By Chris Johansen, GI Co-editor
Recent polls (e.g. Ipsos) are suggesting that action on climate change is a major issue for the 2019 Federal Election, with a majority of those surveyed wanting increased government action in this regard. Of course, The Greens have been banging on about this since the last century, so it is encouraging that the message is, finally, getting through. Realizing this increasing public awareness of climate change issues, The Labor Party Platform includes a seemingly comprehensive policy statement on climate change and renewable energy for this election. And the Coalition ‒ some signs of awareness from within their ranks but it essentially remains the COALition.
The easy bit first – the Coalition Policy on climate change and renewable energy. This is represented by the Liberal Party policy, as the Nationals don’t have anything specific about climate change on their 2019 policies website, which is not surprising as most of their spokespersons espouse denialism.
Any reference to climate change policy in the Liberal Party “Plan” is tucked away under their “environment” policy, second from the bottom of their policy list. Tellingly, the phrase “climate change” is not mentioned in their document, no doubt in deference to the climate denialists who still dominate their party. They claim that “Australia will meet its global emissions target (of 26% to 28% below 2005 levels by 2030)”, phrased not as a contribution to climate change mitigation but rather a UN obligation to which we signed up to (presumably in a weak moment!). Rather difficult in reality in view of the continuing rising trend of Australia’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and even with carryover carbon credits from the Kyoto protocol (i.e. creative accounting!). This 26-28% emissions reduction level falls far short of what would be required of a high per capita emitting nation like Australia.
The Liberals propose a “Climate Solutions Fund” to replace their ineffective Emissions Reduction Fund (Abbott’s tree planting exercise pretending to compensate increasing GHG emissions by capturing carbon via photosynthesis). This primarily aims at increasing energy efficiency rather than any substantive emissions reduction (like phasing out fossil fuels and arresting deforestation). They claim to be proceeding with “Snowy 2.0” to provide pumped hydro electricity storage, in the absence so far of credible environmental assessment and cost-benefit analysis (which is looking less promising with the emergence of ‘big battery’ systems). And, they want to further exploit Tasmania’s hydro-power resources, inevitably further threatening the Tasmanian environment.
They indicate that they have presided over, and appear to be taking credit for, the recent massive expansion of commercial scale renewable energy (solar and wind) and household solar panels. This has largely been supported by private or state funding. However, their ministers and members have repeatedly pooh-poohed these renewable energy sources in their defence of fossil fuel sources. And they claim to be developing a “National Electric Vehicle Strategy” despite their recent regular mocking of electric vehicles and their capabilities?!
The Liberal Party wants to lower power prices primarily by “big stick legislation to stop energy company rip offs”, rather than hastening the conversion to renewable energy. They claim a “technology neutral program to underwrite new reliable energy generation” but, according to their verbal pronouncements, blatantly favour continued and even increased coal and gas generation. They claim increasing reliance on renewable energy, as proposed by Labor, would cripple the economy – contrary to the calculations of most credible energy economists.
In summary, it is clear that the Coalition intend to continue their do-nothing, and even obstructionist, policy on climate change and transition to renewable energy. Their track record over the last five-and-a-half years that they have held government is clearly documented in the Climate Council’s latest publication - Climate Cuts, Cover-Ups and Censorship. The report concludes that: “The Federal Government lacks a credible climate policy, and there have been numerous instances of climate censorship, misleading claims and misleading accounting of greenhouse gas emissions over the past five years.”
However, while blatant climate denialists still populate the hard right core of the Coalition they seem to feel that, in view of current public sentiment, they can no longer get away with “climate science is crap” pronouncements. Some concessions are now made to the existence of climate change, and the renewable energy revolution now underway, but their main objective seems to be to slow the change process as much as can be gotten away with. This is undoubtedly related to the close ties between the Coalition and the fossil fuel industries – funding reliance and the revolving door between politics and those industries. It is clearly the Coalition’s objective to extract every last cent out of fossil fuel resources, while we can, irrespective of the plight of our grandkids.
