Rudd’s return: bad news for climate action?

I probably don’t need to tell Australian readers that Kevin Rudd has been reinstated as Prime Minister of Australia and leader of the Australian Labor Party, replacing Julia Gillard who succeeded him three years ago. I see Rudd’s return as a victory of appearance over substance, intuition over logic, personality over policy, treachery over teamwork, patriarchy over feminism, and megalomaniacal journalists over elected politicians. But most importantly, I fear it is a victory for the fossil fuel lobby over those who advocate urgent action to prevent climate catastrophe. It is perhaps fitting that Rudd chose to use the metaphor “cooking with gas” in his victory speech.

Don’t get me wrong: Gillard’s climate policies were pretty awful – but better than all that came before her. Most pertinently, they were an improvement on the climate policies of the first Rudd government, which suggests it is unlikely we can expect any positive changes from the second Rudd government.

Although I was too young to vote in the 2007 election, if I had had a vote I probably would have voted Labor, because I misguidedly believed Rudd would take serious action on climate change. For the first two years of Rudd’s government, I felt reassured the Government knew what it was doing and had the problem under control. Rudd accepted the science of climate change, and gave grand speeches about the need for action, while the opposing (conservative) Liberal Party tended towards denial. I assumed the Rudd Government believed its rhetoric.

I was right about the Liberals, but I was wrong about Rudd, because he turned out to be the worst type of climate change denier: a greenwasher. He attempted to legislate an emissions trading scheme (ETS) which set weak targets diluted by dubious international offsets and unnecessary compensation to polluting industries. The scheme’s most fundamental flaw was that it would have locked in Rudd’s pathetic targets for at least five years, and a target range for fifteen years.

Rudd’s policy was repeatedly blocked by the Senate – by the Liberals because they generally oppose any action, and by the Greens because of the policy’s locked-in targets and numerous other flaws. Still Rudd refused to even talk to the Greens during the last year of his Prime Ministership. For Rudd, emissions targets were non-negotiable. Finally, when he could have called an election to resolve the deadlock, in 2010 he chose (on Gillard’s advice) to shelve the legislation, demonstrating he didn’t really believe in his own policy, let alone real climate action.

Just two months later, Rudd was sacked by his party and Gillard was appointed Prime Minister. Labor politicians later explained Rudd was removed because his leadership had become increasingly autocratic and erratic.

At the 2010 election, Gillard formed a minority government with the Greens and several independent MPs. They negotiated and legislated a new improved carbon price policy. While it contains many of the same flaws as Rudd’s version, it does not immediately lock in targets. In Gillard’s version, the price is fixed until July 2015, then in February 2014 the ongoing Caps and Targets Review by the independent Climate Change Authority (CCA) will recommend rolling-five-year targets, the Government will have to justify any deviation from its advice, and the Parliament will have the chance to scrutinize and the power to disallow those targets (with default one-year targets applying if necessary).

For three years, Rudd has undermined the Gillard government by plotting his comeback and (allegedly) “backgrounding” political reporters about said plotting. Rudd officially challenged Gillard’s leadership three times: in February 2012, in March 2013, and finally yesterday, on the Parliament’s penultimate sitting day. The third time he got lucky.

Notably, Gillard’s Climate Change Minister Greg Combet resigned after Rudd’s takeover. It is unclear who will succeed him, though I notice Rudd has already appointed his former Climate Change Minister, Penny Wong, as leader of the Senate. Also, Rob Oakeshott and Tony Windsor, the two independent MPs who negotiated the carbon price with Labor and the Greens, are retiring. Although I had myriad disagreements with Gillard, Combet, and Oakeshott, Australian climate policy seems unlikely to get any better in their absence.

Rudd’s ascension was not challenged by the Parliament today, the last sitting day. Unless Rudd delays the election date, it looks like from here Australia effectively goes into an election campaign. So Rudd presumably won’t be able to do anything before the election, which will now be fought between Rudd and the Liberals’ Tony Abbott. If Abbott wins, he has vowed to abolish the carbon price and almost all of Australia’s other climate policies. What would Rudd do if he wins?

Strangely, Rudd has given few indications of what policy direction he intends to take. However, he has hinted he would attempt to turn the clock back to the climate policy he tried to legislate in 2009 by bringing forward the transition to an ETS, something business lobby groups have been agitating for. That would reverse Gillard’s main concession to the Greens (the creation of CCA), and lock in a meaningless emissions target, international offsets, and a low carbon price until 2020. Rudd would need to pass legislation to do so, but this could be possible if Labor wins control of both houses of Parliament, or if the Liberals collude with them (which they might be able to spin as fulfilling their repeal promise).

When asked about the carbon price in Question Time today, Rudd responded:

Carbon pricing has been a policy of this government since I went to the election prior to 2007. It was also, I seem to remember, the policy of those opposite. I might have had a little sort of memory lapse there but I seem to remember Mr Howard and various other ministers including the member for Wentworth standing up to defend the importance of carbon pricing through an Emissions Trading Scheme.

