Our Common Cause: Carbon trading not solution to climate crisis

July 4, 2014
Clive Palmer's proposed emissions trading scheme with a starting price of $0 will do nothing to stop climate change.

Clive Palmer is proving to be a more adept and unpredictable populist than many of us gave him credit for. The latest surprise was his decision to back the abolition of the carbon tax while opposing the scrapping of the Renewable Energy Target, Clean Energy Finance Corporation and the Climate Change Commission.

Palmer then topped it off by proposing an emissions trading scheme (ETS) with a starting price of $0, pending Australia's trading partners setting up similar schemes. Self-evidently this will do nothing to drive down carbon emissions. But it is time we confronted the misplaced faith in an ETS of any sort.

When Julia Gillard was prime minister we were told time and again by Labor, and the climate report it commissioned Ross Garnaut to write, that only a market mechanism like an ETS would reduce emissions. There was no proof to back it up, but plenty of progressive-minded people bought into it.

With the support of the Greens, the government created a carbon tax that is set to turn into an ETS next year. When this happens, Australia’s carbon market will be linked to Europe’s and this volatile market will set the price of carbon here.

In Europe, where carbon trading schemes have existed for years now, grass roots environmental organisations are calling for them to be scrapped because they've proven to be worse than useless.


Europe’s ETS has resulted in large subsidies being paid to the biggest polluting companies and has not resulted in a drop in emissions.

The loud opposition of the Coalition, mining companies and climate sceptics to Gillard's “big new tax” only confirmed the view that an ETS must be the silver bullet.

However, the suggestion that only a “market mechanism” could save us is pretty weird, considering it is the market — or capitalism — that got us into the global warming mess in the first place.

It is non-market mechanisms such as the Renewable Energy Target, Clean Energy Finance Corporation, energy efficiency and the closure of dirty industries that are responsible for the drop in emissions in the past few years.

To stop runaway global warming and absolutely catastrophic ecosystem collapse, industrialised countries like Australia will need to cut emissions by over 60%, not the feeble 5% proposed by Labor and the Coalition. In fact we will need to be become net zero carbon emission economies, and in pretty short order.

A carbon tax by itself may have a useful role, but the danger is that the polluting corporations will just pass on the cost to consumers without changing their ways. It's that very fear that the Coalition was able to stoke.

The idea that the public should pay to create the renewable energy infrastructure of the future while the big mining companies keep on making billions in profit is absurd. It's the sale of fossil fuels that should be paying for the transformation. Fossil fuels should be subsidising their own obsolescence.

But the fossil fuel mafia will fiercely protect their business model, even if it costs the Earth. So any change would require breaking the economic and political power of the corporations that rule Australia.

It's hard to see that happening any time soon. But unless we confront that truth we won't get anywhere. To do this we need to build a movement that can fight for real democracy not just in our political system, but in our economic system too.


The widespread fury at Abbott's budget has given us the biggest chance in a while of convincing people that a real break with the past way of doing things is both possible and necessary.

Abbott is on the ropes and we need to keep it that way. The first step towards a better society and a safe climate is to plunge the government and all it represents into crisis.

As such it was profoundly disappointing that both Labor and the Greens chose to support much of Abbott’s budget and not block supply by passing the Appropriation Bills on June 23. Only Independent Andrew Wilkie and Palmer voted against it in the lower house. There were no votes against it in the Senate.

Apparently there was some pretty stiff internal debate about it in the Greens, but clearly the more conservative types won. That meant Palmer was able to pose as a defender of the ABC, pensions, legal aid and the CSIRO.

The Labor Party justified their actions by arguing that blocking supply was what the Coalition did to Gough Whitlam, something they would never do.

Of course if the Senate had rejected the supply bills it would not necessarily cause a “constitutional crisis” as the government would be free to appropriately amend and resubmit them. Failing that they would have to call a new election.

Does anyone want to wait another three years for an election, by which time people’s anger may have simmered down?

And even if the Coalition is thrown out at the next election, Labor will argue that they cannot reverse the Coalition’s bad legislation because “you can't unscramble the egg”; just as they did with the Workplace Relation Act, the GST and much of WorkChoices.

Notice how the Coalition has no hesitation is repealing legislation they don't like. They play to win.


In 1975 supply was blocked in order to launch an offensive against working people. Today we needed it blocked in order to defend working people.

Greens leader Christine Milne accused Wilkie of pulling a “stunt” by voting against supply. It wasn't a stunt but a strategic necessity. It would have put wind in our sails if the Greens had done the same, even if Labor had not.

So the job now is to build up a movement that can put pressure on the opposition parties to block everything else that remains of this rotten budget; and to build that movement on the streets, in our communities and on the picket lines to fight the Abbott agenda anywhere and everywhere. Our future depends on it.

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