For political parties claiming to be serious about action on climate change, the standard by which they are to be judged is considered to be the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5 °C of Oct 2018. This report presents the dire consequences of the planet heating beyond 1.5 °C, let alone 2 °C, which was the previously considered critical limit, considering we are currently at 1 °C above pre-industrial levels and rate of GHG emissions and consequent global warming has not slowed. Essentially the report suggests that substantive global action on climate change is needed by 2030 to remain below 1.5 °C if we are to avoid climate catastrophe. However, this report was drafted by numerous authors from many countries and is necessarily a ‘lowest common denominator’ assessment – things could be even worse than presented. Earlier UN-affiliated predictions of the onset of climate change have underestimated its rate of manifestation. Obviously, the Coalition totally disagrees with, or totally ignores, this report.
The Labor Party has a 20-page “Climate Change Action Plan” which, in its introduction, accepts the urgency of remaining below the 2 °C critical limit, but only with “a more qualified commitment around a 1.5 degree threshold”. The opening sentence claims that “the Labor Party is the only major party committed to real action on climate change.” The only assumption from this is that they do not consider The Greens to be a “major party”, whereas their Action Plan looks like something The Greens would have proposed near the beginning of this century, when concerns about climate change were less. However, for this election, The Greens have fashioned their stance on a renewable economy that tackles climate change in accordance with 1.5 °C critical limit and cognisant of the content of the 2018 IPCC Special Report. In the following we look at the major points of what Labor is proposing and compare that with the Greens stance and indeed the action required to stay below 1.5 °C.
Labor aims at “reducing Australia’s pollution by 45 percent on 2005 levels by 2030, and to reach net zero pollution by 2050.” While the Coalition passionately argues that this would ruin the economy The Greens are aiming at a 63-82% reduction by 2030 and zero emissions by 2040.
Labor wants 50% renewable energy (RE) for electricity generation by 2030, but The Greens want 100% by then. Actually, considering the rate of installation of RE in Australia over the last few years, we would be well beyond 50% RE by 2030 in a business-as-usual scenario, provided policy and legislative barriers do not prevent it (i.e. a continuation of Coalition policies). Technically, financially, and in the assessment of leading economist and climate change policy expert Professor Ross Garnaut (remember him), 100% RE is feasible ‒ and increasingly looking to be inevitable as relative cost of RE continues to fall.
Labor are again running with the Julia Gillard mantra of “There will be no carbon tax under the government I lead”. They say: “we won’t be introducing a carbon tax, carbon pricing mechanism or raising any revenue from climate policies.” Obviously still scared by Tony Abbott. By contrast, The Greens policy remains consistent – that pollution needs to be paid for – they would accordingly restore the price on carbon. Polite requests to industry to lower their pollution, as Labor proposes, seems extremely wishful, pie-in-the-sky, thinking.
Labor will extend the Safeguard Limits on GHG emissions by large industries, established by the Coalition, by requiring large industries to purchase offsets if their emissions exceed a certain baseline. Such offsets would be in the form of tree-planting, etc. However, this essentially allows GHG emissions to continue, relatively unabated, when what is required is both emissions reduction as well as revegetation. The rise in GHG emissions since the repeal of the Labor-Greens carbon tax illustrates that a price on pollution would be much more effective than the intended cajoling of big polluters and use of offsets.
Although the Labor plan extols emissions reduction and conversion to RE, there remains an elephant in their room. That is, how they are going to phase out the major emissions sources of fossil fuels. The plan does propose adequate transitioning of coal industry workers into alternative employment, which is strongly supported by The Greens, and indicates the inevitable closure of coal-fired power plants but without giving timelines. The Greens propose phasing out of coal by 2030, including the 80% of coal that is exported. Labor still sees natural gas as a ‘transition fuel’, apparently not recognizing its contributions to GHG emissions, especially fugitive emissions of methane. The Greens propose an immediate ban on further exploration for coal, oil and gas, onshore and offshore and with or without fracking. Labor opposes this through reasons of sovereign risk, employment losses and diminished tax and royalties – the basic answer to this is that are these things worth more than the damage to be caused by ongoing exploitation of these fossil fuels?
It seems that Labor is going for a two-bob-each-way bet, on the one hand lauding the transition to RE but on the other hand suggesting that fossil fuel burning will continue at pace well into the future.
