Labor’s safeguard mechanism: Not enough for a safe climate

April 11, 2023
Sydney climate strike on March 3. Photo: Zebedee Parkes

Adam Bandt announced on March 27 that the Greens had negotiated improvements to Labor’s inadequate “safeguard mechanism” and subsequently voted with Labor to make it law.

The negotiated amendments improve Labor’s initial, terrible proposal, but are not enough to make it worthy of support.

The safeguard mechanism is meant to enforce limited reductions to carbon emissions at around 215 heavily polluting facilities, run by companies like Santos, BHP, Anglo Coal, Woodside, Chevron and Rio Tinto.

However, it relies on trading carbon offsets (Australian Carbon Credit Units or ACCUs) and “safeguard emission credits” rather than measures to actually cut emissions. According to ANU Professor Andrew Macintosh, offsets in Australia are “devoid of integrity” in “70 to 80 per cent” of cases.

The most significant amendment is the introduction of a “hard cap” on emissions. Prior to this, there was no limit on how much emissions could increase under the mechanism — certainly leading to significantly higher emissions.

Nick Feik, a former editor of The Monthly, said on the Serious Danger podcast on April 1 that the headline figures for emission reductions from the safeguard mechanism are still figures for “net emissions” — not actual emissions.

This means that offsets remain the safeguard mechanism’s primary focus.

While the “hard cap” means that total emissions are meant to fall, this does not mean that real emissions have to fall by the same rate.

“So there is an actual cap,” Feik said, “but the cap is not falling by 5% per year — it’s falling could be as low as 1% per year”. Further, he said “the legislation only clarifies that this is the policy intent”.

“There is no mechanism in the legislation that requires individual companies to actually cut their emissions. There were no amendments introduced that will change the behaviour of individual companies,” Feik said. This means the onus is on the minister to ensure the cap is not breached.

If there is a change of government (or even a change of minister) by 2030, there is nothing in the new law to prevent the minister from simply rejecting the cap.

Feik said that if the cap is breached, “the minister can then turn around and change the rules — this is written into legislation if they breach the cap”. “So, it is not a hard cap.”

The amendments stipulate that the Beetaloo Gas Project in the Northern Territory and all new liquefied natural gas fields will have to be “net zero” — emissions will have to be covered by offsets. This will create an added expense for the corporations, but it will not stop them from proceeding.

To illustrate how little the fossil fuel industry is disrupted by having to fork out for offsets, Woodside has already purchased nearly all it expects to need between now and 2030.

Another amendment means that offsets from “human induced regeneration” — a dodgy carbon removal, or sequestration, methodology to draw down carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and store it in vegetation — will now be reviewed. However, this was already happening before the negotiations began.

Bandt claimed on March 26 that the amendments will “stop many of the 116 new projects in the investment pipeline” and “derail the Beetaloo & Barossa gas projects”.

These claims are exaggerated.

The 116 new projects include developments at all stages of the planning process. Some may have fallen over anyway for financial or other reasons.

Perhaps some will be pushed over the edge by the updated safeguard mechanism, but these will be the projects that are already marginal. It is not enough compensation for the negatives built into the package.

Tamboran Resources, which is running the Beetaloo gas project, is not fazed. It said it welcomed “the certainty” from the safeguard mechanism.

Overall, the amendments might result in some marginal improvements and make some fossil fuel developments a bit more expensive.

However, they are not enough to make any significant dent in the corporate juggernaut of fossil fuel-driven climate catastrophe.

The only power that can stop that is a massively expanded and energised climate movement — the “one billion climate activists” that climate scientist Peter Kalmus, among others, has called for.

The Greens’ negotiating position was for no new coal and gas projects. Labor rejected that from the start.

The Greens probably secured as good a deal as was possible, but as Bandt himself noted: “Negotiating with Labor is like negotiating with the political wing of the coal and gas corporations. Labor seems more afraid of them than climate collapse, more afraid of Woodside than global warming.”

A better deal was never going to be struck without sustained extra-parliamentary pressure: the Greens failed to do even the minimum on this. They should have called a national day of protest action for “no new coal and gas” during the negotiations.

The Greens have been hounded by the establishment since they refused, correctly, to support Kevin Rudd’s Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme (CPRS) in 2009. The proposed emissions trading scheme had been discussed and debated at a conference of 500 activists with the consensus being it was not only inadequate, but dangerous.

The problem with the CPRS is the same as the safeguard mechanism: it is not designed to reduce emissions to safe levels, nor to start the transformation of Australia’s fossil-fuel dependent economy, promote green jobs or encourage the establishment of a sustainable energy grid based on renewables.

Rather, it is carefully designed to prevent the serious action required for a safe climate.

Greens Senator Nick McKim correctly pointed out that environment NGOs, like the Australian Conservation Foundation, undermined the pressure on Labor for “no new coal and gas”.

However, the Greens need to recognise that there is no parliamentary road to a safe climate when the two major parties are held captive by the fossil fuel corporations.

By making dubious justifications for their vote for the amended legislation, the Greens have undermined the potential to build such a movement.

[Alex Bainbridge is a member of the Socialist Alliance national executive.]

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