Howard’s recent statement that the Federal Government is looking to set up a “joint-business task group” that will consider how emissions trading might work in Australia and globally has been received with much pessimism, and rightly so. Another inquiry into the economic effects and the appropriateness of such a scheme is a farce and a further hedge on the Government in taking any real action in the carbon trading sphere.

While the Federal Government umms and ahhs about what action to take on emissions trading, the National Emissions Taskforce, made up of Australia’s Territory and States, has carried out a nation-wide consultation with stakeholders and industry. The result was a blueprint for a national emissions trading scheme, one which purports to be appropriate for our economy.

Knowing this, naturally one would question where the benefit lies in the proposed double handling of the issue? On the flip side, it is not improbable that the Government will find something that the National Emissions Taskforce didn’t – it’s for this reason that we’ll watch carefully when the taskforce’s mandate is released.

Since the energy white paper was released two years ago, and as we’ve seen this week, Mr Howard has pinned the hopes of a carbon trading regime on the willingness of the rest of the world to get involved in a global carbon market. So why would Australia seek support for a “new Kyoto” deal at the United National Conference this week? Surely a new Kyoto deal would ostracise other active carbon trading regions, such as the EU, which carry on trading under to the mechanisms and principles of the Kyoto Protocol itself. If a new Kyoto deal comes out of these talks, it would need be distinct from the Kyoto Protocol, only with respect to emission reduction targets.

In the event that the joint-business task force does recommend an emissions trading system, the Federal Government will need to seriously consider how it intends to constitutionally legislate such a system. Assuming that the Government does not ratify the Kyoto Protocol, constitutional limitations under various heads of Commonwealth power may have the effect of setting the operational features of an Australian system apart from that of other trading regions, such as the EU.

While final agreement on the details of any system remains a long way off, one question presents itself today: How much time do the government’s many taskforces and committees have before it is just too late?

Peter Fray

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