Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Tony Abbott needs to shift his stance on climate change to work with China

A little over a year ago, Tony Abbott said he wanted to seal free trade agreements with China, Japan and South Korea within a year. A number of experts expressed disbelief. Many critics laughed at Abbott's simplemindedness.

Today it is Tony Abbott who can laugh. His government has struck trade liberalisation deals with Australia's first, second and third biggest export markets.

The China agreement gives Australia better, broader access to its markets than it offers to any other nation. The government achieved what Labor could not. Labor's Trade Minister, Craig Emerson, last year conceded that he had given up on a China deal because it was too hard.

In short, it's a coup. 


Now Abbott should think about his next coup. He should negotiate an ambitious climate change deal with China. Ridiculous? That's the reflex reaction to any bold, far-reaching idea.

On Monday Abbott welcomed China's president, Xi Jinping, to the joint meeting of both houses of the Parliament with the words: "Today, we should also remember the foresight of the father of Australia's modern relationship with China: Prime Minister Whitlam."

His bold and far-reaching move to give diplomatic recognition to China came at a time when the idea seemed preposterous. What was then preposterous is now hailed as a visionary achievement. Whitlam anticipated history.

Said Abbott: "When he established diplomatic relations with China, our two way trade was one fifteen-hundredth of what it is today.

"So we acknowledge Prime Minister Whitlam, and all the leaders of our countries who have put aside ideology to see Australians and Chinese as people with common interests and shared aspirations to a better life."

Now it's Abbott's turn to put aside ideology to the benefit of their two peoples. The trade deal is an excellent start. The times now give Abbott the opportunity to anticipate history.

Here's why it's not only possible for Abbott and Xi to put together a deal on climate change, it's also desirable in the national interest and in the Abbott government's political interest. 

First, it's possible because Australia and China are committed to a post-2020 global climate treaty. As Abbott said in his concluding press conference of the G20 on Sunday:

"G20 leaders – all of us – support strong and effective action to address climate change. Our actions will support sustainable development, economic growth and certainty for business and investment and, of course, we will all work constructively towards the climate change conference in Paris next year."

Both countries are still in the process of deciding their next steps. The Kyoto Protocol covers the years to 2020. The Paris Protocol will cover the years to follow. It is scheduled to be concluded by the end of next year.

But didn't China already announce its plan last week in Xi's joint announcement with Barack Obama? Not at all. China merely said its emissions would peak by 2030, earlier if possible. Another way of saying it is this: We reserve the right to keep increasing emissions for another 15 years. 

This is just China's holding position. It is still considering its final commitments for the post-2020 phase. This means that it's possible for Australia to be a part of a much bolder Chinese plan for post-2020 than anything announced to date. Abbott could trump Obama on this. 

Similarly, the Abbott government is reserving its position while it watches other countries.

Instead of passively waiting to allow the rest of the world to shape the outcome, Australia has an opportunity to work with the world's biggest carbon emitter to shape the agenda.

Second, the two countries already have some limited climate-related items on the bilateral agenda. In fact, on Monday they released a memorandum of understanding on climate change co-operation.

Julie Bishop's announcement said the two nations "will cooperate to deliver practical climate change outcomes, including through energy efficiency; technology cooperation; and improved emissions data reporting." 

There is scope for much more. Another logical area for more joint work is on tropical forest protection.

Politically, a China-Australia climate deal works for Abbott because he could outmanoeuvre Labor. Instead of playing permanent defence, he could go on the offence.

It's politically impossible for Abbott to commit to a carbon tax or emissions trading scheme. No matter. Neither can Obama. 

Abbott could announce ambitious measures in co-operation with China in leading towards a Paris Protocol, yet without recourse to a carbon tax or carbon pricing scheme. Such a deal could give credence to a "direct action" policy.

Labor could be left isolated with an unnecessary emissions trading proposal, politically irrelevant on climate change. Just as the Liberal prime minister, Billy McMahon, was outmanoeuvred by Whitlam's trip to China.

The hardest part for Abbott? He would need to abandon his two-track presentation on climate change. He likes to gratify his most extreme right-wing base by allowing them to savour his earlier credentials as a climate change denier. 

At the same time, he has moved towards being a serious prime minister ready to deal with a great global crisis.

He needs to complete the move. He needs to drop any impression of sympathising with climate change deniers. His far-right base will never abandon him to vote Labor or Greens. Now he must appeal to the centre of the electorate where elections are won and lost.

In short, he must put aside ideology.

Whitlam anticipated history by going to China. Now it's Abbott's opportunity.

By chance, on Tuesday, his environment minister, Greg Hunt, is hosting lunch for Xi Jinping in Tasmania. It could be a good opportunity to start a conversation towards the government's next coup.

Peter Hartcher is the international editor for the Sydney Morning Herald

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