What goes around comes around: carbon tariffs bite our exports

Jul 29, 2021

In his excellent opinion piece, Ross Gittins points out that those posturing against the proposed EU carbon tariffs on our exports are the very people who struck down own effective national greenhouse action.  They argued then that that unfair competition from countries who were not acting would impact our industries – so it’s a bit rich now to call out the EU for a tariff designed to protect their emissions intensive trade exposed sectors from unfair competition.

Gittins is quite right to point the finger at Tony Abbott for killing the Rudd, then Gillard carbon pollution reduction schemes. But he is not the only villain.

Earlier John Howard blew the chance to introduce a national emissions trading scheme at a time when it would have been welcomed by the public. His ‘Captains call’ not to ratify the Kyoto Protocol became emblematic of his government’s failure to act resolutely on climate change.  When he did act in the panic in the run up to the 2007 election it was too late to save his government.

But there is plenty of blame to share around. Rudd instituted the time wasting Garnaut inquiry instead of simply picking up and running with the emissions trading scheme that Howard had eventually taken to the ’07 elections. Then the Greens joined the opposition to shut down Labor’s legislative proposals. And of course it was Dutton, Pyne and hardline Nationals who brought Turnbull’s sensible Nationals Emissions Guarantee legislation, and his leadership, undone.

Now Barnaby Joyce, David Littleproud and the Nationals are trying to halt Morrison’s crab walk toward a net zero 2050 carbon emissions target. They have argued that the bush paid for the climate action that enabled Australia to meet its Kyoto Protocol targets through what NSW Farmers Federation president James Jackson has called “morally reprehensible” land clearing laws. We won’t do it again they shout.

It is true that Australia secured agreement at Kyoto to include emissions from land clearing in its 1990 emissions baseline – I handed the text of the clause to Robert Hill at the crucial stage in the negotiations. Australia had consistently argued for the inclusion of all emissions sources, and all carbon sinks (ie forests and other natural or human processes that sucked carbon from the atmosphere) as the only proper basis for establishing a baseline. That had proved impossible because Europe and the US with large senescent forests that were moving from being carbon sinks to carbon sources would not agree. But it was agreed that any country that could establish it had a clear net source of emissions in 1990 associated with land clearing could count these emissions. Far from being in any sense improper this was totally legitimate. These emissions were just as damaging for the climate as those from any coal fired power station.

We knew that land clearing had been at an unprecedented high in 1990. It was going to reduce naturally without requiring government action.

Far from using the Kyoto Protocol to require a halt to land clearing, the Howard government actually refused to ratify the Protocol or reflect it in domestic law. State vegetation management legislation was designed to protect biodiversity and water and soil quality. The Commonwealth encouraged vegetation management and biodiversity conservation. It provided considerable funding through its land and water care programs for tree planting and soil management. Many of the keenest supporters and volunteers for these programs were farmers.

Today there are voices in regional politics urging a sense of victimhood associated with native vegetation management laws and climate action. Some claim that farmer Ian Turnbull, who murdered environmental officer Glen McKenzie over a land clearing dispute, saw himself as a martyr for the cause of farmer rights. There have been successive, unsuccessful claims arguing that State laws are unconstitutional or that the Commonwealth is liable for ‘just terms’ compensation for state clearing restrictions. The latest to be thrown out by the Federal Court was brought by Robert Houston (Houston v State of New South Wales (No 2) [2021] FCA 637). Successive courts have made it quite clear that freehold does not provide untrammelled rights to clearing or development.

In fact, farmers and foresters have been the largest beneficiaries under the Australian government’s $2.55bn Emissions Reduction Fund with vegetation management the most successful category by a factor of six. And of course farmers are most at risk from drought, fire, flood and other forms of extreme weather made more likely by climate change. Why are their leaders opposing action?

The answer of course is politics – the fight for regional seats has seen the National party pushing to corral the coal vote and defend against Shooters, Fishers and Farmers, One Nation and a rag-bag of populist independents.

It would be sad if Australia’s position at the upcoming Glasgow climate conference was determined by guesses about the attitudes of swing voters in a handful of regional and mining seats in Queensland and NSW – but it wouldn’t be surprising if history is any guide.

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