Palmer gives oxygen to the climate debate

Clive Palmer is about to vote out Australia’s hard-won carbon price, but the news isn’t all bad. [1 July 2014 | Peter Boyer]

Clive Palmer beams alongside former US Vice President Al Gore during their joint press conference in the Great Hall of Parliament House, Canberra. PHOTO ALEX ELLINGHAUSEN-SMH

A beaming Clive Palmer alongside former US Vice President Al Gore during their joint press conference in the Great Hall of Parliament House, Canberra, last Wednesday. PHOTO ALEX ELLINGHAUSEN-SMH

Let’s start with some good news. Clive Palmer’s meeting with Al Gore last week yielded some very good policy outcomes and gave a powerful shot of oxygen to a stale climate debate.

With Palmer United Party support, we now get to keep the Renewable Energy Target, the Clean Energy Finance Corporation and the Climate Change Authority.

The RET is a quiet achiever. Environment minister Greg Hunt has often spruiked its value, and from the opposite perspective the coal generation lobby is keen to see it abolished or weakened. That’s a sign it’s working.

For his part, Tony Abbott has appointed a climate change sceptic, Dick Warburton, to head up a review of the RET due to report in a month or so. Agreeing to Palmer’s conditions means that whatever the review’s finding, Abbott will be unable to change it in his current term of office.

A brainchild of the Howard government, the RET was toughened under Julia Gillard and now requires Australia to be producing 41,000 gigawatt-hours of renewable energy a year by 2020. If it’s still in place in 2020, coal-power emissions will be 25 per cent lower than today.

The $700 million of public funding for new projects so far put up by the Clean Energy Finance Corporation has brought over $1.8 billion of private venture capital into Australia’s renewable energy, energy efficiency and low emissions sectors.

Helped along by the RET, the corporation’s earnings to date have been 7 per cent of its investment, double the five-year government bond rate. The government keeps telling us about our “debt and deficit disaster”, so why would it knock back a return like that?

Finally, the Climate Change Authority will continue its independent evaluation of Australia’s policy options and carbon abatement progress. With all the entrenched ideology swirling around climate policy, and a government that carefully avoids mentioning it, that’s a pivotal role.

So much for the good news. The bad news is that with the help of PUP senators, our hard-won carbon price will soon be history. The government’s “Direct Action” policy may go the same way.

Abbott’s widely-reported statement in Ottawa that a price on carbon damaged economies, and his speech in Houston about coal’s long-term future, have already signalled to the world that Australia no longer cares about its carbon footprint. Now our parliament is giving weight to his words.

There’s good evidence that, contrary to the government’s claims, the carbon price is working. The best indication of its effectiveness is power usage. The national accounts show that household energy consumption plateaued after the last quarter of 2010. It started declining last year, and by the March quarter this year it had dropped by 4.4 per cent.

This was despite a rise of nearly 8 per cent in overall household consumption over the same three-and-a-quarter years, and a population rise of about 5.5 per cent. Seen in this light, the amount of household energy used per person has dropped by nearly 10 per cent since late 2010.

Tasmania’s bottom line will be hit hard by the demise of the carbon price. Because our electricity comes mainly from renewable sources, the scheme provides Hydro Tasmania with a $70 million a year clean energy bonus. It loss will cost jobs and increase still further the strain on our budget.

Last week Clive Palmer changed his mind about several things to do with climate, notably in accepting that it’s affected by human activity and we need to do something about it. He was criticised for it, but there’s nothing wrong with taking a new position when you’re confronted with information that you hadn’t previously been exposed to. The real problem in these circumstances isn’t a change of mind, but clinging to beliefs that aren’t supported by evidence.

Palmer’s mind wasn’t changed just by meeting Gore. The process had been in train for weeks as Palmer and PUP senators were lobbied by a variety of people with past connections to the Greens, the Australian Conservation Foundation and former MP Tony Windsor.

In their meeting with Palmer, Gore and former ACF head Don Henry tried to get him to include the existing carbon price scheme in his “must keep” list. That was a bridge too far, but they did get him to endorse the principle of a market-based mechanism to lower emissions.

Speaking on the ABC’s Lateline program, Palmer intimated that his proposed “zero-price” market-based scheme, which he wants to start trading when Australia’s five main trading partners are also on board with their own schemes, would use parts of the existing carbon pricing legislation.

That begs the question why Palmer wants to abolish the present scheme when it could simply be adjusted. He could still support resetting its price to zero, to be restarted in its emissions trading phase when appropriate. But I doubt he’ll abandon his original anti-tax position, which is a pity.

As for “Direct Action”, that may now die for want of Senate support. I doubt Abbott cares too much if it does, but for all its serious flaws it could be made more effective during debate. It would be shameful if no-one tried, or if genuine improvements were rejected by the government

Party populism leads to stultifying, depressingly predictable political debate; it can also derail legitimate advances. Witness the Greens’ decision last week to oppose the government’s budget measure to raise fuel excise, something they should embrace for its impact on emissions.

But the main culprits are the major parties. The Abbott opposition’s mindless campaign to “axe the tax” gave rise to Labor’s equally mindless pledge to “terminate” it, a pathetic white flag in the face of the spurious assertion that the Labor-Green scheme was something to be ashamed of.

For all his faults, Clive Palmer is a refreshing change from all that. May he continue to surprise us.

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