Malcolm Turnbull has once again publicly outed the federal Opposition’s absurd climate change policies – playing word games over Tony Abbott’s “blood pledge” to repeal the carbon tax, and highlighting that the Coalition’s policy position is only a short-term one, at best.
It is becoming increasingly clear that the Opposition will find it nearly impossible to deliver on Abbott’s pledge to repeal the carbon price. And for months, as we pointed out in July, it has only been described as a pledge to repeal the carbon tax, not the carbon price. It’s a subtle but critically important distinction, and one that Turnbull was keen to highlight on ABC TV’s Q&A program last night.
The Opposition can huff and puff about a carbon price, but it can’t really be repealed. It can, however, end the tax and bring an earlier transition to a carbon price, via the traded market that Turnbull has always insisted was the most efficient way to reduce emissions.
Turnbull was asked by host Tony Jones whether, given the success of the carbon price described by fellow panelist Heather Ridout, the Opposition would still go ahead with its pledge.
Jones: “If it is, in fact, working and essentially you agree with the idea of a carbon price, would you say that the coalition has got it wrong in saying it is going to scrap the carbon price?”
Turnbull: “Well, scrap the carbon …. repeal the carbon tax. No, that is the Coaliton’s policy. “
It’s the use of the word “tax” that is important here. The Opposition is not allowing Gillard to get away with substituting the word “price” for “tax” – given her promise that their would be no carbon tax under the government she leads, but it is almost certainly going to have to afford itself the same wriggle room – given the increasing evidence of the impact of climate change, the new science that will be released over the next two years, and the growing efforts of China and a host of other countries to introduce a carbon price in their own economies.
And then there is the Australian business response. Most – apart from the few hard-core opponents that reject the science and are grouped around former BCA chief Dick Warburton – won’t stand for the carbon price to be removed when it is clear it would have to return.
Turnbull also repeated his previous assertion that Direct Action is only a short-term solution – and hinted it would not be sufficient if Australia was to aim for a higher abatement target than its current level of 5 per cent below 2000 levels by 2020.
“(Direct Action) is only designed to get us to 2020. It is not intended to be a long-term scheme. It is a short-term policy in that sense. And it has a cap on it. It cannot run out to tens of billions of dollars or hundreds of billions.”
That, though, as Turnbull pointed out in an interview on Lateline in May, 2011, is exactly what would happen if Direct Action formed the cornerstone of the Opposition’s policy into the future. He noted then that using such a policy to meet even the stated policy of an 80 per cent reduction by 2050 would cost $18 billion a year. That, however, was on the optimistic basis that such abatement could be achieved at $15/tonne. Its more likely to be a significant multiple of that, so as I pointed out at the time, it was likely to cost $100 billion a year.
Turnbull sought to justify his position in his personal blog (it’s worth another read), where he emphasised the limitations of the Opposition policy. “The Coalition’s direct action policy is designed to meet the 2020 5% target, which requires a reduction of about 140 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent from business as usual emissions.”
It is not capable of doing more – though many would contend it is not capable of doing even that. That led to Turnbull’s reference to “fiscal recklessness on a grand scale” if it was deployed for any target that was more ambitious.
Another panelist, economist and commentator Judith Sloan, using the scatter-gun approach against any climate policy favoured by the economic and ideological hard right, took a pot shot at the Clean Energy Finance Corp, which she argued was a Direct Action policy. “It’s exactly the same idea. I don’t know why it (Labor) would slag off the Opposition on this point because it is part of their policy suite too.”
To which Turnbull responded: “The point Judith makes is absolutely right. There is far too much money thrown at this in a very inefficient way.”
The Opposition Climate Change spokesman Greg Hunt reinforced his position last week in a speech at Carbon Expo, careful once again to talk about the carbon “tax”, and not “price”. He has budgeted for $2.55 billion being spent over four years for an emissions reduction fund – which Turnbull described on Q&A as a government subsidy for emissions abatement – while insisting that carbon farming (not included in that budget) would form the bulk of abatement. Hunt sidestepped questions from the audience on what the Opposition would do if this failed to meet the 5 per cent reduction target.
Sadly, like so many of the policy debates in Australia, the original question that was asked was not addressed. Dr Andrew Glikson, from the climate change institute at ANU, wanted to know why, given the climate science, the latest World Bank report, and – he might have added – the International Energy Agency’s repeated warnings about the implications of too much fossil fuel use, was Australia continuing with its massive expansion of gas and coal extraction. To understand where Glikson is coming from, read this recent article.
No one answered that question. No one in authority in this country ever does. Ridout, the former head of the Australian Industry Group and now a board member of the Climate Change Authority, insisted Australia was doing more than its fair share – complaining that the carbon scheme was poorly designed, locked in twice the price of the European market, and that the renewable energy target was “over-reaching.”
But there is nothing to celebrate in a carbon price that is too low to inspire investment from a scheme that is too weak to meet environmental targets. This was underscored this week by a petition of 100 leading companies – including Shell, Unilever, EDF Energy, Statoil, Swiss Re, and Skanska – who complained that the carbon price was not sufficiently robust to drive the investments required in abatement technologies. And there is nothing to complain about in a renewable energy target delivering more renewable energy that planned. It’s more than just a box-ticking exercise.
Giles Parkinson is a journalist of 30 years experience, a former Business Editor and Deputy Editor of the Financial Review, a columnist for The Bulletin magazine and The Australian, and the former editor of Climate Spectator.