By Jack Kelly
Falling taxes and Australia going into surplus for the first time in over a decade: definitely a good news budget. But did the Australian public, as voters, miss something? Investment in climate change abatement is almost non-existent in the the recently released Australian Federal Budget and, much as it’s a familiar theme, the question arises: how could this happen today? The lure of short-term economic incentives have shattered Australia’s climate commitment façade, with the pre-election budget revealing where the true priorities lie.
Australia’s efforts at climate change mitigation are continually plagued by a lack of political pull. While many believe this is a problem, there is very little public pressure on politicians to fulfil their future emissions reduction promises. The Federal Budget evidences this with the notable lack of funding for climate-related resources. While this did not go unnoticed, it was certainly not a major focus for media outlets covering the release, indicating that climate change was not a public priority.
The budget for the 2019-20 fiscal year was released by the Liberal Party on 2 April 2019, and many environmental and climate change groups have criticised the lack of funding for renewable energy and climate change prevention. However, public forums made little mention of this, with all attention being drawn to the more personal and attractive economic and political subjects such as tax reductions and wage increases. With climate change seemingly more in the public eye than ever, you may wonder how this happened. The answer is simple: we don’t care enough about climate change.
Allow me to shed light on what the Australian Federal Budget does pledge towards abating climate change. The most notable investment was the new $3.5 billion AUD (~£1.9 billion) Climate Solutions Fund, which injects an additional $2 billion into the Emissions Reduction Fund (ERF) over the next fifteen years. Does this seem like a lot? It’s not. To give you an idea, the budget is $500.87 billion for the next financial year alone.
In the last five years, the ERF has had $2.55 billion in funding and has contracted for 193 million tonnes of CO2 reduction. It is expected that the additional funding awarded this year will account for an emissions reduction of approximately 100 million tonnes up to 2030, less than 2 per cent of Australia’s emissions over this period. Furthermore, looking at Australian climate policy as a whole, Australia is projected to achieve a 7 per cent reduction in emissions on 2005 levels by 2030, having agreed to a 26 to 28 per cent reduction at the Paris Climate Agreement. Thus, evidence from the aggregate impact of the ERF suggests we are not on a trajectory to meet our Paris targets.
Nevertheless, Australia Treasurer Josh Frydenberg had chosen to skim over these points in his first budget release, focusing instead on Australia’s projected surplus, tax reductions, and the resulting implications for business. While there are obvious positives for the Australian public from tax cuts and a stable economy, the lack of climate commitment in such a crucial announcement is remarkable, especially considering the federal election that has just passed.
The Australian public’s response to the Federal budget was very positive. The government narrowed its gap to the Labor party to 48-52% in the post-budget Newspoll, compared with the 46-54% margin a month earlier. Furthermore, current Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison increased his lead over opposition leader Bill Shorten. Morrison’s rating rose by 3 points to 46% while Shorten’s declined by a point to 35%. Both the Newspoll and The Australian Financial Review-Ipsos poll reveal the budget has been received favourably by voters. Given its lack of climate change prevention initiative, this is a remarkable reaction. It gives an insight into public priorities even though climate change was a major talking point leading up to the May 18 election.
When the time came for the government to make commitments to improving the state of the climate and of the environment, none were forthcoming, and yet the public response was overwhelmingly positive. This is a reflection of our priorities as a nation – Australians are sucked into short-term policies that promise economic stability. In so doing, Australians are enabling climate inaction by placing personal economic gains over the interest of the planet. This also becomes blatantly obvious when analysing the fallout from the Federal Budget; there is very little pressure on governments to outline an economically plausible plan to mitigate climate change, yet tax reductions are analysed down to the last cent. Even if lured to attractive short term policy, one must ask what will happen in the long term.
Scott Morrison has continually told the Australian public that we will meet the Paris Agreement targets “in a canter”, yet current projections indicate otherwise. The Australian government is happy to guarantee emissions reductions, just without providing any explanation as to how it will achieve them. The budget does nothing to indicate that the required future emissions reductions are feasible despite the ERF being the centrepiece of the Liberal party’s climate policy. The Australian public continues to accept this as a given and, by doing so, is enabling their government to dodge action. This is why there was little public reaction or media attention of the lack of support for abating climate change.
The lack of climate commitment from the budget stands in contrast to the media attention climate change received before the election: while politicians were happy to talk about climate change as a mechanism to gain voters’ support, they were reluctant to act on it. Talking about climate change supports the party’s ‘climate conscious’ frontage, whereas acting on it produces no immediate results and is an economically difficult task. To challenge this, Australians must change their priorities and see through the façade.
Climate change cannot be swept under the carpet with all-encompassing promises of emission reductions. With the effects of climate change not always evident in day to day life, it is imperative to educate ourselves and to understand the feasibility of released climate policies. If not, how are we to judge the effectiveness of our climate change mitigation policies? The blanket statement that emissions benchmarks will be hit “in a canter”, made with no evidence or explanation in the budget, needs to be seen for what it is – a false prophecy. While each major party espoused an abundance of climate change propaganda in the lead up to the federal election, few people sought explanations of how mitigation strategies might work in practice. This cannot continue.
"While each major party espoused an abundance of climate change propaganda in the lead up to the federal election, few people sought explanations of how mitigation strategies might work in practice."
Ironically, the budget includes investments for reducing the severity of climate change effects. A $3.9 billion AUD (~£2.1 billion) Emergency Response Fund will work in tandem with the $3.9 billion Future Drought Fund to deal with the fiscal hit from future natural disasters. So, while the government is not prepared to invest in mitigating climate change, which would ultimately reduce the effects of natural disasters and droughts in addressing the causes of the problem it is prepared to treat the symptoms. Surely they are looking at this the wrong way: it has been precisely the lack of any long-term policy vision featuring mitigation strategies that has brought the effects of climate change to such a level of seriousness that an Emergency Response Fund is necessary, and so now more than ever is the time to tackle the roots of the problem. There needs to be a paradigm shift to supporting sustainable policies rather than securing fence-sitting voters with short term economic gambles. Australian voters have spoken by reelecting Scott Morrison, now it is their chance to enforce this shift throughout his tenure.
While climate change has received a higher level of political interest and media exposure in recent years, it is disappointing that it was not seen by politicians to be an area where high commitment was needed to ‘win’ voters. Consequently, politicians continue to offer short-term policies that are unrelated and at times damaging to climate change mitigation efforts. This is a sad reflection of the lack of awareness in society and of lack of support for addressing such an important issue.
I urge all Australian readers to think deeply about how little we gain by focusing on short-term policies and how much we stand to gain collectively by acting on climate change. The question for everyone, Australians and citizens across the world, is: do we care more about small individual economic gains or about protecting future generations from the devastating effects of climate change?
Jack Kelly is a DPhil student in Engineering Science at the University of Oxford. His studies focus on wind energy, in particular the control strategies of wind turbines. Previously he has completed a Bachelor of Science at Harvard University in Environmental Engineering.
Art by Francesca Nava
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