Why 2013 will be a pivotal year for climate

This is the second part of a two-part series about the Greens’ pragmatic strategy on climate action. Part 1 reviews how the strategy has fared so far. This part examines the possible outcomes in 2013.

2013 will be a pivotal year for Australian climate policy, and the test of the Greens’ pragmatic strategy. By the end of 2013, we should know whether the Greens have succeeded in leveraging their agreement with Labor to get ambitious climate action in Australia, or if the business lobby will succeed in sabotaging it.

Key events in 2013 and beyond include:

  • March 2013: COAG Taskforce on Regulatory and Competition Reform reports to BAF/COAG
  • March 2013: Rumored Rudd leadership challenge

Assuming Gillard remains leader:

  • April 2013: Caps and Targets Review Issues Paper outlines scope and calls for submissions
  • June 2013: Deadline for government to respond to RET Review
  • July 2013: Carbon price increases to $24.15/tonne
  • July 2013: CEFC begins funding
  • September 2013: Election

Assuming Labor is reelected:

  • September 2013: Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Working Group I Fifth Assessment Report (IPCC WGI AR5)
  • October 2013: Caps and Targets Review Draft Report released for public consultation
  • February 2014: Caps and Targets Review Final Report recommends emissions caps for 2015-16 to 2019-20
  • May 2014: Deadline for government to respond to Caps and Targets Review and table regulations to set emissions caps for 2015-16 to 2019-20
  • July 2014: Senators elected in 2013 take their seats
  • July 2014: Carbon price increases to $25.40/tonne
  • October 2014: IPCC AR5 Synthesis Report
  • July 2015: Carbon price becomes an ETS
  • June 2020: End of first set of emissions caps

If Rudd regains the Labor leadership and Labor goes on to win the election, I fear he would attempt to turn the clock back to 2009 by reversing the main concession the Greens secured in the MPCCC negotiations (the creation of CCA) and locking a meaningless target and low price for many years to come. He would need to pass legislation to do so, but this could be possible if Labor controls both houses of Parliament or if the Liberals collude with them like in 2009 (which might occur, say, if Malcolm Turnbull is reinstated as Liberal leader).

If Tony Abbott’s Liberals win the election, they would attempt to turn the clock back to 2006 by abolishing the carbon price, CEFC, CCA, and the Department of Climate Change. They can do this if they either immediately win control of the Senate or go on to win a double dissolution, which would not be difficult based on present polling. The Clean Energy Future, instead of being a first step, would become a footnote in Australian history. The Liberals might even turn the clock back to 2000 by abolishing the RET. Their Emissions Reduction Fund is a complete joke. The only potential positive I can foresee from a Liberal government is that environmentalists might be less likely to suck up to it.

The pragmatic strategy has relatively more chance of success if Gillard remains in power, because Gillard has proven willing to negotiate with the Greens. But even under Gillard’s leadership the future looks bleak. It looks like COAG is on track to abolish most if not all pre-CEF climate policies. The government has not yet responded to the RET Review, so even the RET may be at risk at COAG. If this does indeed occur, it will leave Australia even more reliant on the CEF to cut its emissions. Yet the carbon price as currently designed is full of holes which render it ineffective, and Labor still clings to its meaningless 5%-by-2020 target. However, CCA may provide an avenue for climate campaigners to persuade Labor to set a real target and plug the holes.

The creation of the CCA was probably the biggest reason I supported the CEF. So far CCA is turning out to be disappointingly ordinary, if its RET Review’s less-than-satisfactory recommendations are any guide. Several board members have potential conflicts of interest. (For example, Heather Ridout led the Australian Industry Group (AIG) for 30 years, arguing business needs a carbon tax like “a hole in the head”, the $23 price is too high, and polluter compensation too low. On Q&A in November, Ridout continued to parrot industry talking points, using Australia’s climate policies to justify unrestrained fossil fuel exports, disputing climate change is “the greatest moral challenge of our generation”, claiming the CPRS was better than the CEF, saying Australia is doing “more than its share”, and describing the RET as “expensive”.) Nevertheless, as a relatively new body CCA may still be open-minded.

The Caps and Targets Review, which began just last week, is pivotal because it will recommend emissions caps for 2015-16 to 2019-20. (Note that even if CCA recommends ambitious targets, their effectiveness will be determined by other decisions about the design of the policy, so CCA must think beyond the technical scope of the Review.) The government will have to justify any deviation from CCA’s advice, and the Parliament will have the chance to scrutinize and the power to disallow the government’s emissions caps (with a default one-year cap to apply if they are disallowed). At that time the Senate will still have its current composition, but again Labor might be able to pass weak targets if the Liberals support it. If that happens, 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. On the other hand, if CCA makes a strong recommendation and Parliament approves it, the Greens’ pragmatic strategy will have succeeded.

Based on the above analysis, it looks like an awful lot like Abbott, Rudd, and Gillard represent business lobby plans A, B, and C. The fossil fuel lobby wants to push Australian climate policy back to where it was in 2009, 2006, or 2000. I will speculate on what a Prime Minister Turnbull might do in another post, and any other candidate who emerges is an unknown quantity; but judging from past experience I cannot say I have confidence in any major party politician to stand up for climate action.

Of course, any Prime Minister needs Parliament to pass legislation, and the Greens will be the wild card in any candidate’s devious plans. The most important thing in the September election is for the Greens to increase their representation in Parliament and retain the balance of power in at least one house. Another minority government would be ideal but seems unlikely, so the Senate is probably more important. Admittedly being in balance of power is of little use when the two major parties collude to protect the fossil fuel industry, as they tend to do, but the more seats the Greens have, the better.

Thus the pragmatic strategy of the Australian Greens and climate movement has to pass at least four difficult hurdles in the next 18 months: Rudd must not regain the Labor leadership; the Liberals must not win the election; the Climate Change Authority must recommend ambitious targets and fixing the loopholes; and Parliament must approve CCA’s recommendations. Any other outcome would be a vindication of the lonely few who argued against the pragmatic approach. So why has the Australian climate movement pinned all our hopes on it?

If the pragmatic strategy fails, the Australian climate movement has no plan B (on the contrary, we are neglecting to speak out against the BAF/COAG plan to cut all the policies that could have taken up the slack if the CEF fails or is abolished). Although I intend to campaign on the CCA review in an attempt to salvage the pragmatic strategy, it is now apparent that is a long shot. Therefore it is time to also start thinking about a radical Plan B.

We simply cannot rely on parliamentary politics to get the necessary scale and speed of climate action in Australia. No matter what the precise machinations of mainstream politicians, the result will almost certainly be a far cry from what is urgently needed. Presently no climate policy survives contact with the enemy, because the fossil fuel industry is just too powerful. We need to change the distribution of power. Citizens need to build a movement demanding real climate action from government: rapidly decarbonizing the Australian economy, fixing the loopholes in existing policies, phasing out our fossil fuel exports, and assisting poor countries to follow in our footsteps.

To inspire such a movement, we need louder, clearer communication to debunk the denial, underline the urgency, gainsay the greenwash, and advocate real action.

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