Palmer United Party leader Clive Palmer held an unlikely joint press conference on June 25 with former US vice president and climate campaigner Al Gore.
It was one of those mindboggling moments in Australian politics that seem to be a more frequent occurrence in recent times. Palmer used the opportunity to announce his position on some key climate-related policies the incoming Senate will be voting on.
First, he announced he would vote to abolish the carbon tax. Having recently passed through the lower house, the support of the Palmer United Party (PUP) bloc will ensure the Coalition’s Carbon Tax Repeal bill will now have the numbers to pass in the Senate.
He put only one condition on his support for carbon tax repeal: guaranteed legislated assurances of cheaper electricity for households, which prime minister Tony Abbott has agreed to work with him on.
This announcement came as no surprise, as repealing the carbon tax was one of PUP’s pre-election promises. Palmer also has a strong personal interest in scrapping the carbon tax, as the owner of mining and coal companies, as well as a nickel refinery, which refused to pay its $36 million carbon tax bill for nine months.
While opposing the existing carbon price policy, and the subsequent transition to an Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS), he flagged that he would introduce a policy to bring in a new ETS with a starting carbon price of zero that would move to a floating price only when other countries acted first and implemented ETS schemes.
Strangely, he will introduce this as an amendment to the Climate Change Authority repeal bill, which he plans to vote against.
It is likely that this bill will be voted down, and hence Palmer’s proposal will go no further.
While this is a vague and underdeveloped policy, it clearly is not intended to reduce emissions in any meaningful way. ETS schemes currently in place in Europe have comprehensively failed to reduce emissions, and a carbon price of zero provides no incentive to fossil fuel companies to cut their emissions, rather it sends the signal that it’s full steam ahead for their right to pollute.
His preceding announcements were less predictable, and were welcomed by many climate activists.
Palmer announced he would vote to protect the Renewable Energy Target (RET), which aims to ensure that 20% of Australia’s electricity comes from renewable sources by 2020. The RET is currently being reviewed by a climate denialist-stacked panel appointed by the Abbott government, as a likely pretext to scrap it.
While Palmer said he will vote against any proposed changes to the RET, he only promised to protect it until the 2016 election, not long enough to give renewable energy developers much confidence.
He also pledged to vote against abolishing the Clean Energy Finance Corporation (CEFC), an important funding body with a total of $10 billion to invest in renewable energy and energy efficiency that could help fund large-scale projects such as building a solar thermal power station at Port Augusta in South Australia.
He will also support keeping the Climate Change Authority, which gives advice to government on climate policy, that Abbott plans to scrap.
Preventing the government from dismantling the majority of the existing, although inadequate, climate policies is definitely a good thing, and in particular saving the CEFC is great news for the climate movement.
But before we proclaim Palmer as a “climate saviour”, let’s remind ourselves of his real role and vested interest in Australia’s fossil fuel-dependent economy.
The recently approved China First mega-mine in the Galilee Basin, owned by Palmer, will produce an estimated 40 million tonnes of thermal coal a year over an expected life of about 30 years.
Building a port to export this coal will involve dredging and dumping in the World Heritage listed Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. The approval of this mine also makes the approval of future mega-mines in this region more likely.
Australia’s coal exports represent the country’s biggest contribution to climate change. If Palmer was even half serious about tackling the climate crisis, he would ditch his plans to build a giant new coal mine for a start, and divest from his many other fossil fuel interests.
But clearly he is not serious, because he’s a multi-millionaire mining magnate and a member of Australia’s self-serving capitalist class.
His real reasons for taking these policy positions are likely to be more about wedging Abbott and the Coalition, and an attempt to gain some “green” credibility with voters. His rationale for opposing the RET repeal for example, has centred on highlighting that it is another broken promise from the Abbott government, rather than its value in developing renewable energy.
Ultimately, all the current “debate” around climate policy taking place within parliament is so far off the mark of what is needed to address the problem that it is window dressing on the Titanic at best, and disastrous steps in the wrong direction at worst.
We need to build a climate movement to the point where it can call out these political games for what they are, and demand an urgent transition away from fossil fuels to large-scale renewable energy.