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Aug 11 2014

Time to move on from the carbon tax

On 17 July, Australia’s carbon tax was repealed.

I was originally going to write about all the political theatre and drama associated with the repeal, but in the final analysis it didn’t really matter that much. At the end of the day, the carbon tax is dead. Tony Abbott’s Liberal government finally succeeded in killing it, with the roundabout support of coal mining billionaire Clive Palmer and near-unanimous applause from business lobbyists.

For four years, the carbon tax has taken centre stage in the Australian climate policy debate. The Liberals claimed it would destroy the economy. Labor touted it as an adequate solution to human-caused global warming and used it to justify cutting other climate policies. The Greens, having piled compromise upon compromise to get it legislated, tried to convince us to put all our efforts into protecting it as a first step to decarbonizing our economy. Despite it being a blatantly insufficient policy full of holes and time-bombs (particularly in the emissions trading phase it would have entered next year), voices calling for more meaningful climate action were marginalized.

All that time and effort has now disappeared down the drain. The Greens’ vaunted “first step” is now a footnote in Australian history. Abbott has turned the climate policy clock back to 2006 (and may soon turn it back further, if he decides to scrap the Renewable Energy Target too). That’s eight years wasted.

Although Australia currently has one of the most anti-climate governments, the story is pretty similar around the world: lots of talk, not much action.

While we’ve been squabbling over the carbon tax, Australia has been expanding its largest contribution to climate change: fossil fuel exports. Just a fortnight ago, the Abbott government approved Adani’s Carmichael coal mine in Queensland, which will produce four times the emissions of New Zealand. (You can sign a petition against the mine here.)

The newspapers make much of the fact that Palmer, and his ally Ricky Muir from the Motoring Enthusiasts, have chosen to distance themselves from Abbott’s agenda of total climate deregulation by supporting the continuation of selected existing climate institutions. But to me, when a coal mining billionaire and a motoring enthusiast are being most proactive in saving Australia’s existing climate policies, it’s an indication of just how inadequate those policies really are.

And don’t believe the hype about Palmer’s proposed emissions trading scheme (ETS). Even if it does get up when Parliament resumes late this month, its $0 carbon price will achieve zero. Emissions trading generally is in my view a highly dubious policy mechanism: intended to minimize costs for polluting companies, and full of incomprehensibly complex loopholes which can hide increasing emissions by shuffling carbon permits around. Any less-than-perfect ETS can actually prevent climate action.

The Greens knew this in 2009, when then-leader Bob Brown marched behind a banner reading “Climate emergency: Carbon trading won’t work, 100% renewable energy will”. Yet the Greens continue to advocate an ETS, even after losing votes over their association with Labor.

If the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result, it would be insane to continue with the failed strategy of campaigning for half-measures. It does not help build support for real action, it only neutralizes public concern by greenwashing government, and makes our industry opponents appear reasonable by moving the perceived political centre toward them. It is long past time to stop sucking up to governments.

One reason many Australians opposed the carbon tax was because they knew it would make little difference to greenhouse gas emissions. If instead we advocate strong policies which clearly make a demonstrable difference, public support for climate action should get much stronger, whereas the opposition from industry cannot get much stronger than it already is. The Greens might as well have used their stint in the balance of power to demand the former Labor government declare a war on climate change, slash emissions within its three years, and start phasing out coal exports. It is difficult to imagine either party could have made themselves any less popular than they did by introducing a weak carbon tax.

It’s also time to stop wishing and hoping for “policy certainty”. Abbott’s and Palmer’s recent performances reinforce my argument that there will never be certainty in climate policy because of the fossil fuel lobby’s constant attempts to sabotage it. Contrary to the popular adage about death and taxes, not even taxes are certain in climate policy.

Instead of aiming for policy certainty, we need policies that will make a meaningful difference in the short, medium, and long terms, without requiring certainty that the policy will survive. We need a government plan to save our climate, and if the business lobby doesn’t like that, cry me a river. They had their chance to get out of fossil fuels 25 years ago, but instead they’ve chosen to deny the problem and sabotage government responses. They’ve made their bed and they can lie in it.

And as for all you businesspeople who say you are waiting for policy certainty before you act? Here’s an idea: just take the ethical route and divest from fossil fuels. You’ll probably be better off in the long run.

We can’t afford to waste another eight years messing around with incremental demands. While Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce crows that the repeal happened on a cold day, we’re already seeing worse heatwaves, droughts, floods, and fires that are costing Australian lives. The greenhouse gases already in the air, unless we can find a way to remove them, are set to cause further warming. And there’s a flood of warnings from scientific journals that we are already passing tipping points for dangerous amplifying feedbacks and impacts, such as the collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet which would eventually add six metres to global sea level.

Science tells us that to have any hope of preserving a safe and stable climate, we must leave most fossil fuels in the ground (in addition to seriously considering ways to remove existing CO2 from the atmosphere and cool the planet). This identifies both what would qualify as success and who is our enemy – the fossil fuel industry and its allies. Thus our central demand should not be merely “reinstate the carbon price”; it should be “leave fossil fuels in the ground”. The climate system operates according to the laws of physics and we cannot compromise with the laws of physics.

All the sound and fury of the carbon tax debate got us nowhere. It’s time to forget the carbon tax and campaign for real climate action. We have nothing to lose by doing so, and everything to lose if we don’t.

For an outline of a climate policy program that I would support, see here, and watch this space.

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