So let’s go through where the Coalition is at on climate change.

There’s a residual commitment, from last year’s Brendan Nelson-induced turmoil, to an emissions trading scheme in 2011 or 2012. The Coalition referred the Government’s White Paper to an independent consultant, David Pierce, who has nearly completed his work. Abandoning the 2011-12 start date will look awfully messy, especially given, as Michelle Grattan notes, it was one of the issues over which Nelson imploded.

In January Malcolm Turnbull also committed the Coalition to exploring the carbon mitigation benefits of re-vegetation, non-household building energy efficiency and biosequestration via bio-char. Usage of biochar by the agricultural sector could be incorporated into the ETS, the Coalition suggested, via an “opt-in” approach. Turnbull suggested that together they could lead to significantly lower emissions than under the Government’s ETS targets.

They’re all good ideas and the Government should be aggressively pursuing them. The Howard Government should have pursued them before 2007. Whoever was the Howard Government’s last Environment Minister might at some point explain why it didn’t.

Strictly speaking, these proposals and the ETS complement each other. A properly rolled-out biochar initiative — and the science is mixed on whether it is viable — would need an ETS to make it economic for farmers. It costs a lot to slow-burn agricultural waste and then return the product to the soil.

There was a kerfuffle last week over carbon tax, which we partly contributed to. It was suggested that the Coalition was suddenly considering a carbon tax. No one in the Coalition deviated from the position that they were predisposed from an ETS, but there were other options like carbon taxes and the point was to focus on what reduced emissions, not the mechanism. All of that is eminent common sense, particularly in light of the complete dud of an ETS Penny Wong has produced, which comparatively makes an effective carbon tax a suddenly more appealing option. There was no division between the Coalition climate change triumvirate of Turnbull, Andrew Robb and Greg Hunt — a split of responsibilities that so far is one of the few success stories of the Turnbull leadership.

But there are plenty of divisions with the Nationals. They notionally have a similar position to the Liberals. However, Ron Boswell and Barnaby Joyce have made it clear, including through their ranting and abuse of officials at Estimates this week, that they’ll have nothing to do with an ETS. In Boswell’s case, it’s because he thinks the planet is getting colder.

Turnbull’s “green carbon” proposal is driven by two political problems: how to avoid being identified — okay, even more identified — with climate scepticism by the Government, especially if it opposes the ETS, and how to win internal support, especially from the Nats, with “no regrets” carbon abatement measures.

The first problem looks like getting worse before it gets better. This morning WA Liberal and veteran greenhouse denialist Dennis Jensen launched a petition claiming that the world was cooling, and that climate change was entirely natural. Jennifer Marohasy of the IPA-linked “Australian Environment Foundation“, composed of climate sceptics, and land-clearing and timber industry advocates, joined him.

The Turnbull goal of somehow outflanking the Government from the Left by talking of bigger targets via energy efficiency and biochar would be virtually impossible even without the likes of Jensen (who has his counterparts in the ALP, but they don’t feel the urge to advertise their flatearther credentials). The Coalition is branded as the party of climate change inaction and it will take many years to wear off that brand, if it ever can or its backbenchers will let it. And the Government will be helpfully reinforcing the label of climate sceptics at every turn.

Turnbull might have more success in winning support from the Nationals for a “green carbon” initiative if it means handouts for farmers. But proper revegetation involves difficult issues like ending land clearing and encouraging carbon sinks — two things which send Nationals to the barricades.

The pressure was on the Government last week over its ridiculous ETS inquiry and the apparently ceaseless whinging from industry about the need for delay or a soft start-up (Alan Mitchell demolished the industry case today in the AFR in a cut-out-and-keep piece on how the sooner we start moving to a low-carbon economy the better). If the Government can somehow resist playing overt politics with the issue, the pressure will inevitably swing back onto the Coalition and its internal divisions.

Turnbull can talk about his green carbon proposals, but the question will always come back to whether the Coalition will back the Government’s ETS — not least because his green carbon proposals don’t actually work that well in the absence of some sort of price signal for carbon, especially biochar.

Turnbull has so far made the most of a truly bad hand on the issue, but he can’t avoid the ETS issue for much longer.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey