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Nov 08 2011

Clean Energy Bill only the beginning

Today the Australian Parliament passed the Multi-Party Climate Change Committee’s Clean Energy Bill. Despite my reservations about the bill, I am pleased to see it finally made law. It is also satisfying to see the Liberal-National Coalition defeated (at least for now) in their crusade against climate action. However, the work of the climate movement has only just begun.

The bill establishes a carbon price which will later become an emissions trading scheme. The policy is admittedly pretty awful and riddled with flaws, but unlike Labor’s old Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme I can at least say it is better than nothing. As before, Labor intends to “reduce” Australia’s emissions mainly by switching power generation to natural gas and buying carbon offsets from overseas, both of which I consider extremely dubious. However, the Greens and independents Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott have worked hard to tangibly improve the policy, to the point where it can be considered a first step towards a renewable energy future. These farsighted crossbenchers have won unprecedented, independently-managed renewable energy funding; and built in regular independent reviews which provide opportunities to lift Australia’s ambition later on.

Now we need to work on building support for that greater ambition. As I was drafting this post, I was encouraged to notice a post by Christine Milne on the Greens website titled “The carbon price is law. Now begins the campaign for serious climate action!” which mentions several things the Greens intend to lobby for in 2012 and beyond. Here are some of my own ideas.

Although the first independent review of the carbon price is not until February 2014, there is plenty more that can be achieved in the current Parliament.

Firstly, we should support the growing grassroots movement against coal seam gas. In a recent unexpected development, Tony Windsor has tied his support for the Government’s mining tax to funding for research on coal seam gas impacts. If we can get some anti-coal-seam-gas legislation through the Parliament, that would slow down the dash to gas.

Secondly, we must support the Clean Energy Finance Corporation (CEFC) and campaign for it to be ideally implemented. We should all support the Australian Youth Climate Coalition’s current Repower Australia petition, which aims to make the exact same improvements to the CEFC that I personally would make.

Thirdly, we need to build at least one concentrating solar power plant. This more than anything will debunk the baseload myth in the public mind.

Fourthly, we need to remove the remaining subsidies and incentives for fossil fuel burning, and instead spend that money and effort on renewable energy. If the carbon price is the first step, then one possible next step is a national feed-in tariff for large-scale renewable energy. We should also campaign for Australia’s Renewable Energy Target (currently 20% by 2020) to be retained and increased. And we must cut the billions of dollars of tax loopholes for fossil fuels.

In terms of messaging, we should replace our current message of “Say Yes” to a carbon price with a pro-renewable, anti-gas-fired energy message. Most political insiders are deluded that renewable energy is too expensive and unreliable, while natural gas is “clean energy”. In reality, we need to replace fossil fuel energy as soon as possible; gas is part of the problem and renewable energy is the central solution. (UPDATE: I have revised and clarified my thoughts on this point here.)

Looking beyond the current electoral cycle, the climate movement really needs to get serious. By the time the first Climate Change Authority review rolls around, we need to build public support for emissions reduction targets consistent with global action that will not just slow, but stop and reverse the rise of atmospheric carbon dioxide. We must ensure the emissions trading scheme to commence in 2015 is not compromised by offsets and other loopholes. We need to scrap the free permits for polluters, though unfortunately the Clean Energy Bill makes this impossible to achieve before mid-2017.

In the long term we must build a movement not just in favor of renewables but also against fossil fuels. This is currently outside political reality, but if we don’t try to shift the political reality then nobody else will. Australian government and businesses plan to continue generating our electricity from and exporting to Asia an exponentially increasing amount of fossil fuels. We will need massive public support to overcome the massive profit motive and force government and businesses to change their plans. We should lobby banks not to fund fossil fuel investments. Our long-term goals should include a ban on new coal-fired and gas-fired power plants, and phasing out fossil fuel exports.

