Tony Abbott NEG IPCC report

It’s always amusing when politicians accuse other politicians of “playing politics”, as if that isn’t the job description, but its emergence in the last few days from the Liberals in relation to opposition to the National Energy Guarantee has an extra rich, extra creamy layer of irony. 

The states are “playing politics”, complains Energy Minister Josh Frydenberg earlier this week. The Victorian government is playing politics, say his Victorian Liberal colleagues. Expect to hear it more if the states refuse to budge from their insistence that the NEG not be a vehicle to lock in Tony Abbott’s token emissions reduction targets all the way to 2030.

In fact, playing politics is the only coherent response to the NEG, because it is entirely a political response to a political problem created by the Liberals. The political problem is that the Commonwealth has not had a coherent climate policy since the election of the Coalition in 2013 beyond the Renewable Energy Target, and this policy void has deterred much-needed investment in power generation infrastructure. The only policy achievement of Malcolm Turnbull has been to signal that the government would no longer actively attack renewable energy, thereby ending the huge collapse in renewables investment caused by Tony “open for business” Abbott.

On energy policy, the Liberals have been happy to backflip as much as needed to get results: witness their spectacular reversal on a domestic gas reservation scheme — from branding Labor’s more minimal national interest test as socialist madness to threatening to slap a full-blown reservation scheme on the LNG industry unless it voluntarily did it itself. Policy consistency isn’t a hurdle if there’s a political incentive.

But on emissions, the government insists consistency is an overriding virtue — Abbott’s minimal emissions reduction targets must be locked in all the way to 2030 for the sake of “certainty”. Its original ambit claim was to literally lock those targets in; it has since retreated to allowing the possibility of change (in the mid-2020s) but with the proviso that any change must be signed off by the senate, when the Coalition is almost certainly going to block any effort to improve on Abbott’s targets. That, as you know, is because Turnbull is unable to face down the denialists in his own ranks.

The NEG is thus a political solution to Turnbull’s political problem — albeit one that has its roots in Abbott’s successful revolt against Turnbull’s policy in 2009. Turnbull inherited the problem, rather than created it. But it’s still his.  

Into the climate policy void created by the Liberals stepped the states. There’s a line from certain commentators that the states have no right or role in relation to emissions targets. In effect, that insists that states and territories politely acquiesce if a federal government pursues a denialist agenda on climate change, rather than using tools they directly control — the energy generation and distribution systems they either own directly or regulate directly. That’s the problem with arguing the states should stop sticking their noses into emissions reduction — the Commonwealth doesn’t own any generation or distribution assets of its own; it’s the states that control the biggest emitting sector of the economy. The federal government has all care and no responsibility. And the lack of responsibility has been pretty evident since 2013.

Another long-running argument from those who want critics of the NEG to simply fall into line is that this is a final opportunity to end the climate wars. Except, by locking in token emissions reduction targets, the NEG wouldn’t be a resolution. It would be a surrender on the part of those who recognise that Australia, as one of the planet’s worst per capita carbon polluters and the developed economy most exposed to climate change, must decarbonise, to people who reject climate science and want to extend coal-fired power. Such advocates of surrender should direct their pleas at a minority of conservatives who refuse to accept basic science and economics instead.