Now, even before the government launches its Green Paper next week on an emissions trading scheme, the odds on it successfully setting up an ETS in the next few years are looking pretty long in the absence of a major breakthrough on an international carbon abatement agreement.

Brendan Nelson continued his track to the right overnight, shifting further from the Coalition’s former position of support for an unconditional ETS by 2012. Nelson rubbished the European trading scheme in The Australian and simultaneously declared it was unclear what the Government’s position was but that it “has all the hallmarks of a giant revenue grab and centralist redistribution”.

Rich stuff coming from a senior member of the highest-taxing, most centralising government since Federation. But then Nelson’s piece has a number of howlers. Lenore Taylor has already nailed his mis-representation of the conclusion of last year’s Shergold Report on the advisability of waiting for major emitters to take action. And Nelson says, “there are risks for Australia if we implement an emissions trading scheme before the rest of the world signs up to a new post-2012 global agreement in Copenhagen late next year.” Last time I checked, no one was suggesting a start date of 2009.

A senior Coalition source has also shed more light on the internal discussions of the Coalition leadership group on the issue. Last Friday’s leadership meeting to resolve a position on an ETS settled, they say, on support for an ETS by 2012, with an intentional lack of detail on whether it would proceed in the absence of commitments from major emitters. This was to be the basis for the Opposition’s response to Garnaut.

However, the deliberate — and in retrospect too-cute-by-half — fuzziness was quickly undone under pressure from journalists for clarification this week. This goes some of the way to explaining Nelson’s tortured syntax this week — but also portrays Malcolm Turnbull, Julie Bishop and Greg Hunt as the ones deviating from Coalition policy, not Nelson.

The Coalition isn’t the only source of trouble for the Government. The Greens are also very serious about blocking an ETS that is not based on Bob Brown’s target of a 40% reduction in 1990-level emissions by 2020 — which looks pretty much guaranteed. Garnaut’s position — reflective of the Coalition’s old position, and noises coming from the Government — is to start with Kyoto-based levels and work up from there.

There’s a big gap between that position and the Greens’, even if one accepts a certain level of pre-positioning by the latter ahead of negotiations in the Senate next year. Anything short of a big 2020 target may well be rejected by them — particularly if the Government doesn’t adhere to Garnaut’s stringent position of no compensation for big emitters like the electricity sector.

Should make for interesting times for Ben Oquist, Bob Brown’s chief of staff. His partner is Alex Gordon, climate change adviser to one Kevin Rudd MP.

So between Brendan Nelson and the Greens and India and China at the G8 rejecting taking any action until developed countries get their act together, things don’t look too flash on the climate change front. Perhaps we should adopt the position of right-wing economist Henry Ergas, who reckons reckons that given no one else is doing anything about carbon emissions, the only logical response for Australia is to get as rich as possible in order to better adapt to climate change. You certainly can’t fault Henry’s logic — there’s something very rigorous about solving the “prisoner’s dilemma” of climate change by burning the gaol down.

All of which leaves … Malcolm Turnbull, who may be the only hope of getting an emissions trading scheme up at all by 2012. Turnbull as shadow Treasurer has looked at his best when he hasn’t needed to defend the legacy of the Howard Government. On emissions trading, however, he’s defending that legacy, in a space opened up by Brendan Nelson’s reflexive shifting to the Right.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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