Labor’s 43% climate target is not nearly enough

July 20, 2022
Image: Vivian Miley

Labor has launched a campaign to pressure the Greens to accept its inadequate 43% emissions reduction target when parliament resumes on July 26.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese updated Australia’s nationally determined contribution under the United Nations Paris agreement to a 43% reduction on 2005 levels by 2030, as well as net zero by 2050.

The Coalition opposes such targets — it campaigned for a 26–28% cut at the federal elections — which is why the Labor government needs the Greens’ support in the Senate to pass its bill.

However Labor is attacking the Greens, claiming the party is responsible for almost a “decade of inaction” on climate because it did not support the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme (CPRS) in 2009.

Albanese said there would be no negotiating a higher target with the Greens, or anyone else, as business needed certainty.

Environment minister Tanya Plibersek told the Press Club on July 19 that as Labor took these targets to the election and won it was “not going to break an election promise”.

The Greens said the draft bill is not good enough.

“It’s good that we’re finally taking action on climate, but we need to do better,” Greens leader Adam Bandt told Insiders on July 17. He said the Greens “strongly preferred approach is to improve and pass” the bill, although they want Labor to put a 6-month moratorium on all new coal and gas projects, including the Beetalolo gas field in the Northern Territory and a coal project in the Narrabri in New South Wales, until at least the COP27 global climate change conference in Egypt in November.

He also indicated that the Greens have not ruled out blocking it.

The Greens are arguing for a 75% cut on 2005 levels by 2030, a position that aligns with calls from climate scientists.

Keen observers will notice that Labor is not arguing the merits of its low target. It is not citing any climate scientists, nor is it presenting any climate or economic modelling to support the target.

Labor’s sole argument is that it took this number to the federal election. People like the idea of a government keeping its election promises. However, it is a misreading of the election result to assert that only Labor’s 43% target has popular support.

First, there was a strong mood to vote for anyone but the Coalition and Scott Morrison. Labor promised very little and still won.

Second, Greens and “Teal Independents” did very well with much stronger climate targets while Labor’s vote dropped.

Third, people want meaningful climate action. The science demands greater emissions cuts if we are to maintain a liveable climate.

Labor prefers its target — lower even than the Business Council and the Australian Industry Group ones — because it allows fossil fuel projects to continue.

Even with such a low target and dodgy “offsets”, Labor can talk up a number of initiatives and claim successes on domestic renewable energy and electric cars.

At the same time, as Plibersek made clear on July 19 in reply to a question at the Press Club, Labor is going to continue to strongly support fossil fuel exports, ruling out responsibility for a warming planet as a result of greenhouse gas emissions arising from exports (Scope 3 emissions).

Labor is also arguing that the 43% target is a “floor, not a ceiling” meaning that it is possible to reduce emissions by more than 43% but this proposed new law will guarantee at least that much reduction.

Bandt disputes this, arguing on Insiders that Labor’s bill “potentially puts a ceiling on the ambition”. He said a future government “might have to come back to parliament” if it wanted to lift the target.

He also said “it is probably not a genuine floor” meaning that it may be possible for a potential future Peter Dutton government to officially adopt a lower target without changing the legislation.

Importantly, Bandt argued that the critical action needed to reduce emissions is to stop new coal, gas and oil developments and this bill does not advance that.

What of Labor’s claims about the Greens’ alleged failure in 2009?

There is a lot of myth-making about this period. Arguably, the Kevin Rudd Labor government, elected in 2007, had a mandate for far reaching climate action. His government quickly ratified the Kyoto Protocol, something the previous John Howard Coalition government had stubbornly refused to do.

However, typical of the Rudd government, this was more symbolic than practical. Unlike other advanced capitalist countries, Australia was already on track to meet its Kyoto target because of the unfair “Australia clause” that had been included in the original treaty negotiations.

It was not until 2009 that the government came forward with the CPRS — an emissions trading scheme. Climate activists dubbed it the “Continue Polluting Regardless Scheme” because it was so inadequate.

The CPRS was rejected by the climate movement as a whole, not just the Greens. Some of its biggest problems included: a weak 5% emissions reduction target; polluting industries would have been compensated billions of dollars; and it relied on dodgy international “offsets”.

Green Left said at the time that “the CPRS is simply not designed to reduce emissions to safe levels … Rather, it’s carefully designed to prevent the serious action required and instead protect the profit margins of the dirtiest industries. Under the government’s emissions trading scheme, some of Australia’s biggest polluters are even expected to expand production”.

The Greens were correct to reject the CPRS. If anything, the party was too generous in supporting then Labor PM Julia Gillard’s 2011 carbon price that, while not as bad, shared many of the CPRS’ dubious features.

The “decade of inaction” that Labor accuses the Greens of instigating is in fact a product of the former’s refusal to take climate action seriously.

Real climate action is impossible without a meaningful plan to phase out the mining, export and use of fossil fuels.

The only way to prevent the 2020s from becoming another “decade of inaction” is to sharply restrict fossil fuel developments: Plibersek has a chance to refuse 27 coal projects, according to the Sunrise Project.

Global heat records are being broken now. June had the equal hottest global average temperature on record and this is a La Niña year, when temperatures are typically cooler.

We need to look at the big picture. Excuses and deflections to win a political debate are no substitute for good climate policy. We need much larger emission reductions than Labor’s offerings if we are to ensure a liveable climate for our children and grandchildren.

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