Both Labor and The Greens want to stimulate the uptake of electric vehicles (EVs), charged from renewable energy, but to different degrees and means. Labor desires 50% EV sales by 2030 (Norway has already passed that level!); and for government purchases of EVs by 2025. The Greens want sales of internal combustion engine vehicles stopped by 2030. Labor aims to introduce vehicle emission standards in line with 105g CO2/km for light vehicles (as already applies in most advanced economies). The Greens want this standard to be in full effect by 2022. Labor says there will be no fossil fuel tax or removal of subsidies (e.g. on diesel). The Greens want to shift subsidies from fossil fuels to EVs; they want a 20% tax on luxury internal combustion engine cars to allow removal of registration and other fees on EVs.
Labor sees reduction of GHG emissions from the land (farms, forest and other natural vegetation) as a means of gaining offsets, which polluting organizations can buy to allow them to keep on polluting. This is a false perception as the state of the climate is such that we need to both reduce emissions and capture as much carbon in vegetation as possible, not use photosynthesis as a permit to pollute. In any case it is extremely difficult to calculate carbon sequestration by vegetation that will last, due to such difficulties as calculating longevity of soil organic matter, potential damage by bushfires and unpredictable removal of vegetation. The Greens on the other hand want to establish a national Environmental Protection Agency that would regulate emissions, such as from land clearing, excessive soil tillage, methane from ruminants, etc. and encourage photosynthetic carbon sequestration.
All parties want to reduce electricity prices but both Labor and the Coalition support the privatization of the generation and distribution of electricity, as has happened over recent decades. This has, inevitably, led to price gouging and is one of the main reasons for high electricity costs. The Greens believe that this situation can be remedied by returning the electricity market to not-for-profit public ownership. They propose to do this by establishing “Power Australia”.
The delay in, and antipathy towards, climate change action in Australia, as well as globally, can largely be attributed to effective lobbying (directly and via supportive media) by the fossil fuel industry, trying to protect their investments and shore up future profits. The Labor Party, almost as much as the Coalition, has been the subject of attention of this industry through political donations and the revolving door between politics and that industry. A huge difference between Labor and the Greens in climate policy is that the latter explicitly state that this must cease, if we are to avoid climate catastrophe. The Labor Party is also subject to pressure by unions whose members largely work in fossil fuel industries. This also results in their ambiguity in policy about phasing out of fossil fuels.
Despite the above-highlighted differences however, Labor and Greens agree on the need to:
- Set up a hydrogen economy, for local use as well as for export of renewable energy to Asia;
- Revitalize ARENA (Australian Renewable Energy Agency, which funds innovation and shares knowledge, accelerating Australia's shift to a renewable energy future) and CEFC (Clean Energy Finance Corporation, which mobilises capital investment in renewable energy, low-emission technology and energy efficiency in Australia);
- Establish policy certainty so as to allow rational investment in clean energy options; both parties want to establish or restore administrative and policy structures to manage and oversee the transition to renewable energy, albeit by different methods;
- Proactively promote energy efficiency (which is a no-brainer for all, even climate sceptics);
- Make renewable energy more accessible to low income groups (e.g. community schemes);
- To restore Australia’s global credibility with respect to action on climate change by more realistically engaging with IPCC recommendations and UN climate initiatives, and increasing overseas aid related to climate change mitigation, adaptation and recovery from extreme climate-induced events.
The above comparison between parties broadly matches the scorecard prepared by the Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF) – the Coalition got 4/100, Labor 56/100 and the Greens 99/100. In other words, the Coalition are virtually a complete write-off when it comes to any meaningful action on climate change, Labor are half serious but restrained by their ongoing ties with fossil fuel organizations and unions with ties to fossil fuel industries, and The Greens are basing their policy on what the IPCC Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5 °C of Oct 2018 demands. However, The Greens are not going to form government, and the best that can be hoped for would be a balance of power situation with Labor, like during 2010-13 when The Greens did have a big say in establishing and implementing climate policy. However, if Labor wins with a working majority, we just have to further and more imaginatively step up advocacy. If the Coalition wins, then we’re cooked.
Header photo: Graffiti in London probably made by Banksy. Creative Commons
[Opinions expressed are those of the author and not official policy of Greens WA]