A decade of conflict over whether to take climate change seriously in Australia is coming down to a single issue: whether the Turnbull government will be allowed to prevent future governments from adopting more realistic targets for Australia’s emissions by embedding Tony Abbott’s token emissions reduction targets in the National Energy Guarantee (NEG) mechanism. If successful, the ploy will make it extraordinarily difficult for any future government to adopt the kind of targets required by a genuine international effort to combat climate change.
That the government’s target of 26-28% emissions reduction on 2005 levels by 2030 is hopelessly inadequate is clear from two things: that arch-denialist Tony Abbott was happy to endorse them as prime minister, and that they are barely half of the targets recommended by the Climate Change Authority (before Abbott abolished it), of 45-65%.
Abbott’s targets are the product of a deeply flawed way of looking at climate change — that Australia can free-ride on the emissions reduction efforts of larger economies because we’re small and wealthy and can handle the costs of failing to contain a global temperature rise. But Australia is the developed economy with the most to lose from climate change, and has the most to gain from leading international efforts to accelerate emissions reduction. The case for leading, rather than bringing up the rear, on climate action is compelling. Instead, under the Coalition, our emissions halted their downward trajectory under Labor and have begun rising again.
Now the Turnbull government wants to lock in our status as a climate laggard by cementing the 26-28% target into the NEG. The only concession made by the government has been to back off from its initial plan to lock in the token targets for a decade, by floating the idea of legislating a “review” in 2024. But whatever the outcome of any review, the targets would still be legislatively locked in. Given the unlikelihood of any government controlling the Senate, that means if a future government wants to adopt plausible emissions reduction targets to drive energy policy, it will be hostage to crossbench crazies of the kind currently on offer — minor party and independent senators constantly pinballing around the Senate as they fall in and out with each other.
The government knows that legislating the targets will make it virtually impossible to change them, tying the hands of future governments and locking in the failure of the last decade. It would be a triumph for Tony Abbott and the denialist rump of the Coalition that has wrecked coherent climate policy in Australia. This isn’t merely an issue of concern for those advocating strong climate action. The Australian Industry Group came out strongly against the government’s plan to lock in failure, saying a month ago:
Attempting to fix the target over such a long period, without significant amendment processes or opportunities for broader consideration or review, is in fact likely to produce a brittle target that will not survive changes of government or offer credible guidance to investors. We recommend that the Commonwealth legislation allow for the issuance of targets by the Minister through subordinate legislation, and prescribe certain limits and procedural requirements on this issuance.
This is only a partial fix, since a regulatory approach is only marginally easier than a legislative one — a legislative instrument can still be disallowed in the Senate, although the numbers required to do that are slightly higher than needed to block legislation. But even business understands the imperative of not allowing the government to lock in Tony Abbott’s denialism as the framework for energy policy. It’s up to Labor, the state and the territories to make sure it can’t.