The worst thing about the Labor government’s proposed carbon price scheme is that it’s a diversion from real action on climate change.
Few of its supporters say it will deliver significant renewable energy or emissions cuts any more — only that it will “start the process” and complement other measures.
It won’t really make the big polluters pay, but it will give them millions, if not billions, in compensation handouts.
It is designed to become an emissions trading scheme, which has not brought emissions down anywhere.
The Labor government has said repeatedly that it wants the carbon price to drive a boom in natural gas. But taken over its full life cycle, using gas for energy is as bad as burning coal.
Labor Treasurer Wayne Swan told parliament on May 25 that the carbon price would help the coal industry too. He said: “I am so optimistic about the future of our coal industry because we have some of the cleanest coal in the world.”
This hasn’t reassured the Liberal Party and the fossil fuel lobby. Their campaign against the carbon price has made headway.
They have made countless absurd claims: the carbon price will supposedly shut down industries, destroy regional towns, throw tens of thousands out of work, add thousands of dollars to annual grocery bills and cause rolling power blackouts.
For them, facts just get in the way. Their real messages is that any action on climate will always hurt working people and the climate problem is exaggerated, if it exists at all.
The climate denier crusade has left Labor floundering, but has also had an impact on the big environmental groups and the Greens.
They have moderated their demands and asked for less, pretending the carbon price plan is better than it is in the hope that at least something can be salvaged.
A sign-on statement circulated by Climate Action Network Australia in February said: “Saying yes to a price on pollution means saying yes to investment, innovation, and new jobs based on renewable energy that never runs out.”
But there is no evidence Labor’s carbon price will deliver these things. Supporting the carbon price in this way does nothing to pressure the government to go further — it takes the pressure off.
The federal Greens have made some big policy concessions to Labor in the carbon price negotiations.
In 2010, the Greens agreed to compromise on the emissions cut target for the carbon price, accepting that Labor would not go beyond its tiny 5% reduction by 2020.
On May 25, Greens leader Bob Brown said the party would compromise on the actual price too — abandoning its preferred $40 a tonne for Labor’s $20 price.
And in return, Labor has conceded nothing.
Through this process, the most important climate measures — public investment in renewables, mass transit, energy efficiency and sustainable farming — have been sidelined.
A well-designed carbon price could play a positive role. But market mechanisms cannot be the driving force in the transition we so badly need.