While poring through the stories in my RSS reader the other day, I was struck by a subheadline in one that read: "Senators push back passage of greenhouse gas bill." Without knowing any different, one might assume that this was in reference to the climate bill currently being considered in the United States congress (and I had to check again myself), but alas, it was not. The article was about the climate legislation currently being considered and batted around in the Australian parliament.
The similarities are striking. Both the United States and Australia are heavily reliant on burning coal for electricity; both have been extremely reluctant to ratify the Kyoto Protocol (though Australia did eventually join on); both countries are embroiled in major debates about the effectiveness of carbon trading schemes; critics of carbon trading in both countries say proponents underestimate the economic costs involved and overestimate the economic and environmental benefits; both countries' lower legislative houses have passed an emissions trading scheme, and now; the climate policy of both countries hangs in the balance of the senate -- and it is expected to be more difficult to get this legislation through both senates.
Yet while Australia's upper house has a decent chance of bending in favor of environmentalist interests, conservative interests in the U.S. Senate would likely muster the necessary 41 votes to block passage of a Waxman-Markey-like cap-and-trade bill. "This bill coming out of the House is going nowhere in the Senate," Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina recently said.
Remember, Australia ratified the Kyoto Treaty; the United States did not.
Australian lawmakers keep close eye on U.S.
The U.S. and Australian cases are more than just similar, they are inextricably linked. Australian lawmakers are keeping such a close eye on the specific mechanics found in the American cap-and-trade -- in particular, the carbon offset and carbon credit mechanisms -- that they delayed their own vote until after they return from their two-month winter break, and until after the U.S. Senate takes up the issue later this month.
"They have been filibustering, wasting time, using every tactic they can to delay debate on this bill," Australian climate change minister Penny Wong recently told reporters in response to the opposition coalition's decision to delay a key vote on the climate bill in the Australian Senate.
After the U.S. House of Representatives last week narrowly passed the American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009, Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, whose very first act as leader of the Australian government was to ratify the Kyoto Treaty, said: "That is good news for the world. And can I just say to those who are delaying action in the Australian parliament, look at what is happening in the United States."
In its current form, Australia's emissions trading scheme will be one of the world's most comprehensive, covering 75 percent of emissions and roughly one thousand of the largest polluters, from the transportation industry to heavy industries like aluminum and steel. But it is that very comprehensiveness that has critics most worried.
"The Rudd-Wong bill is an economic disaster waiting to receive royal assent," said Senator Barnaby Joyce, an outspoken critic of the ruling government's proposed climate change legislation. Joyce suggested he would likely vote against Labor's current plan under any circumstances.
But pressure is building on Opposition Leader Malcom Turnbull to clarify his position on carbon trading. Turnbull, who originally endorsed the Labor Party's target to cut emissions by up to 25 percent by 2020, is now facing internal divisions within the opposition coalition about the severity of threats posed by climate change. Turnbull has said his opposition coalition would not clarify its support for Labor's legislation until after the U.S. clarified its position and until the upcoming Copenhagen global climate talks conclude in December. Turnbull said that opposition leaders needed more time to examine the details of the bill passed by the Australian House in early June, and that they would likely offer amendments at that time.
Exactly what those amendments entail remains to be seen, but opposition leaders have, for example, urged the Rudd government to ensure farmers are given credits for reducing carbon emissions as the U.S. bill does.
Though the very concessions made to the agriculture lobby in Waxman-Markey were enough to win grudging support from the agricultural lobby, U.S. farm groups are reportedly lining-up in opposition to the bill in the Senate. "Agriculture can in effect hold this bill hostage," said Barry Rabe, a public policy professor at the University of Michigan.
So a major question to consider is whether U.S. and Australian climate policy will diverge on the major agricultural components of the bills. Time will tell. But with the Copenhagen round of U.N. climate talks fast approaching, the diffusion of policy from one country's government that has been slow to act on climate change, to another, would give both of those countries something to point to as sincere efforts to address the challenges of global climate change.
Although it appears as though the Australians are holding back judgment while awaiting developments in the U.S., it is ironic that they will likely pass a cap-and-trade scheme before the country they are supposedly waiting on does.
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