DON Henry was about to set off on a hike through the bush from Victoria’s Great Southern Road last Sunday morning when he got the call.
A staffer in Penny Wong’s office asked if the Australian Conservation Foundation director could hop on a plane to Canberra for a make-or-break meeting with the Climate Change Minister that evening. Henry was given the bones of a major proposal that would underpin Kevin Rudd’s revamped carbon pollution reduction scheme.
The bait for the ACF head was that the Rudd Government was prepared to lift its target for the reduction of carbon pollution from 15 per cent below 2000 levels by 2020 to 25 per cent below. During Sunday afternoon, Henry had telephone discussions with ACF president Ian Lowe, a climate scientist, who was at his Sunshine Coast home. The pair agreed the 25 per cent target was an offer too good to refuse.
Henry turned up for the 6pm meeting in Wong’s Parliament House office. Also present were ACTU president Sharan Burrow and Climate Institute director John Connor. World Wide Fund for Nature chief executive Greg Bourne hooked into the meeting by telephone from Sydney.
The ACF, WWF and the Climate Institute had joined the ACTU and the Australian Council of Social Service in an alliance — the Southern Cross Climate Coalition — with a common position on emissions trading.
The Prime Minister and Wong knew it was crucial to win over the moderate environmentalists if their plan was to have credibility. The state conservation councils and large organisations such as Greenpeace and the Wilderness Society were excluded from the negotiations, as were the Greens, because Rudd knew they would not compromise on their demands for much higher emission cuts.
The climate coalition leaders knew secrecy was paramount. Sharing information even with members of their own organisations was tightly restricted.
The coalition also knew that, while Wong was trying to woo them, parallel negotiations were under way with the Australian Industry Group and the Business Council of Australia. That increased the pressure on them to strike an agreement.
Rudd turned up at a crucial point in the meeting and remained for 30 minutes. He told those present he became convinced at the recent G20 summit that a deal would be sealed at Copenhagen this year for a substantial cut in global emissions.
The Prime Minister insisted the key factor to force change would be a commitment from US President Barack Obama to back proposals for big emission cuts. With a deal at the UN climate change meeting in Copenhagen in December as good as settled, Australia’s 25 per cent cut would be a reality, Rudd said.
When Wong and Rudd announced the new scheme at 12.40pm on Monday, they were at pains to point out it was backed by the climate coalition members as well as the two industry groups.
Bourne and ACOSS chief Clare Martin flew to Canberra to join Henry, Burrow and Connor in declaring their support for the plan at a news conference. Henry, aware key conservation groups had been left out of the loop, fired off an email to a who’s who of the environmental movement.
“In balance, both Ian Lowe and I believe this is a useful step forward along the crucial path of achieving deep cuts in emissions,” Henry said in the email.
The problem for Henry, which may yet undo the ACF’s support for the plan, is that the 25 per cent target, notwithstanding Rudd’s confidence about Copenhagen, is aspirational in the eyes of critics. The Government’s commitment to reduce emissions remains at its white paper level of 5 per cent.
The coalition believed it won a concession when Rudd agreed to review financial assistance to affected industries after agreement was struck at Copenhagen, instead of in 2014, as in the legislation. But the legislation shows Wong can review the assistance at any time.
The Sunday night summit was the culmination of negotiations between Wong and the coalition leaders, who had met four days earlier in Canberra. The outcome is that Rudd has wedged the environment movement, and many conservationists are angry at Henry and Lowe over what they regard as a sell-out.
Queensland Greens co-ordinator Drew Hutton says the coalition leaders were hoodwinked. “They somehow were convinced the 25 per cent target was solid when it is anything but,” Hutton says.
Wilderness Society campaign director Lyndon Schneiders says the coalition leaders should have consulted more widely. “We are very disappointed at the position they took,” Schneiders says.
Henry defends the plan. “This is a significant step forward that puts Australia in the leadership group to argue for an ambitious outcome at Copenhagen.”
Lowe says the deal is “almost embarrassingly inadequate” but the best that could be achieved. “The main objective was to get an international agreement.”