AUSTRALIA'S climate change action has effectively ground to a halt with the budget revealing big cuts to research and renewable energy, moves that critics say sets policy back to the 1990s.
Budget papers show funds for climate change-related programs will shrink from $5.75 billion in the current fiscal year to $1.25 billion by 2014-15 and to $500 million by 2017-18.
The government will spend more on its national blood program than climate change on all but the first of those four years.
Graeme Pearman, a scientist who led CSIRO’s atmospheric research team for a decade until his retirement in 2002, said the government had adopted an "extreme" ideological approach in all but rejecting global warming as an issue despite ever-mounting evidence of the threat posed by more frequent extreme weather.
“There’s a hope that the problem will go away, that someone else in the world will actually fix it,” Dr Pearman said.
“The approaches now are pretty mindless... They’re not concerned about our children’s and grandchildren’s futures at all.”
Even the future of the government’s lynchpin policy aimed at replacing the carbon price – the Emissions Reduction Fund to pay polluters to cut emissions – appears in doubt. The budget committed only $1.14 billion over the coming four years, well shy of the $2.55 billion pledged by Environment Minister Greg Hunt three weeks ago.
The government also seems intent on increasing support for fossil fuels, particularly the coal-fired power sector, at the expense of renewable energy, said Greg Bourne, chair of the $2.5 billion Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA), axed in Tuesday’s budget.
“The energy infrastructure we have was effectively designed in the 19th century... it’s not fit-for-purpose in the 21st century when greenhouse gas emissions will have to be slashed to limit rising temperatures," Mr Bourne said.
“The Coalition government acknowledges the role of renewable energy in Australia’s energy mix," said Industry Minister Ian Macfarlane.
"There is over $1 billion in funding for existing renewable projects to be completed over the coming years," he said.
"Given the tight fiscal environment as a result of Labor’s legacy of debt and deficit, the government considers there is a very significant investment in renewable energy."
ARENA and the Clean Energy Finance Corporation - which the government also wants to scrap - were needed to support the creation and commercialisation of new technologies, such as concentrated solar energy, Mr Bourne said.
“People might wish for a re-flourishing of the coal-fired power era - I don’t think that’s going to happen.”
Greens leader Christine Milne said Prime Minister Tony Abbott had never accepted the science of climate change and his government’s view would not have been out of place in the late 1990s.
“The pretence that they had some commitment to reduce emissions is gone,'' said Senator Milne, citing cuts that include $111 million to CSIRO’s overall budget, $10 million from the Bureau of Meteorology, and the merger of the Australian Climate Change Science Program with another unit.
“They’re doing everything in their power to destroy action on climate change and shore up the vested interests of the coal-fired generators and the old order of Australia.''
Mark Butler, the Opposition spokesman for climate change, said: “While it barely seemed possible, [Tuesday night] saw Tony Abbott backslide even further on Australia’s fight against climate change."
Todd Lane, president of the Australian Meteorological and Oceanographic Society, said the loss of funds would reduce the ability of scientists to research weather and climate, and many young researchers would likely leave Australia.
“It will take us a decade to recover,” Dr Lane said.
Dr Pearman, formerly of the CSIRO, said the issue is not just a federal one, with state governments also ignoring climate risks.
“Previously all the state governments had climate change strategic plans,” Dr Pearman said. “Where the hell are they these plans now? They don’t seem to be on the agenda at all.”