By Adhina Jose
In the year 2023, Australia as a nation is unfortunately nowhere near the targets that we have seemingly promulgated in the Paris Agreement (2016). This begs the question; are we doing enough? I had the privilege of discussing this with Frank Mills – the ANU convenor of ENVS3020 ‘Climate Change and Policy’ – to provide an insight into the relevance and complexities of law in climate change policy.
The ambitious targets set in the Paris Agreement require extensive policy structures and governmental cooperation. The reluctance of nation states to change their behaviour due to their own economic interests, boundaries or geopolitical concerns has caused this delay in policy implementation and, more so, cooperation. Nations hold themselves to the standards set by other nations, and developing countries do not believe they should implement policy to mitigate climate change at the expense of the development of their economy. This culminates in slow progress towards these targets.
Frank Mills cultivates an image regarding climate change and the development of policy on an international level as an essential activity that is hindered by many other challenges. Through his expertise and time dedicated to environmental studies and teaching university students, he has understood the nuances that arise when determining climate change policy.
When asked about the trajectory of climate change policy on a domestic level, Frank Mills states that:
‘Australia's international climate change policy is going to be guided by what happens with Australia's domestic climate change policy. Australia is not going to make more ambitious international climate change commitments than the federal government is confident can be delivered. Domestically, Australia has federal and state/territory governments that acknowledge climate is changing and that Australia's economy needs to change. This is consistent with the opinions of a large majority of Australians. However, Australia's economy is not diversified and climate change is only one of many items on government agendas. Alternatives to extracting coal, oil, and gas that have comparable employment, national wealth generation, and tax revenue prospects need to be (quickly) developed so those existing mining activities can be (quickly) phased out. Other industries and transport need to be (quickly) de-carbonised. Housing needs to be (quickly) electrified as part of the de-carbonisation effort. Locally relevant and supported adaptation consistent with projected climatic changes will be needed. This transition needs to be actively guided/managed consistent with other constraints and objectives, such as water availability and adequate agricultural productivity.’
Climate policy has endured as a challenging, highly politicised issue with an enduring struggle between governmental agendas and intergenerational equity. As global warming is a continuing issue, intergenerational and intragenerational equity remain important topics. Both are acknowledged but not adequately considered due to competing agendas and interests. Intergenerational equity consists of equal distribution of fairness and access across generations, whereas intragenerational equity considers these notions in the generation across communities and states. This becomes an issue when climate action is understood differently in terms of people who are after intragenerational equity compared to the ideal goal of intergenerational equity.
Frank Mills commented on the importance of intergenerational and intragenerational equity, explaining that:
Its ‘[im]possible to separate intragenerational and intergenerational equity. Actions that affect equity within current generations will affect equity within and between subsequent generations. I also think it's a false dichotomy to assume there has to be a trade-off between action on climate change and action on other societal goals. There are many areas in which progress on other societal goals, e.g., housing and health, is consistent with, supports, and is supported by action on climate change. Overall national wellbeing and economic livelihood are also compatible with action on climate change.’
This shows that societal misconceptions of climate action and the prioritisation of different goals leads to many policy-making challenges.
In terms of the competing challenges that restrict climate change policy and the lack of a cohesive approach, Frank Mills states that:
‘A major issue limiting climate change policy across multiple countries has been and is a lack of consensus on, first, the need for action on climate change and, second, the appropriate responses. This lack of consensus continues to be exacerbated in some countries by the association of climate change action (or non-action) with partisan identities. Another major issue is the complex linkage of global climate change action with international geopolitics, competing national visions, and inability to achieve domestic consensus. Underlying all of these issues is the simple fact that carbon-producing activity is a primary basis for modern society and changing such a fundamental aspect of society is difficult.’
Overall, in terms of our domestic approach to climate change policy, Australia is quite advanced in terms of acknowledging the need for action. This can be seen through the establishment of the Commonwealth Department of Climate Change, Energy, the Environment and Water in 2022, to further develop a cohesive approach to climate change in Australia. Although Australia’s pace in recognising and developing a clear approach to climate change is clear, it is these economic, political and social barriers and framing of the action required that are hindering the consensus necessary for achieving our climate targets. The science is established, but without action the targets are meaningless.