Australia faces dilemma over proposed cuts


Australia finds itself between the proverbial rock and a hard place over the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions which will be argued at Kyoto. No other country has such a contradiction between its economic reliance on greenhouse processes, and popular enthusiasm for "saving the planet". The island continent's wealth of minerals and fossil fuels made it an object of envy earlier in the century. But now its huge reliance on both export of coal and using fossil fuels in its own manufacturing is making it something of a pariah in environmental circles.

Australia is the world's biggest exporter of coal. It has no nuclear power, although plenty of uranium. The Prime Minister, Mr John Howard, unveiling a package of new anti-greenhouse effect measures, pointed out last week that fossil fuels provide 94 per cent of his country's energy needs. Its percentage of greenhouse gas emissions in exports is the highest in the industrialised world, and double the OECD average.

Accordingly, Mr Howard's government, conservative in nature, has set its face against anything like the 15 per cent reduction in emissions by 2010 recommended by the European Union. Canberra has said even a 1 per cent cut would be difficult for Australia, although it is working on a number of fronts to reduce the greenhouse effect in industry and everyday life - in a country with the climate much of Australia enjoys, there are two refrigerators in one-third of households.

But if cuts in emissions were imposed on Australian industry, hundreds of thousands of jobs would be lost and the economy would be irreparably damaged, the government says. It is pushing the notion of a "fair" agreement at Kyoto, something along the lines of "from each according to his means".

While not disputing that something should be done Australia says levels of reduction have to be tailored to survival needs of countries on a number of fronts, including the economic.

"The approach of . . . the European Union is both unfair and unachievable," Mr Howard said. "From the start we have made it plain that Australia would not accept an unfair share of the burden [of reducing emissions]. "We will continue to reject mandatory uniform targets which advantage many developed countries to the distinct disadvantage of countries such as Australia."

While Australia expects to come under intense pressure at Kyoto to agree to legally-binding (whatever that means) greenhouse targets, there is a significant body of internal opinion warning that failure to cut emissions could be nearly as big a disaster as slashing them.

A study done by the parliamentary library in Canberra based its predictions on the worst-case of a 3.5

Celsius increase in global temperatures by the year 2100, as forecast by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

This report suggested that a massive fall in Australia's gross domestic product would occur because, with climate warming and a continuing rise in ocean levels, there would be a fall in crop yields, problems with coastal tourism because of rising water and an increase in "warm climate" diseases with concomitant rise in health care costs.

Similar studies have suggested that, for example, the magnificent Kakadu National Park in the "red north" would turn into a mangrove forest were there a sustained one-metre rise in sea level.

The environmental movement is well established, and has been a niche-market for politicians ever since Mr Bob Hawke woke up to the power of this largely articulate and involved lobby in the 1983 federal election campaign. Campaigns such as the long-running and bitter public fight against the damming of the Franklin River, a World Heritage site, in Tasmania, characterised the 1980s. Practical everyday measures such as recycling and saving water by having a "two-speed" flush on the toilet caught on here much earlier than in many "Western" countries.