Reporting from Canberra, Australia — After 10 months of negotiations and sometimes nasty public debate, Australia's government has finally announced the details of a carbon tax of $24.65 a ton, aimed at lowering greenhouse gas emissions by discouraging the use of fossil fuels and increasing investment in renewable energy. In 2015 it will be replaced by an emissions trading program. The plan, announced Sunday by Prime Minister Julia Gillard, will now go before Parliament, but its passage is assured as it is the result of a deal reached with the Australian Greens and two independents with whom the Labor Party formed a government last year. The Greens party also holds the balance of power in the Senate. The Times spoke to Sen. Christine Milne, the Greens' deputy leader, about the tax and its ramifications.
What do you hope this tax is going to accomplish?
I think this is a big turning point for Australia. When we started this negotiation after the federal election last year, I didn't think it would have that much impact on the global negotiations, but I now think it will because I think it will give momentum to the global talks to know that a country as resource-dependent in terms of fossil fuels as Australia is, is now prepared to adopt emissions trading, is prepared to go with an economywide approach and is prepared to lift its level of ambition for 2050 to an 80% reduction.
I really think now there's a strong signal there to other countries like the United States, like Canada, to see that if Australia can do this then so can anywhere.
What do you say to the criticisms that this won't have much impact on Australia's emissions, or that it's going to affect Australians or the Australian economy negatively?
Well, the treasury modeling shows that the impact on the economy is going to be negligible out to 2050.... In terms of whether it will have any impact on our emissions…, the price trajectory will be enough to stop new coal-fired power stations being built in Australia.
But I think the bigger point here to make is that this is a turning point for the nation. I think once the money starts coming in, the advantage of what we've done is everything is brought forward, the closing down of the power stations is brought forward, the investment in renewables is brought forward, efficiency is brought forward.
It's taken a very long time to get to this point. What were some of the areas that were sticking points during the negotiations, or areas you feel the Greens had to compromise?
The fact is both of the major parties went to the 2010 elections saying that they would not introduce carbon pricing until after 2013 … and then no guarantee that it would actually happen. So this has only happened because [the Greens have] got shared power in the House of Representatives and balance of power in the Senate as well.
Why do you think that the public debate over this became so virulent?
The main problem is that the same people who run campaigns for Big Oil and Big Tobacco have been involved in a campaign of climate denial, really post-the U.N. Copenhagen conference — we had the climate denial before then, but it's really taken on a life of its own since then. And so we've had massive investment by the big fossil fuel lobby in Australia in generating doubt and undermining the science.
Where do you hope it will go from here and what sort of impact do you think this is going to have overseas?
I think this is going to be more significant than we had realized when we started this negotiation 10 months ago. Nobody expected [the 2009 talks in] Copenhagen to come up with a global treaty, but people thought it would make a lot more progress than it did. But at the moment there is very little confidence that [this year's climate talks in] Durban is going to produce very much towards a global agreement. So I think Australia's decision as one of the highest per capita emitters in the world, and with huge reliance on coal-fired energy and coal energy, to make the move to a broad-based emissions trading scheme and embrace it, I think that could arrest the decline and start the rebuilding of a momentum towards a global outcome.
Bennett is a special correspondent.
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