Is There Light at the End of the Tunnel?

Is There Light at the End of the Tunnel?

One part of the defunct Rudd-Turnbull deal has survived last year’s devastation – the establishment of an “energy efficiency taskforce”, overseen in the Department of Climate Change by Howard Bamsey, who used to travel the world as Australia’s “special envoy” on climate, and has an advisory group that includes WWF, the Climate Institute, Energy Retailers Association.

Lenore Taylor in the National Times (27 March 2010):

Here’s a conversation starter for your candlelit party (for Earth Hour). Is climate change just too hard for our politicians? There’s strong evidence it might be.

Labor had its emissions trading scheme trashed in the Senate last year and responded by talking loudly about health in the hope the Christopher Monktons and Barnaby Joyces of the world would just go away.

The Coalition – after knifing its own leader in its determination to defeat Labor’s policy – came up with a ”direct action” policy embraced by the large number of Coalition members who don’t believe humans are changing the climate. That’s got to tell us something about the policy.

And the Greens continue to insist nothing is better than the something on offer in the form of the government’s emissions trading scheme, which means nothing is about as much greenhouse gas abatement as we’ll be getting.

Meanwhile, the energy industry is sitting on $50 billion or more of desperately needed new generation investment because it has no idea what’s going on. Big business keeps factoring a carbon price into its budgeting even though it might not have to pay one.

And the public, 73 per cent of whom still believe climate change is happening (and 96 per cent of them think its happening because of human activity), take symbolic and personal action to which no politician appears to be listening.

Late last year was a “perfect storm” that ripped through the federal government’s policy on climate. Senior figures refer to it more colourfully as a “clusterf—”. The Liberal leadership change ended not only the deal with Malcolm Turnbull, but bipartisan agreement that some kind of emissions trading scheme was necessary, which had been the starting point for all Labor’s political calculations. The disaster in Copenhagen and the mistakes uncovered in the report by the International Panel on Climate Change both fuelled and provided cover for the Coalition’s sudden change in direction.

One part of the defunct Rudd-Turnbull deal has survived last year’s devastation – the establishment of an “energy efficiency taskforce”. It is overseen in the Department of Climate Change by Howard Bamsey, who used to travel the world as Australia’s “special envoy” on climate, and has an advisory group that includes the chief executive of WWF, Greg Bourne, the head of the Climate Institute, John Connor, and the chief executive of the Energy Retailers Association, Cameron O’Reilly. It will soon release a “discussion paper”. It all sounds bureaucratic and boring until you compute that its final report is due midyear, right in time for big new policies to be announced on industrial and building energy efficiency, before the federal election.

The Climate Minister, Penny Wong, is technically still “in negotiation” with the Greens about a proposed compromise deal to try to get the emissions trading scheme through the Senate in May. But neither side holds out much hope a deal can be done that satisfies both the Greens and the two Liberals in the Senate who crossed the floor in support of Malcolm Turnbull’s deal and who might possibly do so again.

And that leaves Labor with a dilemma. It can’t abandon the emissions trading scheme as policy, but should it be one of those policies it hides in the back room or one of the ones it fights on? Some strategists strongly advise the former, unwilling to stare down Abbott’s assault on the “great big tax on everything” .Others say that while climate will not be as central to the campaign as the economy and health and education, Labor should not shy from the fight and couldn’t even if it wanted to. Their argument was strengthened when Abbott announced his own “great big new tax” to pay for more generous parental leave.

While Labor dithers, the Coalition keeps trotting out its attack. “The one thing you can be absolutely certain of is that we will oppose Mr Rudd’s great big new tax to the last breath,” Abbott said about the emissions trading scheme. That’s the great big new tax he was in favour of waving through the Senate unamended last year.

He also said the scheme would ”cost 126,000 jobs” in regional Australia. The source for that figure is an Access Economics report which found the scheme would see regional jobs grow by 1.413 million by 2020, 126,000 fewer than the 1.539 million extra jobs there might be without one. And that was before the policy was watered down two more times.

Even Labor advisers concede privately the emissions trading scheme, after all its amendments and compromises, is far from perfectly designed. And if they are going to “sell” it then one day they’ll have to get around to admitting that it will raise costs. That’s the point. The cost drives the change in behaviour.

But the Coalition’s “direct action” policy makes even less sense. It proposes a $3.2 billion government fund to “buy” emission reductions. As the Coalition’s own modeller, Danny Price from Frontier Economics, has said, that could be a reasonable way to start emission reductions – a sensible “short- to medium-term stop gap” – but to change the economy there has to be some kind of carbon price in the end. And if you read the fine print, the Coalition does say it would reconsider a carbon price in 2015.

Most of the Coalition’s planned emission reductions are supposed to come from storing more carbon in soil. The only major industrial reductions envisaged appear to be from closing the dirtiest brown coal-fired power stations. The idea seems to be that the government pay hundreds of millions a year to the operators of those plants to close them, rebuild gas-run stations and then subsidise those new plants so they can provide power into the grid at the same price as black coal.

It would reduce emissions, for sure. But for how long would taxpayers subsidise a couple of operators? And on what basis should the rest of the industry make investment decisions?

Senior business figures regard the policy as something stitched together to cover up the gap between the majority of the community who want sensible government action and the majority of those who installed Abbott who agree that the “settled science” of climate change is “crap”.

One is the South Australian senator Cory Bernardi, appointed by Abbott as a parliamentary secretary. A conservative youth organisation Bernardi has set up is promoting “human achievement hour” – an anti-Earth Hour movement urging people to turn on every light at 8.30 tonight. “Don’t be stuck in the dark with the communists. Turn your lights on”, reads its poster. Asked about the campaign, Abbott says people should make up their own mind what they want to do.

It seems voters are short of any major political party with a viable solution that they can actually implement. And short of any major party with the courage of its convictions, whatever they might be


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