Professor Garnaut’s much-awaited Draft Report is, in general, strong on the architecture but terribly weak on the big, over-riding issue – preventing runaway climate change. His policy prescriptions are completely out of step with his science.

When we were looking for a transformative vision to take Australia into the post-carbon world, we got an incrementalist approach with a slow start and even a step backwards on the 2050 target.

Let’s firstly look at what Garnaut got right.

As foreshadowed for some time, the Professor is strongly calling for auctioning of all permits under the scheme. This is excellent news which, if adopted, will avoid one of the largest problems of the EU scheme, when sectoral lobbying and deliberate gaming of the market led to horrible market distortions in the first years thanks to the decision to grandfather permits.

Another issue where we are in complete agreement is on coverage of the scheme. The immediate inclusion of all energy, industrial processes, fugitive emissions and transport, with forestry and waste being brought in as soon as practicable and agriculture dependent on appropriate measurement capability, is exactly what we have been advocating.

It is particularly pleasing to see support for complementary measures such as feed-in laws and MRETs to bring on line the renewable energy technologies that will power our future, as well as the rejection of nuclear power.

However, Garnaut clearly has a blind spot on coal. He has been taken in by “fool’s coal” and believes that geosequestration will be the saviour of the Hunter and Latrobe Valleys. If he truly understood the urgency of climate change, Professor Garnaut would not be punting on a technology which is at least a decade from proving itself, if it ever can, and can never be one of the truly zero emissions energy sources we need in order to achieve fast and deep cuts in emissions in coming years. But, like the politicians, he seems incapable of envisioning Australia beyond coal.

Garnaut, and the Government, must be very careful with the structural adjustment packages they come up with. If they are used to prop up coal jobs, they will surely kill the valleys in the end. If, however, structural adjustment is used to support a green collar revolution, through the restoration of a domestic manufacturing sector and a huge expansion in retraining and re-skilling the workforce, those who are foreshadowing doom and gloom for the Hunter and Latrobe will be proven wrong. Opportunities abound provided the structural adjustment is for the new economy and not trying to shore up coal.

Further to this, on the vexed issue of compensation, Professor Garnaut’s focus on equity, and supporting low income Australians well ahead of industry, is pleasing. As we had hoped from the man who noted that nobody was compensated when we floated the dollar, Garnaut is strong on not compensating the coal industry for stranded assets.

However, we would like to see more compensation in the form of investment in energy efficiency rather than welfare payments. As the Professor acknowledged when answering a question on transport and fuel excise, providing alternatives gives permanent relief from rising prices and supports the scheme’s goal of reducing greenhouse emissions. Just as structural adjustment has to prepare us for the new economy, so too does compensation.

Troublingly, Professor Garnaut is in denial about Australia’s domestic forestry industry and its greenhouse emissions. It is vitally important that, in addition to protecting PNG’s forests, we stop destroying Australia’s own magnificent and biodiverse forest carbon stores.

Garnaut’s biggest problem, however, and the one which may condemn by association all the good material in this draft report, is his support for a slow start to the regime, with a carbon price cap ensuring we don’t try to beat our pitiful Kyoto target, and a significant step backwards on the ALP’s 60% 2050 target, which he now sees as acceptable in the current global context.

From a man who has come so far on climate science since last November, this delay and weakening of the target is deeply disappointing. It seems that, for all his work becoming a climate change guru, Professor Garnaut is still a conservative economist. We need more than a conservative economist and bureaucrat PM to tackle this challenge.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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