This sounds like a similar word game to the one former Liberal leader Malcolm Turnbull played on Q&A last year: keep the “carbon price”, axe the “carbon tax” (ie. fixed price).

I expect Rudd will begin to make more definitive policy announcements shortly, so watch this space. In the meantime, one thing is clear: it is now more important than ever to support the Greens, to ensure Australia’s present climate policies remain in place and can be built on.

With all the above said, I would be very happy to be proved wrong. I have already signed this petition calling on Kevin Rudd to take action on climate change, and emailed him advising exactly what he should do on climate policy. The text of my email is reproduced below:

Subject: Don’t weaken climate policy

Dear Prime Minister,

Congratulations on becoming Prime Minister for the second time.

I am a young person concerned about climate change. I supported you at the 2007 election because you promised to act on climate change, which you rightly described as the greatest moral challenge of our time. More recently, I am on record as strongly criticizing you, but I am willing to be proved wrong.

I implore you not to weaken Australian climate policies in any way. In particular, I implore you to rule out bringing forward the transition from a fixed carbon price to an emissions trading scheme. I have been deeply concerned by statements that you have made in the last 16 months which could be interpreted to mean you might consider such a course of action. If you do this, you will irrevocably destroy your credibility on climate change.

You have acknowledged that you made mistakes during your first Prime Ministership. Those mistakes included many aspects of the design of the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme. Those mistakes remain in the form of policy time-bombs set to go off when the carbon price becomes an ETS:

  • The lock-in of the ludicrously weak 5% emissions target, until the end of what the Climate Commission rightly describes as the Critical Decade, would actively prevent ambitious climate action in Australia. No target should be set before the Climate Change Authority has completed its Caps and Targets Review, which is presently underway.
  • International offsets would displace domestic emissions cuts, unfairly shift the burden of Australia’s emissions target to other countries, and (particularly in the case of baseline-and-credit schemes) be a breeding ground for flawed or fraudulent accounting. International offsets only appear cheap because they allow Australian companies to go on polluting.
  • Allowing international offsets, combined with the present state of international carbon markets, would cause the Australian carbon price to crash to merely a few dollars per tonne, undermining the incentive to decarbonize. A higher carbon price is superior to a lower one, because it means a more stringent penalty for pollution and a stronger incentive for investment in zero-carbon technology and energy efficiency. The international carbon markets to which many business lobbyists compare Australia have collapsed because they are badly designed, which is no reason for Australia to follow their example.
  • As currently designed, Australia’s ETS would treat non-equivalent types of emissions and abatement as equivalent, and is unlikely to deem the most important places to cut emissions as the cheapest. It is most important and urgent to phase out fossil fuel CO2 emissions, the largest and longest-lived cause global warming.

Under present climate policies, Australia’s emissions are beginning to decrease. If your government chooses to rush straight to an ETS without defusing the time-bombs, it would stop the present emissions reduction in its tracks and allow emissions to rise instead. That would arguably be an even worse outcome than Tony Abbott simply repealing the policy.

Instead of weakening the carbon price as described above, you should strengthen the carbon price to ensure it drives decarbonization in the long term, by taking the following actions:

  • Allow the Caps and Targets Review to proceed to its conclusion (scheduled for February 2014).
  • Fix the ETS time-bombs by May 2014 (the scheduled date for setting targets):
    • Set much deeper emissions targets, unconditional on international action.
    • Allow zero international offsets.
    • Reinstate the carbon floor price.
    • Consider compartmentalizing the ETS by sector and/or greenhouse gas and prioritizing fossil fuel CO2 emissions cuts.
  • Alternately, if it is politically impossible to dismantle the time bombs by May 2014, indefinitely extend the fixed price period. An imperfect fixed price is preferable to a disastrous ETS.
  • Announce the government has decided to stop compensating “emissions-intensive trade-exposed” industries from 2018 (or sooner if legally possible). EITE compensation is not really protecting Australian jobs and competitiveness, because the countries most competitive in the future will be those least dependent on fossil fuels.
  • Immediately cut the free permits for coal-fired generators (which has been proven unnecessary by the decline in Australian electricity demand) and other fossil fuel subsidies (which outweigh the carbon price signal).
  • Introduce new policies to further accelerate decarbonization (eg. feed-in tariffs, an increased Renewable Energy Target, a new plan to close coal power plants). However, do not promote investment in natural gas (because it would lock in fossil fuel infrastructure for decades) or carbon capture and storage (because it is unlikely to be deployed on a global scale for decades).
  • Broaden the government’s attention from only cutting Australia’s domestic emissions and start also phasing out its fossil fuel exports (because international trade means countries have overlapping responsibility for emissions in a world without an ambitious global climate agreement).
  • In global climate talks, abandon the strategy of conditional targets (which has failed to influence other countries to raise their ambition).

Your position on climate change policy will affect my vote.

Yours sincerely,

James Wight

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