The date for the 2013 Federal election has been called, and set for September 7. For the next five weeks Australians will be assaulted with assurances by the leaders of the mainstream parties, Labor’s Kevin Rudd and the Coalition’s Tony Abbott , that they are best able to lead the nation.
It’s too much to hope for another hung parliament, which finally delivered a carbon price and some critical infrastructure such as a green bank and a “reserve bank” of carbon. But the polls have narrowed and the policy details of each mainstream party are about to held up to intense scrutiny.
On some key issues, such as refugees and education, it will be difficult to spot the difference. Superficially this could also be true of climate and clean energy: Both mainstream parties have committed to reducing Australia’s emissions by 5 per cent by 2020, and both mainstream parties say they are committed to the minimum 20 per cent renewable energy target, and its current expression as a fixed target of 41,000 gigawatt hours.
But that’s where the similarities end.
After being forced into action by the hung parliament and the bargain with the Greens and the country independents, Labor now appears comfortable with its climate change policy settings. It is committed to a carbon price, although Rudd has vowed to bring the traded (and less costly) version forward by a year. It says it will be advised on future reduction targets by the independent Climate Change Authority. Its main challenge is to convince votes that this is not a policy of convenience, and it won’t simply use climate and clean energy as a wedge to drive through the Coalition – as it did in the last Rudd government – however, tempting that might be.
The Coalition’s challenge is to show that its policy has credibility. Or more fundamentally, that it actually has a policy. After more than three years, it still can’t explain how Direct Action will work, or how it will achieve higher abatement targets. Is it a reverse auction, or a baseline and credit scheme? No one seems to know, least of all the Coalition, which promises a White Paper if elected.
The Coalition has vowed to repeal a carbon price, but its ability to do so is seriously question by the narrowing of the polls. It has also promised to disband the CCA and bring its advice “in house”. And suspicions that the Coalition does not take climate change seriously are sharpened by Abbott’s continued use of skeptic talking points to dismiss emissions trading, and the Coalition’s reliance on people more widely dismissed as apologists for fossil fuels to endorse Direct Action.The Skeptic rump that pushed Abbott into power is still influential.
One thing seems certain. The 5% bipartisan target seems certain to be made redundant within a year. The CCA is likely to recommend a 15 per cent reduction target at the very least – taking into account the latest science, the IPCC reports that are soon to be released, the cost, and the extent of international action. At least with an emissions trading scheme, this ambition is easily scalable.
Few people believe Direct Action could achieve a 5 per cent reduction target, let alone a more ambitious one. The Coalition does not appear to have the stomach to implement the sort of biting Direct Action imposed by the Obama administration in the US, with its strict emissions and energy efficiency targets. The recent Galaxy poll suggest even the voters find the Coalition’s claims dubious. Rudd is rated as having more credible climate policies by 45 per cent of voters, versus 31 per cent for Abbott.
The bipartisan support for the RET is also a mirage. The CCA last December dismissed the complaints of some of the big utilities, incumbent generators and conservative state governments, and said that the fixed 41,000GWh renewables target for 2020 should stand.
Labor has endorsed that, and has vowed to enact the other key CCA recommendation – to set the next review of the RET for 2016 – if re-elected (although it is not entirely clear why they haven’t already done that). The Coalition say they support the 41,000GWh target, but, crucially, they want it reviewed again in 2014 – even though the last review was only completed in December.
This uncertainty has brought the $20 billion renewable energy industry to a virtual standstill, because bankers and utilities are convinced that the Coalition will weaken the target, given that they will disband the CCA, the independent body that has shown it can break through the appeals of the vested interests.
The Coalition knows the impact of their position. As the former, and likely future energy minister Ian Macfarlane said in 2010: “We understand, dare I say better that than those who sit opposite because we have actually done it, the importance of getting a scheme in place where there is certainty, particularly for wind farms.”
The other crucial element of the transition to a low carbon economy is the Clean Energy Finance Corp – another product of the Greens and the country independents and their negotiations with the Gillard government. The CEFC is considered crucial to greasing the wheels for companies to adopt clean energy technologies – be it energy efficiency, capturing waste gas from landfills and coal mines, refinancing renewable projects, or providing support for new technologies such as solar PV farms and concentrated solar power.
Labor says it will support the CEFC, but the Coalition says it will disband it as quickly as it can.
The Greens will not be in government, but their role will be crucial. The Greens want the emissions reductions to reflect the science, and have called for an emissions reduction target of between 25 per cent and 40 per cent by 2020, and for a 90 per cent renewable energy target by 2030. The fact that such goals are often dismissed as extreme says more about the level of political debate in this country, and the stranglehold on the discourse by vested interests, than it does about the Greens climate and clean energy policies.
Much is often said about The Greens refusal to endorse Rudd’s CPRS, and the impact that had on his political future, and the course of carbon pricing. Given what’s happened in Europe since then, it seems a moot point. But it should not be forgotten that the two most crucial institutions introduced with the Clean Energy Future package – the CCA and the CEFC – are there thanks to the Greens and the country independents, Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott.
The independents are going, so the role of the Greens in protecting those institutions, along with the carbon price, the RET, and the impending issue of small scale solar, will be critical in coming years.
The Climate Institute gave the Greens 5/5 for climate policies in its “pollute-o-metre” assessment. Labor got a score of 2.5 and the Coalition just 1.5. Just as crucially, the climate and clean energy policies of the independents that could influence a tight parliament – Nick Xenophon, Bob Katter and Clive Palmer – fair even worse.