The world’s largest coal exporter and per capita emitter of greenhouse gases has just joined the EU, New Zealand, California and the the RGGI states in passing into law legislation that puts a price on carbon emissions. Australian prime ministers have been toppled for a decade in attempting the feat that current Prime Minister Gillard has just barely managed, overcoming the sort of fossil industry stonewalling that has choked sensible climate policy in the US since Al Gore first attempted a BTU tax in 1993.
With the narrow vote in the Senate, Australia will now join in ETS trading with the EU and its neighbor New Zealand which gets 78% of its electricity from renewables already. New Zealand, which includes hydro as a renewable, has a history of tapping renewable power going back to the nineteenth century with a wealth of geothermal and hydropower potential tapped before the fossil industry grew its powerful lobbying arm.
Since passage of its own carbon legislation, New Zealand has revved up renewable power five-fold with the addition of eleven new renewable projects comprising wind (59%) geothermal (26%) hydro (13%) and tidal power (2%) for a single-year record total of 1,340 MW, an extraordinary amount for a nation of four million.
New Zealand initially began its emissions trading in 2008 with its forestry industry, quickly resulting in halting and reversing the deforestation of the previous years. But growing rainforest comes naturally to New Zealand.
By contrast, Australia, nearly stripped bare of vegetation in the nineteenth century, with almost no renewable energy begun before the fossil industry became entrenched, and heavily reliant on coal exports, has made a much tougher decision that took real political courage. At least two Independents from conservative rural Australia put long-term climate policy ahead of their own political survival and Gillard herself is under attack.
The top 500 carbon polluters will pay for every tonne of emissions from power stations, steel mills, coal mining and cement plants, affecting power and fuel prices, helping drive investment toward less polluting gas-fired power plants and renewable energy.
The media in 75% coal-powered Australia has supported the coal industry over the public interest (Rupert Murdoch cut his teeth in the Australian media) resulting in quite a bit of cultivated ignorance about the economic effects. Most Australians did not know that a compensation rebate will reverse any electricty cost rise for all but the very richest households.
Nevertheless, the Gillard Labour government’s carbon price has a real chance to have staying power, partly because the 99% in Australia will now find out from experience that the 1% lied about the disasters that would result.
Opposition leader Tony Abbot (of the confusingly named – very conservative – “Liberal” Party) who represents the coal industry, has vowed a “blood oath” to repeal it if his party wins back power in 2013, but that will be almost impossible, since in Australia the Labour Party and the Greens, who fought for this victory for decades, control the Senate, and polling suggests increases in the next election. After decades of work to get sensible action that will begin to curtail climate catastrophe, the left will not agree to abolish it.