With just two years left in the White House, US President Barack Obama is making a big, perhaps historic play on climate change, and the Australian PM is visiting just as debate hits its peak.
As Obama enters the twilight of his presidency, he is signalling that he wants action on climate to be one of the crowning touches to his two terms in office.
For Mr Abbott, whose Direct Action policy has attracted criticism at home, the spectre of climate change will shadow him around Washington on the last leg of his overseas tour – and when Australia hosts the G20 meeting later this year.
The US and the European Union have both expressed disappointment that climate policy will not appear on the G20 agenda. In contrast to a highly motivated Obama, Mr Abbott has little momentum on the issue.
On Monday, the US president announced a raft of new climate change policies, including plans to cut carbon pollution from power plants, double renewable energy by 2020, and invest more in clean energy innovation.
The Climate Action Plan is the culmination of Obama’s long-held intentions, which he outlined in a speech to the United Nations in 2009.
So far, the Obama administration has already presided over a doubling of renewable energy generation since 2008, and the lowest carbon emissions in 20 years in 2012. The administration also oversaw approval being granted for a new nuclear power plant in the state of Georgia – the first to be approved in more than 30 years.
When he meets the president for the first time in person next week, Prime Minister Tony Abbott could be schooled in how the big boys respond to a warming planet.
The Abbott solution
Mr Abbott, who aims to repeal Labor’s carbon tax in July replacing it with a taxpayer-funded emissions reduction fund, told parliament on Tuesday the two countries had policies in common.
“There is no carbon tax in the United States. There is no emissions trading scheme in the United States,” he said.
“What the United States is doing is taking sensible direct action steps to reduce its emissions which is exactly what this government is proposing to do.”
Mr Abbott’s response to climate change is the Direct Action policy, the centrepiece of which is a 5 per cent reduction of carbon emissions by 2020. This can be compared to Mr Obama’s target to cut carbon, soot and smog pollution from US power plants by 30 per cent rom 2005 levels by 2030, which would be equivalent to taking 70 per cent of all American cars and trucks off the road.
Based on 2005 emissions levels, Australia is committing to cut carbon pollution by 12 per cent while the US has set its sights on 17 per cent.
Australia has also pledged to invest $3 billion in carbon reduction technologies. Mr Obama proposes to increase his government’s spending in this area by 30 per cent to $US7.9 billion.
During question time in parliament on Tuesday, Mr Abbott described Mr Obama’s plan as “sensible” and said that Direct Action is an equivalent policy.
‘Follow the leader’
But critics are calling for a complete rethink in light of the US commitment.
Labor MPs and climate groups have urged the government to do more, while Australian Greens leader Christine Milne said the prime minister should be embarrassed as he heads to Washington.
“I don’t think the American president is going to take too kindly to the number-one cheerleader of the Tea Party turning up in America sprouting his coal vision for the world,” she told reporters.
The government’s advisory group on climate science has recommended Australia triple its emissions reduction target, labelling the five per cent goal inadequate and out of step with global action.
The Climate Change Authority, which faces abolition under the Abbott government, said, based on global efforts, the conditions had been met to commit to a more ambitious target.