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Fighting Climate Change Down Under

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Fighting Climate Change Down Under


We're honored to have a guest post this week from Mary Nichols, Chairman of the California Air Resources Board:

The Australians are renowned for their laidback attitude and “no worries, mate!” approach to life. Except apparently when it comes to climate change. As I learned a few weeks ago when I traveled there to meet with top government leaders and policymakers, Australians are serious about fighting global warming.

And they should be. Australia has experienced firsthand the ravages that come with a rapidly changing climate. Over the past decade, the country has been hit by increasingly extreme weather events like drought, flooding, and intense wildfires. Earlier this year an unprecedented set of heat waves literally buckled roads in parts of the country. Like California, Australia has a lot at stake in the fight against global warming.

Since 2012 Australia has had a national emissions trading system. They started their program with a fixed price for allowances and designed it to transition over time to a market-driven price. The origins of Australia’s program can be traced back to 2007 when state and territorial governments banded together to commission a review of climate impacts and policy recommendations. Eventually the federal government jumped on board under the leadership of then (and current) Prime Minister Kevin Rudd.

The fact that Australia has a carbon pricing system is noteworthy for several reasons. For starters, coal supplies more than 75% of the nation’s power. As you would suspect, this makes the coal industry a powerful political force. The country is also near the top of the global list in per capita emissions.

Yet despite these challenges, Australia has demonstrated great leadership by moving ahead with its program to implement an economy-wide carbon price. And it’s working. What isn’t clear, however, is what direction the program will take following the national election that has been set for early next month. The opposition, headed by Liberal party leader Tony Abbott,  has labeled the trading system an “energy tax,” even though it isn’t, and made it a central part of their platform to unseat the ruling Labor Party. The Labor leader and current Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, has declared that he will accelerate the transition to a market-driven price a year ahead of schedule and announced plans to link Australia’s system with the EU-ETS in mid-2014. A month ago the Labor party looked to be in serious trouble. The polls have since narrowed considerably, but of course we don’t know how the election will turn out.

What’s encouraging though is that both parties are squarely in the camp of taking action to slow climate change (Abbot’s party has proposed to replace the “tax” with a government administered “emissions reduction fund” to subsidize low-carbon programs and technologies). And despite the “anti-tax” rhetoric coming from the opposition, businesses in Australia are becoming increasingly comfortable with the carbon pricing approach and not eager to see major changes. My bet is that carbon pricing in Australia is here to stay. And so is Australia’s desire to work with California, China, South Korea and other leading economies to build an alliance for mutually beneficial actions to address this global challenge.   

But I didn’t travel halfway across the world to simply learn about what the Australians were doing. I came with a message for them as well. My message was simple: putting a price on carbon pollution is a key element of tackling global warming, but it’s not enough. Like we have done in California, the Australians also need to focus on putting in place a range of other policies that will drive down emissions from all major sectors and increase cleaner and more efficient energy use. They understand this and are eager to learn more about what we’ve done in California.

Perhaps Governor Brown said it best earlier this year at Tsinghua University in China. “We’re in one world. We’ve got one big problem and we all have to work on it… [Climate change] is a great unifier. This is an imperative where human beings could collaborate.”

That’s exactly what we’re doing with Australia.


- Mary D. Nichols



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