Labor should keep a cool head on climate change Opinion Article

Sep 13, 2013 - 2:41pm

This article first appeared in the ABC's The Drum on 13 September, 2013. 

John Connor
CEO, The Climate Institute

As the ALP considers its support for the Clean Energy Future legislation, it needs to consider credibility, community concerns, consistency with decades of Labor climate action traditions, and the impact on our and others climate diplomacy.

Over the last tumultuous seven years, the Climate Institute has engaged with all sides of Parliament, business and community organisations to achieve a policy framework that can credibly enable Australia to achieve net greenhouse gas reductions that allows us to fully and fairly participate in international solutions to climate change.

This can not only protect our national climate interest as the country most exposed to costly, often tragic, climate impacts and already intensifying extreme weather events. Proper action can also facilitate our competitiveness in a global economy where long term security and opportunity lies in carbon constraints and modern low- and zero-carbon technologies.

Australia, along with the US, China and 190 other countries, has recognised that avoiding two degrees warming above pre-industrial levels is in our national and collective interests. Global average temperature is already almost one degree above pre-industrial levels and impacts are recognised not just by scientists across many disciplines but reinsurance firms such as Munich Re.

Australia's fair contribution to achieving greenhouse gas reductions that can keep warming below two degrees is a reduction of 2000 levels by at least 25 per cent by 2020.

The world is fast running out of time in its efforts to keep global warming below two degrees, and it is vital Australia maintains credible frameworks for strong and effective climate action.

Perhaps surprisingly, there remains to this day bipartisan support for Australia committing its ability to achieve 25 per cent reductions as part of a global effort. Since 2009, both parties have supported inscription in international agreements Australia's willingness to achieve 5 to 25 per cent reductions.

This was reaffirmed in the last days of the election campaign by the Coalition giving support to the caretaker ALP government signing on to the Majuro declaration at the Pacific Island Forum. This explicitly included the addition to its schedule Australian commitments to action which included both this target range and the 20 per cent Renewable Energy Target.

The test of policy credibility for reduction promises made to both the Australian and international community is the ability to achieve reductions across this range. All the independent and public analysis shows the current framework can achieve this but that the Coalition's policy suite, still lacking in detail as it currently stands, cannot.

Until the Coalition can reveal details that it can achieve such reductions by 2020 and beyond, there should be no repeal.

Ongoing research into community attitudes through our Climate of the Nation research shows that the public supports the current laws, even if it has disdained the processes and politics around them.
Exit polling conducted on election date had important results. It is false to portray this election as a "referendum on the carbon tax" as just 3 per cent of all voters listed it as the most important issue. 

When asked to decide on whether they supported repeal or the retention of carbon pricing, Australians were split 47 per cent apiece. But when asked which of the Coalition's promises of repeal or target reductions were more important, almost twice as many prioritised the reductions over repeal (40 per cent vs 28 per cent).

We also asked Labor voters whether "Labor and the Greens should try to block removal of the carbon tax in the Senate". Some 71 per cent of Labor voters agreed with this and just 18 per cent opposed, with the rest undecided.

Repealing the current legislation without a credible alternative will have consequence not only for our action but also the global effort. Whether intentionally or not, and while it will be against our national climate interest, an inability to achieve reduction targets will facilitate an obstructionist role in the evolving and broadly positive climate negotiations.

Repeal will also embolden other backward steps worldwide. We are already hearing reports that forces opposed to South Africa's planned introduction of carbon pricing are using the Australian election as an argument to stop this reform. And in the United States it is being used to thwart growing interest in national carbon pricing to complement state emissions trading schemes in California and in north-eastern US.

Finally, Labor has a deep tradition of climate action. State ALP Governments acted through the 1990s, and emissions trading has been a part of ALP National Policy platform since 2000.

After the passage of the Clean Energy Future legislation, former premiers and chief ministers Carr, Beattie, Bracks, Gallop, Rann, Martin and Stanhope released a statement which acknowledged that: "... effective climate policy must be informed by science and global carbon pollution must peak and begin to decline rapidly within the next 10 years." 

It also congratulated the government for: "... achieving a price on carbon: a vital first step towards achieving this goal and, with it, a secure, strong and prosperous low carbon economy." 

Writing in The Australian on its release, Bob Carr said that "climate should be a core Labor Party concern".
In our view climate should, of course, be a core concern of all parties. There are clear tests of credibility and competence which will determine Australia's economic carbon competitiveness but also whether our climate diplomacy will match our national climate interest or perversely thwart it.
The world is fast running out of time in its efforts to keep global warming below two degrees, and it is vital Australia maintains credible frameworks for strong and effective climate action.

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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