A week after they faced off at the National Press Club, Labor climate spokesman Mark Butler has laid into Coalition environment minister Greg Hunt over his climate “safeguards mechanism” and its apparent inability to actually drive down emissions.
“Direct Action is nothing but a dressed up slush fund, wasting billions of taxpayers’ dollars while achieving no meaningful reduction in Australia’s pollution levels,” Butler said in a media release on Wednesday.
“The so-called ‘safeguard mechanism’ is so farcical it has set baselines to ensure no business is ever likely to exceed them.
“Expert after expert has been clear that the required cut to Australia’s emissions cannot be achieved without much tougher safeguard rules.”
“The only thing Greg Hunt’s safeguard mechanism is actually safeguarding is the dodgy deal Malcolm Turnbull has done with his party’s climate deniers,” Butler said.
Ironically, it is precisely this climate-denying rump of the Coalition that Hunt has been under pressure from this week – with plenty of help from the conservative media – amid claims that, as the AFR puts it, he has “secreted the structure of an emissions trading scheme” into Direct Action under the guise of a safeguard mechanism.
“The mechanism comes into force the day before the July 2 election but will not bite until 2020, when generous greenhouse gas emissions limits on 140 large industrial plants are due to be replaced by tough benchmarks,” the AFR report says.
“The innocuous sounding device could evolve into a carbon pricing scheme broadly like those that brought down Labor prime ministers Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard, as well as the Liberal leadership of Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull in 2009.”
Interestingly, the claims appear to counter-balance the most common criticism of the Safeguards Mechanism to date, that it is safeguarding nothing and – as the Climate Institute’s John Connor put it here – explicitly letting heavy polluters off the hook.
But Hunt, who has repeatedly vowed never to bring back an ETS in any form, is having none of that and insists his scheme is “low touch”.
“We abolished the carbon tax. It’s not coming back under us. It will come back under the ALP. It doesn’t matter whether they call it an ETS or a carbon tax, it’s going to hike up electricity prices,” he said.
“Our scheme has consciously been designed for the long-term and it’s low touch which doesn’t raise revenue, unlike the ALP which just wants to raise a lot of money through hiking people’s electricity prices.”
Butler, meanwhile, has seized the moment: “Greg Hunt has today achieved the pinnacle of ineffectiveness,” he said in the release. “He has confirmed the Liberals’ climate ‘safeguard mechanism’ will do absolutely nothing to reduce emissions.”
Back in the real world, CME energy consultant Bruce Mountain noted that, semantics aside, both parties’ emissions targets would require “a lot of government action” to be met.
“If that’s what we have agreed internationally, it’s going to require a response. It simply has to happen or we are not going to meet those targets,” Mountain said.
And the Grattan Institute’s Tony Wood said what people have been saying since the safeguards mechanism was first floated in September last year: that the scheme will need to be tightened to meet emissions targets, ideally with a law to create a genuine tradeable credit scheme.
“All the machinery is there and the minister can reduce the baselines without new legislation and you can create a version of a cap. But it’s not as neat as having a genuine cap-and-trade scheme,” he said.
“But if you want a proper trading scheme and to create credits automatically you’ll need some change in legislation and that puts it in the hand of parliament.”