If you’re looking to Canberra for policy leadership this week on cutting Australia’s carbon dioxide emissions and bringing the nation up to par with global action on climate action, then you will have to look to the ACT government, and not Tony Abbott’s Coalition.
While the ACT government kicked off the week by launching its second wind energy auction, on the path to 90 per cent renewable energy by 2020, the federal cabinet is expected to announce its post-2020 target for reducing Australian carbon emissions. And – despite a the results of a new survey showing most Australians want much stronger policy action on global warming – the early signs suggest Abbott & Co will continue to aim low.
The first sign comes from Abbott himself, who said in a recorded video statement on Sunday that any measures to cut emissions must not hurt the economy or involve “harmful policies” such as a carbon-pricing scheme.
“Under this government, Australia will continue to make a strong and responsible contribution to the global effort to address climate change, but we’ll do this without sacrificing jobs or prosperity,” Abbott said.
“That’s why the government will never resort to harmful policies like a carbon tax or an ETS. …A carbon tax, or an ETS, is really just a tax on everyone’s electricity bill. The Labor Party wants to bring the carbon tax back and force everyone to pay more. This government will not.”
The second sign comes from the Murdoch papers, which followed up Abbott’s Sunday statement with a Monday report claiming federal Labor’s plan to cut carbon emissions by 40 to 60 per cent by 2030 would deliver a “devastating blow” to the economy, stripping $600 billion from growth over the next 15 years; and this according to its own modelling.
The Daily Telegraph report said the ALP’s proposed emissions cut would also cost tens of thousands of jobs and would likely lead to the closure of all 37 coal-fired power stations in Australia – which is a bad thing, apparently.
“Labor’s plan, which the party adopted last month at its national conference in Melbourne, would have to assume a carbon price of $209 a tonne by 2030, according to analysis of the models,” the paper said.
“It would also push wholesale power prices up 78 per cent over the next 15 years, radically increasing power bills for homeowners and businesses.”
The ALP has fired back with a statement from climate spokesman Mark Butler describing the report as “utterly false” – including its core claim that Labor had officially adopted the target – and based on “ridiculously outdated” modelling.
“It is true that Labor has committed to limit global warming to two degrees Celsius on pre-industrial levels, along with the US, China, the European Union and, as the Daily Telegraph omitted from their story, the Coalition under Tony Abbott,” Butler said on Monday.
“The modelling referred to in today’s article is ridiculously outdated and fails to take into consideration the huge fall in the cost of renewable energy or the decline in electricity demand due to the fall in manufacturing,” he said.
“As the world’s biggest polluter per head of capita in the OECD, Australia has a responsibility to do its fair share to reduce pollution.
“Tony Abbott’s only response to this has been to line the pockets of the big polluters with $2.55bn of taxpayers’ money and to run ridiculous scare campaigns.”
The Coalition’s environment minister Greg Hunt has since returned fire, accusing the Opposition of playing “games of sophistry,” by “saying one thing to the public and the moment they are called to account they are denying their policy and denying the impact.
“Here’s the choice for Australians,” Hunt told ABC radio on Monday morning, “do we want strong and credible action, but with a massive electricity price on the one hand, or without, on the other?”
And in a media release a bit later, Hunt denied the government was using scare tactics to discredit Labor’s proposed target, and take the focus off the fact that their own target was likely to be woefully short on ambition.
“Bill Shorten says it’s all just a scare campaign but we know the truth,” he wrote. “Under Labor’s new supercharged carbon tax, the price would need to skyrocket to $209 per tonne to achieve a target of around 44 per cent below 2000 levels by 2030.
“Bill Shorten’s carbon tax will see tens of thousands of jobs lost, power bills skyrocket, wages will be lower and the economy will be more than half a trillion dollars weaker,” Hunt said.
But what happens when a majority of Australian voters want stronger action on climate change? That’s what the results of a Climate Institute survey, published on Monday, suggest.
“This year’s results (of the Climate of the Nation report) show an increasing awareness and concern about the impacts of climate change and the country’s future energy mix amid the intensifying political debate,” TCI said.
“The findings provide a critical opportunity for the Abbott government to better reflect public sentiment on climate change in its upcoming announcement on Australia’s post-2020 carbon pollution reduction target.
“More think that ‘the Abbott government should take climate change more seriously’ and there is a strong expectation for government to regulate carbon pollution, move to phase out aging coal power stations, and invest in renewable energy.”
As for the claims that more ambitious policy would harm Australia’s economy, Climate Institute chief Erwin Jackson says they are “damn lies and statistics”.
“To provide context, over the period to 2030 the total value of the economy in the modelling referred to is nearly $40 trillion dollars. All economic analysis to date, including that referred to in today’s media, has shown that Australia can significantly reduce emissions significantly while growing the economy strongly,” Jackson said in an email to RenewEconomy.
“It is also important to highlight that there is no climate free lunch. For example, if the government attempted to achieve the mooted post-2020 emissions cuts through its current climate policy it would cost the tax payer tens of billions of dollars per year.
“Finally, it is not the target that largely determines the economic costs and benefits (which are largely not included in economic modelling) of climate action. In terms of the impact of business, for example, this is largely determined by the domestic policies to meet the goal.”
Indeed, even the energy industry seems to want a decent emissions target.
“Australia should take credible emissions reduction targets to international climate change negotiations at the end of the year,” the Energy Supply Association of Australia said in statement on Monday.
Indeed, Essa chief Matthew Warren warns that a target not seen as credible by business and the international community would prolong uncertainty as investors delayed action pending further target changes.
“Australia’s generation industry has already been left virtually unbankable by prolonged uncertainty in the long-term direction of Australia’s emission reduction strategy,” Warren said.
“This is a serious problem for an industry that has been predicted by the CSIRO to require around $230 billion of new investment by 2050.”
“The real test of a credible Australian commitment is that it will enable, rather than defer, investment and result in the important public debate about how we manage this major economic reform.”
But the question seems to remain, how low will Abbott’s emissions target go? Current predictions are for a reduction of between 15-25 per cent on 2005 levels by 2030.
This is s less than half the reduction recommended by the Climate Change Authority and would keep Australia at the bottom of the international table of commitments being made ahead of the Paris meeting, which Abbott will not be attending.
The US and China last year struck a deal to limit greenhouse-gas emissions, with China committing to stop growing its emissions by 2030.
The US plans deeper emissions cuts of up to 28 per cent by 2025, underpinned by a plan to cut emissions from power stations by 32 per cent by 2030, based on 2005 levels. The EU targets a 40 per cent reduction by 2030 relative to 1990 levels.