A skilled politician need not lie in order to mislead. Anthony Albanese showed that this week when he artfully implied during a major TV interview that the Greens wanted to immediately close down Australia’s fossil fuel exports.
Not true, Adam Bandt tells The Saturday Paper. He sounds more exasperated than angry at the misrepresentation of the Greens’ position in negotiations over Labor’s plan to enshrine in law a 43 per cent cut in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030. The policy Bandt’s party took to the election was for a staged phase-out of thermal coal – used to generate electricity – by 2030 and metallurgical coal – used for making steel – by 2040.
“But we are putting a far more modest proposition on the table in these discussions, which is to say that we can have the debate over the next three years about how quickly to get out of the existing coal and gas,” Bandt says. “What we are putting on the table now is, just don’t open up new coal and gas projects.”
On Tuesday, the night before the new government introduced its climate bill to the parliament, Albanese seriously misrepresented this position.
He said the government would not support a moratorium on new gas fields and coalmines, because that would have a “devastating impact” on the economy.
“If Australia, today, said we are not going to export any more coal, what you’d see is a lot of jobs lost,” he said. “You would see a significant loss to our economy, significantly less taxation, revenue for education, health and other services.”
But that clearly is not what the Greens are advocating. In fact, no one else has suggested such a thing, says Amanda McKenzie, chief executive of the Climate Council, except members of the former Coalition government.
That the leader of the new government should rerun the same misleading argument, is, she says, “unfortunate”. The Greens policy is informed by the International Energy Agency, whose report from May last year is touted as the most comprehensive road map to avoiding a global temperature rise of more than 1.5 degrees.
“From today,” the report said, “no investment in new fossil fuel supply projects.”
Bandt, too, has been prone to some strong rhetoric. “It doesn’t actually bind the government to do anything,” he complained to ABC News, ahead of the bill’s introduction this week. “If we’re going to pass targets and put them into law, we want to make sure it’s Dutton-proof, so that it’s not something that can be unwound at a future date.”
He insisted the legislation should make it clear that a 43 per cent emissions reduction “is something that we can’t go below” and that it should bind government agencies to work to achieve it, to give the law “some teeth”.
What we have is a protracted, high-stakes political game of cards. Labor’s trump is that if the Greens vote down the bill, the government could impose its 43 per cent reduction target anyway. Indeed, it has already updated its nationally determined contribution under the Paris Agreement.
That would be a suboptimal outcome, however, because it would leave Australia’s climate response more vulnerable to being watered down by an alternative future government.
The Greens also have a strong hand. The government needs their 12 votes plus one more to pass the bill in the senate. Polling suggests about a quarter of voters think the government’s target should be higher, which is about double the number who voted for the Greens at this year’s election.
History suggests Labor would bear more of the opprobrium if the climate deal fell through. That is what happened in 2009, after the Greens twice voted with the Coalition against the Rudd government’s carbon pollution reduction scheme, on the basis that it was insufficiently ambitious. The Labor vote fell at the following election, while the Greens’ vote surged.
And Bandt is playing his cards cagily. He stresses to The Saturday Paper that while his party room has authorised him to negotiate on the legislation, it is yet to decide whether to support the government or not. Both sides are catering to their constituencies and neither can be seen to give too much away.
Bandt is under pressure from the more ambitious elements of his party, if not so much from the Greens’ elected representatives. Labor is beholden to the mining unions, as well as to fossil fuel donors and middle Australians more concerned about economic issues than climate, even as it tries to hold on to its progressive voters, who have increasingly drifted to the Greens.
But behind the political posturing, progress has been made.
Going into negotiations, Bandt says, he had four main concerns.
“One was that the bill didn’t have a genuine floor, that it was possible for governments to go below even the weak 43.”
The second was that the 43 per cent reduction target “could operate as a ceiling if enshrined in law, and if a government had more climate ambition in the future, they couldn’t automatically lift that 43 per cent”.
“A third concern,” he says, “was that the bill had no teeth and didn’t oblige the government to do anything to cut pollution.
“Fourth was that it was silent on this question of new coal and gas, which could … put any chance at reaching those weak targets beyond reach.”
The government has since gone some way to meeting those concerns.
The Climate Change minister, Chris Bowen, has belatedly offered the assurance that a 43 per cent emissions reduction was a “floor, not a ceiling”. This is now reflected in the legislation, which stipulates that 43 per cent is a minimum, and also that: “If the Commonwealth prepares and communicates a new nationally determined contribution in accordance with Article 4 of the Paris Agreement, the new nationally determined contribution must represent a progression…”
That is, it can only go up.
The proposed legislation also addresses the Greens’ concern that government agencies should be bound to meeting the reduction targets.
So-called “consequential amendments” to the main climate change bill embed the targets into the “objects and functions of a range of Commonwealth entities and schemes, helping ensure those entities and schemes are able to contribute to the delivery of those targets”.
“Some entities,” the bill’s outline continues, “such as those with a research and commercialisation focus, also have a role providing a foundation for Australia to achieve new or adjusted targets over time.”
This is important. It means agencies including the Australian Renewable Energy Agency, Clean Energy Finance Corporation, Infrastructure Australia and the Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility will be required to consider the climate implications of their activities. Under the previous government, they came under heavy pressure to assist climate-destructive activities.
To cite just one example, last year the Morrison government announced the Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility would provide a $175 million loan for infrastructure including rail and transmission lines and water pipelines to the new Olive Downs coalmine in central Queensland.
Given the Labor government’s stated position that future fossil fuel developments should stand or fall on the basis of the economic viability, new legislation could see an end to such taxpayer subsidies.
Bandt is not so sure, though. “One of the more distressing parts of discussions has been seeing just how strongly Labor wants to open new coal and gas,” he says.
The climate change bill also requires the Climate Change minister to report annually and makes the Climate Change Authority responsible for providing “independent” advice on progress towards achieving the new emissions reduction goal and advising on further targets for 2035 and beyond.
The question is whether the Climate Change Authority, as currently configured, is up to the job. The former government made a practice of stacking boards and the CCA is no exception. There has been no climate scientist on the board since 2017, when Professor David Karoly left. The current chair is Grant King, who has a long history in the fossil fuel industry, including stints as a managing director of Origin Energy and on the board of the peak lobby group the Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association.
According to the Climate Council’s Amanda McKenzie, if the CCA’s advice is to be credible, “they need a refresh of the board. They need climate science expertise, they need terms of reference that are very clear that it should provide frank and fearless advice.”
But first the legislation has to pass, and the government has made clear it will not amend it to meet the Greens’ demand that there be a blanket moratorium on approval of new coalmines or gas fields. That need not be the end of it, though, says Bandt.
“There are a variety of ways that problem could be tackled,” he says.
A “climate trigger” could become part of this legislation. Or such a trigger could be part of the government’s proposed changes to the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act.
The EPBC Act is the responsibility of the Environment minister, Tanya Plibersek. The Greens’ Environment spokesperson, Sarah Hanson-Young, has had initial discussions with her. Plibersek has not ruled out the trigger.
David Pocock, the independent senator who appears most likely to provide the one extra vote the government would need to get its climate bill through, has indicated he would support the bill if the government agreed to a “climate trigger” in the consideration of new projects.
“Alternatively,” says Bandt, “it may well be that the government chooses to deal with it in the safeguard mechanism that it announces later this year.”
This safeguard mechanism requires Australia’s largest greenhouse gas emitters to keep their net emissions below an emissions limit. If, as is expected, the government introduces a change whereby that baseline is progressively lowered, it would have the effect of making fossil fuel developments increasingly unviable.
“For us,” Bandt says, “the real issue is stopping opening these projects. We’re not tied to a particular way in which a moratorium is put on coal and gas projects. But at the moment we’re still not at square one.”
Negotiations are ongoing and will likely continue for weeks or months more, as the climate change bill wends its way to a senate vote.
In all likelihood, it will pass eventually. Some progress is better than none, which is what the previous government offered.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 30, 2022 as "Climate: Inside the Greens’ four-point strategy".
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