A faint glimmer through a murky haze

Australian politics is much preoccupied with climate change these days, but so far it’s nearly all noise. A new carbon price proposal offers some faint hope. [16 February 2010 | Peter Boyer]

The climate debate is getting noisy . Before, it mostly took the form of conference papers and blog-site comments about the science. Now the volume is up a notch, blaring across the airwaves and internet in personal, even vitriolic terms.

The public debate is a story in itself, a topic for a future post. But the noise out there is also an important background to a seismic shift in Australia’s climate change politics.

Last November, ABC Four Corners viewers saw the Liberals’ Ian Macfarlane getting chummy with climate change minister Penny Wong while his colleagues Tony Abbott, Barnaby Joyce, Nick Minchin and others, expressing disbelief in the science, fumed over their party’s direction.

The rest is history. In changing course by replacing Malcolm Turnbull with Abbott, the Liberals declared their doubt in the evidence that humans are causing climate to change. The result is the most polarised climate debate since before John Howard reluctantly embraced emissions trading.

The complexity of the Rudd government’s monumental Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme (CPRS) makes it a hard sell, a task made even harder by the CPRS’s very low targets, costly compensation to polluting industries (even costlier after the Turnbull-Macfarlane amendments), and unlimited access to overseas offsets for Australian emitters.

Tony Abbott rejected emissions trading but, like Howard, accepted the political need for a climate policy. His “direct action” alternative offers incentives for tree-planting, better soil management, renewable energy projects and industry emission-reducing efforts.

The Liberals boldly claim that their scheme is simpler than Labor’s and would cost less than a tenth as much, while saving much more in emissions. Labor has countered that it’s an administrative nightmare, much more expensive than claimed, and much less effective in cutting emissions.

Aiming to make climate action as painless as possible, and wielding their “great big tax” argument, Liberal critics have contrasted Labor’s price penalties with their incentive-based approach. This may be a vote-winner but it misses the point of emissions trading, which is to put a price on carbon pollution by capping emissions and requiring polluters to buy permits from those who pollute less.

The Government now has the tough task of convincing electors of the merits of its market-based scheme over the Opposition’s taxpayer-funded incentives. Tony Abbott’s claims on climate don’t stack up and his sums look shaky, but he’s an astute politician who knows a fair bit about winning people over to a cause. His “great big tax” campaign should be taken very seriously.

This year’s debate — the third attempt to get the CPRS legislation through the Senate — features a new alignment of characters, with Turnbull supporting the bills that cost him his leadership. His speech to a nearly-empty House was clear, intellectually rigorous — and almost certainly futile.

The Senate resumes next Monday. With other big-ticket items like health rebates also on the agenda it may be a while before the CPRS wrangle resumes. As things now stand, this compromised scheme, compromised even more by the Turnbull amendments, has no chance of getting the nod.

So after years of campaigning and cajoling for climate action, Kevin Rudd faces the unpleasant prospect of going to an election later this year with a big fat zero against his name. He needs a face-saving solution, and of all people the Greens might yet save his bacon.

The Greens senators, while supporting emissions trading in principle, oppose the CPRS because they believe it locks in a weak, ineffective system that would give big polluters potentially lucrative property rights over taxpayer-funded permits.

Late last month, the Greens’ two Tasmanian senators, leader Bob Brown and deputy leader Christine Milne, unveiled a compromise “transitional carbon pricing mechanism”, intended as a two-year interim measure while an effective long-term emissions trading scheme is put in place.

The idea is pretty much what Ross Garnaut suggested in his 2008 report: a start-up option of a fixed carbon price to counter possible price volatility, starting at $23 a tonne and rising in subsequent years by 4 per cent a year plus inflation adjustments. Being fixed-term, the plan is free of the CPRS’s obligations stretching indefinitely into the future.

The Greens say their scheme would raise a surplus of almost $3 billion up to July 2012, allowing building of mitigation and adaptation infrastructure while still compensating households and supporting small business — and increasing options to help poor countries tackle climate change.

The plan has some real hurdles to cross. To the Abbott Opposition it will be even more of a “great big new tax”, and many business interests won’t go quietly over the loss of free permits, capped help for emissions-intensive trade-exposed industry and the absence of a fuel tax offset.

There are two other crucial hurdles. Labor and the Greens must first agree on such a scheme — far from certain — and then secure two extra votes in the Senate. One of these would likely come from independent South Australian Nick Xenophon.

That leaves one more to find. Senator Steve Fielding isn’t going anywhere, but there’s still a faint chance that one or both of the Liberals who voted to support the CPRS late last year, Senators Sue Boyce and Judith Troeth, might cross the floor.

This is a tall order with a less-than-even chance of getting through, but it’s a glimmer of light in an otherwise very murky outlook. You never know.

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