Stop saying yes: A not-so-clean energy future

This is the second in a series of posts about the Australian climate movement.

The Clean Energy Future policy negotiated by the Multi-Party Climate Change Committee falls far short of what is required, and is riddled with flaws. The $23 carbon tax in isolation will not drive the transition to a zero-carbon economy. The true cost of emitting a tonne of CO2 is probably far higher than $23; indeed it could be up to US$893 (AU$906). A price of perhaps $100 might be required to make renewable energy cheaper than fossil fuels. $23 is so low it risks driving investment in polluting gas-fired electricity rather than renewable energy. It is supposed to rule out new coal-fired power plants, but the Government has not explicitly banned them. The biggest polluters will receive absurd amounts of compensation, propping up unsustainable industries. The complementary policies which the Greens extracted from Labor should help start the transition, presuming they are implemented – though unfortunately some CEFC funding will go to non-zero-carbon projects, and I am concerned the coal plants which are closed could be replaced with gas-fired plants (or even, in one case, a new coal-fired plant!).

How does the Clean Energy Future compare to Labor’s original CPRS? Treasury projections of the policy’s effects are very similar. The modeling predicts virtually no change in domestic emissions by 2050, with the 2050 target of an 80% reduction being supposedly met by international offsets. Contrary to Liberal Party leader Tony Abbott’s claim “the carbon tax is the death of the coal industry”, fossil fuels would still supply the majority of Australia’s electricity by the mid-2030s, after which the Government hopes its pipe dream of carbon capture and storage (CCS) will come true so fossil fuels can still dominate in 2050. Of course, this is an improvement on business-as-usual, in which Australia’s emissions would have risen about 80% by 2050, but it’s utterly inadequate at a time when all countries need to get to zero emissions well before 2050.

On the day of the Clean Energy Future announcement, Greens climate change spokesperson Christine Milne said it and the CPRS were “so different it’s like comparing chalk and cheese”, because targets will now be recommended by the Climate Change Authority and because of the new complementary policies. Yet Labor Climate Change Minister Greg Combet gloated on The 7:30 Report on 8 November: “Consider some of the things [the Greens] voted against on the last occasion in the CPRS; there are some remarkable similarities with what’s contained in the Clean Energy Future package: for example, the support for emissions-intensive trade-exposed businesses or coal-fired generators.”

So who is right: Milne or Combet? Although Combet is right to point out the initial form of the Clean Energy Future closely resembles the CPRS, Milne is correct in that the Greens have largely removed the barriers to improving the policy later. The CPRS would have actively prevented Australia from shifting off the path projected by Treasury. The Clean Energy Future at least keeps the door open, with built-in independent reviews of almost every aspect. And the Climate Change Authority will be required to consider climate science in recommending emissions targets.

On the other hand, a situation is foreseeable in which a majority of the Parliament agrees to lock in weak targets until 2019 or beyond (this might occur if Labor controls both houses or colludes with the Liberals). If we do end up in such a situation, it is unclear whether it would be constitutionally possible to later reduce the number of emissions permits; any attempt to do so might be legally challenged as an acquisition of property.

I credit the Greens with the positive aspects of the policy. How much they should be blamed for its numerous negative aspects is a question I’ll come back to after looking at how the broader climate movement has behaved.

In Part 3, I discuss the debacle of the “Say Yes” campaign.

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