Australia is at a crossroad. Despite a strong national economy, we're going backwards on almost every single measure of our environmental health - including biodiversity, salinity and river health. In addition, greenhouse emission levels continue to rise.
It's not as if we don't care, though. According to Newspoll, more than 60 per cent of Australians will consider the environmental credentials of Australia's political parties before they vote at the next federal election.
The challenge for environment groups and the environmentally aware is in convincing our political leaders of the need to protect, sustain and restore our environment - not only to ensure the long-term health of our great natural assets but also to ensure the continuing good health of the Australian economy.
When it comes to climate change we've come a long way in the last decade. No one doubts now that climate change is real or that its effects on Australia's environment and on key industries such as agriculture and tourism could be catastrophic. No one doubts that climate change will seriously damage Australia's economy.
Unfortunately in spite of this recognition climate change policy in Australia is seriously lacking. A deficit of national leadership is isolating Australia on the world stage and creating an uncertain investment climate for business. A lack of vision and action from government is stifling Australia's innovative and entrepreneurial spirit and investment in the clean energy industry. There is no national plan to cut burgeoning greenhouse pollution.
Tackling climate change requires courage and foresight by political leaders. To seriously address climate change, our political leaders must commit to reducing Australia's greenhouse emissions by at least 60 per cent by 2050 and institute policies to get us there.
Ratification of Kyoto is an essential first step towards achieving reductions of this magnitude. Australia must also set strong targets for clean renewable energy, such as wind and solar, and increase the mandatory renewable energy target to ten per cent by 2010 and 20 per cent by 2020. Australia must make polluters pay by introducing a carbon levy and/or a national emissions trading scheme. Increasing Australia's energy efficiency by setting a target to reduce non-transport energy use and ensuring that the Federal Environment Minister can stop big greenhouse polluting projects by strengthening the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act are also key to forming the basis of a coherent response to climate change in Australia.
At this point in time there is a clear difference between the major parties on this issue.
The Coalition has not committed to any significant action. The Prime Minister's recent Energy White Paper totally failed to acknowledge that emissions from the energy sector are spiraling out of control. There was no commitment to set strong targets to reduce emissions, to ratify Kyoto, to expand the mandatory renewable energy target or make the polluters pay. All the white paper really secured was the future of Australia's big polluters by spending twice as much on dirty polluting industries as it did on the renewable energy industry.
Not only has this cost Australia's environment but our economy as well. In response to the energy white paper the Australian Wind Energy Association declared that the Prime Minister had "thrown away around $5 billion in investment and over 10,000 jobs years in rural and regional Australia".
The Australian Labor Party, on the other hand, has committed to ratify Kyoto. It would increase the mandatory renewable energy target to five per cent by 2010. It has also promised to strengthen federal environment legislation to include climate change and to introduce a national emissions trading scheme (albeit with no details).
The ALP has not, however, laid out a roadmap for achieving deep cuts, of 60 per cent or more, to greenhouse pollution by the middle of this century. A government that wants to join the group of nations seriously addressing climate change must commit to setting strong emission reduction targets. The UK has already committed to a target of 60 per cent by 2050, the German Government has signaled it will commit to reduce its emissions by 40 per cent by 2020 and the Netherlands has announced that it will use its EU presidency to push for an EU target of a 30 per cent reduction by 2020.
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