How PM Turnbull could act on climate without an ETS

Turnbull could be our next Prime Minister but he'll have to sacrifice his commitment to an emissions trading scheme. Still, here are five things he could do to curb carbon emissions without igniting a coup against him.

CORRECTED 1.19PM February 6.

While no one, including members of the Coalition Government as senior as Christopher Pyne, has a clear idea of whether Tony Abbott will be deposed as PM, if it does happen Malcolm Turnbull is a clear favourite to replace him.

Such an idea causes delight among those concerned about climate change.

After all, Turnbull has made no secret about the fact that he shares their deep concern about the damaging effects on humankind from global warming. Back in 2009, while opposition leader, he even stated: “I will not lead a party that is not as committed to effective action on climate change as I am.”

This went to the point where he crossed the floor in defiance of the rest of his party, to vote in favour of the Rudd-Wong Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme legislation for an emissions trading scheme.

But as explained in Terminating Abbott won’t knock-off the climate sceptics, a hard core conservative section of the partyroom and the National Party are deeply opposed to the idea that burning fossil fuels is leading to dangerous global warming.

This means there is no hope in hell that Turnbull could suddenly reverse their position on an emissions trading when he assumes the leadership. A straightforward ETS is off the table as is even a mongrel one via modifying the existing Emission Reduction Fund scheme.

This is certainly the case until he could strengthen his hold on the leadership by managing to win the next federal election.  

But all that doesn’t mean he couldn’t make progress on climate change policy.

There’s plenty more tricks to lowering carbon emissions than just putting a price on carbon pollution, although most involve less free-market oriented approaches.

Rather strangely, even though such approaches are more interventionist than an ETS, they seem to be strangely more acceptable to the hard-core climate sceptics, in spite of their paranoia about climate change as a cloak for socialism.

The reason why is that many of these other measures can be sold as being about addressing problems or delivering benefits beyond just reduced carbon emissions. If you listen to Cory Bernardi talking about the Direct Action policy, or you read the original 2010 election Direct Action policy platform, there is an over-riding principle that action to address carbon emissions is OK by the Coalition provided it also addresses other (presumably deemed more legitimate) problems.

Here’s five ways a PM Turnbull could act to curb carbon emissions without an ETS.

1. Merge and expand the NSW and Victorian energy efficiency schemes into a national roll-out

NSW, as well as Victoria, currently operate a scheme that obligates energy retailers to meet an energy savings target by purchasing energy saving credits from firms that have implemented improved energy efficiency measures such as LED lighting technology.

How can the federal Coalition be vociferously opposed to a NSW Liberal Government program that saves businesses and consumers money on that ultimate cost of living bogeyman – the energy bill?

Indeed they can hardly argue against the merits of such a scheme when their government is already using its rules (or at least the NSW scheme) as the bedrock for a large chunk of their own Emissions Reduction Fund scheme.

2. Implement motor vehicle fuel efficiency standards for new cars

Australia is pretty much out on its lonesome in not applying any requirement on motor vehicles to meet minimum levels of fuel efficiency. All we need to do is match the standards that have been set for the US motor vehicle fleet (and they’re supposed to be the land of gas guzzlers) to make some major breakthroughs in Australian motor vehicle emissions.

No one can argue this will somehow harm our competitiveness and there’s no Australian manufacturers of gas guzzlers to defend anymore. What’s more you could even argue it’s all about energy security and reducing dependence on foreign oil to get some of the far right on board.

3. Cajole and fund the states to provide better enforcement of new home energy efficiency requirements

Just as everyone was about to go on Christmas holidays, the Council of Australian Governments sneakily released a report from RMIT University and engineering firm Pitt & Sherry revealing widespread non-compliance with building standards for minimum levels of thermal energy efficiency in new homes (see A building industry scandal regulators want to ignore). This energy efficiency standard was rolled out nationally under the Howard Government.

Ensuring the standard is properly enforced by allocating some funding to states as well as auditing performance would be as much a consumer protection and economic efficiency measure as an environmental one. And it was introduced with Howard Government support so it must be alright.

4. Change the National Electricity Law objective to include consideration of wider effects of the energy market on society

In determining the appropriate settings for Australia’s energy market rules and regulations, government officials are forced to put blinkers on. They are not allowed to take into account how the energy market might have negative side-effects upon the whole of society. Instead they must only consider the effects of their decisions on energy consumers.

What’s more they must only focus on setting the rules to keeping down unit prices for consumers, rather than their total overall energy bills. This is completely dumb. People couldn’t care less if they had to pay more for each unit of electricity but ended up with a lower overall energy bill thanks to assistance on energy efficiency which lowered their total consumption.

The reality is that it would require an incredible amount of hard work, investment and time to achieve a 30% reduction in the retail price of energy. However a few million households around Australia could easily achieve a 30% reduction in their energy bill by swapping out their electric resistance water heater for something else. In southern states they could do the same thing to their gas bill by replacing a gas central heater with an energy efficient reverse-cycle air conditioner-heater.

5. Use the surplus cash raised from the carbon tax after it was supposed to have been retrospectively abolished to buy up international carbon credits

OK, this one is unambiguously about addressing climate change so could be a tough sell to the climate sceptic crazies, but hear me out.

Waste dump landfills had to collect carbon tax payments to cover not just the liability associated with methane released by rubbish for 2012-13 and 2013-14 but also the projected methane that would be released by this rubbish over the many years this rubbish was expected to decompose and release methane. With the carbon tax abolished this has left landfill operators with carbon price levy money to cover a tax liability they no longer have. According to the government, this excess money is understood to total around $200 million dollars, of which a large proportion can’t be refunded to waste dump customers because there are no records of who paid the levy.

The government is in the process of trying to decide what should be done with this excess carbon tax money, with one of the proposals being to use the money to fund carbon abatement activities in Australia.

But $200 million would be a healthy addition to the inadequate funding given to the government’s abatement acquisition scheme – the Emissions Reduction Fund.

And if it was used to buy international carbon credits, known as CERs, if would pick up an incredible amount of certified carbon abatement. Even if Australia decided to be quite picky about the quality of the CERs we were willing to buy, $200 million could probably get us 200 million tonnes of CO2 abatement. Given the total gap to our minimum 2020 emissions reduction target was last estimated at about 420 million tonnes and is probably lower now, this would be a very handy contribution to Australia’s emission reduction efforts. 

CORRECTION DETAILS: The initial version of this article stated that waste landfill operators had collected excess carbon price revenue due to a delay between when the government wanted the carbon price to become null and void (1 July) and when the Senate actually passed the legislation to repeal the carbon price legislation. This was not correct with updated text above reflecting the excess revenue was due to collections of revenue to cover future years of methane emissions from decomposition of rubbish beyond June 30, 2014.