Policy by degrees

In his speech introducing the ALP's new climate Blueprint, Kim Beazley made a claim against which he obviously wishes to be judged — that climate change policy is one of the biggest differences between the ALP and the Government. The new Blueprint, Protecting Australia From The Threat Of Climate Change, is much like Labor's policy for the last election, with important advances on a couple of fronts. But in aspirations and means it is still fairly close to Coalition policies. Will these few degrees of difference have any effect on the few degrees rise in temperature which may cost our planet so much?

The most important deviation from the Government is over a policy with John Howard's stamp on it: the Government will not introduce emissions trading anytime soon; Labor will. The only date given is some time after 2008 – this is one of several instances where the Blueprint needs more precision on dates and means. Amusingly, the Government had actually done good work on how trading might be introduced but abandoned the task when Howard refused to ratify Kyoto or proceed with the market mechanisms Kyoto is working towards. The ALP's alternative — focused on market measures – is commendable. However, other parts of the Blueprint also have to be taken into account — parts where rhetoric sometimes outweighs substance.

The second major point of difference is that the ALP will ratify Kyoto. That would signal to the world that Australia's current stance is attributable to the present government, not a continuation of any long-term position. After Howard refused to ratify even the best possible deal attained by Australia in fiercely self-interested negotiations, we are on probation and can't expect any favours in Kyoto Mark 2. Ratifying now would help Australia get back in the game of international collective action. So ratifying Kyoto is another plus for the Labor Blueprint. It also correctly notes that the Asia Pacific Climate Change Pact is no bad thing, but only if seen as a complement to UN action, recognising the limitations of technology cooperation and voluntarism alone.

A further substantial difference is that Labor specifies a target for emissions reduction – 60 per cent by 2050, like the EU and Blair's aspirations for the UK. The target is commendable, and its achievement necessary if we are not to go beyond a 2 degree temperature rise through this century (well in train due to the atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations already with us). No details accompany Labor's target, there are no interim targets and no mechanisms for review or for program adjustments. The 2050 target should be complemented by a shorter term goal of 20 per cent by 2020. Targets and early progress are urgently needed for stabilising greenhouse pollution: we cannot delay moving towards deep cuts, and even 60 per cent by 2050 may be too little too late. Vital details are missing, but at least Labor declares a solid objective.

Cartoon by Alan Moir

Thanks to Alan Moir

The Blueprint also stands out from the Coalition on Mandatory Renewable Energy Targets (MRET). The Government recently abandoned its own MRET scheme after an initially promising impact in boosting renewably sourced energy. Such measures are distortionary and inevitably imperfect; but MRET was better in idea, execution and effect than many similar schemes. Labor promised in 2004 to take the target to 5 per cent and now says it will announce a target "over and above" that. It could usefully have set MRET targets of at least 10 per cent by 2010 and 20 per cent by 2020.

After these key points, differences with current policies are less significant and the details provided are even less specific. For example, Beazley correctly notes that Howard has no adaptation strategy but, after that observation, says little himself about the adaptation that will be required even if we succeed in mitigating the extent of human induced climate change. The Blueprint does not outline the steps needed to prepare for the effects of climate change (such as the health effects correctly noted in passing, or changes in agricultural zones, drought, flood and storm patterns, water availability, bushfire risk, and demand for heating or cooling) which are already on the way because of past and present emissions.

The Blueprint's support for higher building energy standards (already adopted in the States) is useful, especially at a time when domestic energy use is rising. The current five star rating scheme does not exhaust the possibilities for increasing building efficiency. Bonus points too for the ALP's views on vehicle standards, although these need a far greater push than merely more hybrid vehicles in government fleets. Transport issues will be increasingly important in a carbon constrained, increasingly urbanised future, but get scant specific attention (though an earlier Blueprint on fuels mentioned the need to decrease vehicle emissions). Labor leadership is needed on transport between and within cities and towns.

The promise to include a climate change trigger in the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act (EPBC) is worthy. Worthier still might be a promise to replace the Act entirely. Attention to climate matters should be one part of an environment assessment mechanism which is both all-encompassing and assiduously applied by Ministers — unlike the EPBC under the Coalition.

The Blueprint still factors coal into the energy system and has faith in geo-sequestration to help lessen the negative consequences. That has drawn some understandable criticism, but coal won't go away for a while yet and it is reasonable to expect that the Blueprint's market mechanisms will help maximise progress towards the "Cleaner Coal" future boosted for the last 15 or more years, drawing forth more and changed private sector investments. The MRET Blueprint will also lessen the proportion of coal in the mix, whether that be cleaner or still dirty coal. But the Blueprint aspirations are not backed by many specific measures. Missing is any real requirement for the coal industry to immediately operate within emission reduction targets. Without details or a start date for any strong emissions trading scheme, we are left to wonder whether trading and potential technology developments will be enough to turn coal green.

The Blueprint never mentions how much would be spent on climate matters, and it does not acknowledge that while addressing climate change will be costly, the future costs of inaction (in both economic and human terms) will be far greater. Specific budgets are not in the nature of such policy blueprints, but one has to suspect that the aspirations will be under-funded. The nervousness about numbers is underscored by the fact that the Blueprint's criticism of Government policy does not extend to debunking its much touted "nearly $2 billion" in expenditure, though that hyped number applies to the past 8 years with an unknown proportion to forward commitments, and a largish proportion paying the some 200 public servants in the AGO Despite government rhetoric from accomplished spinners like Minister Campbell, the actual annual spend is paltry and inadequate in both amount and targeting. One major program says it all: the Greenhouse Gas Abatement Program budget was allegedly $400 million over 3 or 4 years from about 1998; but by 2006 less than half that has been spent to achieve benefits which will never be reliably quantified.

On the nuclear front, Labor is sensible in saying no at this point because the economics don't stack up (particularly the costs, and lack of proven solutions, in long term waste disposal). Moreover, as the Blueprint notes, the non-proliferation regime is in a state of disarray, exacerbated by the recent actions of the Bush Government.

Finally, the Blueprint recommits Labor "to rebuild the CSIRO and its integrity". Worthy sentiments but not easily achieved without a far deeper (and more open and independent) investigation of the nature and purposes of CSIRO than that recently conducted. CSIRO deserves to be treated better than under its current masters, especially given its role in contributing information and knowledge to better decision-making in all quarters, not just the federal Cabinet room.

Summing up, the Blueprint takes Labor a few steps beyond its policies for the last election, but doesn't yet provide enough enlightenment on policy and program details and funding – probably not too surprising at this point. In relation to current Government rhetoric and reality, the differences may not be as great as Beazley claims, but there is much that is positive, including:

– a good 2050 target

– strong market mechanisms

– rejoining the UN community

– enhancing MRET

– not going nuclear

and, to a less detailed extent:

– pushing building, vehicle and appliance efficiency

– boosting research, and

– paying worthy attention to adaptation.

The ALP is more convincing than the Government in its commitment to dealing with climate change, but the means for every measure – from trading carbon credits to changing people's knowledge and attitudes – still needs a lot of spelling out.

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