U.S. Vote Boosts Hopes For Australia Carbon Laws
Author: David Fogarty and James Grubel - Analysis
A cormorant dries its wings in front of an an oil refinery in Melbourne June 24, 2009.
Photo: Mick Tsikas
SINGAPORE/CANBERRA - Australia's emissions trading laws look more likely to pass a hostile Senate after U.S. Congressional support for a similar climate bill eroded political opposition in Australia to carbon trading.
Analysts said the passing of the Clean Energy and Security Act by the U.S. lower house on Friday has forced Australia's Liberal/National opposition coalition to rethink its policy of stalling the passage of emissions trading laws.
Carbon trading is a top focus of the government of Kevin Rudd but the opposition says the scheme is flawed and it was foolish to pass it until it was clear how major trading competitors planned to tackle carbon pollution.
They also wanted to see the outcome of major climate talks at the end of the year in Copenhagen.
Those views have lost some validity now, analysts say.
"They are not on a political winner by continuing to oppose it. I think they understand that now," said Rupert Posner, Australian director for The Climate Group, an NGO that advises governments and companies on how to move to a low-carbon future.
"What we're starting to see are some very clear signs the Opposition is thinking of considering supporting the government's legislation on emissions trading," he said.
He said recent polls showing the majority of Australians wanted tougher action on fighting climate change also dented efforts to stall the legislation until next year. About 65 percent of Australians back Rudd's emissions trading scheme.
A botched bid to discredit Rudd and Treasurer Wayne Swan has also weakened the opposition. The document on which the accusations were based turned out to be a fake.
Then on Friday the U.S. House of Representatives passed the climate change bill, which would require large companies, including utilities and manufacturers, to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide and other gases associated with global warming by 17 percent by 2020 and 83 percent by 2050, from 2005 levels.
RACE TO BE FIRST?
The U.S. legislation faces more changes and must still pass the Senate, where it will likely face greater opposition, but its rapid progress since President Barack Obama took office in January has signaled a dramatic turnaround in policy.
Strengthening Obama's hand was a court decision on Tuesday to hand a Senate seat to Democrat Al Franken, giving the party the critical 60-seat majority needed to pass legislation.
"What we see here, under the new president Obama coming in, is the drive to move forward to leave behind the legacy of the previous regime and to really tackle climate change," said Greg Bourne, CEO of WWF Australia.
"So there's almost now the beginnings of a race to the top of who can get one's bill through first," he told Reuters.
On Sunday, embattled opposition Liberal Party leader Malcolm Turnbull said his party wanted to amend the carbon trading laws, a switch from calling for a delay in voting until next year, prompting speculation he could support the scheme.
Opposition Shadow Minister for Environment Greg Hunt also voiced qualified support for the U.S. scheme.
"What we've seen in the United States is a step toward a comprehensive, developed-world standard. Now we want to be part of that standard," he told Australian Broadcasting Corp radio.
"We don't want to have a situation where Australians have completely different standards and tests for our own industries, which means that our agriculture would be destroyed if it's not in line with America," he said.
Australia's sweeping emissions trading legislation, which would be the first outside Europe and include 75 percent of the nation's greenhouse gas pollution, were softened in May to make them more business friendly and the scheme start was delayed for a year until July 2011.
A vote in the Senate last month was deferred to August and until last week a vote during August's two-week sitting looked doomed. Now it looks more likely the bill will win approval any time the Senate sits between August and November.
The government lacks the seven extra seats needed to pass the laws in the upper house and needs either the Liberal/National coalition or the five Greens senators and two independents.
The Greens also oppose the laws, saying the government's maximum target of cutting emissions by 25 percent by 2020 from 2000 levels was too weak. But they could end up being marginalized if the opposition coalition supports the government.
"If the Rudd Government were to agree to unconditional cuts of 25 percent, moving to 40 percent if a strong global agreement can be achieved, the Greens would then be in a position to begin discussing the Bill's other flaws with a view to supporting it," a Greens spokesman told Reuters.
Analysts saw no point for the opposition to wait for the outcome of U.N. climate talks in Copenhagen.
"It's already fairly clear what the various major countries are going to propose in Copenhagen, so there's really no need to wait till the actual meeting to determine what the likely outcome will be," said Julie Toth, senior economist for ANZ bank.
(Editing by Bill Tarrant)