Beyond Zero Emissions is designing a comprehensive plan for Australia to transition to a zero-carbon economy in ten years, debunking the argument that it cannot be done. They have already completed a plan for a zero-carbon electricity sector. It is expected to be finished by 2013, so could be implemented by as early as 2023 if we can build the political will. Australia must make this transition as rapidly as possible, then we can export zero-carbon technologies to the world. Australia’s first concentrating solar power plant will be critical to building support for such a plan.

Of course, the most obvious thing we must do is defend the Clean Energy Bill against the Liberal-National Coalition’s threat of repeal. Unfortunately it appears near-inevitable that the Coalition will win the next election; the worst opinion polls this year put Labor’s vote at its lowest in eight decades. So we probably cannot keep the Coalition out of government, but if we can discredit them we might make them unpopular enough to not win control of the Senate. On the other hand, we should not get too close to Labor. In campaigning for real climate action, we must take the Government to task for its greenwash.

Over the summer I will have more to say about mistakes which I think the Australian climate movement has made – stay tuned. But today is the day to savor the small, limited victory that we have won in 2011.

3 comments

  1. Anonymous

    Agree. We now need to see some meaningful outcomes on a landmark, base load generation project to show everyone it can work.

  2. Erica F (@enviro_writer)

    Hi James,

    Your fine-tuned analysis of the bill is enlightening. I’ve just joined a group here in the US, Citizens Climate Lobby, that’s pushing for a carbon tax (fee and dividend, specifically). Your comment about trying to shift the political reality was echoed in the group’s conference call last night when someone expressed doubt about such legislation passing. The organizer told us that “we’re generating a new reality,” not working within the existing framework. It’s a great way to look at it.

    Anyway, I have my own blog on on enviro issues and if you’re interested, I would love to have you as a guest blogger one day. Perhaps advice for those of us trying to pass legislation in the US? Lessons-learned from the political battle waged? BTW, I recently referenced your previous post in an article I wrote for Daily Kos:
    http://www.dailykos.com/story/2011/11/17/1037426/-Becoming-a-Soldier-for-the-Carbon-Tax

    Keep up the good work,
    Erica

    1. jameswight.wordpress.com

      Hi Erica,

      As it happens, I have been privately critical of the strategy pursued by the Australian climate movement in the last year or so. So I’m not at all sure you should emulate us! As I allude to above, I intend to write more on strategy, but here are some of my thoughts.

      In the hope of winning a victory, however small, the movement has made itself very pragmatic and politically palatable. We have united under a big tent (figuratively speaking) with the ultra-simplistic message “Say yes to a price on pollution”, with little discussion of complexities which really matter (eg. all the flaws I discussed in my previous post; or the matter of cap-and-trade versus fee-and-dividend versus non-pricing mechanisms).

      This strategy, flawed as I believe it to be, has now succeeded in winning us a limited victory: the passage of the Clean Energy Bill. But now that strategy has served its purpose, I think it is time to return to explaining the true urgency of mitigating climate change and advocating the scale of action that is truly required. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t also support pragmatic improvements, but we should explain where they fall short.

      One potential lesson is that “political reality” is the net result of all advocacy. So taking a stronger position shifts the political reality toward us, while giving in to the current reality shifts it further away from us. In Australia, as the voices of climate activists have grown lighter and softer, the voices of polluting industries have grown louder and shriller. Similarly in the US, as Obama has ceased to talk about climate change, the Republicans have effectively adopted denial as their party’s position. (Of course, it is difficult to say what is the direction of causation.) On the other hand, hopefully our pragmatic victory will act as a “foot in the door” to change the Australian political landscape.

      I realise my rambling is probably not very helpful – I’ve been thinking more about the Australian context than the US context. I’m not sure how to apply it all to the US; your politics is even worse than ours, and that’s saying something. In a nutshell, the Australian climate movement has followed a pragmatic, big-tent, wedge strategy. This approach has advantages and disadvantages, and in my opinion is now past its use-by date in Australia. It’s shown that pragmatism can win small victories, but also risks losing sight of the larger goal.

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