Australia’s carbon price gone – we need a new plan

July 25, 2014
Renewable energy is popular, unlike the carbon price.

The repeal of Australia’s carbon price is a milestone for a Coalition government that thinks nothing should stand between a mining company and big pile of money.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s government is packed with climate deniers and far right-wingers. But the conservative drive against the carbon price was not just about ideology. Most of all, it was a political expression of the consensus view held by corporate Australia: the environment comes last; profits come first.

It is also a blow to Australia’s movement for climate action. Key groups involved in the movement spent a lot of time, money and energy defending a weak and deeply flawed climate policy, at the expense of other climate-related issues. Now the plan has backfired.

For the past few years the default strategy of Australia’s climate movement has been to defend the Labor/Greens carbon price. Brainchild of the peak environmental NGOs and the federal Greens, the strategy demobilised its own supporters while its opponents gained confidence.

The movement rallied and protested for the carbon price, but it never had a say in what the policy included. These decisions were made by Greens and Labor MPs. The compromise they hammered out in 2010 helped cement the Greens/Labor alliance, but never helped to mobilise enthusiastic public support.

The carbon-price-first political strategy cost the climate movement its influence on the public debate. The movement lost sight of one of its original goals: to win the argument that it is necessary and possible to make a rapid shift to a zero emissions society.

Commitment to this strategy meant Labor was no longer under pressure from campaigners to improve its woeful record on climate change. No longer setting the agenda, the movement was placed on the back foot, having to defend a policy that fell far short of what it wanted. It meant that the biggest and longest-lasting public discussion on climate policy in Australia’s history was held on Labor’s terms.

But that said, didn’t the carbon price at least cut emissions? Two researchers from the Australian National University, Marianna O’Gorman and Frank Jotzo, released a paper on July 17 that said it had. They estimated the carbon price cut emissions from electricity generation by 11 to 17 million tonnes over its two years.

If that sounds impressive, it’s not. When in power, Labor said cumulative emissions needed to fall by 755 million tonnes by 2020 just to reach its target of 5% of 2000 levels. At a rate of 17 million tonnes every two years, the carbon price would have taken more than 88 years to reach the 5% mark sometime in the year 2103.

Had the carbon price survived, even less impressive results were to come. From next year the carbon price was to join the European Union’s crisis-prone Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS). Stagnating with rock-bottom prices due to an oversupply of carbon credits, the ETS has proved a disaster.

An alternative strategy could be to focus on a nationwide roll-out of renewable energy, which could complement Australia’s growing, regional-led campaigns to keep coal and coal seam gas in the ground.

There are plenty of advantages to changing the campaign focus. Renewable energy is popular. The carbon price was never popular. Renewables lower energy prices. The carbon price increased them. Renewable energy could make a big impact in a short time. The carbon price was designed to make a small impact over a long time.

But the case for a change in strategy is overwhelming. The results speak for themselves. Australia’s climate movement can regain the ground it has lost against the fossil fuel lobby, but to do so it will have to stop putting carbon pricing first.

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