Here’s an idea. If the business community and the conservative side of politics are never going to embrace market mechanisms to tackle climate change — what our PM has derisively termed a “so-called market in the non-delivery of an invisible substance to no one” — then let’s stop pandering to them and go back to banning stuff.

Emissions trading schemes (ETS) or “cap and trade”, as the Americans call it, was meant to be a business-friendly, economically rational alternative approach to regulation and the command economy. It was used there successfully in the 1990s to stop acid rain by reducing emissions of sulphur dioxides and nitrogen oxides. It is a strategy the US energy industry — as executives will tell you in a quiet moment — is extremely comfortable with.

But if the business lobby is going to go into hysterics about every sensible proposal to establish an ETS — or worse, jump into bed with the climate sceptics and abandon action on climate altogether, as they’ve done this year — then stuff ’em.

Are the lobbyists and spinmeisters worried about red and green tape? Always. That’s their job. Let’s give them something to really worry about. All business wants is a level playing field. If the law establishes we are going to reduce emissions fast, companies will work within the law (ultimately, gladly, because you’d be mad to think businesspeople are not concerned about climate change). Australia’s economy will get what early-mover advantages the Germans and Japanese and Californians haven’t hoovered up.

Let’s call our ETS alternative something easily comprehensible, like “direct action”. We have taken some substantial direct actions already. Land-clearing bans introduced during the Howard years got us through the first commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol. As environment minister, Malcolm Turnbull banned incandescent light bulbs in 2007. Another direct action, often under-appreciated, was to install pink batts in hundreds of thousands of Australian homes. We are reaping the benefit of both these last initiatives in lower electricity demand and lower emissions today.

“But if the business lobby is going to go into hysterics about every sensible proposal to establish an ETS … then stuff ’em.”

Here are four more direct actions that would be appropriate to the climate emergency we face as a very high carbon-polluting country whose fair share of the global effort would be to reduce emissions by circa 25% this decade:

1) Approve no more new thermal coal mines, period. No coal mine expansions or modifications. This would not be retrospective and would not stop anybody from exploiting existing rights. But whatever’s been approved so far is the end of it. This could be announced tomorrow. P.S. let’s stop this ludicrous argument that we have to mine more coal for the sake of China or India or other developing countries suffering energy poverty. Australia doesn’t care about overseas poverty — we just cut our foreign aid budget again. Anyway, developing countries have better alternatives at home. Given the consequences of climate change fall hardest on poorer countries, we’d be doing them a favour.

2) Phase in greenhouse gas emissions intensity standards for power stations comparable with those now proposed in the United States or better. That would result in the closure of Victoria’s brown coal-fired power stations, reducing Australia’s emissions substantially. If Greg Hunt is right about one thing, it is this: Labor blew more than a billion in non-refundable taxpayer cash by giving the brown coal generators in the Latrobe Valley compensation for the impact of the carbon price we have now abolished. They never deserved it. They should have seen climate change coming since at least 1995 and done something to reduce their emissions. They didn’t. Never mind, they have been handsomely over-compensated now. They can use that money to fund the rehabilitation of their fire-prone mine sites and switch to gas if they want to, as then TruEnergy (now Energy Australia) proposed at Yallourn in 2009. Using their own money for that.

3) In Victoria especially (NSW is already moving in this direction), abolish the ridiculous anti-wind planning laws that breach every planning principle under the sun by giving objectors an effective right of veto. The laws are a spurious fabrication of climate sceptics and the environment reportage of The Australian, and a relic of family favours by patrician former premier Ted Ballieu. Without those laws, the handbrake would come off and Victoria could enjoy a wind boom like South Australia’s.

4) Lift the renewable energy target. Before they reinvested billions in coal-fired generation, AGL argued the RET could increase to 40% by 2020. ACT is well on the way to 90% renewables by 2020. If the PM wants Australia to become an affordable energy superpower, we have world-beating free sun, wind and wave energy — and, if you talk to scientists, it would be no problem theoretically to export by cable to Asia.

That’s just four, and we could go harder. Given we’re ditching the mining tax, maybe we can axe the diesel fuel rebate for miners — they’re certainly expecting it. Create a national feed-in-tariff regime to make rooftop solar even more economic and lower wholesale electricity prices. Electricity privatisation in Queensland and NSW is a big one — watch the fine print — and land management, too.

These direct actions are entirely compatible with our current system of government. No revolution is required: all we have to do to solve climate change is unplug fossil fuels, plug in renewables, and stop chopping down forests. If we can’t do that — as the sub-title for Naomi Klein’s forthcoming book This Changes Everything declares — it’s capitalism versus the climate, and there’s no doubt which will win.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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