Reassessing the Greens’ pragmatic strategy

This is the first part of a two-part series about the Greens’ pragmatic strategy on climate action.

I’ve previously criticized the strategy of the Australian climate movement, but stopped short of criticizing the strategy of the Greens. Now I think it is time to reassess that too. (I should clarify this post has been in the pipeline for months, and is unrelated to Christine Milne’s recent positive step of publicly disassociating the Greens from the Labor government.)

In 2009, the Labor government (then led by Kevin Rudd) attempted to legislate an emissions trading scheme (ETS) with a pathetically weak target range locked in for 15 years. Journalists ridiculed the Greens for voting down Rudd’s policy. At the 2010 election, the Greens switched to a more pragmatic strategy, proposing a compromise policy of an interim carbon tax which would not immediately set targets. When the election resulted in a hung parliament, the Greens guaranteed supply and confidence to Labor (now led by Julia Gillard) in return for a Multi-Party Climate Change Committee (MPCCC) to negotiate climate policy. Through those negotiations (which I have covered in detail here), the Greens attempted to get a foot in the door that can be built on over the coming years.

Since the announcement of the MPCCC-agreed “Clean Energy Future” (CEF) policy on 10 July 2011, I have been running two alternate hypotheses on the best strategy for advocates of climate action to pursue. One voice in my mind defended the pragmatic strategy of the Greens, while the other advocated some more radical strategy.

The pragmatic voice argued something along the lines of:

I should support the CEF because activists must work within the constraints of the current “political reality”. It’s only a first step but if we get it in place, the Liberals’ scare campaign will lose credibility, and the Greens have secured an avenue to improve the policy later: an independent Climate Change Authority (CCA) to regularly review climate policies and recommend emissions targets. In the meantime, the various complementary policies secured by the Greens should help begin the process of decarbonizing the economy. Anyway, there must be something to it, because the Greens and virtually every Australian who cares about climate action are cheering for it, and the Liberals and the fossil fuel lobby vehemently oppose it. Labor deserves credit for negotiating with the Greens in good faith, reaching a compromise, and cooperating to deliver it.

The radical voice argued something along the lines of:

The CEF is unsupportable because we need urgent action now, and climate activists don’t have time to play political games. This policy is blatantly inadequate and full of holes. Indeed there are reasons to doubt the effectiveness of any ETS (which the carbon price will become in 2015). It will be difficult to fix in the future, because moderating one’s position only shifts the perceived political centre toward one’s opponents. It is more likely to be even further sabotaged by relentless industry lobbying. It will be used to greenwash the government, neutralize public concern about climate change, and justify taking no further action and dismantling pre-existing climate policies. Ultimately it will either lock in low ambition or be repealed by the Liberals. The Greens promised real action but they have sold out to Labor, who are only interested in propping up the fossil fuel economy.

The pragmatic voice prevailed within hours, as illustrated by a blog post I published on 10 July 2011 entitled “Initial reactions to the carbon tax: A first step, but improvement needed”. Thinking back, I must have been heavily influenced by my perception of what others believed. A friend persuaded me that politics requires compromise. Many economists endorsed the CEF, and being wary of falling into the Dunning-Kruger effect, I convinced myself they must know what they were talking about. Only a handful of climate activists strongly criticized the CEF: Climate Code Red blogger David Spratt, former Liberal staffer Guy Pearse, and climate think tank Beyond Zero Emissions. The only Australian advocates of climate action who outright opposed any ETS were Friends of the Earth and eco-socialist magazine Green Left Weekly, who were ideologically further to the left than I was comfortable with. It was seductive to opt for the more mainstream position of the Greens, especially since I was trying to justify having voted for them.

Yet I have been continually reassessing since then. So far I have not made a decisive call about which voice was right, though it should be pretty obvious from some of my recent posts (eg. “The illusion of the political centre”) these days I am leaning toward the radical side. That is because when I look around I see the fears of my radical voice are so far tracking much more accurately than the hopes of my pragmatic voice.

To begin with, as I examined the details of the CEF package over the days, weeks, and months following 10 July 2011, I came to realize I had initially misunderstood many aspects, and in every case my misunderstanding had led me to believe the policy was better than it really was (as illustrated by the corrections which now pepper my “Initial reactions”). The MPCCC agreement contained unlimited international offsets, free permits for coal-fired electricity generators, 94.5% free permits for the highest-polluting trade-exposed industries guaranteed in law for five years, and the exclusion of transport.

Business lobby groups claimed Australia’s carbon price of $23/tonne was somehow “too high”. Their cause was taken up by Rudd, who challenged Gillard for the Labor leadership (which came as a shock to me and almost nobody else), hinting that if reinstated he would consider an earlier transition to an ETS. I interpret that as an intention to bypass CCA and lock in Labor’s 5% target, as in Rudd’s original policy. Although Rudd lost, the business lobby later succeeded (through Rob Oakeshott) in killing the carbon floor price, and continues to argue the price should be lowered before 2015.

Two days before the carbon price came into effect, Labor further crippled it by bailing out two of the country’s biggest-polluting plants. The positive changes happening in the electricity market appear to have less to do with the carbon price than the Renewable Energy Target (RET). And despite the fact that it is not emissions trading which cuts emissions, Labor has prioritized negotiations to link Australia’s ETS to international carbon markets and already made such an agreement with the EU. Given that carbon prices outside Australia are now measured in cents instead of dollars, this threatens to utterly decimate Australia’s carbon price when it becomes an ETS.

The complementary policies obtained by the Greens don’t look so attractive anymore. The floor price and contracts-for-closure for coal power stations are gone. The Clean Energy Finance Corporation (CEFC) will not begin investing until shortly before the election, will not be additional to existing policies, will spend money on fossil fuels and fossil/renewable hybrid technologies, and may be too risk-averse. In August it was announced the CEFC board would include Andrew Stock, who has worked for Origin Energy and whose “almost 40 years’ experience in the energy sector included senior management roles in petroleum and petrochemical companies”. The Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA) says it will focus on hybrid technologies. I don’t fully understand the Carbon Farming Initiative but am concerned its offsets could do more harm than good. The Australian Energy Market Operator has still not reported on its task of modeling a 100% renewable electricity grid (and when they finally do there is a danger the modeling could produce a scary-sounding cost estimate without comparison to business-as-usual). On the bright side, national greenhouse emissions and energy efficiency standards were legislated last year (surprisingly with the support of the Liberals).

Federal and state governments constantly use the federal carbon price to justify cutting climate policies. The COAG Taskforce on Regulatory and Competition Reform created at the behest of the unelected Business Advisory Forum (BAF) is reviewing all remaining pre-existing policies with a view to abolishing them. The BAF/COAG climate deregulation agenda is scheduled to come to fruition at next month’s COAG meeting (the taskforce has probably already reported behind the scenes). Meanwhile, although the Liberal scare campaign does seem to have faded somewhat since the introduction of the carbon price, according to the polls the party is still on track to win the election, and they promise to destroy practically every climate policy.

In global climate talks, the Australian government has institutionalized a meaningless emissions reduction target in the Kyoto Protocol second commitment period, sabotaged it by advocating loopholes and creative accounting, and prioritized a post-2020 agreement over urgent ambitious action.

Labor is otherwise completely ignoring climate change: neglecting to talk about it, using the carbon price to argue against any additional action, and passionately defending the fossil fuel industry against any attack. Labor’s Energy White Paper, despite acknowledging the importance of renewables for the first time, laid out a plan for exponential growth in fossil fuel mining and exports, which already dwarf Australia’s domestic emissions. Environment Minister Tony Burke recently approved several new fossil fuel mining projects, and has allowed many more to enter the approval process, which by the end of the year could lock in a coal export boom of unimaginable scale. Labor has tried to neutralize public concern about coal seam gas with a toothless independent scientific committee. The federal government plans to hand over all of its environmental protection powers to the states.

Labor insists on continuing fossil fuel subsidies. Labor is refusing to fix a coal mining tax that has raised almost no revenue. Just last week, a new analysis confirmed carbon price compensation is making brown-coal-fired generators more profitable; to date Labor has refused to fix that either.

Meanwhile came the alarming news of the Arctic melt, which threatens to set off a chain reaction of tipping points and amplifying feedbacks affecting all of humanity and life on Earth, further underlining the urgent need for rapid emissions cuts which pragmatists gloss over.

In summary, the pragmatic strategy of the Greens has resulted in extremely tiny gains, which are at extremely high risk of being reversed, at a time when we have no more time to waste. One or two unfortunate events could be put down to bad luck, but when they pile up like this they seriously call into question the pragmatic strategy. The worst part is my radical voice predicted from the beginning pretty much everything that has gone wrong. Nevertheless, I haven’t entirely given up on the pragmatic strategy. I still think there is one last hope, and that is CCA’s Caps and Targets Review.

In Part 2, I will examine the possible outcomes in 2013.

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