The new climate challenge: toughening targets, avoiding new conflicts

May 26, 2022
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To stick rigidly to the 43% target will prove infeasible in the short term and politically self-harming in the longer term. Tougher targets are inevitable.

Public anger and anxiety about global warming have helped lift Labor to victory and propelled the rise of the Teal Independents and the Greens. The 2022 election spells a conclusive end to the old Climate Wars, Labor’s 15 year battle with the Coalition’s climate deniers over mitigation targets and measures.

However, depending on its next steps, Labor could open up a new front for climate conflict – between itself and those who see cautious incrementalism ending our last chance to help hold global warming to 1.5 Celsius.

This election has transformed the political landscape. It also suggests a new style of politics in future. Sitting members, no matter how progressive as individuals, can no longer vote the party line and expect to survive unchallenged if their electorates demand tougher action on existential concerns like climate change.

In 2022, a significant percentage of voters in seats taken by the Greens and Teal Independents endorsed climate targets much stronger than Labor’s. They devastated the Coalition, ending forever its chances of government if it remains locked in its climate-denialist past. So how will Labor now respond? There are three pressure points we need consider.

Labor will soon establish a new 2030 national mitigation target. Australia will use this target to formally increase its commitment under the Paris Agreement at the next UN climate conference in Sharm el-Sheik at this year’s end. Labor will also begin to set in place measures outlined in Powering Australia accelerating Australia’s path to a renewable energy future. Last, Labor will either begin addressing Australia’s largest and most damaging input to the climate emergency – our coal and gas exports – or continue to pretend this can be ignored.

National emissions targets are important. They frame the narrative around mitigation ambition and determine the strength and shape of measures used to propel that shift.

Labor’s target of 43% below 2005 levels by 2030 was born and still lives in the shadow of the old Climate Wars. This easily achievable target barely differentiated Labor from the Coalition, and was designed to avoid rousing the Right. It leaves Australia resting among the weakest developed country contributors to international mitigation efforts. It also is far short of what is required to meet the Paris Agreement’s goals to hold global warming to near 1.5 Celsius.

The 43% goal doesn’t speak to most Australians’ aspirations for significant action for a safe climate. And it almost certainly leaves Australia unable to cut another 57% and reach Net Zero by 2050, only 20 years after the target expires.

During the election campaign, Deputy PM Richard Marles announced that a Labor government would stick to the climate policies it took to the election. This was understandable: no doubt Marles and others in Labor remember and are still haunted and disciplined by the brutal political beating delivered after Julia Gillard broke her promise of ’no carbon taxes’.

The present situation is different for two clear reasons. First, the hip-pocket nerve is not in play: emissions targets are not fiscal measures but concrete signals of aspiration. Labor is now intending to realise its goals using economy-building measures, not direct carbon pricing.

Second, the Right’s old anti-climate warriors are vanquished. The Teals drove a stake through the Liberal Party’s heart on this matter. One has to ask who will be rising from that grave to attack Labor successfully for recalibrating its policies to better meet the newly expressed public demand for more and better action.

In any case, to stick rigidly to the 43% target will prove infeasible in the short term and politically self-harming in the longer term. Tougher targets are inevitable.

Having won government in its own right, Labor has, for the moment, avoided dealing with the Greens and Teals over climate policy. However Prime Minister Albanese will still have to negotiate with them. He will meet insurmountable resistance if he puts legislation with weak targets to the Senate, or tries to put weak targets in place through regulation.

In effect, Labor now has to choose between harder but more productive, or predictable but self-defeating, climate-political trajectories. Either PM Albanese makes the running on tougher climate targets and policies himself or he plays the reluctant bride when new tougher climate targets of (at minimum) 60% below 2005 by 2030 are imposed on him.

The harder but more productive approach would be to shift gear unprompted.

Labor can plausibly argue now that the 43% target is at the lowest end of possible outcomes, and that it intends to situate Australia favourably in relation to international comparators while attending to recent scientific advice and projections.

