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While Labor’s commitment to a 2050 emissions target reinvigorated well-practised attacks from the Coalition, the cost of inaction is only becoming clearer. By Mike Seccombe.

Political warfare over climate action

Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese during question time on Wednesday.
Credit: AAP Image / Mick Tsikas

Angus Taylor did not actually say “over my dead body” in parliamentary question time on Monday, but he may as well have.

In the days prior Taylor, Scott Morrison and a coterie of others in the Coalition government had launched fervid attacks on the Labor opposition for declaring a commitment to move Australia to net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

This was actually a recommitment by Labor, to the policy it took to the 2019 election. Then, for the nine months following the election, it was not Labor policy. Then, on Friday last week, Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese announced it was Labor policy once again.

The government’s response made it double deja vu, as it relaunched its pre-election scare campaign, citing the unquantified cost of the Labor promise, including false claims of a new carbon tax. Morrison even dusted off his “bill you can’t afford” slogan, despite the fact Bill Shorten is no longer the Labor leader.

But on Monday, Zali Steggall, the independent who ran hard on climate change and beat Tony Abbott to take the blue-ribbon Liberal seat of Warringah, turned Morrison’s attack back on him.

“Since you are in government and the climate is on track to 3 degrees of heating on current emission reduction commitments, to ensure sensible economic management … has the government assessed the cost to jobs and to the economy of the outcome of 3 degrees of heating?” Steggall asked. “And what is that cost?”

The prime minister blustered but did not answer.

A few minutes later Labor’s Treasury spokesman, Jim Chalmers, followed Steggall’s lead with a question to Taylor, the minister for Energy and Emissions Reduction. Chalmers asked if the government had modelled “the economic impact of failing to meet its Paris agreement commitment of net zero emissions by 2050”.

Taylor did not answer; he in fact challenged the premise of the question, which was that by signing on to the Paris agreement the government had effectively committed to net zero by 2050.

“That’s not what’s in the Paris agreement,” Taylor said. “Article 4.1 is very clear. It is about a global commitment to meet net zero in the second half of the century.”

Steggall says she was appalled as she listened to Taylor’s “word games” about the deadline for climate action. The second half of the century?

“They really need to be held to account on that,” she says. “Are they suggesting that should be 2070 or 2080? If that’s what they’re saying, there’s no chance of staying under 2 degrees. Absolutely no chance.”

But that was the implication of Taylor’s answer: that he, his leader and his government consider the ultimate goal of the Paris agreement – net zero greenhouse gas emissions – to be something that can be put off for up to 80 years.

He was, however, technically correct in what he said. Article 4.1 of the agreement does indeed refer to “the second half of the century”.

But 73 other nations, every Australian state and territory government (including the Liberal ones), a large and rapidly growing number of business organisations and civil society groups – not to mention the man Morrison supplanted as prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull – do not interpret those words as Taylor does. They read them as meaning net zero by the second half of the century.

They do not read them with a tax-lawyerly eye for loopholes, considering instead the broader context of the agreement, which says that if global heating is to be limited to 1.5 to 2 degrees Celsius, governments must act “as soon as possible”, that developing economies might “take longer” but developed countries “should continue taking the lead”.

There is little evidence to date that the Morrison government has any intention of taking the lead, or feels any urgency about meeting, or even setting, any emissions reduction target beyond its current one of 26-28 per cent by 2030, relative to 2005 levels.

Steggall has no doubt that the great majority of members of the federal parliament know this is not good enough. She is sure they are aware of the expert inquiries – the Stern report in Britain, the Garnaut report in Australia and numerous others – that conclude the benefits of strong, early action on climate change outweigh the costs. She has no doubt that if MPs were allowed to vote according to their consciences, as they were on the issue of same-sex marriage, the result would be overwhelmingly in support of an ambitious target.

She’s pushing for such a vote on a bill that would set out a road map to net zero. It will not happen, though, because climate is entirely different to same-sex marriage. With marriage, the hard part was settling the moral question; implementing the outcome was easy. With climate, it’s the opposite. Implementation is devilishly complex; setting a target is the easy bit.

Or it should be.

You would think political self-interest alone would dictate bipartisan agreement. Only this week an Essential poll found 75 per cent support among the public for a target of net zero emissions by 2050. Among Coalition supporters, support stood at 68 per cent.

