Growing gaps in Abbott's climate policy

Greg Hunt is at pains to sell the Coalition's climate policy, but there's no leadership on the issue from Tony Abbott – and the hard questions consequently remain unanswered.

The keynote speech that Coalition climate spokesperson Greg Hunt has been giving around the country is the most detailed argument for the Coalition’s Direct Action plan since the policy was first released in 2010.

Unfortunately, although a welcome step forward in a polarised debate, it does little to bring the policy, its timing, funding and targets up to date. It is summarised in my previous article in Climate Spectator and further discussed here.

Clearly the Coalition will have to release a new formal policy before the election and the pressure is building for them to deliver specific answers to the gaping holes – most notably the minimal budget being set aside for purchase of abatement and the reliance on technology which remains unproven for the huge amount of “soil carbon absorption” that underpins the feasibility of the Plan achieving the targets.

Specific issues in contention include:

-- The costing of the policy and whether the $1.55 billion over three years allocated in 2010 remains “more than enough” as claimed;

-- The establishment of reliable baselines against which “abatement can be measured;

-- The validity of the comparison to the Murray Darling water buyback; and

-- The availability of technology to achieve the claimed level of soil carbon.

There is a lengthy email exchange between Dr Harley Wright and Greg Hunt which was published in Climate Spectator here. This traverses a lot of this ground and dissects a number of the claims made in support of Direct Action.

More significant is the growing gap between what Hunt is saying and the media grabs that his leader Tony Abbott keeps using. These suggest Abbott’s latent climate scepticism remains strong. He is targeting a different audience, while asking Greg Hunt to pacify those concerned about climate change.

Hunt says he is “100 per cent certain” that he has Tony Abbott’s support for his version of the policy. However, the world has yet to see Tony Abbott himself saying he personally supports Greg Hunt’s claim that the Coalition agrees with the government on:

-- The science of climate change;

-- The targets to reduce emissions – Hunt specifically includes the target to reduce emissions by 25 per cent by 2020 if other countries set higher targets; and

-- Using markets as the best mechanism.

In repeatedly saying he will axe the ETS as well as the carbon tax, Tony Abbott has not committed himself to the details that Greg Hunt says will make Direct Action work.

-- Purchase of 80 million tonnes of CO2 abatement in Australia;

-- Additional expenditure beyond 2015 as part of the recently announced “Stage 2”; and

-- Maintenance of the RET in its currently legislated form of 41,000 GWh (as again confirmed on behalf of the Coalition by Simon Birmingham, here).

Nor has Abbott committed to guarantee a cut in electricity bills as a consequence of the scrapping of the ETS.

It is already unclear exactly what cut (if any) consumers can expect in their bills from the “$380 annual saving” promised by the government as a result of ending the fixed price a year early. The Coalition has failed to say how much greater benefit they are promising from taking the further step of scrapping the ETS.

The Coalition is making repeated use of the Treasury forecasts that emissions within Australia will increase from 560 million tonnes in 2010 to 637 million tonnes in 2020. These figures have not been challenged by the government but they are actually measuring the total emissions and not just those within the ETS.

The Coalition argues (correctly) that it means Australia is not really cutting back but simply using its wealth to buy offsets – and it alleges this will become a huge future cost. However, despite this criticism, the Coalition has not excluded itself from purchasing overseas abatement as the “least cost option”.

This highlights how the Coalition often tangles its arguments by simultaneously arguing the carbon price will be disastrously high but then point to disastrous budget consequences because the international carbon price will be low. As the prices are now linked this is impossible. If the international price increases dramatically in the future there will be fresh impetus for cheaper emission reduction options at home.

The recently released Climateworks analysis suggests policies currently in place (such as the Renewable Energy Target) could deliver 80 million tonnes of abatement by 2020 and would take Australia 40 per cent of the way towards the 5 per cent emission reduction target. The other 60 per cent depends on new policies yet to be implemented or the purchase of international permits. An overall 25 per cent reduction target remains technically possible but the required tougher policies are unlikely in the current political environment.

The flipside to the Climateworks optimism is that the "continuation of existing policies" that will deliver 40 per cent of the progress depend on the RET, the ETS and "green tape" building and appliance efficiency standards remaining untouched. These are the very things that are currently under ferocious attack. Even the lower carbon price coming in earlier may dilute the trends being projected.

It is one thing for the Coalition to say it shares the same 5 per cent target and just has a different plan how to achieve it. The hard question that must be answered is how the Coalition will achieve that goal if it tears up the polices that are delivering 40 per cent of the reduction. Then it needs a credible plan for how the other 60 per cent will be delivered.

Andrew Herington is a former Labor Adviser and now a Melbourne freelance writer.