It is really the LNP government over the last six years that should have been making the run on climate change mitigation, but it has done nothing apart from giving handouts-Direct Action–to certain favoured recipients. Any efforts it might have made on climate change mitigation were completely derailed by Tony Abbott when he became prime minister and his extreme denialist attitude continues to the present day.
Does the LNP compare with what the ALP has done both within and without government? The short answer is that it has done nothing and has truly taken the country backwards in refusing to take climate science seriously. In doing this it has helped break down public confidence in the work of climate scientists, and has strongly encouraged the continual extraction and export of fossil fuel. As with the ALP, but with much greater intensity, the LNP has siloed the climate change problem as merely one amongst many facing the country. It has not recognized that if left to continue as business as usual the negative transformations in the environment and the lessening of the various Australian eco-systems will progressively overwhelm all other problems. In truth for the LNP climate change–it does not see it as a climate crisis–is basically a problem of energy supply, and virtually nothing else.
After repealing the carbon price in July 2014 the Abbott government advocated something it called Direct Action, a scheme first mooted in 2010. The stated aim of the original 2010 Direct Action Plan was to reduce Australia’s emissions by 5% by 2020 compared to 1990 levels. At best it was ultra modest–and recent figures show it would not even have reached the inadequately low figures outlined in the Paris agreement–and essentially involved giving handouts to large corporations to reduce their carbon emissions. The result has been that carbon emissions have continued to rise since it was introduced.
The other major initiative of the LNP was the Turnbull inspired National Energy Guarantee. It was to have applied the recommendations of a lengthy report issued by the Energy Security Board in August 2018, working under the auspices of the COAG Energy Council. This meant that it would have been an initiative both of the states and the federal government. Its intention was to integrate low emissions technologies and reliable energy supply.
Above all, though, it was a to be a market based scheme intended to encourage an environment of stability for new investment into the future whilst guaranteeing sufficient energy to feed Australia’s needs. At the time of the report’s release it was criticized for not going far enough to reduce emissions, but it was utterly savaged by the right of the LNP, the dominant faction in the party, to be dropped when Turnbull was deposed as prime minister. At the least it was attempting to integrate energy and climate policy, even given its inadequacy in lowering carbon emissions. For all that, it did represent a start from a very low base, on the basis of which more ambitious strategies might have been applied.
Turning to the policy statements of the two coalition parties we find precious little. On p.1 of the Liberal Party’s Protecting Our Environment (May 2019) we are confronted with this motherhood statement: “Australia will meet its global emissions target (of 26% to 28% below 2005 levels by 2030).” And it continues: “We have an obligation to protect our environment for future generations. We must also ensure a strong economy, so the next generation can find jobs.” This is followed by a few proposals about $2 billion Climate Solutions Fund, the construction of Snowy 2, making Tasmania the “Battery of the Nation”, developing a national electric vehicle strategy and “helping households and businesses improve energy efficiency.” None of this is spelled out in any detail, unlike the policy statements of both the ALP and the Greens where the stated policies are supplemented by practical suggestions for their implementation.
The National Party has produced a document entitled “Protecting our local way of life for future generations.” (2019) Given their putative constituency it makes some brief headline statements on sustainable agriculture, the retention of jobs in regional towns and centres, and drought relief. It contains no figures of cuts for carbon emissions to be achieved at any given time, nor any practical proposals for implementation of its motherhood proposals. One does not even have to read between the lines to appreciate the vacuity of this document. It does however mention biodiversity twice in regard to agricultural practices and land clearing.
For the LNP the problem of climate change is essentially one of the reliability of energy supply, and this allows it to maintain the fiction that fossil fuels must remain an essential component of the base load energy mix. Hence coal and gas sustain their privileged status. And underlying all of this is the belief that the environment is simply a part of the economy, one that can be mined (or farmed) for constant growth and increased standards of living. There is no possibility of a start to the very difficult job of persuading Australians that we cannot have continuous growth, and that we must distribute our existing productive capacity in a much more equitable manner.
Greg Bailey is Honorary Research Fellow in Asian Studies, School of Humanities and Social Sciences, La Trobe University. Formerly Reader in Sanskrit. He is a member of the Greens.