Climate policy: Labor has none, Greens fall short

July 31, 2010
Protest outside the electoral office of outgoing Labor MP Lindsay Tanner, March 2009. Photo:

This federal election both Labor and the Coalition have failed to present any serious policies to address climate change. The Greens on the other hand have a plan to cut emissions, but does it go far enough?

The Coalition’s Tony Abbott rose to the leadership with the backing of a hardcore group of climate denier MPs. His “direct action” policy on climate change has two big problems: it’s not direct and it’s not much action.

A July 15 study for the Climate Institute by consultancy firm Climate Risk predicted that Abbott’s promise to set up an Emissions Reduction Fund would allow emissions to rise 7% by 2020 and 15% by 2050, based on 1990 levels.

But absurdly, this is still better than Labor’s policy. Climate Risk found the Labor’s election promises on climate would make emissions 21% higher than 1990 levels by 2020 and 62% higher by 2050.

A week after the study was released; Labor PM Julia Gillard finally announced a new climate policy. Labor’s new policy would still see emissions increase 19% from 1990 levels by 2020, said the Climate Institute on July 27.

Gillard said that, if reelected, her government would delay significant action until at least 2012. Instead, she would call together a citizen’s assembly on climate change in 2011 to discuss the options. Her decision to delay has impressed few people.

Labor has also announced a new “cash for clunkers” scheme, whereby the government will give owners of pre-1995 cars $2000 if they buy a new, more fuel-efficient car.

However, in the policy’s fine print it said the $400 million cost of the scheme would be subtracted from other federal climate policies, including the solar flagships program and the renewable energy bonus.

The July 27 Age said Labor had estimated that each tonne of emissions reduced under the scheme will cost about $394.

To put that in perspective, a 2009 study by the Australia Institute said the government could buy Victoria’s Hazelwood power station — the developed world’s most polluting — and close it down at a cost of between $6.72 and $16.81 a tonne.

The Age’s Michael Green summed up the usefulness of the scheme on July 27: “If Labor wants to improve the efficiency of our car fleet, it should impose strict fuel efficiency regulations, not give away cash for no demonstrable gain …

“As an advocate for action on climate change, Gillard does a perfect impression of a shonky used-car dealer”, he said. “Sure, she’s put cash for clunkers through a green wash, but it's a lemon. Don't buy it.”

Gillard has claimed it’s not possible to move faster on climate because there is too much public division over the issue. But the Victorian government’s July 26 announcement of its new climate policy has undermined her argument.

Labor Premier John Brumby said his government would legislate to cut 20% of the state’s emissions by 2020, based on 2000 levels. Part of the plan is to close down 25% of Hazelwood.

In contrast to Gillard, he told ABC radio’s PM program on July 26: “The weight of scientific opinion in Australia and internationally is overwhelming and we need to tackle this issue and we need to tackle it now before the costs escalate into the future.”

The Brumby government’s new climate policy reveals how much it has felt the heat of a well-organised community campaign calling for the closure of Hazelwood.

Climate campaigners said Brumby’s plan falls far short of what is needed to stop dangerous climate change and have said they will continue to press for the full closure of the power plant.

Even though it is not enough, Victorian Labor’s announcement is very embarrassing for its federal counterpart.

Compared to the two big parties, the Greens’ climate policy is streets ahead.

However, the Climate Risk study also indicated that there is still a large gap between the Greens’ emissions cuts target and what its policies can deliver.

During the July 25 televised debate between Gillard and Abbott, Greens leader Bob Brown said on Twitter: “Only the Greens will cut carbon emissions by 40% by 2020, with energy efficiency, renewables and saving forests.” This reflects the Greens’ official “Climate Change and Energy” policy released November 2009.

Yet Climate Risk estimated that the Greens’ current policies, if carried out in full, would cut emissions by only 26% by 2020.

Most of this (18%) would come from four key Greens climate policies: raising the government’s Renewable Energy Target from 20% to 30%; scaling back logging and land clearing to achieve net zero emissions; applying strong energy efficiency measures and; creating a gross feed in tariff to subsidise renewable energy.

The study assumed the other 8% would result from another Greens policy — its support for an emissions trading scheme. However, this small cut is a big assumption given the meagre outcomes of emissions trading in the European Union and elsewhere.

Also, the figure assumes a fifth of the cuts will be made up of carbon offset credits bought from overseas. To count these offsets as Australian emissions cuts is very dubious accounting.

But even supposing the Climate Risk figures are solid, how will the Greens make up the 14% shortfall? At the moment, there are no answers to this. The figures don’t add up.

One straightforward way to close the gap would be for the Greens to adopt a plan for 100% renewable energy by 2020.

In its recent stationary energy report, climate advocacy group Beyond Zero Emissions (BZE) has proved this is possible using only commercially available renewable technology.

Greens Senator Christine Milne helped launch the BZE report at Parliament House in June. But a commitment to 100% renewables by 2020 has not yet been adopted by the Greens.

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