Australia’s cap and trade system, the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme (CPRS), is being reintroduced into Parliament this week, after two rejections in 2009 (see here and here). However, it is almost certain that it will fail again, following decreasing public support for the policy after the Copenhagen conference and Tony Abbott’s ascension to the opposition leadership.

To start with, public support for Prime minister Kevin Rudd’s flagship policy has dived 10 points from 66 to 56 per cent according to the latest Herald/Nielsen poll, while opposition to the trading scheme has risen 4 points from 25 to 29 per cent. While there has always been a high level of confusion in the electorate about climate change policy, and in particular about the CPRS, the failure of the Copenhagen conference shifted to a certain extent the public sentiment about climate change. In particular, extensive media coverage of a series of ‘scandals’ linked to the IPCC’s work has opened new windows for the numerous Australian and international climate sceptics (see for example Lord Monckton).

However the biggest challenge faced today by the government is without doubt the unexpected come back of the opposition (the Liberals) in the climate debate. The previous opposition leader, Malcolm Turnbull, is a supporter of the scheme, which had greatly divided his party over the climate issue, to the benefit of the government. Yet Turnbull has recently been ousted by Tony Abbott, a strong opponent of cap and trade and climate policy in general, not to say a climate sceptic. The change here is that Abbott has come forward with an alternative to the governmental policy. The Coalition’s (Liberals+Nationals) “Direct action plan on the environment and climate change” would create an AUS$2.5bn fund to provide incentives for industry and farmers to reduce emissions through measures such as storing carbon in soil. The plan also includes the planting of 20 million trees by 2020 and would provide $1000 rebates to home owners for solar cells. The plan has immediately been slashed by environmentalists, Greens and the Labour Party as been unable to lead the country to a minimum 5 per cent cut in emissions by 2020 compared to 2005 levels, as Australia pledged in Copenhagen. While Kevin Rudd has ridiculed the direct-action plan as “a climate con job”, most business groups have backed the plan, agreeing with the opposition Leader’s assertion it is “cheaper, simpler and more cost-effective” than Labour’s proposed carbon emissions trading scheme.

With a now clear opposition to the scheme, the government’s CPRS is very likely to be rejected by the Senate this week. The government would then again have the possibility to trigger an early election, though it would be very unlikely since the next general election will take place this year. In the most optimistic scenario, a cap and trade system would therefore not be voted for another year. Kevin Rudd’s approval rating is still way ahead from his potential challenger, though Abbott’s popularity is rising. But it is surprising that Rudd is not working to rally public opinion: he has not made a speech about climate change in the past weeks and is, instead, trying to change the subject. It is time now for Prime minister Rudd to start campaigning for his cap and trade scheme and explain to people why Australia should be moving when things look bleak internationally.

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