John Howard interviewed on the economic aspects of climate change

Friday, March 30, 2007

Howard discusses climate change response

ABC radio AM - Thursday, 29 March , 2007  08:00:00

Reporter: Chris Uhlmann

TONY EASTLEY: Climate change has become one of those political issues that the Prime Minister likes to describe as a barbecue stopper.

It was already slotted in as a major issue in this year's federal election but the Australian tour by economist and climate change expert, Sir Nicholas Stern has re-energised the debate this week.

Sir Nicholas says developed countries like Australia should slash greenhouse gas emissions 60 per cent by 2050.

That's something John Howard believes will do great damage to Australia's economy.

The Government is working on its own response to climate change and plans to spend $200 million to help developing nations preserve their forests.

The Prime Minister is speaking here with chief political correspondent Chris Uhlmann.

CHRIS UHLMANN: Prime Minister good morning.

JOHN HOWARD: Good morning.

CHRIS UHLMANN: How is this $200 million over five years going to address climate change?

JOHN HOWARD: Well it's going to slow the rate in cooperation with other countries of trees being cut down. As everybody knows if you can do that, you will reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

In fact 20 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions come from clearing the world's forests and that second only to emissions from burning fossil fuels to produce electricity and its more than all of the world's emissions from transport, more than all of the world's emissions from transport.

And what this initiative will do in a shorter period of time is make a greater contribution to reducing greenhouse gas emissions than in fact the Kyoto protocol.

CHRIS UHLMANN: If we could look at what happens here though Prime Minister, should Australia have a target for reducing carbon emissions?

JOHN HOWARD: Well we have to be very careful in setting targets that we don't do greater damage to our economy and our lifestyle than will be done by other things.

Now we've heard suggestions that we should have a target of 30 per cent reductions by the year 2020. That's what Sir Nicholas Stern was advocating and that's what apparently the Labor party supports because they've been walking beside Sir Nicholas Stern on all of these things.

Now I agree with a lot of what he says. He's a very respected economist, he should be listened to, but his views aren't holy rit and common sense tell us that 2020 is what, 13 years from now to achieve a 30 per cent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by the year 2020 and it's no good setting these targets in some kind of rhetorical flourish.

If you set a target, you ought to try and meet that target and if we were to set that target and meet it, that would throw thousands of people out of work in the coal industry and it would do enormous damage to the Australian economy in…

CHRIS UHLMANN: All right, if we could…

JOHN HOWARD: …constitution for that, we should embrace practical, immediate measures, such as our initiative on reforestation, which will reduce greenhouse gas emissions but won't do such dramatic damage to the Australian economy.

CHRIS UHLMANN: All right, though could we discuss it as a principle though? In principle, do you believe that industry now needs some kind of signal from government? Do we need to signal for industry that there will be a target for reducing emissions and perhaps you'll set that target, exactly what's that target going to be and the timeframe over time?

JOHN HOWARD: Well Chris I think the first signal industry needs is a price on carbon. That is why the government is sensibly sitting down with all the major resource companies and power generation companies and…

CHRIS UHLMANN: So the price on carbon is inevitable now?

JOHN HOWARD: Well I think a price on carbon is an important element of getting a grip on this thing. Unless you have some kind of carbon pricing signal, you can't begin to see the sensible introduction of clean coal technology.

Now it's a very simple situation. We have this great abundance of fossil fuel. Coal is a very cheap source of electricity generation, but it contributes a lot of CO2 emissions, so the way in which you reduce them is to clean up the technology associated with coal.

The way you do that in part is to have a price placed on carbon. Of course, once you do that and you make clean coal technology more prevalent, and therefore the use of coal more expensive, that is when nuclear power begins to come into the equation.

Now I'm very happy and my government is very happy to contemplate that, but of course our political opponents have set their minds totally against that, but I think the practical, sensible thing to do is to create a market environment and you do that by having some kind of emissions trading system and we are looking at the form that might take but it's got to be a form that doesn't do damage to Australia's international competitiveness.

But we're doing this, but in the meantime, there are other practical immediate things we can do and the reforestation proposal is a glaring example of that.

CHRIS UHLMANN: One of the things your government also says a lot is that you are looking at clean coal technology, something with which you agree with Sir Nicholas Stern.

He was talking about that being if you like, Australia's gift to the world. If you can clean up coal, then why isn't a target of 30 per cent by 2020, or 60 per cent by 2050 possible if you manage to clean up that most polluting of industries?

Perhaps that target if achievable without damaging Australian industry?

JOHN HOWARD: I am a great believer in putting in place market mechanisms which over time are going to bring about desired results, rather than committing to targets, which in the short term, you know, can I just say again, to say to the Australian community that in 13 years we must cut by 30 per cent our greenhouse gas emissions - and that is what Labor is advocating, apparently - that is what Sir Nicholas Stern has certainly advocated, that would do very great damage to the Australian economy.

It would do particularly great damage to the coal industry. We need a balanced approach and I accept that climate change is a big issue, I'm not walking away from it, but I'm not going to compromise the economic strength of our country and put at risk thousands of jobs by commitment to a target that is unreasonably short, unreasonably harsh and not properly thought through.

And Sir Nicholas Stern himself last night admitted on Lateline that circumstances will vary from country to country and Australia is very different from Great Britain.

Australia relies very heavily on fossil fuels.

CHRIS UHLMANN: But are you in danger of looking out of step with the community on this?

JOHN HOWARD: I think the community wants a balanced approach. I think the community wants a response to climate change, but the community doesn't want the competitive advantage of this country undermined and it doesn't want governments enthralled to what I might call a narrow point of view in relation to climate change.

I think they want a government that says yes, it's a problem, but a government tackles that problem by playing to the economic strengths of this country.

We are unusual, we are a developed country with a small population and a very large amount of fossil fuels; we've been very fortunate. Providence has given us all these resources and we have a small population and we have to use our resources wisely and we have to contribute leadership in areas where we have the expertise and clean coal technology is one.

We have to be open minded about nuclear power, we have 38 per cent of the world's uranium reserves, we're crazy to ignore that. I mean, we say to the world, you can buy our uranium and use it but we're not going to generate nuclear power in this country; we're going to close our minds against it. I think that's very short sighted.

CHRIS UHLMANN: Speaking of leadership though Prime Minister, the Kyoto protocol, many people keep proposing that of course, as something that the Australian government didn't do.

And Sir Nicholas Stern says that when he travels around the world that is offered up to him as reasons why other countries shouldn't do that.

At the same time you say we're going to meet our targets. If we're going to meet our targets, why don't we sign the Kyoto protocol?

JOHN HOWARD: Well many of the countries that signed the protocol and criticise under their breath Australia for not signing, are not going to meet their targets. It's one of the great ironies of Kyoto.

We're one of a small number of countries that will meet the target. The reason we didn't sign was that we would have assumed obligations that other countries didn't have to assume, which would have put our industries including for example, the aluminium industry at a competitive disadvantage.

I will enter into an international agreement that fairly shares the burden of these things, but I'm not going to sign up to something that puts Australian jobs at risk.

CHRIS UHLMANN: Prime Minister thank you.

JOHN HOWARD: Thank you.

TONY EASTLEY: And the Prime Minister there speaking with our Chief Political Correspondent Chris Uhlmann.

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