Interminable climate argument is costing us solutions for our future Opinion Articles

Sep 13, 2016 - 4:55pm

This piece was originally published in Renew Economy on Tuesday 14 September 2016.

John Connor   
CEO, The Climate Institute

It is fair to say that people are getting fairly tired of the climate change debate in Australia.

Whenever the issue emerges, all you see and hear is heated disagreement. Usually name calling then ensues - “environment evangelists”, “big polluters” and political “sell outs” become all too common catch phrases. These are points that avoid addressing the fundamentals of what we are trying to achieve.

That is, to make effective, pragmatic decisions and to take action now that will address the economic and safety challenges climate change is confronting us with. It’s not a difficult concept. And we have to play a credible part in assisting the rest of the world to do this.

Yet, over the last week, we have seen tiresome name calling return after the Climate Change Authority - the Parliament's climate change advisory group - released a report that suggested a fresh approach to these decisions and actions.

It was asked to outline a pathway for the current Parliament to agree on a policy framework that would actually stop Australia’s emissions from continuing to increase, so they would start to fall, in line with the international commitments Australia has made under the Paris climate agreement last year. This is an agreement around 180 countries of the world have entered into in an historic attempt to deliver economic prosperity and safety to all of us.

This report was quickly followed by a dissenting report from two of the Authority’s own members, which stated that the Climate Change Authority had not gone far enough and had made compromises for political expediency. They said it had failed in its own mandate to provide rigorous independent science-based advice to the Australian community.

The merry go round continued. Once again we fell into discussing the merits of “emissions intensity schemes” and other arcane policy solutions.

Once again, the real discussion about the fundamentals we are trying to achieve, and the ability of the Climate Change Authority's proposals to achieve them, was drowned out by contentious debate.

Where was the discussion about their effectiveness in helping us deliver the future we would all like to see come to fruition? Does the proposal allow for us to reduce emissions in line with avoiding the very severe climate impacts on our families, communities and economies? Did it set a clear and timely direction for replacing our aging coal-burning electricity generators with clean energy? Does it allow us to stand up proudly with the rest of the international community and do what we said we would do at the Paris conference last year? These are the fundamentals.

We have failed to learn the mistakes of the past. People want to understand the outcomes of the policy, not its details. This was a major undoing of the previous carbon mechanism. Yes, people had concerns about its impact on the cost of living, but they also did not understand what they were paying for - lower emissions and more renewable energy that would help us stop temperatures from continuing to climb so we can limit global warming. To do this, the world has agreed we need to get to net zero emissions.

The Climate Institute did raise concerns about the Climate Change Authority’s report. The reality is that, despite some useful suggestions, its proposals do not deal with these fundamental issues.

In just over a few years time the government, on our behalf, will be asked to stand with the USA, China, and the rest of international community, to demonstrate how we are on a path to zero net emissions. Yet, the Authority has ignored this. It does not put forward proposals that give us the option of boosting greater renewable energy, combined with other climate change solutions, that would mean we could meet this goal.

Similarly, the dissenting report may be based in science, but many of the policy proposals it puts forward are not realistic in the short-term.

We must stop acting as if there has to be a trade-off between being science-based and developing policies that can address the political and economic constraints we know exist in tackling climate change.

Power companies, local communities, environmental groups and unions all want a clear plan to replace our aging coal-burning power stations. The shift to clean energy is now unstoppable but we can’t plan for the future unless we have clarity on the path we are going down. The market, by itself, is not fit to deal with this challenge and the changes required for workers and the community.

So here we are yet again. The release of the reports over the last week has been another great missed opportunity to bring the debate into the space of principled pragmatism. People are understandably fed up with it all. Unfortunately, while we shake our heads and argue, our emissions continue to rise, and we continue to miss out on the economic opportunities that effective action would bring while the rest of the world is getting on with it.

John Connor

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.

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