Government shuns expert help on climate

The government’s alternative to the Climate Change Authority looks decidedly shonky. [8 April 2014 | Peter Boyer]

Bernie Fraser, chair of Australia’s Climate Change Authority. PHOTO FAIRFAX MEDIA

No-one’s going to be telling Tony Abbott or his environment minister, Greg Hunt, how to do climate policy. That’s why they’re trying to get rid of Australia’s Climate Change Authority (CCA).

The CCA’s role is to give independent advice to government on the best ways to address climate change, just as the Productivity Commission advises on how to achieve a more productive economy. It’s a statutory body which can’t be abolished without parliamentary approval.

In February this year, as required under the still-unrepealed Clean Energy Act, the CCA released its weighty “Targets and Progress Review”, a 400-page assessment of Australia’s progress in reducing greenhouse gas emissions across the economy and within specific sectors.

The CCA’s chairman is Bernie Fraser, former head of federal Treasury and governor of the Reserve Bank. Its members include Australia’s chief scientist, Ian Chubb, business leader Heather Ridout, mining executive John Marlay and the distinguished economist John Quiggin.

The preferred source of advice for the Abbott government on its “Direct Action” climate policies seems to be big business and the Productivity Commission, waiting in the wings if the CCA is axed. In other words, the subject is to be dealt with in terms of business’s bottom line.

But climate change is not something that the Productivity Commission could take on in its spare time. Evaluating policy effectiveness involves a huge swathe of information from climate science and carbon accounting to the politics and economics around carbon both here and overseas.

Sadly, this is the political reality we’ve now come to. Any notion that the Abbott government will treat the array of issues around climate change on their merits is well and truly out the window.

Fraser and the rest of the CCA aren’t going away without a fight. Research for the Targets and Progress review showed current commitments to be inadequate, and the review recommended a trebling of Australia’s emissions target to ensure a “credible” position internationally.

The government supports an emissions target of no more than 5 per cent below 2000 levels, a much weaker target, says the CCA, than those of Britain, Norway and the United States. It has advised a target of 15 per cent, achieved using international carbon permits at a cost of well under $1 billion.

Bernie Fraser is now in his 70s. At his stage of life and having been told he’s not wanted by the government (though it can’t sack him without the say-so of parliament), he clearly feels at ease speaking his mind about government climate policy.

In a speech to the National Press Club last month, Fraser warned that Australia was risking being left behind by other countries, including both the United States and China, now moving quickly to cut emissions.

Direct Action was “lightening, rather than adding to the policy tool kit,” he said. The government would measure its success “primarily by short term budgetary considerations, not by considerations related to climate science.”

“While the government professes to accept the science of climate change the indications are that it is unlikely to back that acceptance with appropriate actions,” he said.

“It seems clear to me that in the area of climate change policy the government is backing in business interests, and big business interests for the most part, ahead of the community interests.”

This is clearly getting to Fraser. In an interview with the Guardian’s Lenore Taylor, he bluntly characterised the climate change debate as a battle between the “good guys” (the “mainstream scientific bloc”) and the “bad guys” (the “mavericks who don’t accept the science”).

The mavericks could be ignored, he said, if it wasn’t for people in “positions of influence, in industry associations or companies, or in the government and the opposition” who “say they believe the science but then don’t act as if they do.” That pretty much sums up Tony Abbott.

The response of economists to the CCA Targets and Progress Review has been generally positive. In contrast, all independent economic analysis of the government’s Direct Action and its centrepiece, the Emissions Reduction Fund (ERF), has been at best neutral, but mostly negative.

Under the ERF, businesses and other entities proposing to reduce emissions compete for government grants. Economist Ross Garnaut told a Senate committee that even the minimal 5 per cent target would cost upwards of $4 billion a year more than was budgeted.

The government’s green paper released just before Christmas, says Garnaut, amounts to “a shooting of the breeze” without any detail on what is proposed. He cautioned against rejecting the carbon tax until the replacement legislation was “in full view”.

When asked on the ABC’s 7.30 last month whether he supported Greg Hunt’s or Ross Garnaut’s view on Direct Action, the highly-regarded former Treasury head Ken Henry replied: “Ross has spent a long time looking at these issues. I wouldn’t question Ross.”

Where does all this leave us? In place is an inadequate but functioning carbon scheme, now operating as a fixed price, or tax, and scheduled to become a market-based scheme in 2015.

Labor wants to bring the transition forward to July this year but won’t get parliamentary approval. However, it has joined the Greens in blocking repeal of the existing scheme, ensuring it remains in place until after the new Senate takes its place in July.

Last week’s UN report on the impact of climate change laid out in stark detail the vulnerability of Australia’s biodiversity, marine areas and food production to impending changes brought about by our carbon emissions. And not just impending; in many ways they’re already upon us.

To Tony Abbott, CCA and UN reports are mere words. It doesn’t bother him that his own rinky-dinky, do-it-yourself response to climate change has yet to get a tick of approval from any independent analyst, because the whole deal is tailor-made for people who don’t give a damn.

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