Ducking the climate challenge

Australia's 'elephant in the room'

John Hewson

Environment & energy, Government and governance | Australia

25 June 2016

Both major parties are ignoring the electorate’s mood for a greater focus on climate change, writes John Hewson.

One of the most disturbing aspects of this very long election campaign is that climate change hasn’t been a more significant issue.

As the 2016 Lowy Survey revealed recently, concern about global warming continues to trend upwards: 53 per cent of Australians say ‘global warming is a serious and pressing problem (and) we should begin taking steps now even if this involves significant costs’ (up 17 points since 2012).

Further, 88 per cent agree that ‘the use of fossil fuels is in decline and Australia should invest more in alternative energy sources’, and most say ‘we should reduce our reliance on them to help combat climate change’ (79 per cent).

Given this degree of electoral support, and the election mantra of “Jobs and growth”, and given that the renewable energy sector is the most “shovel ready” sector to provide very significant, new businesses, new investment, and new jobs, it is staggering that these opportunities have not been grabbed and emphasized more by the two major parties.

The Lowy Survey also provides some explanation, by noting the somewhat schizophrenic nature of the electorate on the climate issue, in the sense that a majority also express support for continuing coal exports to ‘developing countries, to help them grow and reduce poverty’ (66 per cent) and ‘to keep our economy strong’ (53 per cent).

So, while both sides emphasise their support for emissions reduction targets – the base being our national commitments made in Paris to cut emissions by 26-28 per cent by 2030 (although the ALP has set a higher target) – both also support new coal mines and neither have been prepared to formally rule out new coal-fired power stations.

Obviously, and cynically, both sides see advantage in running these mixed messages, directed to different constituencies, in different seats. Equally, they also see some advantage in minimizing climate, overall, as an issue, to avoid having to debate and defend the detail of the inconsistencies in their positions.

Interestingly, the ALP had a very real opportunity to wedge the Government on the climate issue, given their higher emissions reduction targets, their commitment to more CEFC/ARENA type funding, and having set a renewable energy target (RET) of 50 per cent for 2030.

Yet, given their union base and the extent of union influence, they couldn’t afford to offend key mining unions by taking a hard-line rejection of new coal mines, and they still fear something of another carbon tax scare campaign, given their longer-term commitment to an emissions trading scheme.

More on this: Tackling Australian policy's 'trauma zone' | Paul Burke

When they are finally released, I am also sure that the campaign funding reports will identify some sizeable donations to both sides from mining and energy interests, and there are many “personal” links with several significant ex-politicians and staffers being employed by such interests.

So, with the exception of the Windsor campaign that is focused, to a significant extent, on wedging Joyce in their battle for the seat of New England, climate change has been the “elephant in the room” in this campaign.

Yet, globally, coal is in terminal decline. Some 75 per cent of known coal reserves can never be mined if the world is to have any hope of containing global warming to the Paris objectives, let alone net zero emissions by 2050.

It has been estimated that the coal from the proposed mines in Queensland’s Galilee Basin (where Adani has one of the largest deposits, and its proposed mine has the support by both major parties), if exported for burning in power generation, would alone use up about 30 per cent of the essential 2050 carbon budget.

Arguments that the export of this “higher grade” coal to India, would work to achieve lower emissions than would be the case if India were to have to burn its “lower grade”, dirtier, coal, and that this would lead to a significant reduction in Indian poverty, are without foundation, as there are viable cost effective renewable alternatives.

The bottom line is that both major parties are simply ignoring the mounting electoral mood, for perceived short-term electoral advantage. They are working to kick the climate challenge further down the road, as, indeed, they have also both done with the challenge of budget repair.

This article was also published by the Southern Highland News.

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Citation

Hewson, John. 2016. "Ducking The Climate Challenge - Policy Forum". Policy Forum. http://www.policyforum.net/ducking-climate-challenge/.

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