Labor talks the talk, but doesn’t walk the walk. Last week’s “final warning” from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – and the Albanese government’s refusal to be moved by it – should be a game-changer in our assessment of Labor’s willingness to do what must be done.
The IPCC’s message – driven home by UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres – was that we’re almost out of time to avoid much of the worst climate change. Whatever plans we had to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, we must step them up, and speed them up.
We’re almost out of time to avoid much of the worst effects of climate change.Credit:Michelle Mossip
Regarding last year’s federal election, the message is that Labor’s plan is complacent and compromised, and the Greens and teals were right to demand much tougher, faster action.
But not only did Climate Change Minister Chris Bowen show no sign of getting the UN’s message, he announced his refusal to negotiate with the Greens to make improvements to his “safeguard mechanism” legislation.
You need to know that Albanese Labor hates the Greens more than it hates the Liberals. Bowen could have decided to use the need to win the Greens’ support for his bill in the Senate as cover for making the bill stronger than Labor promised in the election campaign.
Instead, he decided to put the interests of our grandchildren second to this fabulous chance to “wedge” the Greens. They could either vote for Labor’s bill as is, or they could join the Coalition in voting it down – just as they did when they voted down Kevin Rudd’s carbon pollution reduction scheme in 2009.
Labor wants to be in bed both with those who want real action on climate change and the fossil fuel industries.
This would leave the government with no means of achieving its target of reducing emissions by 43 per cent by 2030. And, Bowen bellowed in the House, that would be all the Greens’ fault. (It doesn’t seem to have occurred to Bowen and his boss that if they go to the 2025 election having done nothing to fight climate change, blaming it all on the Greens won’t be a good enough excuse.)
But last week showed that the problem with Labor isn’t just its political cynicism and game-playing. Until last week, it was possible to see the Greens’ demand that no new coal and gas projects be approved as the kind of over the top zealotry you’d expect from those crazies. And, as it happens, the teals.
This is what Guterres said last week in welcoming the IPCC’s final warning. “The climate time-bomb is ticking.” We do have time to defuse it, “but it will take a quantum leap in climate action”.
We must “massively fast-track climate efforts by every country and every sector and on every timeframe”.
He was proposing an “acceleration agenda” with, specifically, “no new coal and the phasing out of [existing] coal by 2030 in [the rich] countries and 2040 in all other countries. Ending all international public and private funding of coal” and “ceasing all licensing or funding of new oil and gas”, as already proposed by the International Energy Agency and “stopping any expansion of existing oil and gas reserves. Shifting subsidies from fossil fuels to a just energy transition”.
That’s not some crazy greenie, that’s the UN secretary-general.
Yet, the very same week, Bowen had the temerity to claim that stopping new projects would be “irresponsible”. That’s now the opposite of the truth.
It’s not by chance that Bowen is the Minister for Climate Change and Energy. It’s not just the Coalition that’s in bed with the fossil fuel industry; Labor is too. Labor just does a better job of covering it up.
Federal Labor will not commit to stopping the proposed 116 new coal and gas projects. When Albanese went to India recently, he took fossil fuel people with him, so they could sell more coal.
The many state Labor governments are committed to approving new projects. That’s another thing that happened last week: on election night in NSW, the new state Labor minister made it clear the Minns government would not be stopping new projects.
Labor wants to be in bed both with those who want real action on climate change and the fossil fuel industries. Someone famous once said, “No one can serve two masters”. One of his saintly followers once prayed, “Lord, make me pure – but not yet”. That’s Labor.
Which brings us to the safeguard mechanism Labor is refusing to improve. Bowen has conned some conservation groups into supporting his plan because, though it’s not perfect, “something is better than nothing” and “it’s a start: get it passed, and seek to improve it later”.
Come in, sucker. What last week shows is that there isn’t time to improve it later. Labor has tried to wedge the Coalition by building its reduction scheme on the base of Tony Abbott’s safeguard mechanism, which was largely for show and did nothing to reduce emissions.
But if Labor is taking over an ineffective scheme from the secret climate change deniers, now’s the time to make it effective, not later. The fact is, the safeguard mechanism is riddled with loopholes.
The first loophole is our fossil fuel exports. Under the UN’s rules, a country is responsible for the emissions that occur on its own territory. Bowen’s renovations would, in theory, reduce the local emissions of our biggest polluting industries. It would also reduce the local emissions from any big new coal and gas export projects.
But it would permit other countries to maintain or increase their emissions from fossil fuels they bought from us. The UN will blame them for those emissions, not us. Great loophole, eh?
Trouble is, greenhouse gas is a global problem, not a local one. And we’re one of the biggest exporters of fossil fuels in the world. We export far more future emissions than we emit ourselves. So, what we do at home doesn’t add to climate change nearly as much as what others do with the coal and gas we sell them.
Bowen’s version of Abbott’s safeguard mechanism has a second major loophole. The big polluters must either progressively reduce their emissions according to the government’s phase-down, or buy the equivalent carbon credit offsets from someone else – often a farmer who’s planted more trees.
First problem is that there’ll be no limit to the extent that a polluter can resort to carbon credits. So it’s possible they’ll continue pumping out greenhouse gases, and mainly just buy credits from elsewhere.
This could lead to far more reliance on credits than the UN agreements envisaged. Credits were supposed to be used mainly by industries, such as cement and steelmaking, that find reducing emissions exceptionally difficult.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.Credit:AP
The other problem is that a lot of the carbon credit offsets are dodgy – they’re not like for like as a substitute for genuine emission reductions.
These were the main loopholes in Bowen’s rejigged safeguards mechanism that the Greens, the teals and Senator David Pocock were hoping to see improved by negotiations with Labor.
They make it debatable whether, in this case, something is better than nothing. One advantage of voting down Bowen’s bill would be to stop Labor pretending it had done something meaningful about climate change while actually prolonging the future of our fossil fuel industries.
Ross Gittins is the economics editor.
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