The University of Newcastle, Australia

Exploring a climate of political hostility

Dr Elena Aydos believes that before Australia can successfully implement an effective carbon pricing mechanism, we need to understand the politics that are impacting it.

When Elena came to Australia to research carbon pricing for her PhD at the University of Sydney, a successful Carbon Pricing Mechanism Bill had just passed parliament. “It was really exciting, we had implemented a carbon pricing mechanism that was a world model,” Elena says. “It wasn’t perfect, it had flaws, but there were many elements in it that were superior compared to the European Union’s emissions trading system.”

Cut to 2017 and the Australia’s climate policy conversation has turned into toxic politics.  “Toward the end of my PhD we had an election and a change in government and a promising scheme was completely dismantled.”

An early interest in justice

Growing up in Brazil, Elena’s interest in political science and justice started early. “I had a couple of role models growing up,” Elena says. “My father is a lawyer and an academic in political science so we were always able to have conversations about the interdisciplinary links between policy, justice and the law. And my godmother is a public defender in Brazil, so I was able to see how her work would help people and society.”

However, an early career as a tax lawyer saw Elena yearning for a more analytic perspective on her vocation. “I was always wanting to explore issues from a more neutral perspective – to analyse the relationship between the Government and business – rather than taking one position.”

This led Elena to question the social role of companies, and consider what they were doing to help the community – and subsequently saw Elena returning to study with a Masters of Philosophy. “By then I was very focused on an academic career and I started to research carbon taxes and carbon markets and that’s how I ended up in Australia.”

On July 2014 the Australian government passed repeal legislation through the senate to abolish the ‘carbon tax’. “This is when I realised that in Australia you can’t disassociate carbon pricing from politics,” says Elena. “I’m now working with a Political Economist from Kyoto University where we’re interviewing stakeholders in industry, politics and specialists in the area to understand what political conditions would allows us to move on from this very poisonous debate in Australia.”

“It is very clear that the problem is no longer ‘what is the best system and what are the features of a good system?’ – the problem in Australia is politics.” Elena explains. “The government departments know well enough how to implement carbon pricing in Australia; they have the expertise and have developed many different ways of doing it. But it’s now time to stop the lobbying and the political game playing and focus on investing in a cleaner energy economy in Australia.”

The debate is now starting to shift, with industries calling for investment certainty. Condensing her years of research, Elena has written a book, Paying the Carbon Price, which takes an international approach to implementing emissions trading schemes without politicisation. “Once a country is ready to implement a carbon price this book will help policy makers to think about it from a legal perspective.”

Elena believes it’s highly likely that decisions on climate policy will be forced due to environmental catastrophes. “In Australia we’ve already experienced severe droughts, and if that’s in your backyard it can motivate change.”

For many years, increasing electricity prices were seen as an argument against having an effective climate change policy in place, but since the dismantling of the Carbon Pricing Mechanism electricity prices have been on an upward trajectory. “What we have in 2017 (Direct Action) is not an effective climate change policy, and electricity prices are skyrocketing,” Elena states. “Electricity pricing is not an issue of climate change policy, the issue is that we do not have investment in the energy sector because there is uncertainty around Government policy.”

State issues

As a result of climate inaction in the federal sphere, states around Australia are taking the lead in the space. “When the blackouts in South Australia happened the federal government was very quick to blame it on renewables, but the response from the South Australian government and investors has been very positive. We’re seeing great investment from Elon Musk in battery storage and South Australia is taking a lead in the renewable energy space.”

Exploring a bottom-up approach to carbon pricing is next on Elena’s research agenda.

Research translation into teaching

As a research academic Elena seeks to translate her research into the teaching space. As such, her students have the opportunity to participate in an International program where they visit Brazil to explore that nation’s environmental policies and legal challenges. “We’ll be studying the catastrophe of Mariana and the related court cases. We’ll also be looking at Climate Change Policy and comparing Australia and Brazil which will be interesting as Brazil has a serious problem with deforestation in the Amazon region.”

Also in the teaching space, Elena is constantly innovating to equip her students for future careers. “My students have been creating assessment videos with the idea of developing a new set of skills such as being able to effectively communicate legal issues to a lay audience. It’s a real challenge being able to explain a case to the community or to a business, and this helps them develop those skills.”

Elena is excited about the future of the Faculty of Business and Law at UON with its move into the city centre. “I came to UON at a time when the faculty was preparing to move into NeW Space and where the Law School was beginning to shape a new identity; acknowledging tradition but also wanting to innovate. I came at a very good time as there’s immense support and appreciation of projects or approaches that are innovative and cross-disciplinary.”

“There’s a lot of space to be creative and go beyond what’s expected of me.”