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Rudd and Abbott both 'crap' on the 'greatest moral challenge'

By Guy Pearse - posted Friday, 6 September 2013

For some the prospect of an Abbott Government apparently heralds descent into environment policy dark age. Breathlessness abounds at plans to abolish the carbon tax and a clutch of institutions born out of the Greens' failed coalition with Labor. The Abbott hit list includes the $10 billion Clean Energy Finance Corporation, the Climate Change Authority, and the Climate Commission. For Labor, and the Greens it seems, these institutions and the carbon tax are an important legacy to defend. Having abandoned it when opinion polls didn't suit, Kevin Rudd now calls carbon pricing fundamental to effective climate policy--alternative approaches are 'intellectually dishonest'. The Coalitions' 'direct action' plan is pilloried as old-fashioned 'big government' 'winner-picking' that can't possibly achieve the 5% reduction targeted for 2020 without costing vastly more. We're assured it is a massive leap backwards. Only is it really?

Notwithstanding their anti-mining baron rhetoric, Labor paved the way for the likes of Clive Palmer and Gina Rinehart to turbo-charge coal exports-by far Australia's largest contribution to climate change. Our coal export emissions could soon comfortably exceed the annual carbon footprint of Saudi oil exports and Amazon deforestation combined. The emissions Labor plans to save annually by 2020 have already been negated by increased coal exports since Rudd's election in 2007. By 2020, they might be erased another 5 times over. Long after the Coalition abandoned carbon capture and storage as realistic option for cleaning up coal use, Labor clings to this pipe dream to rationalize coal export expansion.

Rudd points to a halving of Australian emission-intensity, but factor carbon exports into the equation and Australia's emission intensity will worsen by nearly 50% in the next 10 years. Climate Change Minister Mark Butler says for the first time 'there is a legally binding cap on the amount of CO2 that can be emitted here in Australia'. But factor in the Labor plan to meet more than half of its targeted emissions savings with imported carbon credits, and there's no cap on carbon pollution in Australia. Rudd attributes a 7% fall in electricity sector emissions to the carbon price, but factor in the more significant drivers of this short-term lull in electricity demand, not to mention rising fugitive emissions from coal mining, and the carbon price is little more than background noise. With polluters large and small compensated for its impact, the price signal consumers are supposed to receive is negated in a largely inconsequential money-go-round – a giant, expensive, placebo in place of effective action. Little wonder Treasury doesn't expect emissions occurring within Australia to fall much below current levels til the 2040s.


What Labor and the Greens are seeking to protect is not an effective climate change response, but the pretence of one. Chickens are coming home to roost for politicians and large sections of a green movement (funded mainly by three like-minded philanthropic sources) which bought into and fed the myth that a ticking the carbon price box tackled climate change. People are seeing through this dumbed-down narrative. Having made carbon pricing the climate policy precondition in their ill-conceived coalition with Labor – carbon exports were omitted entirely in favour of a raft of apparently higher priorities like weekly meetings with the PM – the Greens now find themselves overstating the importance of the end result.

In truth there's little difference between the two sides. Modest domestic targets will likely be met, only with Aussie farmers receiving more checks than foreign carbon credit salesmen. If Abbott can't generate enough cost-effective direct action within Australia he can always adopt Labor's position and rely mainly on importing carbon credits. Undoubtedly the Coalition's climate policies are of great concern. Relying on tree planting and highly questionable soil carbon credits to provide the lion's share of emissions savings irresponsibly postpones hard decisions in energy and transport. And Abbott's government is at least as committed to expanding coal exports as Labor has been. So our largest contribution to climate change will keep getting worse.

But the idea that the Rudd-Gillard era climate policy legacy is vastly superior, and that the furniture all deserves saving is ludicrous. With domestic emissions a fast-shrinking component of Australia's contribution to the problem, the Climate Change Authority's work is a relatively unimportant distraction from the larger problem of carbon exports. The Climate Commission has made some worthwhile contributions (like the first tentative mention by a government institution of the global emission significance of Australian coal), but most Commissioners might just as easily, and perhaps more independently, provide thought leadership from their well-paid day jobs. As for the Clean Energy Finance Corporation , with a properly designed renewables mandate, a market-distorting 'big government' fund 3 times the size of Abbott's proposed Direct Action version should be superfluous. If we're honest about it, the trajectory of Australia's contribution to climate change won't change much without all three organisations.

In truth it's Mr Rudd and those trying to dress up the climate policies of the Labor era who are being been intellectually dishonest. Australia can't have an effective climate response or be 'on the right side of history' while it disowns carbon exports. The sad reality is that the response of both major parties to what Rudd not so long ago dubbed the greatest moral challenge of our time is what Abbott not so long ago referred to as 'crap'. We're not entering a new dark age –just continuing the existing one, and if Abbott replaces some furniture, in the grand scheme of things it's not that big a deal.

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About the Author

Dr Guy Pearse is an Australian Greens member and co-author of Big Coal: Australia’s Dirtiest Habit.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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