Malcolm Turnbull’s grand plan for cutting carbon emissions made pretty good headlines at the weekend; the papers saw it as a political gamble, but they appeared to take it seriously.

They should not have: the giveaway line may have been left to the end, but it was plain enough: “Those Australians who are quite convinced that by 2020 the global warming thesis will have been disproved will nonetheless be pleased to live in a country with a healthier, more sustainable, more productive, greener landscape.”

In other words, the policy is not actually about climate change at all. It is about appealing to as many people as possible, irrespective of credibility. It is about a miracle solution which will involve no pain to anyone but will please everyone. It is, in short, yet another political fix of the kind John Howard tried so unsuccessfully for so long.

But Howard at least never really pretended to be a true believer. Turnbull does, but adds somewhat nervously that this is not the point: it’s about risk management, not belief. And that is indeed the nub of his strategy. The only problem is that it’s about managing the political risk, not the risk of climate change.

The Turnbull plan has three, or possibly five, components — reports of his speech to the Young Liberals do not make it entirely clear. However he does have a target: he reckons his painless formula will cut carbon emissions by 150 million tonnes a year by 2020, a figure which he says compares favourably with Labor’s target of a 15% cut, and indeed it does — it’s close to a staggering 27%. But the leap of faith required to see it coming from Turnbull’s vague and uncosted suggestions is even more staggering.

Turnbull wants to build a couple of new coal-fired power stations, but with total carbon capture. How and when this is to be achieved is not clear. He wants to invest heavily in alternative energy: geothermal, solar and tidal. Well good, but this is hardly new, as is his proposal to plant lots more trees.

And he wants to make buildings more energy efficient. Again good, it should be done with new buildings, as the Rudd government has already proposed. It can also be done by retrofitting existing homes, but with the big commercial buildings — the real energy guzzlers — it’s a lot more difficult. Indeed, the only real solution is simply to turn off their power. Given what goes on in many of them this might not be a bad idea but it is hardly likely to be what Turnbull has in mind.

Turnbull’s central idea is almost as radical: a huge change to farming practices. At present, he says, too much farm waste is allowed to lie and rot, releasing harmful emissions. He wants it gathered up and taken to huge yet-to-be-built plants where it would undergo a process called pyrolysis — superheating without the presence of oxygen. This would separate the carbon from the rest of the waste. In theory, the rest of the waste could still be used as a clean fuel, albeit a highly inefficient one, and we would be left with a big pile of charcoal.

Now, charcoal is useful stuff. It can be made into artists’ materials or anti-diarrhoea tablets, or of course it can be ground up with sulphur and saltpetre to make gunpowder. But mostly (and even in gunpowder) it is just burned. Instead, Turnbull says, it should be returned to the soil, to grow new crops and restart the whole cycle. In that case, you might ask, why take it out in the first place? Many farmers already plough the waste matter back into the ground as green manure. It makes a far more complete fertiliser than charcoal, which would still have to be supplemented with synthetics.

This is without taking into account the enormous cost and effort required for the Turnbull revolution, not to mention the difficulty of convincing traditional farmers to take part in it. Note that not one of Turnbull’s ideas contains any real carrot or stick aimed at reducing the overall use of carbon fuels, which must surely be the point of the exercise.

This is why Kevin Rudd’s government, following the advice of the experts and the example of other countries which are serious about climate change, sees an Emissions Trading Scheme as the only comprehensive solution: by making carbon emissions more expensive, it encourages the search for alternatives. Thus, if Turnbull’s ideas indeed prove under examination to be worthwhile, they would be taken up; they would become economic imperatives.

You might have believed that this market-based approach would appeal to Turnbull, leader of the party of free enterprise. But in fact he dismisses the very idea of an ETS as “ineffectual, bureaucratic and sterile.” And he still won’t say whether he will support the government scheme in parliament when the bills are presented later this year. The whole thing looks very like a stunt, a caper to persuade gullible greenies that deep down, he’s on their side while equally gullible sceptics can be reassured that deep down, he thinks it’s all bullshit; an archetypal example of Malcolm in the middle reaching out to embrace all extremes.

But it’s worked: it has certainly taken the attention away from Rudd’s worthy but boring schemes to save jobs in the construction industry and move the unavoidable unemployed into paid retraining. Rudd may be concentrating on the bread, but Turnbull is providing the circuses. And on the Australia Day long weekend, isn’t that what we want?

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey