To call Tony Abbott’s long-awaited policy on climate change an anti-climax is to heap it with undeserved praise.
Indeed, to call it a policy at all is to overstate the reality: it is closer to something you might find scrawled on the back of a beer mat after a long night on the turps.
Kevin Rudd dismissed it as a con job, but even on that level it’s a pretty sloppy piece of work; a decent con requires at least some attention to detail to make it credible. My favourite description to date came from the Sydney Morning Herald’s Peter Hartcher, who suggested that it was a fig leaf — a little bit of greenery to hide the horrible nakedness of the coalition over the whole issue. Or of course, we could always fall back on Abbott’s own robust phraseology: it’s absolute crap.
The mere fact that the scheme has been welcomed by the heavy polluters is surely enough to establish its ineffectiveness. For them, as Abbott boasts, it will be business as usual. With no cap proposed for Australia’s carbon emissions, there will be nothing to stop them continuing and even expanding their operations indefinitely.
Indeed, they would be encouraged to do so: if an electricity generator, for example, wanted to build a new plant, one that would double its overall emissions, that would be fine as long as the new plant was not any dirtier than the ones the company was already operating. And if it turned out to be mildly cleaner, thereby bringing down the average intensity of the company’s emissions, there would be a reward for building it.
This is the centrepiece of Abbott’s reduction strategy: the actual volume of emissions doesn’t matter, but any individual polluter who can show a sign of improvement will receive an elephant stamp, a remaindered copy of Battlelines and some unspecified financial incentive. Just what this will be is to be determined through consultations with the polluters concerned, as will any penalty imposed for an increase in the intensity of emissions. Given the improvements to technology at all levels, the need for this stick is highly unlikely. On the other hand, the chances of Abbott’s carrot leading to the reduction of 5% by 2020 to which he is committed — or any reduction at all — are also pretty slender.
But wait, there’s more. Farmers will be encouraged to bury carbon in their soil, although there is no proven way of measuring how much carbon they bury, let alone the logistics of how to bury it. And we will plant trees, say 20 million of them. We don’t know where or when, but we will plant trees; everyone agrees that this is an unambiguously good thing to do, as long as we don’t plant them where farmers don’t want them. And we will put solar cells on peoples’ roofs, ignoring the fact that this has been shown to be the least cost-effective way of reducing emissions of all of them.
This will all cost about $11.7 billion and we don’t know where the money’s coming from but hey, we could cut foreign aid, or sack a few public servants or something. Well actually we won’t do either of those, whatever Barnaby Joyce says. Anyway, we’ll tell you when we’ve worked it out. Now isn’t Direct Action simpler and more effective than an Emissions Trading Scheme?
Well no, actually; according to every economic model produced, not just in Australia but around the world, the only way to get serious about reducing carbon emissions is to put a price on carbon; even the Greens now accept this. There is still debate about whether a straightforward tax is superior to a market based cap-and-trade system but the need for some kind of pricing mechanism is as unarguable as the fact of climate change itself.
But then, Abbott is not too certain about that, either; on the first day of parliament he reversed his previous stance by attending a function hosted by Gibbering Lord Monckton. Rudd claimed that Abbott had changed his stance on climate change more times than he had changed his undies, which is probably unfair; as a cyclist, Abbott has always been meticulous about the condition of his jockstrap. But it is certainly true that his climate change policy is not that of a politician who is providing a considered response to a genuine problem.
Within 48 hours the government had produced an opinion from the Department of Climate Change that the Abbott plan would actually increase emissions by some 13% by 2020. Abbott demanded to see the modelling and insisted that his own experts were better; he added, rather alarmingly, that his policy was based on the reduction plan pioneered by the New South Wales Labor government, hardly the most admired of role models.
But the fact is that the policy is so vague and incomplete that it is impossible to evaluate properly. All that can sensibly be said is that the underlying concept has been universally dismissed as expensive and inadequate, and for that reason has never really been tried. There is still a chance that it might work; but then, there is still a chance that pigs might fly.
Still, even Abbott’s severest critics have to admit that there has been one useful spin-off already: Rudd has started to speak clearly about his own plan. His ETS has now been reduced from several pages of jargon and waffle to a simple grab: we put a cap on emissions; the polluters pay; and households get compensated for any price rises. Abbott’s policy does none of the above. End of story. Actually, of course, it’s rather more complicated and less ideal than that, but at least Rudd is now making it sound comprehensible.
He is not, however, making it acceptable to his opponents in the senate. So what happens next? Rudd says that doing nothing is not an acceptable response to the great moral, economic and political challenge, but, as Abbott says, the government appears to have no Plan B. Penny Wong’s discussions with the Greens have suddenly taken on real political significance. Watch this space.