(Image: Mitchell Squire/Private Media)

To get an example of why climate politics in Australia is so enraging, witness the last 24 hours.

Michael McCormack, acting Nationals leader, yesterday decided to push back against any suggestions of a 2050 net zero emissions target by saying agriculture would be exempt.

His specific reason? The basis for exempting what, in non-drought years, makes up about 16% of Australia’s emissions? “We are not going to hurt those wonderful people that put food on our table.”

But by this morning, McCormack had received backing from within the government for an exemption, and it had expanded from a “wonderful people” exemption to — according to the Coalition’s mouthpiece — exempting all emissions-intensive trade-exposed industries (EITEs). The argument run by The Australian was that Labor had exempted EITEs in its carbon pricing schemes (CPRS).

We have to stop at this point because there are so many caveats and assumptions in the last six sentences that continuing without itemising them risks deep confusion.

First, there is no 2050 net zero target, despite the press gallery trying to heroicise Scott Morrison for saying words like “preferably”. Even senior gallery journalists are peddling the narrative that Morrison is bravely shifting the Coalition toward climate action — the same journalists who instantly scream “Labor leadership crisis” if there’s any dispute within opposition ranks over climate.

In fact, Morrison is investing in gas, studies of coal-fired power stations and discredited carbon capture and storage, designed to prolong the use of coal-fired power stations. Morrison’s cheerleaders never mention this.

Second, Labor indeed omitted EITEs from its carbon pricing scheme — a key reason why the original CPRS was rubbish and deserved to be voted down. But a 2050 net zero target is not a carbon price. It’s merely a commitment — like the 26-28% reduction commitment made for the Paris Agreement, which we will miss by miles.

Third, net zero by 2050 for Australia is too little, too late.

Fourth, removing major chunks of Australia’s emissions sources from policy action simply means the sectors remaining within the commitment need to do more. Other sectors will have to achieve greater emissions reductions to make up for the absence of 16% of emissions from the target.

Fifth, the EU is already working on a relatively straightforward solution to the problem of trade-exposed industries — impose levies on imports from countries failing to take sufficient action on climate change, to overcome the unfair advantage imports from the latter have over products from domestic sources where climate action is taken seriously. Boris Johnson is pursuing this as well. Australia would, naturally, be excluded from such a carbon club for its agricultural exports.

Sixth, the government has spent years funding “soil magic” carbon sequestration schemes, which work on the unproven basis that carbon can be safely and permanently stored in soil, and there is regular speculation the government will expand such schemes because they act as handouts to farmers to do what, in many cases, they would do anyway. If agriculture is omitted because of a “wonderful people” exemption, what’s the basis for continuing to fund soil magic programs?

Seventh, and possibly most pointedly, actual farming groups like the National Farmers Federation support an economy-wide 2050 net zero target with agriculture included.

On we go. The fact that within 24 hours mooted exemptions expanded from agriculture to all trade-exposed industries illustrates the complete unreality within which climate policy is considered by this government and reported by a press gallery that increasingly looks unfit for purpose.

If we use McCormack’s “wonderful people” category, aren’t there many more deserving recipients of exemptions? What about regional manufacturing? Or mining (which is now the Nationals’ true constituency)? Transport is crucial in regional areas, too. The heavy vehicle sector primarily move through regional areas. Why is agriculture singled out when so many other deserving sectors should be looked after?

But as we saw when Kevin Rudd was putting together, and then watering down, his CPRS, you can get trampled in the rush of vested interests demanding exemptions from emissions reduction policies, each one of them explaining why they deserve it.

What’s more relevant is the way the press gallery continues to run a protection racket for Scott Morrison on climate, lauding minimal changes in wording as masterful climate actions, when this government remains committed to expanding fossil fuels, and is already watering down a non-existent target unaccompanied by any implementation plan.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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