Jon Stanford. Climate Change Policy: a wedging opportunity for the ALP?

For those who believe that Australian elections should be based on a contest of ideas about public policy, developments at the national conference of the ALP in July 2015 will provide some basis for optimism. In contrast to some previous Opposition leaders who have been content to maintain a small target strategy, Bill Shorten is starting to make himself quite a large target in policy areas such as the republic, gender equality and climate change.

Why has Shorten taken this risk? It certainly helps to be opposed by a prime minister who is a high conviction politician, driven by a conservative ideology that many on the progressive side of politics would characterise as swimming hopelessly against the tide of history. Yet Tony Abbott’s ideological self-indulgence only goes so far. There is a warning signal for the opposition in the long list of issues, mainly economic, where the Prime Minister appears to have no particular conviction and is ruthless in his willingness to play politics with those who do. The corollary is that the few issues where his ideology does dominate may not be that significant. To be sure, they make for lively debate around the barbecue and may even give Tony Abbott the look of a ‘mad uncle’, but they do not threaten the punter’s hip pocket. They are not, therefore, likely to be issues where elections are won or lost.

But one of Abbott’s high conviction issues may be different. Climate change is at the forefront of global policy concerns and is highly challenging for national governments encompassing, as it does, complex problems around science, diplomacy, technology and economics. Notably, the Prime Minister has managed to place himself on the wrong side of the debate, not just in one or two of these areas, but in all four. He has lampooned climate science as “absolute crap”, identifying instead a conspiracy to attack the fossil fuel industry. In diplomatic terms, since 2013 Australia has run dead on climate change in international forums, with Abbott not allowing Ministerial representation at UN conferences and thereby eliminating any chance of Australia securing a better deal in the upcoming negotiations. His attitude to new energy technologies is that of a Neo-Luddite; he eulogises coal as “king” while deriding renewable energy and cutting funding for the development of low emissions energy solutions. His economic policy response to climate change has been to move as far as possible away from an efficient, least cost approach to reducing emissions and instead, extraordinarily for a conservative, draws on taxpayers’ money to pay polluters not to pollute.

Little wonder then that the ALP would place climate change at the Schwerpunkt of their political assault on the Coalition leading up to next year’s election. The strategic attractiveness of the issue is also strengthened by the fact that Abbott is not in a position to downplay its significance or remove it from the front pages. With the key Conference of the Parties (COP21) on post-2020 emissions reductions to be held in Paris in December this year, it has developed a transparency and momentum that is all its own.

In the lead up to COP21, nations are required to propose emissions reduction commitments beyond 2020 that are consistent with the agreed international objective of containing global warming to a maximum of two degrees Celsius. These commitments were formally due by end-March 2015. Every other developed country has now published its proposed commitment, but Australia is again playing the laggard. Australia’s commitment, we were originally told, would be published in June this year. Then the date slipped again, first to July and now to August.

These delays might lead one to speculate that the Cabinet is having difficulties in reaching an agreed position on an acceptable commitment. This would not be surprising, because the split in the Coalition on climate change extends beyond the idiosyncratic views of the Prime Minister. On the one hand there is a strong element in the Ministry that is progressive on the issue – and reflective of the attitudes of most conservative parties around the world. On the other hand, there is also a vocal rump of climate change deniers and strong supporters of Australia’s coal industry who, encouraged by the overthrow of Malcolm Turnbull’s leadership on this issue, are waiting to claim their pound of flesh.

Nevertheless, as a nation that has acceded to the two degree target, in practical terms Australia cannot put forward a weak abatement target that is seriously out of kilter with the ambitions of other countries. Responsible Ministers such as Julie Bishop and Greg Hunt would be particularly strong on this issue and would point to the ambitious approach of other conservative governments such as those headed by David Cameron and Angela Merkel. Not only would the government be pilloried by other countries, including its allies and friends, but it also seems likely that the domestic reaction would be highly unfavourable.

Pledges by other developed countries to date include:

  • The US, with a commitment to reduce emissions by 26 to 28 per cent below 2005 levels by 2025
  • The European Union, committing to reduce emissions by 40 per cent by 2030 relative to 1990 levels
  • Canada, proposing a 30 per cent reduction in emissions from 2005 levels by 2030
  • New Zealand, with a similar commitment to Canada.

In this context it seems unlikely that Australia would be able to get away with a commitment below those of Canada and New Zealand, particularly since emissions reductions of this magnitude, while substantial, still fall well short in aggregate of the abatement required to limit global temperature rises to two degrees Celsius. As Ross Garnaut has suggested, a 30 per cent reduction by 2030 from 2005 levels would be at the bottom end of what Australia could “get away with”. Nevertheless, it may well be a reasonable initial position while providing some comfort to the Prime Minister that he can march bras en bras with his Canadian friend and fellow climate sceptic Stephen Harper. Also, in the context of insufficient ambition overall and the consequent pressure that will be applied to all parties to up the ante in Paris, from a diplomatic perspective it may not be a bad initial negotiating position.