Despite all the evidence arrayed in support of a 2050 net zero target – scientific evidence of a climate crisis, economic evidence of the benefits of acting promptly, all the significant forces mentioned above – even this threshold question remains contentious.

How is it possible that one side of politics abandoned that target for nine months, while the other side still refuses to adopt it? And that both sides appear to have backslidden when it comes to measures to address emissions reduction?

Much credit has to go to the man Zali Steggall defeated: Tony Abbott.

As Richie Merzian, a former climate negotiator for Australia, now climate and energy director with The Australia Institute, would have us all remember, it was not so long ago that Australia was playing a leading role internationally.

Under the prime ministership of Julia Gillard, a price on carbon emissions was implemented in July 2012 – and it worked. Consumer prices did not skyrocket, regions and industries weren’t wiped out, nor did the economy tank, as the naysayers had warned. To the limited extent it had an effect on electricity prices, people were compensated. Gillard also promised that Australia would prosecute the case for carbon pricing at international forums.

“The carbon price, according to our research, reduced national emissions by 2 per cent, even as the economy grew 5 per cent over the two years after its implementation,” Merzian says.

But the Abbott-led opposition, with the support of right-wing media figures, notably radio broadcaster Alan Jones, campaigned relentlessly against what they called a carbon tax. Readers might recall Abbott addressing demonstrators in front of Parliament House, pictured with signs calling Gillard “Juliar” and “Bob Brown’s Bitch”.

After Abbott came to power, he fulfilled his promise to “axe the tax”. It had lasted almost exactly two years. The new government also set about dismantling other parts of the architecture Labor had built around emissions reduction. The measures substituted by the conservatives had emissions tracking upwards again.

The Coalition’s climate policies may not have worked very well, but the scare campaign worked a treat, as we were reminded again this week when Mark Butler, Labor’s climate change spokesman before and after the 2013 election, fronted the media and was reminded of his strong support of a carbon price then. He was challenged to explain his and his party’s position now.

“What is clear is the debate has moved on from the position we found about 10 years ago where, I think, a carbon price was seen as important,” he said.

“… I know the modellers haven’t moved on but I think the rest of the world has moved on.”

Merzian does not agree.

“It is the most economic, efficient way of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, not just in theory, but in practice,” he says.

“New Zealand has an emissions trading scheme. The European Union has an emissions trading scheme. California and numerous other states in the US do. And a number of Canadian provinces. It’s commonplace overseas and has demonstrated its effectiveness.”

Among the major political parties, says Merzian, only the Greens still support a carbon price.

It is not that the world has moved on, he says, but that “the politics of it has just soured the entire conversation in this country”. Labor no longer dares to advocate best-policy practice, for fear of the scare campaign that would inevitably be run against them by the Coalition.

Indeed, the scare campaign has been running this week, even in the absence of any such policy.

Taylor, for example, thundered in parliament about Labor’s secret plan: “They don’t want to tell Australians what their plan is, because we know what it involves. It involves a carbon tax – a tax on fuel, a tax on electricity, a tax on gas and a tax on farmers.”

Such misrepresentations have worked not only against Labor, but also against any moderately progressive policy on the Coalition side.

There have been a couple of attempts to introduce market-based measures that could have been effective in giving business a financial reason to cut emissions. But all have been defeated or neutered by the party’s climate reactionaries.

The power of this cohort is exemplified in what happened to the national energy guarantee (NEG), a policy formulated by Malcolm Turnbull and his then Environment minister, Josh Frydenberg.

It was overwhelmingly approved by the Coalition joint party room. But fewer than a dozen hardliners – about 10 per cent of members – declared they would vote against it. The NEG was dumped.

At the 2019 election, Labor picked up Turnbull’s NEG as an element of its ambitious climate policy package, aimed at cutting emissions by 45 per cent by 2030. And so the Coalition wound up campaigning against a measure that was previously endorsed by 90 per cent of its parliamentary members.

When it comes to the politics of climate change, says Merzian, “the situation is otherworldly”.

Last year’s national vote was widely billed as “the climate election”. And when Labor lost, some people were quick to blame the ambition of its environment and climate policies.

