The passing of the carbon pricing legislation was a history-making event, but it is just the start of a long journey. [15 November 2011 | Peter Boyer]
“Today we have made history,” Julia Gillard told a packed news conference in the wake of her government’s carbon tax victory last week. “After all those years of debate and division, our nation has got the job done.”
She got the first bit right. The passing of this legislation will be a signpost in our history, alongside events like the shearers’ strike, the ascendancy of Robert Menzies, the dismissal of Gough Whitlam and the abandonment of trade tariffs.
Whatever we think of a carbon tax, the passage through parliament of those 18 bills has already changed us. Whether we love it or loathe it, the simple fact that after so much travail and turmoil it is now embedded in law signifies a shift to a new national mindset.
The pain of this shift was there for all to see in the six days of the Senate debate — in the repeated motions and points of order used by the Coalition to delay the inevitable end, and in the anger and foreboding in the voices of leaders Eric Abetz and Barnaby Joyce and numerous vocal colleagues.
If we believe half of what they said in that rancorous debate, the passage of these bills will cause the Australian economy to go into free-fall, taking with it our cherished way of life.
They’re wrong. Whatever we suffer as global uncertainty drags on, carbon pricing won’t be a factor. It will, however, help to prepare us for an alternative future in which fossil-fuel energy is gradually but inevitably marginalised, revealed for the blind alley that it is.
Aiming to drive innovation to transform and reinvigorate Australia’s economy and society, “Clean Energy Future” is a four-pronged program.
• Guided by an independent Climate Change Authority, the carbon tax and the cap-and-trade scheme that follows from 2015 aim at being flexible enough to meet changing demands as we get closer to target years.
• The renewable energy package includes two new institutions, the Clean Energy Finance Corporation and the Australian Renewable Energy Agency, to support and guide development of renewable energy.
• Reforms to Australia’s electricity market spelt out in the package’s energy efficiency laws will require it to encourage reduced demand while incorporating more renewable energy in its mix.
• Carbon stores in land and vegetation will be enhanced and protected, with the Biodiversity Fund aiming to build ecosystem resilience by enhancing natural diversity.
This was a significant achievement. Gillard, along with Climate Change Minister Greg Combet, Senators Bob Brown and Christine Milne, and the independent MPs Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott, members of the multi-party committee that guided preparation of the legislation, deserved the applause that came at the end.
But now the backslapping is over. In her moment of triumph Gillard imagined that “our nation has got the job done”, but it hasn’t. She and her Labor and Green colleagues know that this journey has just begun. So do more than a handful of Coaltion MPs. The rest are irrelevant.
The new laws don’t cover most transport emissions, a big part of Tasmania’s carbon footprint. With the International Energy Agency now predicting a 50 per cent rise in oil prices in the next few years, we’ll be in deep trouble here if we don’t act quickly to curb our use of petrol and diesel.
All the noise about the $23-a-tonne starting price being too high masked the reality that at that level its impact on national emissions will be minimal. It’s a political fix — perhaps the price that we needed to get the package through — but by itself it won’t bring any marked behaviour change.
Australia’s emissions trajectory, which leads the world per-capita, will continue to rise for another two decades. By 2050 it will be a mere two per cent less than it is today. Official figures incorporate overseas offsets (paying countries like Indonesia to cut their emissions), but we’re kidding ourselves to imagine this will have the same effect as domestic reductions.
The tax package involves windfall subsidies to big polluters, envisaging massively increased coal production by 2050 on the ill-founded belief that “clean coal” is viable. It gives special treatment to gas, purportedly cleaner than either coal or oil but still a carbon-emitting fuel with a potentially enormous environmental impact.
Tasmanian economist and climate activist Phil Harrington sees the package, though better than nothing, as seriously compromised: “It brings to mind Winston Churchill’s words that it’s not enough to say we’re doing our best; we must succeed in doing what is necessary.”
The slow rate at which our behaviour will change as a result of the new carbon laws signifies a kind of denial of physical reality. But there’s always hope. On the day the laws were passed, I got an insight into how strong leadership and a willing population can bring rapid transformation.
John D. Liu is a US born resident of China who gave the Richard Jones Memorial Lecture in Hobart last week. It included his beautifully-filmed record of how in a mere 15 years China transformed a degraded desert the size of Belgium into a lush green landscape able to support millions of people.
It was done because provincial and national leaders were persuaded that, as Liu put it, “ecosystem function is vastly more valuable than economic production and consumption”.
This is the mindset that our governments’ carbon measures must seek to achieve. Anything less is window-dressing.
• View John D. Liu’s film Hope in a Changing Climate.