Mark Butler is the Shadow Minister for the Environment, Climate Change and Water
As a progressive conservative in the mould of British prime minister, David Cameron, and New Zealand prime minister, john key. More recently, he’s even tried to bask in some progressive star power reflected off the new Canadian liberal prime minister, Justin Trudeau.
In the area of climate change and renewable energy policy, however, the mask has well and truly slipped from Mr Turnbull. No amount of greenwashing can disguise the fact that the new Prime Minister is bound fast to Tony Abbott’s approach to these policies, which was to do as little as humanly possible.
Malcolm Turnbull has had a number of opportunities to turn the page on Abbott’s backward-looking climate change and renewable energy policies – he’s ignored every one. The contrast with other progressive conservatives could not be clearer. In the recent UK general election, David Cameron signed a Pledge with Labour on climate change policies, including the phase out of coal-fired power over the next decade. This followed several years of ambitious policy in the UK on decarbonising their economy and expanding renewable energy.
The UK was rated in December as the second-best performing country out of 58 nations assessed in the Climate Change Performance Index. Australia languished in 56th place, above Kazakhstan and the perennial cellar-dwellers, Saudi Arabia.
The international community was hugely relieved to see the back of Tony Abbott and his soul-mate Canadian PM, Stephen Harper – both were regarded as the chief spear-carriers against an ambitious climate deal. Harper’s replacement, Justin Trudeau, brought a completely new approach to the Paris Conference, while Turnbull’s briefcase was stuffed with Tony Abbott’s discredited policies. Trudeau has promised to introduce an Emissions Trading Scheme to cap and then reduce Canada’s pollution levels, increase Harper’s emission reduction targets (which were already higher than Turnbull’s), aggressively expand renewable energy, boost aid to poorer nations impacted by climate change, and wind back fossil fuel subsidies.
Other than re-directing some additional funds from Australia’s depleted aid budget into climate finance, Turnbull has done precisely nothing to move away from the Abbott legacy. And even that concession was meagre compared to the amounts committed to poorer nations by Trudeau and Cameron.
We must act. The pollution reduction targets that the Turnbull Government took to Paris put Australia right at the back of the pack. That will cement our place for years to come as the OECD’s biggest polluter per head of population. It also helps to shut Australia out of the jobs and investment boom in clean energy and other technologies. Mr Turnbull’s targets are not supported by scientific advice and – if the same approach were adopted by the rest of the world – would see global warming reach three to four degrees above pre-industrial levels, way above the two degree limit committed to on many occasions by Australia and other nations.
Labor will set targets that are consistent with our commitments to the rest of the world and to future generations. Labor’s targets will be based on the best available scientific advice from bodies like the independent Climate Change Authority and the Academy of Science. We will also carefully assess the impact of our approach on jobs, regions and households.
Over summer, I’ve led a process of engagement with unions, business and other stakeholders about what Labor’s 2030 target for pollution reduction should be. In late-March I’ll report back to Shadow Cabinet on those discussions. Already Labor has announced a commitment to Australia producing net zero emissions by 2050. Even before Paris, we committed to five-yearly targets on emissions reduction, with a 2025 target being announced within 12 months of the election of a Labor Government.
The more immediate problem with Turnbull’s approach to climate change is that his policy is doing precious little to constrain Australia’s pollution levels, let alone to reduce them. After declining by 8 percent during Labor’s term in office, pollution levels will rise by 6 percent between now and 2020 under Turnbull’s ‘Direct Action’ policy. Indeed, the Government’s own data projected an even larger increase before they were revised downwards because of the current slowdown in economic activity. Under Tony Abbott, the Liberal policy was deliberately designed to allow Australia’s biggest polluters to increase their pollution levels with impunity, and that’s precisely what they’re doing.
In the electricity sector, the brown coal power stations are operating at capacity levels not seen for years. As a result, pollution levels from electricity increased by 4 percent in the 2014/15 year alone. Part of the reason for the increase is the attack on the renewable energy industry by Tony Abbott; an attack that saw investment collapse by 88 percent in 2014, while it soared across the world.
Labor is committed to ensuring that at least 50 percent of Australia’s electricity is sourced from renewable energy by 2030. Asked in the Parliament whether he’d join Labor in that goal, Turnbull described such a policy as ‘reckless’ and spruiked the benefits of clean coal. The Coalition under Turnbull now has no policy to support growth in renewable energy beyond 2020. And Turnbull has kept Tony Abbott’s legislation in the Parliament to abolish the Clean Energy Finance Corporation and the Australian Renewable Energy Agency, a position that is hard to square with his professed focus on innovation.
Emissions are also rising in the Queensland land sector after Campbell Newman abolished Queensland Labor’s land-clearing restrictions. John Howard supported the Queensland Labor reforms, but neither Tony Abbott nor Malcolm Turnbull objected to Newman’s vandalism. Labor’s laws – introduced by Peter Beattie and Anna Bligh – were arguably Australia’s most important environmental reforms in decades, and were the only reason Australia achieved its target in the Kyoto Protocol (hence Howard’s support).
After Newman’s reversal, land clearing rates doubled in Queensland, leading to the release of 35 million tonnes of carbon dioxide in 2013/2014 alone (about 6 percent of Australia’s annual total). Clearing rates of that magnitude have huge impacts on local biodiversity. The Queensland Auditor-General found that clearing accelerated at especially alarming rates in the Great Barrier Reef catchment areas, putting more pressure on an already stressed Reef. Queensland Deputy Premier, Jackie Trad, is currently building support for laws to be introduced in early 2016 to reinstate the earlier land clearing restrictions.
Jackie Trad’s work highlights the importance of strong action at a state level. One of the striking features of the Paris Conference was the contribution to the battle against climate change by sub-national governments: cities, states and provinces. Reflecting South Australia’s strong record in this area, Premier Jay Weatherill co-chaired a global coalition of state and provincial governments at Paris, pressing for an ambitious agreement by national governments. The Andrews Government in Victoria is driving that State back to a leadership position on renewable energy after the lost years of the Baillieu/Napthine Governments. And the ACT Labor Government continues to innovate in renewables policy.
But those efforts demand a strong Labor Government in Canberra too. Back in 2014, Labor confirmed that we would stick by our long-standing position to argue for an Emissions Trading Scheme at the next federal election; a scheme that caps carbon pollution levels and then reduces them in line with our international commitments. Direct Action, by contrast, will not even constrain – let alone reduce – the emissions of Australia’s largest polluters. Our targets for overall pollution reduction will be tougher than Malcolm Turnbull’s and in keeping with the best scientific and economic advice. And Labor won’t dish out billions of taxpayers dollars to Australia’s biggest polluters. Under our ETS, business will be able to find the cheapest, most effective way to reduce their pollution levels; but polluters will pay, not taxpayers. And Labor is committed to Australia reclaiming a leadership position in the race to harness the jobs and investment opportunities in clean energy and technology. Our target of 50 percent of Australia’s electricity being sourced from renewable energy by 2030 will be at the centre of that commitment.
The transition of Australia’s economy to a clean energy future is not negotiable. We simply have to find a way to dramatically reduce our carbon pollution levels along with the rest of the world to keep global warming to well below two degrees. Economic modeling demonstrates that this can be done in a way that preserves Australia’s economic dynamism and prosperity. But there will be big impacts on particular industries and regions, especially those with a heavy reliance on fossil fuels like the Latrobe Valley, Illawarra, Hunter and the Collie River Valley in WA. Media coverage of these impacts tends to focus on the possibility of stranded ‘assets’ and shareholder value. These are important matters, but Labor’s primary focus will be on the impact on workers and regional communities. At the Paris Conference, the Turnbull Government tried (unsuccessfully) to remove references in the Agreement to the need for this transition to be a ‘just transition’. A ‘just transition’ lies at the heart of Labor’s approach to this challenge.
The Paris climate conference was the most important – and the most successful – in the 21-year history of the UN Convention on Climate Change. It presented an enormous opportunity for Australia to re-boot its climate and renewable energy credentials after two years of Tony Abbott taking Australia backwards. It is now crystal clear that Malcolm Turnbull is unwilling or unable to walk away from Tony Abbott’s sorry legacy in this area. The rest of the world is moving to grasp the jobs and investment opportunities that come with meeting the challenge of climate change head on. The only way Australia can join them is the election of a Labor Government.