of delay.

Delaying serious action on climate change is a weak, in fact cowardly, decision that is not founded on any evidence and will increase business un-certainty.

Exit poll analysis by researchers from Swinburne and Macquarie Universities found climate change was the decisive issue for voters who changed their votes between the 2004 and 2007 elections; 73 per cent of these people changed their vote to the ALP.

Will these people vote for Labor again this year?

To regain credibility on climate change the Government must explain to the electorate its plan to introduce a price on pollution for the largest emitters by its previous deadline of 2011. It needs to work with the Opposition, the Greens and independent senators to build political consensus for strong action on climate change.

Without a credible plan from the Rudd Government, Malcolm Turnbull, may go down as the only major party politician willing to risk political skin for action on climate change. While his policies didn’t go far enough, his retirement is a loss for credible climate change policy in Australia.

We hope future politicians, including those that will be elected to our Parliament for the first time in this year’s election, will have the courage to follow through on strong rhetoric with strong action. There is still time to move Australia to a clean energy economy, with more jobs and a less polluted environment.

Owen Pascoe is ACF's Climate Change Campaigner