Stars down, pollution up as election looms Opinion Article

Aug 18, 2010 - 8:00am

By John Connor, CEO, The Climate Institute

On Monday night’s Four Corners, Marian Wilkinson summed up modern day campaigns which “values gaffs more than gravitas”.  This has been a campaign with as much substance as a cup of powdered Gravox. 

This has been a campaign where both parties have fundamentally misjudged the mood of Australians. They have misjudged Australians concern about pollution and climate change and their concern about the need to shift from a pollution dependent economy to a low-pollution economy.  They have misjudged Australians concern that we should be investing in making clean energy cheaper and having leadership in the clean energy options of which Australia has such abundance.

The major parties have been guided by political advisers with narrowly interpreted focus group outcomes.  Pollution and climate change policy has pivoted around a paranoia of power prices.  The Coalition has been an eager arsonist waiting to light the fires of a scare campaign on electricity price rises whilst the ALP has been desperate not to give even the whiff, let alone a splash, of kerosene to those ambitions.

Commentators from Graham Richardson to The Chaser have noted that Julia Gillard’s leadership was dented from the moment at which the Citizens Assembly, and delay to 2012 of any certainty on a limit and price tag on pollution, was announced. 

What hasn’t been as well noted though is the rank hypocrisy of the Coalition’s electricity price scare campaign as they and the ALP both backed electricity price rises to bring in clean energy in terms of renewable energy target - a worthwhile measure of great long lasting benefit. 

But the Coalition and the ALP also effectively back power price rises that will flow from the policy uncertainty. Generators covering their risk of stranded assets are forced to invest in cheap to build, but expensive to operate, power plants.

All of the above has left The Climate Institute straddling the barbed wire fence when it comes to its two analytical tools of the Parties’ policies.  On the Pollute-O-Meter the ALP trails the Coalition with those policies not subject to a review in 2012. The ALP only marginally reduces business-as-usual pollution and still sees pollution at 19% above 1990 levels by 2020.  The Coalition’s Emission Reduction Fund won’t purchase the reduction they claim, instead see pollution increasing to 8% above 1990 levels by 2020. 

Without clearer commitments both major parties will see pollution increasing. Both major parties will miss their minimum 2020 emission reduction targets of 5% below 2000 levels and are well short of the up to 25% pollution reduction target, dependant on global action, that both remain committed to.

For the ALP, a little decisiveness could have changed the game. Their Carbon Farming Initiative is worthwhile, but with a review of the CPRS in 2012 it is still uncertain as to whether those benefits will flow into Australia’s pollution accounts.  A commitment to an Australian carbon pollution market mechanism could have got that across the line.  Energy efficiency initiatives would have also bolstered the position and indeed seen them overtake the Coalition on the Pollute-O-Meter

On our other Start Rating tool, the ALP leads the Coalition with one and a half stars out of 5 to the Coalition’s half a star.  This is largely because it invests in helping build global action as well as providing more funding for research and development.

The Coalition places all its eggs in its Emissions Reduction Fund basket. It puts at risk Australia’s global commitments and credibility by slashing funding promised under the Copenhagen Accord.  This will arguably see Australia no longer able to support the Copenhagen Accord or indeed the Kyoto Protocol in its second commitment period.

This point should not be underestimated. Outside the Australian fishbowl, outside the orgy of self consciousness and confection that has been the policies of both the major parties, significant climatic extremes and climate policies are afoot. Climatic extremes in Russia, China and Asia match extraordinary efforts happening now in Asian and other economies on energy and carbon productivity.

As Professor Garnaut noted on Four Corners Australia “will be called upon to do more [than 5 per cent], even with what the rest of the world is doing now. What Europe's doing, Japan, Korea, New Zealand, South Africa, China, Indonesia, Brazil, even  with what they're doing now.”

China is in the process of closing down 2,000 high polluting factories, and is also introducing tighter emissions standards on power plants and vehicle emissions. These standards are far superior to anything either major party has on offer in Australia.  A carbon tariff against Australia from China is also not out of the question. In terms of India  it has already arrived – the governments there is looking to put a price on coal imports. This is also very much a prospect in Europe, where governments are considering border taxes to bolster the EU emission’s trading scheme, which is now heading into its third phase.

All of this leaves a poor choice for Australians with little on offer from the major parties on pollution and climate change.  The Greens do have a more comprehensive suite of policies achieve and 4 stars out of 5 on our reckoning. Their preference remains for a limit and price-tag on pollution, which remains the only credible option for achieving the 25% cut in pollution by 2020 needed to drive the shift to a low pollution economy.

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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