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Cancun reinforces the need for strong domestic climate policies

By Matthew Wright - posted Friday, 10 December 2010

Today, international climate treaty negotiations in Cancun will reach their peak. Ministers, negotiators, lobbyists and activists will work at a frenetic pace to advance (or thwart) an international treaty on climate change. Regardless of whether or not there is breakthrough in Cancun, we must remember that progress on reducing carbon emissions will be achieved with strong domestic policies. Australia doesn’t need to wait for international agreement to start rolling out climate change solutions.

It’s true that a global agreement has the potential to speed up efforts to restore a safe climate. Dialogue between nations is important to this end, but the UNFCCC process also shows that years of talk does not necessarily correspond with action. Some might say that the process has been a waste of time, given the imperative for immediate action. It’s time for Australia stop using these seemingly endless negotiations as an excuse and start taking action.


Australians are fatigued by talk. They want their government to take ambitious steps to tackle climate change. This sentiment is perhaps best represented by the rapid decline of former-prime minister Kevin Rudd’s popularity due to his decision to delay the ETS—delaying action in the eyes of the public. Similarly, the poor public reception to PM Gillard’s proposed climate change assembly demonstrated the public’s distaste for talkfests. What Australians want now is concrete action to decarbonise our economy.

The Gillard Government can learn a thing or two about this from China. Lack of an international climate agreement has not stopped China from building a massive clean-technology industrial base. A country that has enjoyed rapid growth of its domestic manufacturing capacity over the past few years, it is China that will make 43% of the world’s solar panels—and 39% of its wind turbines—in 2010. China has additionally pledged to invest a massive AU$743 billion over the next decade to meet its ambitious renewable energy deployment targets. As a result of such concerted efforts, Ernst & Young now rank the world’s next super-power as the most attractive destination for private investment in renewable energy.

Australia can follow this model. Decarbonising Australia’s economy is a huge task, but it’s a challenge that we can deliver on. Our Banksia award winning research, the Zero Carbon Australia Stationary Energy report, shows that the nation has the skill base, industrial capacity, and economic might to build a 100% renewable energy economy in just 10 years.

The swift deployment of large-scale renewable energy projects can deliver the steep carbon reductions needed to avoid dangerous climate change. Concentrating solar thermal power towers can tap into Australia’s unequalled solar resources. Our vast land can support geographically dispersed wind turbines to extract power from the wind. With a small proportion of biofuel backup generation, we can power the nation’s homes, hospitals, schools, and businesses without contributing to climate change.

Beyond the energy sector, our Government must take a comprehensive approach to reducing all sources of greenhouse gas emissions. This would involve policies to encourage the construction of sustainable buildings and transport infrastructure; the uptake of super-efficient industrial processes; and continuous improvement of land-use and agricultural practices. These are among the types of concrete actions Australians expect from their Government.

Government-led action in transforming our economy would have the additional benefit of substantially strengthening Australia’s negotiating position in forthcoming climate talks. Australians want their Government to negotiate a safe and secure future for this country and all the world’s people. As we have the dubious distinction of being one of the world’s largest per-capita emitters of carbon, in the eyes of developed and developing countries, this status undermines our government’s ability to negotiate on our behalf. The Gillard Government will have to demonstrate drastic improvements in our nation’s emissions profile to reverse this situation and bid for what the Australian people want instead of the default position of looking after big backward looking energy consumers and big old fossil fuel companies.


Bottom-up policies will lay the foundation for an international agreement on climate change. Strong action at home is the best way to leverage other nations to take the steps required to successfully decarbonise the globe. Australia can be a model for what is possible, but this hinges on the ability of the Gillard Government to deliver tangible outcomes in 2011.

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About the Author

Matthew Wright is Director of Beyond Zero Emissions and Young Environmentalist of the Year.

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