Emissions bill a win for ALP, but outlook remains politically inclement
Finally, there looks like an end in sight to a long and destructive cycle in the politics of climate change over at least five terms of federal parliament.
In its second week, the new House of Representatives has approved a 43 per cent target to cut greenhouse gas emissions, as promised by Labor when it went to the election. The Greens will back the bill when it goes to the Senate. The anxious observers of parliament – from environmental groups to business lobbies – seem to be airing a sigh of relief.
Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has delivered on one of his election promises.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen
This is not the end of the climate wars. There cannot be an end to the political conflict on climate when the issue remains a source of debate and division in the community. Politics, after all, is about the resolution of conflict, which means conflict is part of the process.
But the thunder in the argument has eased. The achievement this week was the decision by a significant majority to ensure their divisions in parliament would not prevent a vote to get something done. For the first time, the national target to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is being written into the law. Yes, this was only a limited agreement between Labor, the Greens and most of the crossbench. Yes, the Liberals and Nationals sidelined themselves by voting against a target that is only slightly higher than the 35 per cent cut they claimed they could deliver.
But there was no veto that wrecked the draft law, and that alone may astonish those who have lived through 15 years of nightmare politics on climate.
Chris Bowen, minister for climate change and energy, had the best assessment. “The climate wars may or may not be over, but they are certainly in retreat under this government,” he said. This raises a question: does all the battlefield language really help? With so much actual war in the world, now is a good time to drop the wartime analogies.
Labor has secured its policy without making significant concessions. The bill to set the emission target is only 16 pages long and only the starting point in a series of policies that will emerge in the months ahead, so the scope for negotiation was narrow. The independents pushed, for instance, to ensure a review of the law and the public release of advice from the Climate Change Authority. The Greens wanted scope for deeper emission cuts. Nobody succeeded in changing the actual target.
Minister for Climate Change and Energy Chris Bowen.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen
The result? Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has delivered on his election promise to set a 43 per cent target to reduce emissions by 2030 compared to the levels of 2005. Bowen has delivered on his plan to write this target into the law. Labor can point to something it has done, not just something it has promised. And there is no written agreement between Labor and the Greens, let alone a coalition of the kind the conservatives warned about before the election.
The most important move from Bowen was to promise that the target would be a floor, not a ceiling, yet the bill specifies 43 per cent and nothing else. This is, after all, the target Labor devised on advice about what its policy measures could achieve. The key addition to the bill says this: “The achievement of a target involves reducing Australia’s net greenhouse gas emissions to a level that is at or below the target.” In other words, the cuts could be deeper but there is no obligation to make that happen.
The Greens hate being reminded of their great failure in 2009 when they voted with the Coalition in the Senate to block the Labor government’s emissions trading scheme, but that history overshadows every subsequent vote. The Greens make excuses for themselves by saying the 2009 scheme did not do enough to reduce emissions, and they complain that the Labor prime minister at the time, Kevin Rudd, refused to negotiate with them in good faith. Yet they have to answer for their actions. They helped veto a scheme that would have made an earlier start towards a solution.
None of the Greens in parliament today voted in that 2009 veto. The Greens leader, Adam Bandt, acknowledged the history during questions at the National Press Club this week but would not, of course, admit to a massive miscalculation by his predecessors. The key point is that in their actions, more than their rhetoric, the Greens have learnt the lessons of the past. They no longer let the perfect be the enemy of the good.
Greens leader Adam Bandt speaks during the debate over amendments to the government’s climate change bill.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen
“When it came to this bill, our preference was to improve and pass it and that’s what we’ve done,” Bandt said of this week’s vote. “Did we get everything we wanted? No. But we’re a step closer to stopping new coal and gas projects.”
That last point is an exaggeration. The Greens are clear about what they want but are no closer to getting their way. The Greens hold Australia responsible for the emissions from the fossil fuels it exports, even though the United Nations has for decades had a framework that considers emissions by the countries where the fuels are consumed. So Australian coal that is burned in Japan is a matter for Japan. The approach taken by the Greens would dictate terms to Japan, and other countries, by telling them Australian coal would stop in 2030.
Albanese rejects the fundamental argument about halting coal and gas projects. Years before he became prime minister, he dismissed the idea that a Labor government would put blue-collar workers out of their jobs by shutting down the resources industry. “If Australia stopped exporting today there would not be less demand for coal – the coal would come from a different place,” he told me in December 2019. He has not budged from that position.
So the real negotiations between Labor and the Greens will be on three other fronts.
First, the Greens want a say over the mechanism that is meant to force big companies to reduce their emissions so the country can reach the 43 per cent target. This “safety mechanism” is yet to be designed but has the potential to impose costs on big emitters, so the Greens will push for a cost so high that new fossil fuel projects are not worth doing. Bowen’s only promise is to hear the Greens when they respond to a discussion paper likely to be issued this month.
Second, the government has to do something practical about the electricity grid — another challenge not mentioned in the bill debated this week. The Labor promise is to take on $20 billion in additional debt to finance a “Rewiring the Nation Corporation” that will help fund projects that upgrade the grid to support more renewable power. How fast does this money start to flow? The Greens and the crossbench could shape this decision.
The third front is the demand from the Greens for a “climate trigger” in environmental law. There is already a “water trigger” to consider the impact on water resources from coal and coal seam gas projects. The “climate trigger” would consider the impact on greenhouse gas emissions. Albanese has not had any discussion with the Greens on this point. Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek points out that the last review of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act said emissions should be a matter for separate climate laws.
Yes, there is plenty of room for conflict. The signal achievement this week was to get something done despite the disagreements. Bowen played down the importance of this week’s debate by saying he could cut emissions even if the Greens blocked the climate bill, but the government is much better off with the target enshrined in law.
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