“Climate change is no more a matter of belief than the coronavirus is. It’s about heeding the evidence — and it is overwhelming.”
So said federal Labor leader Anthony Albanese, in his much touted speech to the Press Club on June 24, which focused on energy policy to address the climate crisis.
Australia has one of the world's highest per capita levels of greenhouse gas emissions, because so much of our electricity is generated by fossil fuels. Fossil fuels provide 93% of our electricity (83% coal, 10% gas), with only 7% coming from renewables.
And yet, Albanese’s speech contained no ground-breaking commitments on fossil fuels from Labor.
Last summer, Australians experienced the most savage bushfires. The Bureau of Meteorology said: “The extensive and long-lived fires appear to be the largest in scale in the modern record in New South Wales while the total area burnt in Australia appears to be the largest in a single recorded fire season for eastern Australia.”
In January the ACT recorded its worst pollution as a result of the fires with an air quality index 23 times higher than what is considered “hazardous”. In total the fires caused 33 deaths, destroyed more than 3000 homes, burned more than 10 million hectares of bushland and killed more than a billion animals.
The royal commission into national natural disaster arrangements heard evidence that fires of that scale will occur with greater frequency as the climate grows hotter.
“This isn’t a one-off event that we’re looking at here,” the Bureau of Meteorology head of climate monitoring Dr Karl Braganza told the hearing.
The situation is grave. There is no time for tinkering around the edges or mollifying climate deniers. Climate scientists have made it very clear that greenhouse gas emissions must drop to zero as soon as possible.
A genuine plan to reduce carbon emissions and diminish any future climatic disasters, would include promises for government investment in renewable energy and large scale solar thermal projects, ending coal exports and protecting Australia’s forests.
It would also include large investment in public transport infrastructure and ceasing funding for major road and freeway constructions; the implementation of carbon audits throughout industry and the imposition of sanctions for cases of failure to implement world’s-lowest-emissions technology; a plan to close the most energy-intensive and polluting industries (coal, aluminium, cement etc), with workers retrained on full pay; alternative industries established, especially in rural and regional areas; and a sharp increase in taxation of polluting industries if they do not meet pollution reduction targets.
Collaborate with government
Instead Albanese called on the federal government to collaborate, something they are unlikely to do, unless Labor moves even further away from any substantial initiatives to tackle the climate crisis.
He backed Morrison’s carbon capture and storage (CCS) projects. He lamented their disregard for science on climate. He said he was disappointed about their lack of support for investment in renewables and generally in research and development but made no promises about how a Labor government would behave differently.
He did recommit federal Labor to a target of net zero carbon emissions by 2050 but did not set any emission targets for the short term, to be achieved by 2030.
Greens leader Adam Bandt argued that short-term goals had to be locked in before talking about long term targets.
"We need strong 2030 targets. Labor, by ditching its 2030 targets and instead focusing on a 2050 — that blows the Paris agreement — is letting Scott Morrison off the hook, because now there'll be less pressure on him to take action by 2030," he said.
Albanese dismissed putting a price on carbon. He maintains it is not necessary because the cost of establishing new renewables has been falling, making them more attractive to business investors. However new investment in renewable energy fell by 50% last year and Morrison has lauded gas as a means to reduce emissions.
Albanese said Labor remained opposed to the Emissions Reduction Fund (ERF), which pays big business to reduce their carbon emissions, but that it would abide by all contracts. The ERF has been criticised for the levels of pollution or “baseline emissions” permitted and because firms have been given extra latitude to pollute when a business has grown, or simply because they polluted more than their original baseline.
His support for Carbon Capture and Storage is another example of Labor’s inadequate climate policies.
CCS involves capturing carbon dioxide and burying it deep underground. CCS leads to a 16% increase in emissions of other serious air pollutants, such as sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and particulate matter. Moreover, many challenge the storage security, highlighting the risk of leaks.
Extra energy is needed to capture, compress, transport and store CO2, thus more fossil fuel is needed. Large energy corporations love the idea because it means they could continue using fossil fuels while giving their industries more access to public funds.
CCS has a long history of gaining large amounts of tax payer funds, while not creating any serious CCS projects or reductions in carbon emissions. This money could be used for less expensive and clean renewables instead.
But Albanese’s speech was never about a transformative plan to cut emissions. Albanese has to pretend to address the climate crisis for the next federal election while appeasing the climate deniers within. Some in the right faction have used the loss in the previous federal election and particularly the results in Queensland as evidence that Labor must put the economy and jobs before worrying about the climate. They want to protect carbon-intensive industries and ditch opposition to mining projects such as Adani's mine in the Galilee Basin in Queensland.
At the same time, the Labor leader has to make the party attractive to the majority of Australians, especially young people, who desperately want path-breaking climate policy.
It is also a signal to big business that Labor is not a threat to them.
This speech is a juggling act that promises little but attempts to demonstrate his commitment to addressing the climate crisis, soothe the climate deniers within Labor as well as the Morrison government itself and reassure the Business Council of Australia.