How Kevin Rudd threw out the baby with the bath water

The virtual abandonment of emissions trading has thrown into question the Rudd government’s commitment to climate action, yet there remains the option of adopting a simpler, more effective carbon tax scheme. [4 May 2010 | Peter Boyer]

For a couple of years, writing this column was something that seemed to come easily to me, with plenty of things happening each week and people ready to support what I said or argue the point — lots of reward for my effort. But recently, things have changed.

Scientists say we have a few years to get our emissions going down, and putting a price on carbon is an essential first step, yet the Rudd government says we can afford to wait another three years.

CARBON DOLLAR: Scientists say we have a few years to get our emissions going down, and putting a price on carbon is an essential first step, yet the Rudd government says we can afford to wait another three years.

There’s still plenty to write about. In suburbs and towns, people continue to work on local plans of action, while news media and the internet continue to hum with the chatter of scientists, economists, investors and inventors. But underlying all the activity there’s a growing sense of frustration, even futility.

Scientists say we have as little as five years in which to turn our emissions curve downward and avoid dangerous warming, a trajectory we have no hope of shifting without authorities stepping up to the plate. But as the warnings have become more frequent and more urgent, political resolution has fallen away. After a bumpy ride, Australia’s climate challenge is stuck in a morass.

There are many culprits, starting with the government. In December 2008 Kevin Rudd said that to delay putting a price on carbon “would be reckless and irresponsible for our economy and our environment.” They were empty words. Five months later he postponed introducing emissions trading for a year, then last week he said it would not come into effect before 2013.

This “greatest moral challenge”, as he called it, has fallen victim to political expediency. During the term of this government, as a tentative whispering campaign around the electorates turned into a vocal, full-frontal assault on the science of climate, the Rudd government has turned to water, with both policies and credibility in disarray.

Of course, this was a political manoeuvre. Kevin Rudd calculated that postponing the much-promoted “carbon pollution reduction scheme” would neutralise any traction that opposition leader Tony Abbott might have been getting over his “great big tax” attack on the scheme. But his abandonment of emissions trading comes over simply as weakness.

The government’s CPRS involved months, even years, of Treasury modelling, public consultations around Australia, negotiation with business and other interest groups, and finally those weeks of intensive bargaining with Malcolm Turnbull’s Liberals. This massive investment of resources has now come to nought, something that won’t be lost on electors.

The government is culpable on a second front. Its scheme would have had much stronger public support if it had not so seriously compromised its potential effectiveness by allowing unlimited overseas offsetting and by buckling under massive lobbying by fossil fuel interests and big energy users to allow free permits to pollute.

The concessions to big business mounted as a result of a further round of negotiations with Malcolm Turnbull’s Liberals. Subsidies to coal power stations went up by $4 billion and to coal miners by $750 million, and agriculture was exempted altogether. The scheme that emerged looked incapable of producing any recognisable carbon price signal.

The emissions reduction targets on which the scheme rested (five per cent by 2020 or up to 25 per cent in the unlikely event of global progress) were another failing. Averaged across developed countries, these would cause a devastating rise in the global mean temperature by somewhere between 2C and 4C.

Tony Abbott may view opposition as a responsibility-free zone, but he must carry much of the blame for last week’s setback. It was Abbott and his supporters, with Tasmanian senator Eric Abetz in the leading bunch, who derailed Malcolm Turnbull’s support of the CPRS. In abandoning bipartisan support for carbon pricing, he derided it as nothing more than a “great big tax”.

In Tasmania, new Liberal MP Matthew Groom argued that the long delay in the CPRS would spell the end of the Musselroe Bay wind-farm because it needed a working emissions trading scheme to inject a “carbon component” into electricity prices. His interest in renewable energy is a refreshing development in the Tasmanian Liberal Party. Perhaps he could talk to Senator Abetz?

The Greens senators saw the CPRS as fatally flawed and voted with the Opposition to reject it. But in January they offered an interim solution: an annual “levy” (read “tax”) imposed on so-called “upstream” emitters, sellers or importers of fossil fuels, which would start at $23 per tonne of carbon emitted and rise annually with the consumer price index plus four per cent.

Revenue raised from the carbon tax proposal, estimated to be about $10 billion a year, would be used to support household, commercial, industrial and transport emission reductions. The idea had the support of government climate adviser Professor Ross Garnaut, at least as an interim measure before an emissions trading scheme can be put into play.

Last month’s Grattan Institute report, which found the CPRS business subsidies to be a $20 billion waste of taxpayers’ money, adds weight to the Greens’ proposal. With this on the table, the Rudd government is wrong to pretend that it had no option but to put off its emissions trading scheme. But its abrupt announcement precluded any alternative. We are all losers.

At times like this, when the climate challenge gets a bit tough, I’ve received expressions of sympathy from people, as their way of showing support.

I appreciate their kindness, but this isn’t just my battle. Whether you agree with me or not, it’s your battle too, just as in government it’s a concern not just of people with designated authority like Penny Wong or Nick McKim, but also of Kevin Rudd, David Bartlett and all other government ministers.

And though they may choose to remain apart and apparently indifferent, this is also a battle for Will Hodgman and Tony Abbott and all those politicians and bureaucrats and business leaders enjoying their business-as-usual while the clock ticks away.

If you still have it in you to express sympathy, don’t bother with me. Save it for the human race.

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