So what just happened there? That was the first, second and third reaction of the extraordinary sight of Clive Palmer – he of the outsanding carbon tax bills, dismissive of climate science and renewables, the promoter of a massive coal mine, proprietor of a dinosaur park and the builder of a replica Titanic – standing side by side with Al Gore to deliver Tony Abbott an inconvenient truth: his climate policy is a mess and he doesn’t have the numbers in the Senate.
Palmer, who just two months ago suggested he could buy any opinion from a climate scientist, now says he accepts the science of climate change. Just two months after saying the renewable energy target had to go, he now says it has to stay. And he will protect the Clean Energy Finance Corp and the Climate Authority too, and probably the Australian Renewable Energy Agency when someone tells him what it is.
But what will he say tomorrow? Or next week? Or next month?
The only certainty about yesterday’s extraordinary events is that confusion now reigns, and Abbott’s climate policy is in disarray. It is one thing to have “axed the tax”, but quite another to have nothing to offer in its place. And Palmer has made it clear that he thinks that Abbott’s version of Direct Action is a joke.
Quite where carbon pricing and emissions abatement goes from here is not at all clear. Abbott could, in theory, enact at least parts of Direct Action through executive decree, but it would be unlikely to get to 5 per cent, let alone the 19 per cent recommended by the CCA, which will have full voice on the matter.
Reputex estimates that a carbon price of zero will result in Australia’s emissions rising 12 per cent out to 2020, rather than falling 5 per cent, or meeting the more ambitious targets likely required of an international agreement.
The alternative – Palmer’s conditions for an emissions trading scheme, such as he understands it (essentially one with no price) are vague and contradictory.
As Labor and the Greens have pointed out, we already have an ETS – it’s just that it has a fixed rather than a floating price. That can be easily changed. All Australia’s trading partners cited by Palmer – China, Japan, South Korea, the US and the EU – have an ETS too in some form or another. Even with a general agreement in Paris next year, it will be hard to imagine an international trading scheme for a decade or more.
The key import of what Palmer has done, however, is to leave the key infrastructure of the carbon pricing mechanism in place. That is essential. Once the political intrigues have been dispensed with, and once the Liberal Party follows in Palmer’s lead, isolates the right wing rump currently at the controls, and re-embraces the need to address climate change with the best tool at their disposal – a market based mechanism – then the scheme can be dusted off and re-introduced at short notice.
In the meantime, the renewable energy industry can look forward to some confidence. With the retention of the renewable energy target, the CEFC and hopefully ARENA, there is a chance that WA can become the world leader in large scale solar; Australian miners can embrace renewables and storage as a substitute for gas and diesel; that South Australia can charge beyond 50 per cent towards an unlikely goal of 100 per cent renewable energy; that NSW can match its green energy rhetoric with action; and that Queensland might finally build something green and useful.
So, what just happened here? Palmer did a triple backflip and landed on a surprised and a little deflated Al Gore. Now we need Palmer – and his Senators – to hold course. But as an investor, would you bet on that?