Climate politics from another planet

As Australia gears up for a summer of fires after our warmest winter, the national climate interest has been sidelined in the campaign by political space cadets.

I'm feeling a bit crusty today reflecting on two decades of federal election campaigns. In many ways we have come a long way since 1993.

The status quo of strong renewable energy laws and a price and limit on carbon pollution from around 60 per cent of the economy ain’t too shabby. Not enough, but a springboard with potential.

Just as vitally, there is an emerging low carbon political economy and constituency that has suffered setbacks but fought off retrospective cuts to solar feed-in tariffs and attempts to water down those renewable energy laws.

It has held firm enough to show those that care to look that Australia’s business voice doesn’t just come from the miners. There are banks, industrial conglomerates, energy firms, investors, property developers and many small businesses that see the need for, and opportunity in, climate action and these policies. This was not the case in 1993.  

I thought the election campaign of 2010 was ordinary but it delivered a remarkable outcome and a triangulation of interests between the ALP, Greens and country conservative independents that gave carbon pricing and limits a second chance. A near miraculous second chance, that is, after the rude squandering of the similar Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme in late 2009.

This election campaign, though, has been off the planet in scale of ordinariness.

A lopsided political focus on the costs of climate action has eclipsed discussion or development of policy on climate risks or opportunities from low carbon solutions. This truly has been politics from another planet.

While both major parties have clarified or made some progress, neither made significant moves during the election campaign. Yesterday we released our final Pollute-o-Meter update, below, which sees the ALP remaining at 2.5 stars out of 5. The Coalition made a marginal improvement to 1.5 stars out of 5, mostly driven from its announcement for $9 million for the National Adaptation Research Facility. The Greens retained their comprehensive ranking of 5 from 5.

Apart from the Greens and, to a lesser extent, Andrew Wilkie there is still a gaping hole from the major parties when it comes to preparing Australians for the unavoidable costs of climate change. These are risks we should not ignore: the costs for food, insurance premiums, emergency services and other essentials will continue to rise with the growing intensity of bushfires, floods and other climate impacts if Australia doesn’t do more to protect its national climate interest in avoiding 2 degrees warming above pre-industrial levels.

This week we have had reminder after reminder of those risks, starting with the Bureau of Meteorology’s announcement that the past 12 months have been the warmest on record. The Bushfire Cooperative Research Centre’s outlook for the south of the country reported vast swathes of Australia face above average chances of grass and bushfires this summer after most states recorded their warmest winter on record.

So the nation braces for more impacts while our politicians focus on politics that are completely disconnected from our reality, and the policies that it calls for.

The ALP made some references to the economic opportunities that come from harnessing Australia’s wind, solar and other renewable energy resources. But its  primary focus has been on the cost of living benefits of bringing forward emissions trading by one year.

Meanwhile, the Coalition – despite speculation to the contrary and though it was muted – has importantly maintained support for the 2020 emissions reduction targets of 5-25 per cent below 2000 levels. The ability to achieve 25 per cent reductions is the test of credibility and this policy commitment will need to be weighed with others if they are elected tomorrow.

The Coalition's problem is that there is no credible evidence backing its ability to achieve this. Our analysis with SKM and Monash University sees the Coalition, with its still to be detailed policies, achieving a 9 per cent increase (this will be slightly worse now with announced budget cuts). Filling the deficit by purchasing more Australian reductions would cost $4-$15 billion extra but the Coalition has declared no more financing would be forthcoming. To even have a chance of achieving the smaller target without further finances will need the regulatory kitchen sink to be thrown at numerous sectors of the economy.

This raises serious questions about the Coalition policy’s effectiveness and its ability to continue recent positive climate diplomacy, especially in what are important years ahead for international negotiations. If it is to protect its national climate interest Australia has no option but to work constructively and will need credible policy to do so.

If the Coalition should win the election, they should reveal before repeal. Australians and our parliamentarians should at least have full details and proof of a credible alternative policy suite before abandoning an imperfect but effective policy suite.

Tony Abbott spoke at the National Press Club this week about having a mandate to repeal the carbon laws, but our polling and those of others has shown that Australians’ desire to see emissions reductions and increased investment in renewables is resilient and that there is no foundation for the claims that the election is a “referendum on the carbon tax”. Other issues like economic management and competency have been far more important. Those laws aren’t popular or well understood but the mood is there for climate action. There is a sentiment to give carbon pricing a go that may have been dented by the cost of living focus of this campaign but that sentiment remains.

We have come a long way in two decades with plenty of highs and lows. The next two decades will have plenty more highs and lows. They will test our resolve and our creativity. The realities will rupture the shields of our political and business space cadets. The challenge is to find a new prosperity for all while we manage the unavoidable and help to avoid the unmanageable.

John Connor is chief executive of think tank The Climate Institute.

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