Jul 17, 2014 - 2:08pm
This article first appeared in The Age on 17 July 2014.
CEO, The Climate Institute
Today's repeal of our carbon laws represents a tragedy for our politics, a travesty for public policy and a train wreck for climate action. The task is now to rebuild from the remnants of the wreckage.
The last decade has seen our politics dominated by greed, self-interest, poor judgment and rotten luck. Despite this, a working and credible climate policy emerged.
By establishing a bipartisan consensus for emissions trading in July 2007 John Howard responded to years of growing climate concerns and business calls for greater carbon policy certainty.
Repeal of the carbon laws is a travesty of policy because it is clear
from the government’s own reports and independent data that, over their
two-year life, the carbon laws were working.
Putting that political consensus into action was always going to be challenging in Australia’s economy, which historically has been dependent on coal for power and export.
Despite winning the “world’s first climate changed election”, Kevin Rudd delayed legislating emissions trading. With his relentless commitment to the Copenhagen climate negotiations, it is churlish to suggest that he did not take climate action seriously. However, his government rightly stands accused of using it as a wedge on a troubled Coalition through 2008 and 2009. That this turned into a terminal reverse wedgie in 2010 is an epic irony.
Rudd’s government failed to adequately reach out to the Greens, but it bears some responsibility for the downfall of the carbon laws and our current malaise. The Greens, along with some environment organisations and progressive think tanks, relentlessly attacked Rudd’s framework that offered a flexible system of limits on pollution. They let the perfect become the enemy of the good.
The 2010 election allowed a miraculous triangulation of politics in which ALP and Green hostility could be mediated by the two remarkable country Independents, Tony Windsor and Robert Oakeshott. Julia Gillard disastrously labelled their joint work “in effect a carbon tax”. This opened extra opportunities for political opposition while turbocharging scaremongering and rent-seeking from many in politics and business.
This scaremongering was almost completely without substance. Mining leaders openly acknowledged that the debate had moved beyond rational discourse and others described the emergence of “post–truth politics” in Australia. That reaped its final bitter harvest on Thursday.
Repeal of the carbon laws is a travesty of policy because it is clear from the government’s own reports and independent data that, over their two-year life, the carbon laws were working.
Pollution is declining in a growing economy. The latest National Greenhouse Gas Inventory showed the greatest emissions decline since records began. A government report calculated that two years of the carbon laws would reduce pollution by 40 million tonnes below business as usual. Independent analysts predict annual default emission limits in the laws would see Australia reduce pollution to at least 15 per cent below 2000 levels by 2020.
Meanwhile, the economy continued to grow, employment was largely unaffected and inflation impacts were exactly as predicted at a fraction of 1 per cent.
It was rotten luck that these reforms coincided with the impact of massive investment in electricity transmission poles and wires. This has been the true driver of most price increases. In a cruel twist, much of this appears unnecessary. Energy efficiency measures, the renewable energy target, economic changes and perhaps even the response to the scare campaigns to the carbon laws, as well as those laws, saw an unprecedented decline in overall demand.
Now we are left with a train wreck of climate action without a policy framework that can credibly deliver the minimum 5 per cent reductions off 2000 levels by 2020 let alone the up to 25 per cent that both major parties support. To its credit the government retains that range in international agreements. International focus is now shifting to the even larger post-2020 reductions needed. The United States, European Union, China and other major emitters will come forward with stronger emission targets over the next 12 months.
All of us bear some responsibility in this sorry saga. We should have better engaged across society and business. Communication could have been more consistent and better targeted. However, the biggest collective failure was allowing climate policy to fall so deep into cultural and partisan trenches.
It appears that some prospects of renewable energy policy have been salvaged from the wreckage. Focus is set to continue on emissions trading schemes, which limit carbon pollution, as well as on international action. It looks like we may keep the Climate Change Authority, an independent body that has already verified significant, if not sufficient, global climate action and suggested that Australia increase its emissions reduction target to at least 19 per cent.
The repeal of a broad national policy now unfortunately necessitates greater regulation at all levels of government. Nationally, the renewable energy target, the government’s business “safeguard mechanisms” and the inevitable need to permanently close some existing coal-fired power stations will likely be key domestic flash points. Pressure will also intensify on business and investors where there is an overdue but growing incorporation of climate and carbon policy risks in investment decisions.
The risks and realities of climate inaction will continue to grow as will the opportunities in taking action. With all political parties acknowledging the need for climate action, this train may be wrecked but the timetable is not. There are unavoidable human, economic and political risks ahead. Let’s hope we manage them better
John Connor was CEO of The Climate Institute from 2007 to March 2017. Whilst qualified as a lawyer, John has spent over twenty years working in a variety of policy and advocacy roles with organisations including World Vision, Make Poverty History, the Australian Conservation Foundation and the NSW Nature Conservation Council. Since joining The Climate Institute in 2007 John has been a leading analyst and commentator on the rollercoaster that has been Australia’s domestic and international carbon policy and overseen the Institute’s additional focus on institutional investors and climate risk. John has also worked on numerous government and business advisory panels.