The environment movement has been united since 1972 on the fundamental issue of the polluter pays principle, stating that polluters must pay to clean up the damage they have created. It is the principle which underpins emissions trading schemes, and which drives the campaign in recent months to cut the massive subsidies to fossil fuels from the upcoming Budget.

By abandoning the polluter pays principle, WWF and the Climate Institute should be seen to have abandoned any remaining pretence of being part of the mainstream environment movement. But is this a split, or confirmation that these groups are not truly part of the movement?

WWF has long felt more comfortable rubbing shoulders with government and industry than with the environment movement they are supposedly part of, a position cemented with its decision to back the Howard Government’s EPBC legislation against the rest of the environment movement. The Climate Institute, while happy to be represented in the media as a leading environment group, has never perceived itself as such, having told people around Canberra that it sees itself as a ‘minesweeper for the Labor Party’.

Three key elements of the push these groups are announcing with the CFMEU Mining Division and the Australian Coal Association in Canberra tomorrow are for government to take the lead in technology demonstration, finding sites for carbon dumps, and covering the coal sector’s behind by taking on long-term liability for leakage.

The first of these is simply a rearguard action to distract attention from the fact that, globally, the “clean coal” dream is drifting further away from reality. The collapse of the FutureGen project in the USA is just the latest example showing that, years down the track, budgets and timelines are blowing out and still no-one is able to demonstrate that the technology can and will work. Meanwhile the renewables industry, with far less government support, is moving ahead in leaps and bounds, outcompeting geosequestration even when the playing field is skewed so badly against it.

WWF justifies its position by saying we “need to know” as soon as possible whether or not geosequestration will work. The Climate Institute pushes the bizarre line that we need “balance” in energy development, ignoring the fact that the multitude of technologies that make up “renewables” currently get far less support in total than the single technology of “clean coal”.

Under what perverse logic does the failure of an industry to perform qualify it for extra support? Many gigawatts of baseload-capable renewable energy are being installed around the world today, while the best estimates of the coal sector, that they could have a handful of commercial plants online by 2020, are being revealed as an exercise in wishful thinking. The urgency of dealing with climate change is such that we must put every bit of support we can into the technologies that can reduce emissions now, not pin our hopes on an unproven dream because it could save one industry.

The second two elements of tomorrow’s push — finding dumps and taking on liability — are exactly what the nuclear industry has long pushed for. They are the call of a dirty industry that wants to reap all the profits but carry none of the cost or risk.

Even if tomorrow’s announcement fudges the issue of who should pay for demonstration plants, this second position will breach the polluter pays principle. Indeed, the mere establishment of a taskforce, not to mention the fast tracking of legislative frameworks, focussed on this technology at the expense of others will breach the polluter pays principle. Just consider the boost the nuclear industry got from the Howard government’s Nuclear Industry Framework.

And finally, before people get too excited about a split in the environment movement, this disagreement is nothing compared to the tooth and nail fighting starting between coal, gas, energy generators, road users and every conceivable greenhouse emitting sector over who will get the lion’s share of revenue from the sale of emissions permits. Stand by for all the old grievances to come to the surface as ETS day draws near.

Peter Fray

Fetch your first 12 weeks for $12

Here at Crikey, we saw a mighty surge in subscribers throughout 2020. Your support has been nothing short of amazing — we couldn’t have got through this year like no other without you, our readers.

If you haven’t joined us yet, fetch your first 12 weeks for $12 and start 2021 with the journalism you need to navigate whatever lies ahead.

Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

JOIN NOW