CLIMATE SPECTATOR: The abdication of climate policy

The introduction of carbon pricing has become a convenient excuse for state governments to cancel climate programs and cut staff.

Climate Spectator

Over the last six to nine months we have witnessed a very slow, but cumulatively large, abdication by state and federal governments from policy to reduce carbon emissions. It has crept up not through one big bang event, but rather a dropped program here, a tweak there and a few staff cuts to top it off. 

This really only just hit me between the eyeballs when I attended the Australian Alliance to Save Energy’s annual energy efficiency and demand management conference. This conference tends to be heavily attended by government policymakers from both state and federal government as well as a range of energy policy experts from academia and the private sector.  

In spite of coming from different states and often working in different areas of policy there was a common theme in the conversations – the introduction of the carbon price is providing an excuse for state and federal governments to withdraw from carbon reduction efforts. 

This would be entirely sensible if the carbon price was likely to do what’s intended, but it won’t.

A carbon price of $23 per tonne of CO2 rising steadily over time would make a meaningful difference to investment decisions and drive pollution lower. Yet irrespective of who wins the election in September, the carbon price is likely to plummet to something relatively inconsequential within the next few years (if not be abolished altogether). 

Nonetheless this hasn’t stopped state governments withdrawing from efforts to contain carbon emissions using the argument that the carbon price makes them unnecessary. While ironically also enthusiastically helping Abbott to demonise the carbon price so successfully that it is unlikely to survive for long.

As some examples, consider these key developments in Coalition-led state governments.

Western Australia

According to The West Australian newspaper, WA’s Environment Minister Bill Marmion said there was almost nothing the WA government could do to restrict greenhouse gas emissions from new LNG developments because federal clean energy legislation overrode state laws. 

This is nothing more than a convenient excuse – state governments still hold powers to regulate the environmental performance of new developments including their greenhouse gas emissions. Indeed, in the past, state governments have even introduced their own renewable energy targets, even through a federal scheme was already in operation.

New South Wales

NSW government staff working on climate change issues have been informed their jobs no longer exist and they need to reapply for new jobs in "resource efficiency”. The government has also chosen to walk away from a commitment to the phase-out of energy-guzzling electric storage water heaters that are very common in the state.

Northern Territory

The Northern Territory government has largely sacked all government officials working on renewable energy and energy efficiency initiatives in the last few months.

Queensland

Queensland has cut almost all its clean energy programs as well as closing down the Office of Clean Energy. In addition, it has abandoned a range of energy efficiency requirements on new homes and also walked away from the planned phase-out of energy guzzling electric storage water heaters.

Incidentally, a detailed appliance energy usage study by CSIRO finds these electric storage water heaters are operated regularly during peak periods in Queensland (not just off-peak periods as originally intended).

Victoria

The Victorian government has closed the energy programs operated by Sustainability Victoria and would be lucky to have more than a handful of people with expertise in renewable energy. It also recently announced it would be abolishing the Energy and Resource Efficiency Plans program that requires large energy users to implement short payback energy efficiency measures.

The Treasury has also sought to abolish the state’s leading effort on improving the thermal efficiency of new homes (rebuffed by Baillieu) and now is tasked with reviewing the government’s energy efficiency target.

The story nationally

Back in 2004, as part of a Howard government initiative, states agreed to a mandatory program for disclosing the energy efficiency of homes for sale or rent. This has now been abandoned in spite of a favourable cost-benefit analysis. The federal government has let this happen without a peep of protest.

The federal government has also made little effort to prominently fight for its 2007 election commitment on the phase-out of energy-guzzling electric storage water heaters, while a National Energy Efficiency incentive scheme built on tradeable credits seems poised to be buried.

In addition, the government’s promise to put in place an emissions standard for new power stations was dropped on the basis this issue was addressed by the carbon price.

Yet just like the states, the federal government has now abdicated carbon pricing to European nations who can't seem to work out even minor fixes to their own scheme.

The future

In September, on the balance of probabilities there will be a Coalition government in place nationally. A number of these state government and joint federal government programs would have been an important buttress in the event of the carbon price being rescinded. They might even have helped in the implementation of the Direct Action Emission Reduction Fund.

One can’t help but wonder that the vision of a perfect carbon price has become the greatest enemy of the good.

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