Detailed analyses of the result, including Labor’s internal post-mortem, have since cast doubt on that. As one Labor insider summarises, “They were a net positive for us, so we would have lost bigger without them.”

That is debatable. While they were unquestionably a positive across the nation as a whole, elections are decided in individual seats. And Labor failed in several key seats that depend on coalmining.

The miners, and the communities in which they live, came to fear that the party was going to take away their jobs. It was a perception encouraged by comments from several senior people that a decline in the coal market would be desirable. There was also the revelation from businessman and former Australian Conservation Foundation president Geoff Cousins that Bill Shorten had promised to revoke approval for the giant Adani mine if Labor won the election.

Shorten, in the view of many in the party, tried to walk both sides of the street on the issue of fossil fuel exports. Anthony Albanese has decisively moved to the right, making it clear that his Labor Party will not oppose any project that is viable, just as it will not give taxpayer support to any project that is not.

That much is crystal clear. But when it comes to domestic climate policy, nothing is clear yet, except that Labor aspires to net carbon neutrality by 2050.

The commitment of the last election to a 45 per cent reduction by 2030 is gone, leaving us in the odd situation where one side of politics has a 2050 target but no interim target, while the other has an interim target but no 2050 target.

To say that Labor is playing its cards close to its chest would be an understatement. Even the decision to recommit to net zero stayed secret for weeks.

We now know it was taken on January 29 at a meeting of the full shadow ministry, a large group of people, and yet it did not leak. Nor did Albanese feel the need to reveal it for several weeks.

This suggests several things, first among them unity. If anyone had been seriously pissed off, the public would have known about it. While sources say there was some debate, it was largely about how and when the policy would be fleshed out.

Second, it suggests Albanese decided the public mood was such that a statement of basic principle had to be made, even at the risk of attracting criticism over a lack of detail.

Finally, it points to a calculation that the government’s credibility on climate issues is so shot, in the wake of the bushfires and the internecine warfare between Liberals and Nationals over targets and fossil fuel subsidies, that Labor had little to fear from a fight.

One frontbencher summed up that last point in two words: Gladys Berejiklian.

The Liberal premier of New South Wales came out of the bushfire catastrophe with her reputation hugely enhanced by her perceived competence, her empathy, her present-ness.

The Liberal prime minister of Australia was greatly damaged, seen as incapable of empathising with the traumatised.

Thus, when Morrison and his party initially went after Labor for signing up to an ambitious climate target, the response was to throw back at them the fact that the Berejiklian government has the same target.

The government’s counterargument was that Berejiklian had a plan, while federal Labor didn’t.

It was not very effective, though, for a couple of reasons. It is still early in the electoral cycle and Labor’s reluctance to provide detail is generally accepted as being tactical.

But the Morrison government’s criticism also rings a little hollow, given it has no target and is deeply divided about what its plan might be. Urban Liberal moderates have quite a different view from their Nationals Coalition colleagues.

That could change when Taylor delivers a statement, scheduled for next week, setting out technological fixes for Australia’s climate emergency.

At least some on the Labor side fear that the statement might be a good one, given the developments in renewable generation and batteries, the potential for clean, storable energy from hydrogen and other rapidly evolving technologies.

There have also been hints that the government might come up with a target before the next United Nations Climate Change Conference, to be held in Glasgow in November.

Zali Steggall, in asking her question about the costs of inaction, did not really expect an answer from the prime minister.

In any case, she has her own answer, gleaned from wide research into the economic costs of climate inaction.

“The University of Melbourne came out with a study recently estimating it would be at least 20 times the cost of action,” she says. “It came out with a cost of at least $1.19 trillion by 2050. The breakdown was $611 billion in lost property value, $211 billion in agriculture and labour loss and $368 billion in biodiversity and human health.”

The study’s author, Tom Kompas, professor of environmental economics and biosecurity, says the MP actually low-balled the numbers.

“All up. It’s about $2.7 trillion in potential losses from now until 2050,” he says. “That’s predicated on global temperature increases of 3.6 to 4 degrees.”

Which, of course, is where we could be headed, unless the world’s leaders – of which Australia used to be one – get their act together.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 29, 2020 as "Net zero sum games".

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Mike Seccombe
is The Saturday Paper’s national correspondent.

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