Labor could immediately increase the bandwidth of its ambition by referring to the Climate Change Authority’s 2014 Report, with its target of 40% – 60% below 2000 levels by 2030. Notably, the ‘Authority did not recommend a specific 2030 target, believing that, because factors relevant to the determination of such a target could change significantly over the next 15 years, the decision might better be made closer to that time’.

Labor could validly justify using the top of that range as a new minimum starting point. Circumstances have changed, making greater ambition desirable. For one, the CCA target fails to address the need to hold warming to close to 1.5 Celsius – the Authority was aiming to merely contribute to limiting warming to 2 Celsius.

And we are much clearer about the exceptional economic and ecological dangers that even 1.5 Celsius warming creates for Australia. A recent report by the independent Climate Targets Panel suggests a 2030 emissions target of at 74% below 2005 levels is compatible with contributing fairly and effectively to the goal of limiting global heating to 1.5 Celsius.

But how to ensure this is seen not as a ‘broken promise’ but an appropriate adjustment to political and climate realities? An excellent means for revisiting the target issue and giving the move legitimacy would be to revive the consultative and inclusive Multi-Party Climate Change Committee, which proved an exceptionally useful forum for the Gillard government, and invite Greens, Teals and other progressive members to participate, before the government makes its final determination on targets.

By contrast, the politically predictable, conflictual  and ultimately self-harming path for Labor is one where it doubles down on its existing target and demonises the Greens and Independents who are forced to do the ‘heavy lifting’.

By holding to -43%, Labor will appear ‘honest’ and ‘trustworthy’. But it will also evidence an inability to accommodate Australia’s newly defined political realities and register the wishes of the majority of Australians for urgent and effective climate action.

Trenchantly arguing against and then grudgingly accepting tougher targets will leave Labor looking weak, open it to accusations of theatricality, and mark it as the new climate laggard government. By opposing sharper science-supported goals, yet then accepting and pursuing them, it would make itself vulnerable to narratives of insincerity and incompetence. This will establish new arenas for climate conflict.

Then there is the essential matter of realising these targets – and policy substance. If Labor intends to govern for more than one term, and to remain true to the underlying intentions of its climate policies, it needs to set the foundations for substantial mitigation action now.

It is important to have ambitious but achievable targets. It is even more important to devise and implement measures whose outcomes will exceed those targets. As every Minister and head of department knows, implementation never goes quite to plan or to timetable. Aiming to overachieve will better ensure that at least the expressed targets are met. Overachieving creates confidence that even more courageous targets and action are within reach.

The second issue therefore relates to additional innovations and reforms that will help extend Powering Australia to enable the deeper cuts that new targets will require. This process will also require institutions to review, plan, coordinate, monitor and report on the implementation of national climate and energy policies and programs.

This matter of institutional change has not been canvassed in depth either by Labor, Greens or Teals. Yet the need is evident when one considers the pressures across the national grid likely generated by an accelerated transition to renewable energy, and the requirements for rapid electrification of the nation’s transport sector. (Labor’s EV policies are both exceedingly conservative and weak on detail, despite this sector being one of the areas of potentially quick emissions reduction success.)

A national Climate Commission (separate from the independent Climate Change Authority) could advise government on the development and implementation of sectoral climate policies intended to meet new mitigation targets. To provide close understanding of where policies need to be developed or tweaked and improve the granularity of its advice, it could employ corporatist elements in its structure and workings – including industry, scientific and technical advice, unions, community organisations, as well as Commonwealth and State departments, and also political observers.

Last – and far from least, given our fossil fuel exports generate more than twice our domestic emissions, add to those domestic emissions, and make Australia the world’s 6th largest source of emissions overall – is the need to develop a robust discussion about what to do with our coal and gas export industries. That these industries will close is inevitable. Labor cannot be serious about Net Zero by 2050 (or earlier) if it fails to accept this trajectory.

The only question, therefore, is whether we are talking orderly closure or ragged collapse, and who then bears responsibility for the communities and abandoned mines and pipes when that occurs. Again, the issue here is who will lead this discussion, and with what generosity and authority, or whether it will remain a festering and swelling political and social problem for us all.

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