Climbing the mountain that is carbon pricing

The respective climate policies of the major parties for the 2010 Australian election bring no joy to those who want effective action to cut emissions. [20 July 2010 | Peter Boyer]

There can be few more depressing prospects than Election 2010. We might have thought the miserable, mindless, demeaning debates on “border protection” and the mining tax were as low as we could go, but then along comes climate policy. Welcome to Little Australia.

Loading coal at Port Waratah, Newcastle, June 2009. FLICKR PHOTO BY NOMAD TALES

Loading coal at Port Waratah, Newcastle, June 2009. FLICKR PHOTO BY NOMAD TALES

It is astonishing to reflect that after both major parties went to the 2007 poll promising to put a price on carbon pollution by establishing an emissions trading scheme, by 2010 they have both disowned it. What happened in those three years?

Many of the worrying projections of the 2007 United Nations climate change report have turned out to be conservative when put against subsequent physical developments. The global goal of keeping the world’s mean temperature rise to less than 2C above pre-industrial levels is now in tatters.

An orchestrated campaign to discredit scientific findings has itself been discredited and the science indicating dangerous climate outcomes from our carbon emissions has been vindicated. But the disinformation campaign seem to have persuaded many politicians that the science, to quote Opposition Leader Tony Abbott, is “crap”.

There were big political scalps. Abbott won Opposition leadership from Malcolm Turnbull over carbon pricing (this “great big new tax”), and Labor’s consequent shelving of the scheme was a big factor in Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s ousting by Julia Gillard.

Which brings us to now.

The climate policies of both Abbott and Gillard have already been devalued by the absence of laws putting a price on carbon pollution. Whatever attempts they might make to encourage, cajole or compel businesses or people to conserve energy and emit less carbon will cost more and be less effective than they would be if a carbon price were in place.

As a Tasmanian Climate Action Council report flagged last week, the absence of a national carbon pricing scheme poses problems all the way down the chain, making the task of meeting Tasmania’s legislated targets “more costly and difficult to achieve”. I’ll take a look next week at the TCAC report, Opportunities to Reduce Tasmania’s Greenhouse Gas Emissions.

Alongside the sorry saga of climate policy post-2007, two more globally-significant events should weigh on political minds: the world financial crisis and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

With other national economies still struggling to rise out of  the 2008 financial collapse, Australia remains vulnerable to future economic shock, an uncertainty that can only have been reinforced by the double whammy — economic and environmental — of the Gulf of Mexico disaster.

We have no guarantee that Australia’s economy will continue to be able to provide a buffer against harder times. And as oil production gets costlier and ageing electrical infrastructures need replacing, energy in the form of electricity and petrol will continue to cost more. And more.

The take-home message for Gillard and Abbott is this: today’s tough task of implementing a carbon price scheme is only going to get tougher the longer it’s delayed. Someone has to bite the bullet.

Someone already has in New Zealand, where the conservative government has allowed the previous Labour government’s emissions trading scheme to get under way, with a starting price of $NZ12.50 per tonne of carbon. Bipartisan climate policy is alive and well in New Zealand.

As it is in Europe, where the world’s most ambitious emissions trading scheme has been augmented with national carbon taxes imposed by around a dozen countries including the United Kingdom, Germany and all Scandinavian countries. The 2010 UK election saw all three major parties supporting strong climate action including current carbon pricing schemes.

None of these countries waited for China and the United States to put carbon pricing in place. They understood what environmentally-aware economists have been saying for years: that without such mechanisms all other strategies are ineffectual and much too expensive.

Regardless of its climate policy, the government will point to Australia’s exceptional economic performance in the wake of the financial crisis (contrasting with Europe’s difficulties) to justify re-election. Julia Gillard and Treasurer Wayne Swan are betting that among the punters, today’s prosperity rates higher than climate action, any day.

Both Labor and Liberal are counting on the voters accepting a “quarry Australia” vision: big returns from iron-ore and coal exports boosted by favourable tax regimes for the mining companies.

But the coal in our national bloodstream is now affecting our ability to think. With open-cut mining laying waste to some of our most fertile food-producing lands, we’re betting that China will continue to buy our coal, that making liquid fuel from coal is a goer, and that we can find a way to capture all the carbon emitted from coal burning and store it somewhere.

This is close to delusional. China can’t abandon coal power overnight, but it’s already showing signs that it wants to move away from it. Wherever it’s been tried, getting petrol from coal has brought environmental devastation, notably massive carbon pollution. And carbon capture and storage remains a pipe dream used by coal interests and politicians to justify expansion plans.

Whatever the combatants will throw at us in this election campaign, there’s no escaping the need for a price on carbon. The spineless response of both the major parties might save them some hassles today, but in the longer run will cost us all dearly.

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