Liberals lift the lid on carbon emissions

The ascension of Tony Abbott will make it harder to contain our emissions. [20 August 2013 | Peter Boyer]

Greg Hunt at a seniors forum in his electorate. PHOTO GREGHUNT.COM.AU

Barring some sort of accident, in 18 days Tony Abbott will become prime minister-elect, an event that will bring a seismic shift in Australia’s battle against man-made climate change. I’m afraid it will not be for the better.

It’s true that in their approach to cutting emissions the major parties have much in common. Making it cheaper is one: Kevin Rudd sold his revamped pricing scheme in terms of its lower cost to polluters, while Liberal climate spokesman Greg Hunt says he’ll spend much less to achieve more.

They share the same modest 2020 emissions target and a similarly modest track record in getting there. John Howard never really caught on to global warming, while Labor’s pricing scheme excludes car emissions, overcompensates polluters and offers unlimited overseas offsets.

But there’s one big difference: the extensively negotiated, economy-wide carbon pricing scheme that Labor, with support from the Greens, put in place a year ago. The Opposition plans to scrap this and instead pay polluters to cut emissions on the basis of lowest cost per tonne of carbon saved.

Hunt claims that his mechanism, which he calls an “abatement market”, is gaining ground around the world while Labor’s “taxation market” is losing it. He speaks with the conviction of the trained lawyer that he is, ignoring inconvenient evidence of a contrary trend, towards carbon pricing.

Hunt cites a 2009 report by a panel including three Nobel laureates, economists Finn Kydland, Thomas Schelling and Vernon Smith, which dismissed tax and market mechanisms and opted for untested technology “solutions” including cloud whitening and stratospheric aerosol injection.

The Kydland-Schelling-Smith evaluation was based on work by Dutch-born economist Richard Tol, who has criticised “pseudo-scientific exaggeration” of climate change impact and argued against strong national action. This is the source of Hunt’s rationale for abolishing carbon pricing.

Apart from a few broad statements about reverse auctions, planting trees and storing carbon in soil, the Coalition’s climate policies have remained ill-defined until the past few weeks, when Hunt has filled in some details at public forums in Melbourne and Adelaide hosted by the Grattan Institute.

The details were interesting, such as the way Hunt envisages the Coalition’s scheme will work, the parts of Labor’s climate bureaucracy it plans to abolish and those bits it will keep in modified form, including the Clean Energy Regulator and the Carbon Farming Initiative.

Equally interesting was the ambitious implementation timetable, aiming to have Labor’s “Clean Energy Future” mechanisms expunged by April Fool’s Day next year and the new Liberal “carbon purchasing fund” in place by July 1, less than 10 months after the election.

In response to criticism that the Coalition policy seemed to end in 2020, Hunt also revealed “phase two” of the Coalition plan. In two years’ time there’s to be a review of progress towards meeting the target of 5 per cent below 2000 levels by 2020, to determine policy beyond that year.

But the most intriguing aspect of the Grattan forum in Melbourne was Hunt’s demeanour, both in delivering his prepared speech and in responding to questions. He was a model of confidence as he explained without a hint of doubt why his scheme will work where Labor’s doesn’t.

A cornerstone of Hunt’s scheme is storing carbon in plants and soils, or land abatement. Economist and climate analyst Ross Garnaut was one of two questioners at the forum — the other was a farmer — who said that much more research was needed on the land’s capacity to take up fossil carbon before we can be sure that such measures will work.

In response Hunt, ever the lawyer, avoided mentioning research. Instead he breezily claimed that land abatement was already saving a million tonnes a year on some farms and that he was “extremely confident that we will achieve the targets and do it easily”.

Hunt says his scheme has been tried elsewhere. This is true for individual components, but the package is his own work, his response to Abbott’s requirement that pretty much anything will do as long as it’s not carbon pricing. Now, under outside scrutiny, the package is looking very flaky.

Last week a Climate Institute analysis found that abatement under the Coalition’s scheme would be only two-thirds that of the current pricing scheme and that reaching the 2020 target would cost at least $4 billion more than was budgeted. Hunt angrily accused the institute of being partisan.

My observation of Climate Institute reports over many years is that they’re evidence-based and strongly focused on abatement capacity, which was why the institute supported Labor’s roof batts initiative. But it has criticised other Labor measures including aspects of its pricing scheme.

In 2009, Hunt enthusiastically endorsed Malcolm Turnbull’s emissions trading deal with Kevin Rudd. When Abbott’s challenge to Turnbull upset that applecart it seemed possible that Hunt would step down as climate spokesman. Instead he made a seamless transition into an Abbott man.

The evidence is mounting that we should stop seeing Greg Hunt as anything other than a career politician, treading in the footsteps of his late father Alan Hunt, who was a scion of the Victorian Liberal establishment, and Peter Reith, whose Victorian seat he took over in 2001.

He’s a politician just like both major party leaders. We may hope that these people strive for a cause we espouse, like preventing dangerous climate change, but we’re kidding ourselves if we think they’d put a good cause ahead of their political advancement. That takes big thinking, and guts.

Whenever the Coalition mentions carbon pricing it emphasises its financial cost (the “great big tax”) ahead of its effectiveness in cutting emissions. That would be fine if its own scheme was better as well as cheaper, but the evidence says it’s neither effective nor, in the end, cheap.

A Tony Abbott government may do some good for Australia, but that won’t include reducing our carbon footprint. Just so long as you know.

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