Labor reveals its carbon cynicism

By pulling out of negotiations with major carbon emitters, Julia Gillard has all but given up the chance to reach a 5 per cent emissions reduction by 2020.

Labor's backflip on the 'contract for closure' process that aimed to shut down our most polluting brown-coal generators has thrown carbon politics into the sharpest relief yet – and it's clear the three main parties are trying to achieve very different outcomes.

The policies are founded in idealism (Labor), extreme idealism (Greens) and cynical pragmatism (Coalition).

Labor, by pulling out of negotiations with major carbon emitters including the Victoria's Hazelwood plant, has moved much closer to the Coalition on the cynicism scale – more on that in a moment.

The chief architect of Labor's carbon policy, Ross Garnaut, describes this area of public policy as a "diabolical problem", and so it is if you wish to slow, then remove altogether, the catastrophic risks of anthropogenic climate change.

But that's not what Labor's plan would do, now or in the future. Those who, for whatever reason, have wished to muddy this debate – the Herald Sun's Andrew Bolt springs to mind – have asked repeatedly 'by how many degrees will Labor's policy reduce global temperatures'.

That's an extremely potent question in political terms, and a question willfully ignorant of what climate scientists, and the best policy minds engaged in the climate change debate, are trying to achieve.

Australia can't do much about global warming in a direct sense – closing or not closing Hazelwood just won't register on the Bolt thermometer.

Moreover, asking what we can do directly draws attention away from the real issues:

– That the science will never 'be in' (the same reasoning tobacco companies have traditionally used to argue that we just don't 'know' there's anything wrong with their product);

– That there is an overwhelming case for global risk mitigation;

– And the potential costs of climate havoc are literally hundreds, if not thousands of times the costs of the required risk mitigation.

When those issues are taken on board, it's clear that Labor is (or was) doing the responsible thing in a geo-political sense – sending a clear message to the world that perhaps the richest developed nation, with close to the highest per-capita carbon emissions, was taking appropriate steps to end its carbon splurge.

So Labor's Clean Energy Futures package did contain an element of real, altruistic idealism. By tightening our belts by less that 1 per cent (the one-off increase in CPI that was projected by Treasury to be the net effect of the package), we'd send a message to the world: "Australia is doing something". And just as climate change minister Greg Combet likes to list countries 'doing something' – South Korea, China, New Zealand, Japan, all the EU countries, and the world's third largest economy, California – so other countries (and that big US state) can add our names to the lists they reel off.

That's the only way to convince other liberal democracies that they too should stump up money for this massive, necessary global insurance scheme.

Greens policy, which wanted a higher starting price for each tonne of carbon emitted; which insisted on setting up the Clean Energy Finance Corporation to build as much state-owned, or state financed renewable capacity as possible; which made the closure of Hazelwood and other major coal-based plants a cornerstone of its policy, was so much more idealistic.

It's not enough, they said, to be able to 'say' we're doing something. Rather, one of the world's highest per-capita carbon emitters would do the economic equivalent of a hand-brake turn, and actually slash per capita emissions. Instead of seeing carbon intensive industry as being our competitive advantage, it would become the natural advantage we chose not to use. Probably our second greatest advantage – our bountiful renewable resources – would be rapidly developed, via state capitalism if necessary.

Meanwhile, the Coalition ploughed ahead with a cyncial policy response – one that carbon scientists widely agree can't work due to its heavy reliance on 'cheap' (and ineffective) soil sequestration. That 'Direct Action' package placates two important groups of voters for the Coalition: the 'climate sceptics' who want to see as little as possible spent on the 'myth' of anthropogenic climate change, and more moderate Coalition voters who want action, but not of the 'carbon tax' variety.

Both Labor and the Coalition remain (in theory) committed to a 5 per cent reduction in carbon emission on 2000 levels, by 2020. Few experts believed the Coaltion could hit that target for the amount of money it intended to spend.

Labor's policy at least stood a chance, but only while its own 'direct action' package of coal plant closures remained. The $23/tonne price was calculated, by the Multi Party Climate Change Committee, to hit the bi-partisan emissions reduction target – but only as long as the direct action planks of the policy were left in place.

Removing this major plank means, in theory, that coal plants will buy carbon permits at the floating European price post-2015. So Labor will argue that the cost of hitting the 5 per cent target has shifted from the federal budget (the direct payment) to consumers' power bills, as the cost of European permits trickle through the electricity supply chain. Perhaps, but given Labor's still too-low primary vote, and Tony Abbott's unwavering commitment to rip up the carbon pricing package, that all looks a bit academic.

In effect, Labor has joined the Coalition at the 'cynical pragmatism' end of the policy scale. The policy response to the greatest moral challenge of our time, first abandoned by Rudd, then resurrected by Gillard, is being rapidly watered down once again.

And the message to the world couldn't be clearer: "This diabolical policy problem is too difficult for Australia – it should be for you too!"

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