No Mr Morrison, that’s not a plan. This is a plan

Nov 2, 2021
Scott Morrison
(Image: AAP/Lukas Coch)

Any government smart enough to set up an agency tasked with moving the economy into renewable energy could hold office for at least two decades.

After a decade of head-in-the-sand delays, Australian businesses are increasingly on the move to become carbon neutral, knowing full well they are likely to be out of business within the decade if they don’t.

But they are getting hindrance rather than help from the Coalition government. If Australian businesses are to succeed they need governments to do things this one is currently not planning to do, beginning but not ending with the reintroduction of a price on carbon.

Nothing has done more harm to the prospects for Australian trade and industry (not to mention future generations) than the repeal of the carbon price by the Abbott government in 2014. Australia has done itself out of billions of dollars of national income that could have been made all along with a carbon price, and has unnecessarily chewed up what little there is left of a reasonably safe carbon budget.

All of that has pushed us perilously close to a situation where global temperature increases may be more than double — perhaps triple — what they might have been if governments such as Australia’s had actually honoured their commitments under the UN Paris Agreement to do all things necessary to limit global heating as close as possible to 1.5 degrees Celsius. The world is on track for at least 2.7C of heating and possibly over 4C if earth system feedbacks (such as carbon released from melting permafrost) are triggered before we can stop them.

While most businesses in Australia are still largely unconcerned by all issues environmental, their concern for profits has finally caused them to see the light about the need to price carbon. The hitherto pro-coal/gas/oil Business Council of Australia (BCA), the Australian Industry Group and even the former finance minister Mathias Cormann are all now calling for reintroduction of a price on carbon, despite their having orchestrated and wildly celebrated its demise.

The best that might be said about this is “better late than never”. But as this damascene conversion of the BCA cohort to faith in a carbon price is coincident with the rise of some practicable plans by a few peak energy authorities in conjunction with civil society groups, we may be poised to seize success from the jaws of the impending catastrophe. There is now no shortage of well thought through plans for job creation and for a transformation of the Australian economy away from fossil fuels and towards becoming a renewable energy superpower. They have sprung up from Beyond Zero Emissions, the Climate Council, the Australian National Outlook, the CSIRO, the UTS Institute for Sustainable Futures, the Clean Energy Council, and the Australian Energy Market Operator.

All these plans can deliver prosperity for Australia, but none of them will without a price on carbon and none of them will unless a range of other policies are simultaneously implemented — policies that can only be set up by governments. As Ross Garnaut has pointed out in relation to the primary “technology” the Morrison government prefers to rely on to save the fossil fuel industry — carbon capture and storage or CCS — public investment in carbon capture and storage is wasted unless it is followed by carbon pricing or regulation that provides incentives for its use.

In other words, Scott Morrison can use taxpayer funds to develop all the technology he likes but unless he stops subsidising fossil fuels and at the same time establishes incentives (both in pricing and regulation) to ensure the uptake of those technologies, there is no chance that the plans of these good civil society agencies will succeed in time.

State governments are taking up some responsibility for establishment of renewable energy zones, and there is some activity in the area of much-needed new renewable energy generation and new transmission.

But no plan devised by good civil society leaders, agencies or even co-operative state governments will work fast enough to stop global heating if none is supported with the right strategies and policies from the government. The speed necessary in the 2030 decade can only be secured by a federal government willing to do its essential part.

But if we had a government willing to do that part, what could and should they do? As the beneficiaries of good plans already developed by civil and business agencies, all they have to do is lead Australians to understand the benefits of taking ethical action in four main directions. They simply need to develop supportive strategies: first, for managing economic transitions with safety nets; second, for rebuilding both the nation and its resources after Covid and the GFC as a much more resilient country — one better prepared for crises we can’t control; third, for creating markets fit for 21st century trading and competitiveness; and fourth, for shifting Australia into a position of global leadership and co-operation on environmental stewardship and resource sharing.

Within these four areas the options are wide open for the federal government. In economic transitions we need at the very least a National Economic Transitions Commission whose job it should be proactively to set up programs to shift Australians safely from one economy to another, and particularly out of fossil fuel industries and into renewable energy and services, especially in health, aged care and education. The fact that we have nothing like this is a massive handbrake on progress and a threat to resilience. Any government smart enough to establish such an agency, with a charter of independence and a primary responsibility of care for the future of Australians, would be able to both restore Australia’s natural environment and resources and likely hold office for at least the next two decades.

In the area of rebuilding for preparedness we need a sovereign capability strategy, a new, secure set-up for the National Electricity Market, and some basic legislation prohibiting government contracts to private sector companies that do not have certified plans to reach net zero within 10 to 15 years. We could also do with legislation requiring large emitters to submit and comply with demonstrably effective plans to reach net zero within 10 years or less, with fines applicable for non compliance. And, of course, we need the passage of legislation similar to the current climate change bill proposed by independent MP Zali Steggall for an independent Climate Change Commission.

To create new markets we need as a minimum to legislate programs to restore lost GDP and returns to landholders through various types of carbon farming, prohibit use of public funds for non-renewable energy, reintroduce a renewable energy target (100 per cent by no later than 2030 for electricity), and ensure that we retain capacity and reputation in the Australian Clean Energy Regulator to certify genuine carbon credits in the growing market.

In global co-operation and leadership the necessary strategies would be simple. All Australia would need to do would be to rejoin the global community in full support of the Paris Agreement aims.

Together, these four sets of strategies amount to a real plan for the nation, and none of them are beyond the scope of an ethical and caring government. After eight years of ruthless Coalition government obstruction, Morrison owes it to Australians to give us all these things. His current “plan” is mere prevarication and so, effectively, more obstruction. It is a plan in name only and a program of inaction that will destroy Australia’s future. Our nation is ready to pivot to a much better plan.

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