Tony Abbott’s plan to reduce Australia’s carbon emissions by at least 5% by 2020 — the only sure commitment on climate change we know about given Abbott’s flip-flopping yesterday — will depend pretty much on just how stupid he thinks voters are.

In walking away from any economic tool for reducing emissions — turning his back on an emissions trading scheme, coalition policy since early 2007, and ruling out a carbon tax — Abbott has headed off the economically-sensible reservation and into the verdant fields of left-wing policy prescriptions: regulation or a huge increase in government spending.

And this is supposedly the party of small government and deregulation, attacking the market-based approach advocated by the ALP (and, to be fair, many Liberal MPs).

The new coalition approach to climate change, whenever it emerges, will be based on furphies, tricks and outright lies.  It cannot be otherwise because, in rejecting either an ETS or a carbon tax, Abbott has removed from consideration any sensible policy prescriptions.

Malcolm Turnbull flirted with biosequestration, arguing that along with better land management, it had real potential to store carbon and increase agricultural productivity.  But he never suggested it was some sort of magic bullet that would fix climate change, and it formed part of an emissions trading scheme, which could actually provide financial incentives to encourage farmers to undertake the investment needed to get biochar going. That was the basis for the concession the government made on agriculture, enabling farmers to generate carbon credits while being exempt from the scheme.

But even then it will take so long to ramp up it couldn’t make a major contribution to emissions reductions for decades.

But without an ETS or carbon tax, where’s the incentive to get anyone to do anything different to what they’re doing now?

Well, there’s always regulation, imposing altered land management practices on the agricultural sector.

We know perfectly well that won’t happen.  In fact, the Nationals are still trying to roll back legislation prohibiting land clearing, which is the only thing that has prevented Australia’s emissions from going well over its Kyoto target.  In April, Barnaby Joyce called land-clearing laws “plain theft”.

If the Nationals had their way, broad-scale land clearing would resume, making land management part of the climate change problem, not part of the solution.

Can you imagine an Abbott shadow Cabinet, especially one with Barnaby Joyce in it, voting to impose any regulation on agriculture?

Which leaves taxpayers to pay farmers to alter their land management practices.

You can see where this is going and why Nationals such as John Williams are so excited by the move away from an ETS.  The obvious approach is massive handouts to the agricultural sector, which is the raison dêtre of the Nationals.

Given the sheer scale needed to achieve any significant biosequestration, we’re talking billions of dollars.  The Vaile-era Regional Rorts program would look trifling in comparison.

For that matter, it would be almost as bad as the vast handouts to polluters proposed by the government.

Given the straitened fiscal circumstances and the coalition’s alleged commitment to restoring the Budget to 25% of GDP, one wonders quite where the money for such incentives will come from.  There’s no CPRS pot of money to raid under the Abbott plan.

“I don’t pretend it’s cost-free but some will be self-financing,” was the bizarre quote from Abbott last night.

Amazingly, it seems that the coalition is actually intending to come up with a climate action policy that will be even less effective than Penny Wong’s, a feat of policy stupidity that seemed impossible just a few short days ago.

There’s always the nuclear option — a term that could aptly describe Abbott’s own leadership — but even assuming an Abbott government would stump out the billions needed to start building nuclear reactors, it wouldn’t make a dent on Australian emissions before the 2020s or later.

Expect lots of plausible-sounding numbers when Abbott releases his policy in the new year.  If every farmers does x, over y years, that’s z million tonnes of carbon taken out of the atmosphere — equivalent to eleventy million cars off the road.  If soil carbon can be increased by x%, that will absorb y billion tonnes, equivalent to the entire country’s emissions over a z months.  Etc etc etc.

But it will all be fiction, policy fiction crafted by a bloke who doesn’t really think there’s a problem anyway.  The question is, will voters fall for it?

Peter Fray

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