Australian Greens debate emissions trading

A debate is underway in the Australian Greens about how the party should respond to the Rudd government's Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme (CPRS).

On March 21, a meeting of the Greens national council in Perth will consider the options.

Greens members have told Green Left Weekly that the key question in dispute is how will the Greens vote in the Senate when the CPRS legislation is presented. The Greens have been strong critics of the government's plan since it was announced in December.

Unless the ALP strikes a last-minute deal with the Coalition to get the legislation through, the Greens have the numbers to stop the government's pro-business emissions scheme in the Senate and force the government to go back to the drawing board.

Will they grasp this opportunity?

Despite mounting criticisms that the CPRS will fail to reduce Australia's emissions to safe levels, PM Kevin Rudd and minister for climate change Penny Wong have repeatedly said no changes will be tolerated.

The $9 billion worth of free handouts to the wealthiest polluters is here to stay, they say.

The scheme's design, which means all carbon usage reductions by individuals will only allow the dirtiest industries to pollute more, cannot be altered.

The paltry emissions reduction target of 5% by 2020 — a target that plainly ignores the urgings from climate scientists for far deeper cuts — is not negotiable.

The ALP government's intransigence is no surprise. The ABC's Four Corners on March 9 provided detailed confirmation that the CPRS is the product of immense pressure and lobbying from the corporate interests that profit most from Australia's heavy reliance on fossil fuels.

The big polluters are calling the shots in shaping the ALP's climate policy, rendering it disastrously ineffective.

Tactically, Rudd and Wong also hope that by holding out to the last moment they might successfully pressure the Greens to accept a compromise, and secure the legislation's passage largely unchanged.

The debate in the Greens revolves around three principal options.

Should the Greens propose amendments to the CPRS bill, but still vote for it in the end "under protest" because a flawed emissions scheme is better than nothing at all?

This option has support among the more conservative, parliamentary-orientated section of the Greens — those least inclined to break from business-as-usual politics because they fear it could be electorally unpopular.

This short-term outlook denies the unyielding reality of the climate emergency. The laws of chemistry and physics care nothing for "shrewd" parliamentary maneuvers — global warming does not play politics.

Alternatively, should the Greens put forward some serious amendments and tell the government that the incorporation of all amendments are a condition of their support?

One policy proposal currently circulating in the Greens is arguing for this firmer approach. It argues that the Greens should draw a line in the sand over the massive handouts to big polluters, demand the scheme enables individual actions to make a difference, and ensure that the income generated from the sale of carbon permits is redirected to investment in renewable energy.

If the Greens took this stand, but were eventually forced to vote against the CPRS, it could win the Greens wide respect for standing up to the powerful "greenhouse mafia" and galvanise public debate on real action to reduce emissions.

A third tendency has the closest links with the grassroots climate movement and questions whether carbon trading schemes can play a significant role at all in a serious climate policy.

A policy proposal along these lines points to the recent failure of emissions trading in the European Union.

This position holds that emissions trading should not be the major response to climate change because it will not significantly reduce emissions but will result in higher energy costs for low- and middle-income earners.

Rather than support based on emissions trading, the Greens should argue for strong government intervention in renewables and emphasise a "just transition" to create green jobs.

This position is most closely aligned with what science, and global justice, demands.

The environment movement will be keenly watching the outcome of this debate.

In January, more than 500 people attended the Climate Action Summit in Canberra. The summit participants, representing more than 150 climate action groups nationwide, decided that the CPRS must be prevented from becoming law.

The Greens' spokesperson on climate change, Senator Christine Milne, was a keynote speaker at the summit. She commended the grassroots climate movement and said that the Greens aimed to represent the movement's aims in parliament.

Milne received a standing ovation after her speech — an accolade received by no other speaker.

The movement will be watching to see if its confidence was well-founded.

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