Howard aspires to climate inaction


A leaked document outlining PM John Howard's climate action plan for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit — to be held in Sydney on September 8 and 9 — once again confirms the Coalition's dangerously cavalier approach to global warming.

On August 17 Greenpeace released a copy of the "Sydney Declaration" — a typically inadequate fudge focused on "aspirational" goals — which Howard is hoping APEC leaders will sign onto during the summit.

In line with Howard's notorious aversion to making any commitments to mandatory emissions reduction targets, the declaration does not call for any in-principle agreement from APEC leaders for specific emission reduction targets. While any APEC agreement of that kind would only be symbolic, it would certainly bode well for the prospects of reaching an agreement at the upcoming Kyoto negotiations in Bali in December.

Instead of recommending targets, the declaration focuses on energy efficiency, with the goal of achieving a 25% reduction in "energy intensity" by 2030. Energy intensity is a measure of the energy efficiency of a nation's economy, calculated as units of energy per unit of GDP.

While it's true that energy efficiency measures can contribute significantly to reducing emissions, the goal of reducing energy intensity is so diffuse and spread over so many sectors, that it would be easy for a government to point to one or two schemes to show they are "complying" with this goal. The other problem is that while energy intensity may be reduced, this benefit can be negated if the economy in question is rapidly expanding.

Another of the "flagship" goals of the declaration is to focus on combatting illegal logging, particularly in Third World APEC countries, and to set an "aspirational goal" of expanding forest cover in the region by 20 million hectares by 2020.

This follows the first meeting of the Australian-led $200 million Global Initiative on Forests and Climate in Sydney in late July, which promised to establish a satellite monitoring system to be on guard against illegal logging in Indonesia. Australia also pledged $10 million to Indonesia to fight illegal logging and train firefighters, and another $11.7 million to a World Bank forest fund.

Speaking on ABC's Lateline program on August 17, federal environment minister Malcolm Turnbull pointed the finger at Indonesia as being the "world's third largest emitter" due to deforestation, and talked up Australia as "leading the world" in fighting deforestation.

It would be hard to miss the hypocrisy and shifting of blame that the federal government is engaging in on this issue. Australia is notorious for sacrificing irreplaceable old-growth forests in the interests of big logging companies' profits.

No doubt Turnbull's extension of the deadline for his decision on Gunns' proposed pulp mill, which if approved will devastate Tasmania's forests and environment, is aimed at deflecting scepticism about the government's sincerity on this issue. Also, according to Greenpeace, this new initiative will do nothing to stop the $400 million worth of illegal timber entering Australia each year.

And while much of Indonesia's illegal logging is driven by poverty and desperation, Australia maintains its position as one of the world's major polluters despites having the resources to clean up the economy and massively invest in renewable energy. Instead, coal mining and exporting — one of the biggest sources of carbon emissions — is protected in order to safeguard the profits of big mining corporations such as BHP Billiton.

Another of the declaration's proposals is for the establishment of an Asia-Pacific Network for Energy Technology that would aim to "facilitate cooperation and information flows between regional research bodies in the clean energy area."

While this may sound good, unfortunately, according to Howard and co., "clean energy" doesn't just refer to renewables but also includes yet-to-be-developed "clean coal" technologies and nuclear power, to which there is a multitude of safety, security and environmental issues attached.

A Greenpeace statement published on their website in response to the declaration noted that "The APEC declaration is clearly 'Made in the USA' — covered with a thick coating of Australian coal dust.

"There's talk of a 'long term aspirational goal' for improving energy efficiency and stopping deforestation. But this sounds remarkably similar to the idea floated by George W Bush ahead of the G8 meeting. Bush has put discussion of his 'aspirational goal' on the agenda of his upcoming 'Big Emitters meeting' at the end of September. But get this: his deadline for agreeing [to] that target is the end of 2008 — that is, after the US [presidential] elections! For both Bush and Howard, their goal is to look as good as they can so that they can deflect criticism until after their elections."

The declaration isn't the only disaster Howard has been cooking up for APEC. The other announcement almost certain to be made will be Australia joining the US-led Global Nuclear Energy Partnership.

The GNEP aims to create an exclusive club of nuclear fuel "supplier" countries, currently including the US, France and Japan, that would lease nuclear fuel rods to other countries and then take back the spent fuel rods for reprocessing (extraction of plutonium) and waste storage.

The nuclear agreement relies upon the projected development of reprocessing technology that would not separate out the plutonium from the left-over fissionable uranium and other nuclear waste in the spent fuel rods, thus making it unusable for nuclear weapons. The reprocessed waste could then be used as fuel in new nuclear reactors that are projected to be developed in the future.

In order to deflect criticism and concerns about Australia becoming an international nuclear waste dump under the GNEP — especially in the lead-up to the federal elections — Bush and Howard are projecting that Australia only become an "associate" member, with a focus on the research and development of new nuclear technologies.

In his recently released climate policy package Howard pledged $12.5 million for nuclear research. It is now clear that this money will be directed towards the creation of a research institute at Sydney University.

Ironically however, while Howard has been most wary of public opinion turning against him on this issue, his nuclear ambitions are also raising the ire of those within his own party and within the Coalition. On August 22 deputy prime minister and Nationals leader Mark Vaile, under pressure from members of his own party who are concerned about a Labor scare campaign, voiced his support for local plebiscites in areas where nuclear power plants are projected to be built, an idea Howard had to back the next day.

Giving local people a vote on this issue would most likely turn against Howard. A study published in January by the Australia Institute, Who Wants a Nuclear Power Plant?, noted that a Newspoll survey of 1200 people conducted in December showed that 50% of respondents opposed nuclear power, 35% were supportive and 15% uncommitted.

When participants were asked whether they would be willing to have a nuclear power plant in their local area, a big majority (66%) were opposed, 25% supportive and 9% undecided.