Prime Minister John Howard has never really bought the whole climate change concept, but the polls are telling him that the public has, in a very big way. And so, tomorrow the PM is set to announce the findings of his task force discussion paper on carbon trading, a system that until now, he has consistently expressed reservations about.

On Lateline last night Tony Jones asked Howard to pinpoint when his climate change epiphany had struck. The PM reiterated that he’s a realist:

I guess, during the course of last year, I can’t put an exact time on it, it wasn’t a Damascus Road conversion, I’ve always accepted that greenhouse gas emissions, carbon emissions, were potentially damaging. I think the scale of it has become more apparent as a result of the research and so on and I think we have to respond in a realistic way. I think we have to respond in a way that doesn’t damage Australia unfairly.

So the PM has shifted his position on climate change, but he doesn’t want to “damage Australia unfairly.”

This is a line that the PM has never shifted away from. No matter what the polls say, above all, we must not “damage the economy” in the fight against climate change.

Australia’s a pretty big place. The economy’s a pretty big concept. So who exactly is the PM trying to protect? He told Lateline:

We have to play our part, but we have massive advantages because of our fossil fuels. We have uranium and, therefore, the potential of nuclear power, and we want to behave in a way that plays to Australia’s strengths and protects Australia’s employment. We don’t want to give all of that away in some kind of knee jerk reaction that damages the Australian economy.

And so through the prism of protecting our fossil fuels industry comes the carbon trading discussion paper tomorrow. The PM is talking about reducing carbon emissions — this is a giant leap forward. But can a carbon trading system work effectively while also remaining, as the PM puts it, “sympathetic to industry”?

“The whole point of putting a price on carbon, whether by tax or trading is to bring about structural change in the economy. Which means some industries will lose and some will gain,” Clive Hamilton from The Australia Institute told Crikey.

“To maintain that Howard will do nothing that will affect employment or competitiveness in carbon intensive industries is a non sequitur,” says Hamilton.

The devil’s in the detail of the carbon trading plan that the government backs. “The institute would welcome the early introduction of an effective carbon price in Australia,” Erwin Jackson from The Climate Institute Australia told Crikey.”The scheme needs to be internationally compatible so Australia can join the booming carbon trading market estimated to be worth around $30 billion a year.”

“Any system which over-insulates sectorial interests will increase the cost on the wider Australian economy and community,” says Jackson.

So what are the implications if the government touts a trading system that is incompatible with the existing international scheme?

“It shows they don’t understand the international system,” says Hamilton. “And there is the danger of oil companies advocating a system that has no chance of being accepted internationally in order to sabotage the whole process…”

Peter Fray

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