Prime Minister Scott Morrison is now going to attend the United Nations climate summit in Glasgow (COP26) and the Nationals are reluctantly falling in behind his much-belated conversion to net zero emissions by 2050.
So, should we be celebrating? Not really.
First, it’s a meaningless target for a country with one of the highest per capita emission rates compared with Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development countries because it delays the necessary transition, making it harder for workers and communities who will have to bear the brunt of the changes.
Secondly, it comes with lots of caveats — which the Nationals are now busy extracting, bit by bit. The Nationals’ demand that rural areas be exempted from the net zero goal has not fallen on deaf ears: billions of dollars are likely to still come their way in the form of fossil fuel public subsidies.
The Australia Institute estimates that Australia’s fossil fuel subsidies amounted to a staggering $10.3 billion over 2020–21. This breaks down to $19,686 being handed over, every minute of every day, to coal, oil and gas companies and major users of fossil fuels.
The Nationals have now been told by Morrison that the Liberals can go their own way on the 2050 target. His change of heart on at least being seen to be doing something on climate coincides with Rupert Murdoch’s editorial directive and, it would appear, a little encouragement from United States President Joe Biden. Climate is also a security issue, Morrison was told by the US and Britain in their confab over the new war alliance, AUKUS.
As the rift between the fossil fuel capitalists and the green capitalists plays out in Australia, we’ll be treated to a few such about turns and a heavy dose of greenwashing.
A bigger section of capital is now looking to profit from the largely-privately owned charge to produce renewable energy. Iron ore billionaire Andrew 'Twiggy' Forrest believes there is a “genuine thirst” for green energy. His Fortescue Metals Group is lining up to commit his new “green arm”, Fortescue Future Industries, to be in the forefront of making money from green energy.
The Nationals’ Matt Canavan, who is leading the charge against supporting net zero by 2050, knows the writing is on the wall. But, he is determined to extract whatever concessions he can from the Cabinet for the coal and gas corporations. His “Aussie Coal” speech to parliament on October 19 was full of rhetoric about caring for the jobs of “ordinary workers”.
“Woke net zero targets will weaken us” is Canavan’s campaign slogan. It may sound bizarre but it has gotten Morrison to concede, on October 18, that net zero by 2050 will not be applied to gas, resources and agricultural exports.
Canavan’s argument that the regions will suffer in any transition rings true – but this is only because the government refuses to put the resources into planning for the transition. Leaving the transition to the market — Canavan’s position — means that workers and communities in the fossil fuel industries will be shafted if China, Japan and South Korea meet their climate commitments under the Paris Accord.
Of course, communities could also benefit from a transition away from fossil fuels (aside from the beneficial climate change impacts). Research from Beyond Zero Emissions shows that Renewable Energy Industrial Precincts in Gladstone in Queensland and the Hunter Valley in New South Wales could add $13 billion to the economy and 45,000 ongoing jobs by 2032.
But if these ideas are being left to the market, it means some billionaires are going to win, while ordinary workers in the fossil fuel industries will lose out.
It is wrong for public subsidies, at both federal and state levels, to continue to flow to coal, oil and gas companies, holding the transition back even more.
If state governments were forced to reallocate the $1.2 billion they currently spend on subsidising exploration, refurbishing coal ports, railways and power stations and funding “clean coal” research on creating more jobs through speeding up the transition to renewables we would be in less danger.
There is a different way — one that Green Left has been championing for many years. Governments could invest in a campaign of public works to rapidly shift to 100% renewable energy generation and to make housing, transport and other industries carbon neutral.