But the big problem for Tony Abbott will be in delineating the policies he will employ in meeting the target. Even a 30 per cent reduction from 2005 levels by 2030 would require significant policy intervention. Abbott has been very successful in the past in demonising almost every approach to emissions abatement by characterising it as a carbon tax or some other sneaky impost that will increase electricity prices and thereby destroy the world as we know it. For example, he was quick this week to attack Shorten’s suggestion that the renewable energy target could be increased (“we’ve got quite enough renewables”) by pointing to the significant increase in electricity prices that would be required.

So what is left? Direct Action may have been acceptable in achieving a minor reduction in emissions at a time when electricity prices were increasing, and thus driving down demand, and energy efficiency was increasing rapidly mainly thanks to LED lighting. But it could never bring about a reduction in emissions on the scale being discussed here without a substantial increase in tax revenue to fund higher subsidies. It would be very difficult to argue that increasing income tax or the GST to pay polluters to reduce emissions would provide a better outcome for the average punter than taxing polluters’ emissions directly.

One option would be for Australia to participate in an international emissions trading system (ETS) that would allow the purchase of emissions permits from overseas, often from developing countries. This option was taken to the 2007 election by the Howard government, of which Tony Abbott was a member. It also consistently featured in the modelling by Treasury of the Rudd and Gillard governments’ carbon reduction policies, which demonstrated that the economic cost of emissions reduction to the Australian community would be substantially reduced by this approach. By purchasing cheaper carbon abatement from overseas, this option would also enable some coal plant to be retained in Australia’s power generation network out almost to 2050 while at the same time we met challenging emissions reduction targets. All this would be balm, one might think, to Tony Abbott’s ears. But no; the Prime Minister has already ruled this option out on the grounds that an ETS is the equivalent of a carbon tax and hence a proscribed instrument under his ideology.

There are, therefore, significant problems, largely of their own making, for the government both in putting forward a commitment for COP21 and then in designing the policies to deliver it. The opportunity for the ALP is clear. But now that Bill Shorten has initiated the debate about climate change policy and invited the Prime Minister to “bring it on”, where should he go from here?

First of all, although he may reasonably criticise the government for a lack of ambition in its commitment and a failure in diplomacy in the process leading up to COP21, Shorten does not need to propose any abatement targets at this point in time. These are subject to negotiation at COP21 and it would be premature for an Opposition to intervene at this stage. Should Australia be regarded by the international community to be a “leaner” rather than a “lifter” during the Paris negotiations it may be appropriate for Shorten to indicate that he would consider a more testing target were the ALP to win government. He may also remind Abbott that a sustained and clever diplomatic effort in the lead up to Kyoto enabled the Howard government to obtain for Australia by far the most generous abatement targets for any significant developed country under that protocol. Australia’s minimalist, if not surly, diplomatic engagement in the lead up to COP21 may well make a repeat performance impossible.

In this context it also needs to be remembered, however, that while it is in Australia’s interests for the world to agree to significant action to counter climate change and even for our delegation to punch above its weight in that discussion, there are no prizes for Australia in exceeding the commitments made by other countries. The impact on climate change from an excess of zeal on Australia’s part would be negligible while the costs to our industry in terms of carbon leakage could be significant.

Secondly, Shorten should propose a policy framework for achieving substantial emissions reductions at least cost to the Australian economy. He has already taken a major step in that direction by endorsing an emissions trading system with the capacity to gain access to international abatement opportunities. But almost immediately Shorten then proposed a policy, fortunately at this stage only as an aspirational goal, in direct contradiction to his ETS, namely a 50 per cent renewable energy target by 2030. Such a target would override the least cost approach of the ETS, negate many of the benefits of buying emission permits on the international market and, according to Danny Price of Frontier Economics, have a major impact on electricity prices by requiring a carbon price of up to $200/tonne.

Finally, this illustrates that one lesson Shorten can learn from Abbott is that relying on ideology is unlikely to be effective in determining the most efficient policy solutions. For example, in pursuing carbon abatement, what we need is the most economic lower emissions energy solutions that can be made available. These may be renewable, they may be lower emissions fossil fuel technologies or may even be nuclear. There is no need for religion here. Only the Greens believe that there is anything particularly wonderful about renewable energy and this belief is based not on science but ideology. Managing a grid with half of its generation being provided by interruptible sources would be extremely difficult. Of course it could be managed – but only by simultaneously investing in open cycle gas turbines (OCGT) to provide instant reliable power to the grid when the wind is not blowing and the sun isn’t shining. Overall, by virtually doubling the cost, this can be a very expensive solution and the emissions footprint of OCGT is not far short of coal.

While the punters like renewable energy in the abstract, they clearly don’t like higher electricity prices. Rather than succumbing to simple populism, it would be worthwhile for the ALP to do the hard yards here, such as in working out ways to increase gas supplies so as to bring the price down and thinking about how to respond down the track to the South Australian Royal Commission into nuclear energy. In the latter case, a finding in favour of small modular reactors (think plug-in nuclear submarine power plants) would merit a more considered response than the knee jerk reaction that ideology is likely to dictate.

Jon Stanford headed climate change policy while with the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet in the 1990s and was chair of the CoAG taskforce that delivered national gas industry reform.

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